Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND
Cleaning products can contain dangerous chemicals that are often unlisted. In the United States, manufacturers are not required to disclose all of a product’s ingredients on the label, which makes it very difficult to evaluate their safety. A study published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review analyzed best-selling brands of common household products like all-purpose spray, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, soap, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, fabric softener, and air fresheners.1 Each product was placed in an enclosed glass container at room temperature and the surrounding air was analyzed for evaporated chemicals using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). The researchers found toxic ingredients in every single sample.
All together, 25 products released 421 chemicals including 133 unique volatile organic compounds, 24 of which are classified as toxic or hazardous under US laws. Almost half of the products contained cancer-causing chemicals and emissions from those promoted as “green,” “organic,” and “natural” did not significantly differ from other products. On average, each one emitted 17 VOCs and at least one toxic or hazardous compound. Only one of these ingredients (ethanol) was listed on a product label and only two could be found on any material safety data sheet (the widely used system for cataloging information about a chemical’s risks, safety, and impact on the environment).
Fortunately, non-toxic alternatives to store-bought cleaners do exist. Vinegar has a naturally low pH that helps dissolve surface residue. Castile soap is a gentle cleanser that kills germs and it can be used on surfaces that are too delicate to be cleaned with vinegar. Good quality essential oils are naturally anti-bacterial and tea tree essential oil is especially effective at removing mold and mildew. (Fragranced, synthetic, and perfume oils do not have these properties.) Baking soda acts as an abrasive agent and can be used to remove surface residue along with vinegar. Olive oil can be used to polish wooden surfaces. You can clean your entire home using these five ingredients plus five basic tools in just five steps. Here’s what you need and how to do it.
- White vinegar
- Fragrance-free pure liquid castile soap made from organic oils like coconut, olive, hemp, or jojoba
- Pure tea tree essential oil and other aromatic essential oils if you wish (eucalyptus, peppermint, lavender, grapefruit)
- Baking soda
- Olive oil (doesn’t have to be extra virgin or cold-pressed)
- Clean rags or old towels
- A spray bottle
- A sponge with a scrubbing surface
- A broom and dust pan
- A steam mop or regular mop
#1 | Dust like you mean it.
Household dust can be a reservoir for environmental toxins, so it’s important to remove it regularly. One study that analyzed household dust found that it contained 66 harmful chemicals including phthalates, flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and 27 different pesticides including DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane).2 DDT has been banned in the US for the past 40 years yet it was detected in 65 percent of homes.
To really remove dust, avoid using dusters that simply push it around or put it back into the air. Instead use a clean, slightly damp, washable cloth, rinsing it out as needed, to pick up dust and remove it completely. Don’t forget to dust the leaves of your houseplants because they help filter the air. Let dusted surfaces dry thoroughly, then you can polish wooden ones by using a dry cloth to rub in a small amount of olive oil (test a small area first).
#2 | Make your own all-purpose cleaner.
It’s easy to make your own non-toxic all-purpose cleaner by adding to a clean spray bottle a half cup of water, one cup of white vinegar, five drops of tea tree essential oil, and five drops of an aromatic essential oil (optional) like lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, or grapefruit. Label the bottle, close it tightly, and shake it up before each use to make sure that the essential oils are distributed throughout.
Use this non-toxic all-purpose cleaner on counters, sinks, stove tops, appliances, tiles, toilets, mirrors, windows, and floors by spraying it on and wiping it off with a wet sponge or clean, damp rag. It will smell like vinegar when it’s wet but the odor will evaporate as soon as it dries. For stubborn residue, omit the water and allow the solution to sit on dirty surfaces for several minutes before wiping it off. If need be, sprinkle baking soda over very dirty areas, spray them generously with all-purpose cleaner, allow the mixture to foam for a few minutes, then rub away any debris with the scrubbing surface of a wet sponge.
Do not use vinegar-based solutions like this one on porous or delicate surfaces including unfinished wood and natural stone such as marble, limestone, calcite, or dolomite. Clean these surfaces with liquid castile soap diluted in warm water instead.
#3 | Clean the floors last.
Sweep and mop the floors only after all other surfaces are clean. Steam mops are the best non-toxic tool for cleaning non-carpeted surfaces because they use only water, steam, and reusable, machine-washable pads. Use steam mops on finished hardwood, tile floors, and other smooth surfaces. If you don’t have a steam mop, use a regular mop and make your own cleaning solution by adding a cup (or more) of white vinegar to a bucket of hot water, along with a few drops of pure tea tree essential oil. If you have carpeted surfaces and upholstery, consider using a high-efficiency particulate-arresting (HEPA) vacuum because it’s the most effective way to remove dust and toxins.
#4 | Use stronger solutions only when you need to.
Removing built-up grime from areas you don’t clean regularly may require a stronger solution. This is especially true in the kitchen where airborne droplets of oil from cooking collect on surfaces surrounding the stove and interact with dust particles. In these cases, isopropyl alcohol can be used to dissolve stubborn residue. It is flammable and can be irritating, but the ingredients are known (just alcohol and water) and it’s an effective solvent when everything else fails. If you have to use it, do so sparingly, only in well-ventilated areas, and be sure to wear rubber gloves.
#5 | Clean your cleaning tools.
After you’re done cleaning, throw dirty rags, towels, and reusable items like steam mop pads into the washing machine. Rinse sponges well and disinfect them by moistening and heating them in the microwave. One study showed that two minutes at full power killed or inactivated more than 99 percent of germs and bacterial spores including E. coli.3 Clean broom bristles outside by running them over a stiff edge like a fire escape or fence. After the steam mop cools, remove the water tank and take it apart to fully dry.
Sarah Cimperman, ND is the author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. She graduated from NCNM in 2002 and has a private practice in New York City. Her expertise has been featured on Fox News and Huffington Post and in Natural Health magazine, Whole Living magazine, and the Well Being Journal, among other publications. Dr. Cimperman also writes two blogs, A Different Kind Of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet.
- Steinemann AC et al. Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review. 2011;31(3):328–333.
- Rudel RA, Gray JM, Engel CL, Rawsthorne TW, Dodson RE, Ackerman JM, Nudelman JL, Brody JG. Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-Ethyhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention. Environmental Health Perspectives 2011 ;119(7):914–20.
- Park DK, Bitton G, Melker R. Microbial inactivation by microwave radiation in the home environment. Journal of Environmental Health. 2006;69(5):17-24; quiz 39-40.