What To Know About Natural Home Cleaning Products
Here's how to figure out if you're using safe cleaning products, plus our top picks for healthy, squeaky-clean results.
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Many conventional household cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that harm our health and the environment. Some are just irritating to our throats and eyes. Others contribute to reproductive issues, DNA damage, asthma and cancer.
“Indoor air can be up to dozens of times more polluted than outdoor air,” says Tonya Harris, an environmental toxicity specialist and author of The Slightly Greener Method. “Part of the reason for this is that cleaning products can off-gas into the air even when they’re not being used.”
Luckily, ditching the harmful chemicals is pretty easy once you find worthy, safe and effective replacements. Here’s how.
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What Are Natural, Safe Cleaning Products?
Natural cleaning products — aka green, sustainable or eco-friendly — are products that don’t contain chemicals harmful to people or the environment.
It’s important to research product claims before buying. The definitions of “natural” and “green” are vague, and there are a lot of misleading marketing claims out there.
“The use of greenwashing terms is rampant in the industry,” says Samara Geller, Environmental Working Group (EWG) senior director of cleaning science. “These terms don’t have a regulatory or legal definition [and so they] don’t necessarily mean the formulation is free from hazards to human health or the environment.”
Also, terms like “natural” can be deceptive even when they’re true. Lead is natural, but that doesn’t mean you want it in your product, says Taryn Tuss, vice president of marketing and communications at Green Seal.
“Even ‘free of’ claims can be misleading,” Tuss says,” because a product that is free of one group of hazardous chemicals that is on consumers’ radar – such as phthalates – may still contain other chemicals that are equally harmful but lesser known.”
To help sort safety from marketing hype, look for an eco-label certification from a reputable third-party testing organization like EWG (and its Guide to Healthy Cleaning), Green Seal and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice. Each applies rigorous standards to evaluate product ingredients, packaging and performance.
For companies without eco-label certifications, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not also safe. Check their websites to see if they substantiate their claims with scientific evidence.
Ingredients To Look for in Natural, Safe Cleaning Products
Look for products that disclose all their ingredients on the label, including those hidden by generic terms such as fragrance, preservatives and surfactants.
“Just the word ‘fragrance’ on the back of a bottle could be a combination of dozens of ingredients that companies don’t have to identify,” says Leslie Reichert, a podcaster and author of the Joy of Green Cleaning.
“And while I like any product that lists all of its ingredients, I’m also a huge fan of making your own cleaning products. They work great and are made out of items in your pantry.”
Ingredients that suggest a product is actually green include:
- Essential oils;
- Hydrogen peroxide;
- Citric acid;
- Isopropyl alcohol;
- Castile soap;
- Baking soda.
Harmful and high-health-hazard ingredients to avoid include:
- Artificial fragrances or the vague term “fragrance,” including phthalates and synthetic musks;
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs);
- Glycols, glycol ethers and esters, including propylene glycol butyl ether and 2-butoxyethanol;
- Sodium hypochlorite, found in chlorine bleach;
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, often hidden by vague terms including fluorosurfactant;
- Surfactants, including nonionics, which are compounds that make up some detergents;
- Propane, butane and isobutane propellants in aerosol products;
- Isothiazolinone and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives;
- Quaternary Ammonium Compounds and chemicals ending in “-onium chloride;”
- Ingredients ending in -eth;
- Alkyl phenol ethoxylates, including nonyl- and octylphenol ethoxylates;
- Butyl cellusolve;
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Do Natural, Safe Cleaning Products Work?
Yes. Natural cleaning products can be as effective as conventional products with harsher ingredients. Both Green Seal and EWG require certified products to meet performance testing standards, and both publish details about their efficacy.
“Thousands of government agencies, major corporations and universities have policies that require their spaces to be cleaned exclusively with certified green cleaning products because of the significant indoor air quality and health benefits,” says Tuss.
Natural Multi-Purpose Cleaner: Electrolyzed Water
Force of Nature is a small appliance that uses electricity to convert salt, water and vinegar into a multi-purpose cleaner. It’s an EPA-registered disinfectant and deodorizer that has been proven to clean as effectively as conventional cleaners and disinfect as effectively as bleach. It’s also on the EPA’s list of approved coronavirus disinfectants.
“This has literally changed my cleaning,” says Harris. “I have replaced 99% of my cleaners and disinfectant with this. I recommend it also for the ease of storing the device. It is a bit of an upfront cost, but it goes a long way.”
Natural All-Purpose Cleaner
The Honest Company’s Multi-Surface Refillable Cleaning Kit is high-performing, free of hazardous chemicals and biodegradable. The company also tries to minimize its environmental impact by using a refillable spray container to cut down on single-use plastic.
Concentrated pod refills to make shipping more efficient, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also Green Seal certified.
Castile All-Purpose Cleaner
Castile soap is a favorite all-purpose cleaner for going green because it’s so versatile. Besides cleaning the counters and table tops, Vermont Soap’s Castile can be used as a dish soap, body wash, shampoo, laundry detergent, floor cleaner, veggie wash, pet shampoo and even car wash. It’s biodegradable, certified organic and cruelty-free.
