Are Your Household Cleaners Safe? Here’s a Quick Way to Find Out.

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It can take time to get comfortable with the idea of switching out your commercial cleaners for the natural alternatives. You know the chemicals work, because you’ve been using them for years. You probably even grown up on them. You know what? Me too!

My transition away from the chemical cleaners took a few years and I migrated slowly from the big brands to healthier and moderately-known brands. From there I moved to entirely non-mainstream brands and eventually to just plain old vinegar and baking soda.

If there’s one thing I can share from my experience, it’s that once I finally made the switch, I kicked myself for not doing it sooner. It’s so much easier than I thought, plus much less expensive.

Find Out if Your Cleaners are Safe

The first thing I recommend is taking stock of the cleaning products you already have and gauge how comfortable you ware with using them. If they’re not too bad, you might stick with what you’ve got. Or you want to take it a step further. Either way, here are a few ingredients to avoid.

As far as household cleaners go, chlorine bleach and ammonia (ammonium) are the biggest offenders. They are found in so many well-marketed supermarket cleaners, yet they are both toxic. Their smell is both strong and lasting, and their vapors can cause a host of issues with both short- and long-term exposure. If your cleaners have either ingredient, I recommend putting them in the “not safe” bucket.

NOTE: You’ll never see chlorine bleach and ammonia used together in a single cleaning product, as combining them can be lethal. Please be sure to never combine them at home either.

‘Fragrance’ is another common ingredient to avoid. Behind this single word and innocent-sounding descriptor can lurk hundreds, even thousands, of chemicals… none of which have to be disclosed by the manufacturer. Fragrance is a huge trigger for the chemically sensitive, but even the chemically-annoyed prefer to avoid it.

While chlorine bleach, ammonia, and “fragrance” are the commonly touted ingredients to avoid, also do beware of any hard-to-pronounce ingredient that makes you wish you’d paid more attention in chemistry class.

The Environmental Working Group has a Skin Deep Database that makes it incredibly easy to look up individual ingredients, as well as many well-known and lesser-known cleaning products. They rate both the products and the ingredients on a scale from “low hazard” to “high hazard”, which is very helpful.

If you check the label and the ingredients look suspicious, but you don’t have immediate access to EWG’s database – or, like me, you couldn’t be bothered to look them up while shopping – trust your gut and put the cleaner back on the shelf.

Another thing to be aware of is that some cleaners don’t even list their ingredients at all. This is a huge red flag for me. Sure, you can sift through the manufacturer’s website, if so inclined. But brands know that folks these days, sensitive or not, want healthier alternatives. They sometimes design labels that make their product appear safer and more natural than it is. But transparency is key and if the ingredients are not readily found, back on the shelf it goes. Period.

Or, if it’s already under your sink, then I recommend getting rid of it. And by the way, you can’t just throw chemical cleaners in the garbage. They are considered hazardous waste and you are supposed to bring them to your local hazardous waste disposal center. If that doesn’t make you want to switch to natural cleaners, I don’t know what would.

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Your Homework

If you haven’t already done so, I recommend grabbing your favorite cleaners from under the sink. Look up a few of the ingredients and see what you think. If you’re bothered by what you find, it’s time to make the switch. The good news — no, the excellent news — is that there are plenty of safe, clean alternatives that’ll get the job done. Let’s take a look.

The Natural Alternatives

White vinegar and baking soda are, hands down, the favored cleansers for healthy lifestylists. They do an amazing job of cleaning your home naturally and can be a godsend for those suffering from extreme chemical sensitivities… as well as the chemically fed up. Enzyme cleaners are a solid runner up and a good alternative if you prefer a premix solution.

Here’s how they work.

White vinegar kills germs and bacteria nearly as effectively as bleach. It does produce strong fumes, but unlike bleach and other chemical cleaners, vinegar fumes are not harmful and they wear off quickly. Even at full strength, the chemically sensitive don’t typically report issues. If you do find it bothersome, try diluting it down to a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water. You’ll need a spray bottle or two, if you don’t already have a few.

Baking soda is amazing as a non-abrasive scrub and is commonly used for tasks like removing film from the bathtub, getting the kitchen sink to shine, and helping to remove baked on foods from pots and pans. Baking soda has no odor whatsoever and it absorbs most odor-causing bacteria in the kitchen and bathroom. I use baking soda so much that I keep a bulk size container in the laundry room, filling a couple of empty tomato sauce jars with it, so I can have some handy on the kitchen sink and under the bathroom counter.

Enzyme cleaners use “good” bacteria and natural enzymes to break down and essentially “eat” soils and stains.(Look for protease, amylase, lipase, mannanase, pectinase,  and/or cellulase on the label.) Enzyme cleaners are especially popular for neutralizing pet odors (urine), but they can also be used to effectively disinfect countertops, bathrooms, carpet stains, and more. That said, please note that commercial enzyme cleaners often contain some amount of chemicals and fragrances, so you do need to check the label.

Here are two enzyme cleaners I found that don’t contain any harsh chemicals or fragrances…

For Some Extra Cleaning Power…

If you decide that vinegar’s your jam, but you want an extra boost “just to be sure”, you might consider Force of Nature.

Force of Nature isn’t a bottled cleaner, per se. It’s actually a small appliance that “electrifies” tap water + vinegar + salt, transforming the mixture into an all-purpose cleaner that has been tested to be more effective (and more cost efficient) than most commercial products for both cleaning and deodorizing. (Check out the 3rd party test results.)

Because it is completely non-toxic, you can use it to disinfect toothbrushes, makeup brushes, cloth diapers, toys, sippy cups, gym sneakers, yoga mats, litter boxes, humidifiers, washing machines, sports equipment, colorfast textiles (e.g., rugs & upholstery)… just about anything.

Here’s a quick video, The Science Behind Force of Nature, to see how it works. If you like what you see, their starter kit will get you going and they usually have a $30 coupon waiting for you on the site. Once you try it, let me know what you think!

A quick note for the acutely chemical sensitive

As you know, your body may react to certain chemicals that don’t bother other folks. So just because EWG rates a product or ingredient as “low hazard”, doesn’t mean it won’t trigger a headache or worse for you. Only your body can tell you what it can or cannot handle.

Nearly any cleaner you’d buy at a regular supermarket, or even a ‘healthy’ market, may contain ingredients that can trigger a response — a serious response for the “chemically sensitive” and perhaps a lighter response for the “chemically annoyed”.

For context, most of us are simply irritated by chemicals and we may experience a passing feeling of dizziness or momentary itchiness in the throat. It is unpleasant. But for the acutely sensitive, even the smallest exposure to chemicals can be debilitating.

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