There’s something about a sparkling clean house that just makes you feel good. Too bad the same can’t be said for what you had to do to get it looking that way. Not that scrubbing toilets is anyone’s idea of a fun time, but worse, it could leave you with a hangover of headache, eye irritation, rashes, or respiratory distress if the products you use contain any of the hundreds of hazardous chemicals on the market.
And those are just the immediate effects of these chemicals. As more data become available about their potential long-term health consequences, including a weakened immune system, reproductive disorders, neurological damage, and cancer, many of the products that now pass muster may be deemed too dangerous for home use, predicts Annie B. Bond, author of Home Enlightenment (Rodale, 2005). For now, “the safest thing to do is to skip them and switch to green products,” Bond says. “Why take the chance?” Swapping out a few of the less-than-healthy chemical cleaners lurking under your bathroom sink in favor of ecofriendly versions will ensure that your home not only looks good, but it also has a healthy glow.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Sodium hydroxide
The major ingredient in most spray-on oven cleaners, sodium hydroxide (also known as lye) is extremely corrosive. Swallowing just a few teaspoons can kill an adult. The fumes alone can cause major respiratory irritation, including coughing and sore throat.
Healthier alternative: Borax
Mix 2 teaspoons of borax powder (made from a natural mineral) with 2 tablespoons liquid soap and enough warm water to fill a spray bottle; this will soften baked-on spills, which you can then scrub off with steel wool and nontoxic scouring powder. But prevention is the best medicine; next time, line a lower rack with aluminum foil or an old cookie sheet to catch drips, suggests Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005).
Not-so-safe ingredient: Triclosan
Antibacterial disinfectants and soaps made with triclosan can kill off harmless bacteria, helping superbug strains to emerge that are resistant to antibacterial chemicals, says Bond.
Healthier alternative: Citrus oil
Some essential oils, including those derived from lemons, grapefruit, and oranges, are antiseptic and antiviral, so they’ll be extra tough on germs without encouraging resistant bacteria. One caveat: d-limonene, a substance found in orange peels, can cause severe allergic reactions in some people. When in doubt, use hot water and soap to kill germs, and let your countertops air-dry.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
Not only can this liquid—common in floor cleaners, varnishes, and latex paint—irritate your eyes, nose, and throat, but it also has been linked to cancer in rats.
Healthier alternative: Vegetable-based surfactants
Unlike standard detergents, vegetable-based surfactants use biodegradable oil derived from plants—including soy, coconut, and corn—to soak up grease and dirt. Another plus: Green cleaners often forego phosphates, a detergent additive that suffocates freshwater ecosystems.
greener product picks for the kitchen
- Begley’s Best All-Purpose Cleaning Concentrate Has a vegan ingredient list that includes olive seeds; extracts of pine, an essential oil; and fermented sugar cane roots, a natural source of glycolic acid.
- Bi-O-Kleen Spray and Wipe Cleaner An all-purpose kitchen solution made with grapefruit seed extract, citrus peel extracts, and Valencia orange oil.
- Ecover Concentrated Natural Floor Soap Made with a biodegradable linseed oil–based surfactant. Best for nonwaxed floors, natural linoleum, and slate.
- Shadow Lake Pure Castile Soap Pure enough to use as hand soap or an all-purpose household cleaner. Available in four scents: vanilla-almond, eucalyptus-spearmint, peppermint leaf, and fresh ginger.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Monoethanolamine (MEA)
Never mind the fact that it’s common in everything from shampoo to soap; studies show that a dash of MEA can irritate skin and eyes.
Healthier alternative: Sodium carbonate
The mineral in what is also known as washing soda (available in the laundry section of your grocery store) is a natural abrasive that gives you scrubbing power to remove soap scum without toxins.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Hydrochloric acid
It’s often found in toilet-bowl cleaners, and ingesting even a little can lead to circulatory shock, gastric bleeding, renal failure, or death.
A recent study showed that mixing hydrochloric acid with bleach, another common bathroom-cleaning ingredient, produced a vapor that inhibited breathing.
Healthier alternative: Citric acid
The source of the tartness in tomatoes and citrus fruit, citric acid attacks and releases the hardness that holds grime onto the bowl—and it doesn’t leave behind a chemical vapor trail.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Ammonia
Ammonia-based cleaners can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory ailments, and reproductive problems, according to Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD, assistant professor in the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Healthier alternative: Vinegar
The classic way to clean: Spray the mirror with a straight solution of vinegar and water. To make the process even more ecofriendly, use recycled newspapers or washable white cloths rather than paper towels.
Greener product picks for the bathroom
- Bon Ami Made from sodium carbonate, it’s the old-school product that Dadd and Heiger-Bernays recommend for tough-to-get-off grime.
- Earth Friendly Products Toilet Kleener Made with all-natural citric acid and cedar oil, which acts as a natural solvent and creates a nice, woodsy scent.
- Heather’s Naturals Window Cleaner No ammonia or alcohol. Apple cider vinegar gives this product a clean, sweet scent.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Artificial fragrances
Chemically based scents can set off eye, nose, and throat irritation in some people. Plus, the standard-issue air freshener usually contains a roundup of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as acetone, isobutane, propane, petroleum distillates, toluene, and sometimes ozone. Besides being harmful to the environment, VOCs can cause lung, respiratory tract, and sensory irritation.
Healthier alternative: Essential oils
If you’re allergic to some plants, you might have a problem with lavender, a commonly used natural fragrance. Instead, opt for natural cinnamon or vanilla. Because hydrocarbon propellants are highly flammable, eliminate the aerosol in favor of a pump spray.
Not-so-safe ingredient: Naphtha
Furniture polish made of petroleum distillates such as naphtha are central nervous system irritants that can leave you feeling dizzy, nauseated, or headachey, says Bond.
Healthier alternative: Carnauba wax
Made from the waxy coating on a palm leaf, it’s a natural, nontoxic emollient that gives wood surfaces a nice, smooth luster.
Carpet or rugs
Not-so-safe ingredient: Propane
Better known as the gas that powers your backyard grill, propane is a common solvent in carpet cleaners and upholstery spot removers. But when petrochemicals leach from septic systems into groundwater, “that’s a human health problem,” says Heiger-Bernays.
Healthier alternative: Hydrogen peroxide
It’s not perfect—hydrogen peroxide can irritate the eyes and nose and does have a bleaching effect, and it’s certainly dangerous to ingest. But it also biodegrades into hydrogen and oxygen, the elements in water, making it less harmful to the environment.
Greener product picks for the living room
- Caldrea Wood Furniture Cream Made from carnauba wax, beeswax, and jojoba oil—all natural emollients for wood.
- Seventh Generation Natural Citrus Carpet Cleaner Uses hydrogen peroxide for stain removal to get out everything from coffee spills to pet stains.
- Simple Pure Clean Aromatherapy Air Freshener Try the Spice Blend, with its tang of cinnamon and cloves.