Natural Glass and Window Cleaner
The acidic properties of vinegar are great for cutting through dirt and grime, making Aunt Fannie’s glass and window cleaner and other vinegar-based cleaners a good option for windows. Aunt Fannie’s also works for bathroom counters, tubs, tile and fixtures.
This window cleaner earned the highest health and safety rating for cleaning products by EWG. Made in the U.S., it uses essential oils that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) certified by the FDA and post-consumer recycled packaging plastics.
Natural Toilet Bowl Cleaner
Seventh Generation’s toilet bowl cleaner makes good on its promise for cleaning the rings and stains from the porcelain, while being septic-system safe and biodegradable. The company also touts its commitment to its name, which means it tries to consider its impact on the next seven generations.
Some highlights include using sustainably sourced plant-based ingredients and post-consumer recycled plastic, plus working toward zero-plastic solutions and supporting climate justice initiatives. Apparently it’s not just jargon; the company was awarded 2021 Safer Choice Partner of the Year.
Natural Concentrated Cleaner and Degreaser
Vermont Soap’s Liquid Sunshine concentrate cuts down the number of cleaners you need, along with the space needed for storing them. It’s made of essential oils with natural antibacterial properties, and works well for counters, floors, laundry, woodwork, tile and other water-safe surfaces.
“Use it straight to clean surfaces such as stove tops,” says Harris. “It’s also a great degreaser. Just saturate greasy, grimy messes with the concentrate, let it sit, then gently scrub away with a soft sponge.” It’s made in Vermont, certified USDA organic, and cruelty and GMO free.
Natural Dish Soap
Little Twig started by making baby safety products their priority. Thus, their natural dish soap and bottle wash is safe for washing caked-on milk and formula from baby bottles and sippy cups. But its plant-based ingredients are also work on greasy pots and pans, while being gentle on hands. It’s Green Seal and cruelty-free certified.
Natural Automatic Dishwasher Soap
They’re made from a biodegradable plant and mineral formula with no phosphates, chlorine or other harmful chemicals, minimizing their negative impact on human and aquatic life. Further, the tablets are encapsulated in safe polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a water-soluble, biodegradable polymer. They’re septic tank and gray water safe, plus Green Seal certified.
Natural Stain and Odor Eliminator
Great for households with pets and messy humans, Richard’s Organics stain and odor eliminator spray uses highly concentrated enzymes to clean and deodorize by capturing and destroying odors, instead of just masking them. Its biodegradable ingredients are especially important for small kids and pets, who pick up residues from the carpet and flooring.
Beyond pet messes, it’s also good for ink and crayon marks, blood, and wine stains. It also performs well on upholstery and for basements and fitness areas. It’s Green Seal certified for performance, packaging and human and environmental health.
Eco-Me Concentrated Natural Floor Cleaner
Eco-Me’s plant-based floor cleaner excels at breaking down dirt, food, grease and grime, plus shining and protecting the floor. Made from food-grade ingredients, it received top ratings from Green Seal, EWG, PETA and Leaping Bunny.
The company strives for sustainability on other levels. It repurposes its product drums in the community as rain capture and compost containers and uses recyclable PET #1 plastic packaging. It’s safe on tile, stone, sealed wood, vinyl, linoleum, laminate and other sealed surfaces. Plus, it’s made in the U.S.
Natural Stainless Steel Polish
Its plant-based essential oils and other ingredients are safe to use near food surfaces, unlike polishes with petrochemicals, which are toxic to humans. It’s Green Seal certified for safety and performance. Plus, the company actively pursues initiatives for community and environmental health.
Natural Fabric and Carpet Cleaner
CleanGo developed a way to clean everything from wine to pet stains on the molecular level by using innovative emulsification to break down stains. The result? A surprisingly effective product made from plant-based ingredients that’s safe for kids, pets and nature.
Just spray it on a stain, let it sit, then soak it up with a cloth. It’s biodegradable and VOC free, plus Leaping Bunny and Green Seal certified.
Natural Nonchlorinated Bleach
Seventh Generation’s Professional Natural Non Chlorine Bleach employs hydrogen peroxide and mineral-based ingredients to remove stains. It works well as a laundry additive alternative to chlorine bleach. It’s hypoallergenic and color safe, and the company maintains good health and environmental standards.
Note that in some instances you’ll need bleach or another disinfectant — say, when somebody has been sick in your house or you have a sewage spill.
“Understanding how and when to clean and disinfect is as important as choosing safer products,” says Tuss. “In most cases, cleaning regularly is enough to prevent the spread of germs, without turning to disinfectants. So use disinfectants carefully and sparingly.”
Both hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol, the main natural substitutes for chlorine bleach, are listed on the EPA’s List N, which highlights products expected to kill coronavirus strains. For more information on disinfectants, see Green Seal’s disinfectant guidance.
Natural Laundry Detergent
Molly’s Suds non-toxic laundry powder cleans clothes with five earth-derived, health-safe ingredients, including sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sea salt. Natural laundry detergent is especially important because clothes and sheets touch our skin nearly every moment of our lives, and wash residues can leach into our bloodstream.
Molly’s can be used with all standard and high-efficiency (HE) washers. It’s Leaping Bunny certified, septic and gray-water safe, soil tested and made in the U.S.