FeaturesApril/May 2008 Issue

Natural Cleaning Products Lead To a Healthier Home

Natural ingredients are the key to creating a healthier home.

Natural Cleaning Products

Ellen Sandbeck cleans her whole house with vinegar, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. On special occasions, like when in-laws are due, she pulls out a bottle of cheap vodka. Not to imbibe. To disinfect, polish and shine.

“You can clean almost everything with these,” says Sandbeck, author of Organic Housekeeping (Schribner). “Most households contain dozens of unnecessary cleaning products and most of them are costly and dangerous.”

Sandbeck, 50, of Duluth, Minnesota, is an expert at organic landscaping, gardening and vermicomposting (she grows and sells composting worms). Known as the “Non-toxic Avenger,” she made the decision to go natural over two decades ago, in large part for health reasons.

“I was an allergic kid from an allergic family,” she says. “One summer, I had a skin reaction to the sun. Another summer, I reacted to grass. I had an allergy to apricots. Then I was allergic to dogs – and I really, really wanted a dog when I was a child,” she says. She outgrew many of her sensitivities but still cannot eat chocolate or shrimp.

“The shrimp issue is a heartbreaker,” says Sandbeck, a shellfish lover. “I tried one again the other day. It went down and came right back up.”

Still plagued with highly sensitive skin, Sandbeck develops a rash whenever she uses commercial cleaning products. That’s why her washing supplies, which also include household items like salt and lemon juice, come from the pantry, not the grocery store.

“The cleaning products you make yourself cost pennies,” she says. “What’s more, they are safer for you—and they really do the job.”

A Green Beginning
Twenty years ago, long before it was fashionable, Anne Symmes winnowed down her household cleaning products to a couple eco-friendly items.
 
“It just simplifies my life and they totally work,” she says. And because she’s sensitive to fragrances, her products are odorless, as well. 

Symmes, whose father was a horticulturist who shunned pesticides in his nursery business, cleared her cabinets of any products with ingredients she couldn’t pronounce or understand or that contained the word “poison” on the label. 

“Back then, it was a lot harder to find natural cleaning products in the store,” she says. “Today, they’re everywhere.” 
She’s right. These days, many manufacturers advertise their products as “green,” a popular term to denote superior environmental performance or benefits. But the word “green” is unregulated, which means almost any product can make that claim.
 
Martin Wolf, a chemist and director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation, a company that sells natural household products, says that vague terms, like “environmentally friendly,” make for good marketing but provide little information.

“There’s no legal definition for many of these terms,” he says. “Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Poison ivy is natural but it certainly isn’t safe. And some plant oils in cleaning products can be irritating to sensitive people.”
 
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a standard for labeling cleaning products. If an ingredient is hazardous, the label must say so with words like “danger,” “warning” or “poison.” But individual ingredients do not have to be listed. Some manufacturers provide only partial lists, hiding additives under broad categories like “surfactants,” “dispersal agents” or “inert ingredients.”

How can you be certain that what you’re buying is truly safe?
It’s not easy. For starters, Wolf suggests consumers steer clear of products that warn of skin irritation or that require the use of a well-ventilated room or that are combustible. Look for products that are “readily biodegradable,” rather than simply “biodegradable.”

Natural Cleaning Products

Do you love the fragrance of clothes washed in your favorite laundry detergent? Wolf says that smell may contain phthalates, a synthetic chemical which helps the scent last longer.

“Phthalates are the reason we smell these products on our clothes days after they’ve been washed,” he says. “Unless a product derives its scent from natural essentials oils or has no scent at all, you’re smelling volatile synthetic chemical fragrances.” 

Phthalates are hormonal mimics that can affect the endocrine system. “The science on the long-term risks of using this ingredient doesn’t exist,” says Wolf.

“There is not a synthetic cleaning product on the market that can improve your health, though there are plenty that can ruin it,” says Sandbeck, the Nontoxic-Avenger.

Sandbeck’s bottom line? “If you don’t understand the words on the product label, take it straight to the hazardous waste dump.”

Good Housekeeping
Several years ago when Sandbeck was working furiously to meet a book deadline, she developed a bloody, red rash under her collar and around her hairline, waist and ankles.

“It was hideous, just nasty,” she says. “I thought it was because I was working so hard and under all this stress. I remember standing in the shower, crying.”

Her husband and children had been doing the laundry while she’d been busy writing. One day, she ventured downstairs to wash the clothes. “I looked at the shelf and saw that my husband had bought a different detergent because it was on sale. It was natural but it had citrus fragrance,” she says. “I had been reacting to the fragrance.”

Sandbeck normally uses a scent-free, mineral-based detergent to wash her family’s clothes. To whiten, she uses ¼ cup washing soda (sodium carbonate) in place of bleach and adds white distilled vinegar as a fabric softener. For dark clothes, she adds ¼ cup of vinegar and ¼ cup of salt. “Salt helps removes dirt and grime and restores faded colors,” she says.

Sandbeck’s natural cleaning methods extend far beyond the laundry room.

To scrub her kitchen and bathroom floors, she mixes ½ cup of distilled white vinegar into one gallon of hot water. “This is safe for hardwood, linoleum, tile and any washable surface,” she says. She mixes one to two tablespoons of white vinegar with a quart of water in a spray bottle to clean mirrors and windows. She wipes the shower door with ¼ cup white vinegar mixed with ¾ cup of hot water.

“Anything that is calcium or mineral based, you can clean with vinegar,” she says. “Those hard-water stains wipe away like magic.”

She scrubs her kitchen cabinets with ¼ cup of lemon juice mixed with a quart of hot water. “Lemon juice helps reduce the grease on wood and metal,” she says.

To clean the oven, Sandbeck makes a gritty paste by mixing 1 tablespoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon salt with a half cup of hot water. “Apply it to the oven, heat slightly, cool and then wipe away with a damp rag.”

To clean up a roasting pan with baked-on meat drippings, she drains the grease, covers the pan bottom with ½-inch of baking soda, adds water and brings it to a boil. “You can clean anything fat-based with baking soda; it reacts to the grease and turns it to soap,” she says. “Baking soda can also freshen a carpet, put out a kitchen fire, deodorize a refrigerator, clean a drain and treat a laundry stain.” 

Easy, Inexpensive Solutions
With all the concern that dangerous bacteria (like E. coli, salmonella, staphylococcus) may be lurking on your kitchen counters, it’s no wonder the market for antibacterial disinfectants is booming. Commercial disinfectants are effective – but are they safe?

“The hype about disinfectants is mostly hype,” says Wolf. “Disinfectants often contain hazardous substances, such as chlorinated phenol compounds, which are known to be extremely toxic and persistent in the environment. Using an anti-microbial agent might pose more risk than benefit.”

Sandbeck agrees. She says the same, if not better, antibacterial results can be had by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water and using vinegar and hydrogen peroxide to clean counter tops and cutting boards. She keeps two spray bottles handy, one filled with distilled white vinegar and the other (a dark bottle to shade from light) with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. She uses them together as household disinfectants.

“This combo of natural substances is lethal to bacteria but utterly harmless to humans, pets and the environment,” she says. One note of caution: Vinegar dissolves calcium-based materials so don’t spray it on marble or other natural stone countertops. Clean with soap and water instead.

For added shine and disinfecting, Sandbeck suggests cheap vodka.

“Vodka is a good cleaning and  polishing agent. It is about 80 proof (that’s 40 percent alcohol), colorless and has a neutral smell,” she says. “Put a little dab on a soft rag and polish up the mirrors, faucets and other shiny surfaces.”

Changing Course
Ten years ago, Lindy Day of Stone Mountain, Georgia, went “green” after her son, who was two at the time, had what she thought was an asthma attack right after she wiped his crib with a cleaning solution that contained bleach.
 
Fortunately, most people exposed to household cleaners don’t react that way. Yet for those who are sensitive, subtle symptoms may be there – inexplicable headaches, breathing problems, rashes. Over time, chronic exposure can lead to more serious health issues, including cancer.

“People eat three to four pounds of food a day and spend a fortune buying only organic food,” Wolf says. “But we breathe about 20 pounds of air a day and people give little thought to what they’re spraying into the air to clean their homes, exposing themselves to a 100 times more chemicals than they’re eating.”

For Lindy Day, her toddler’s reaction was a wake-up call. She stopped using any type of product that contained ingredients she didn’t understand. Her son, now 12, hasn’t had a respiratory problem since.

My family and friends think I’m wacky but I really don’t care,” says Day. “I wish everyone would think about what we’re doing to ourselves and our environment. It really only takes a few changes to your lifestyle to make a big difference in the long run.”  LW

Medical writer Diana Keough is founder and president of ShareWIK.com.

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