Call me crazy, but I love cleaning. Not in an obsessive, Monica-from-Friends kind of way, but I love that feeling of satisfaction I get after a good scrub session. A wave of bliss washes over me as I sink into the couch and survey the fruits of my labor—a spotless house.
But recently, my mom (who else?) tipped me off to some startling information about what’s in my go-to, all-purpose cleaner: carcinogens and glycol ethers, among other things. Animal studies have shown that these glycol ethers can cause testicular damage, reduced fertility, and birth defects. Suddenly this warning from my mother didn’t seem like just another overprotective lecture. Instead, her words sent me on a quest to find out what other kinds of harmful ingredients lurk in my arsenal of cleansers under the kitchen sink.
What I found was unsettling. Spend 15 minutes cleaning the shower, and you could inhale three times the “acute one-hour limit” set by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for glycol ether-containing products. Janitors and people who clean houses for a living have eight times the rate of asthma found in other workers, according to a study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. And these cleaning products aren’t just hurting those of us who use them. A nationwide study by the US Geological Survey showed that nearly 70 percent of streams tested contained breakdown products from detergents, and 66 percent contained disinfectants.
Could my post-cleaning contentment be a farce? Was I actually cleaning my house, or was I polluting it and making myself sick? After all, according to the EPA, the air inside my home is three times more likely to give me cancer than the air I breathe walking down the street—and my tried-and-true cleaning products play a bigger role in that toxicity than I ever imagined.
But before I resigned myself to a life of grime, I unearthed some good news. Cleaning products that are better for our health and the environment do exist—and they work just as well as the ones jam-packed with chemicals. So here you go: the lowdown on the bad stuff, along with the new team of products I use to tackle even the toughest jobs. They actually work, and they’ve helped give me an even more euphoric post-cleaning nirvana.
All-Purpose Cleaner Stay Away From:
Glycol ethers (labeled as Butyl Cellosolve, 2-butoxyethan, or ethylene glycol monobutyl ether). This solvent strips hands of their natural oils. Even worse, it’s easily absorbed through the skin when it evaporates into the air and can affect the body’s hormone regulation. Once absorbed, it travels through the bloodstream and deposits itself in fatty tissues, where it can exist indefinitely and cause health problems ranging from infertility to birth defects.
Diethanolamine (DEA) and tri-ethanolamine (TEA). These sudsing agents react to nitrate, which is an often undisclosed preservative in cleaning products. Research shows they form carcinogens that penetrate the skin on contact.
Greener Picks: Earth Friendly Products Parsley Plus All-Surface Cleaner is made with a biodegradable coconut-based cleanser and is free of glycol ethers, DEA, and TEA. ($5 for 22 oz; ecos.com) Vermont Soap Organics Liquid Sunshine is loaded with natural oils and minerals. Testers raved about its grease-cutting power and citrus scent. ($8 for 16 oz; vermontsoap.com)
Stay Away From:
Ammonia. This chemical is highly irritating to lungs and air- ways. Experts agree that people with chronic lung or heart problems, as well as asthmatics, should steer clear of it. Solvents. These are found in gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid, and automotive products. When in cleaning products and used with poor ventilation, they significantly reduce indoor air quality and can contaminate your lungs.
Butyl Cellosolve. This glycol ether is a nerve-damaging ingredient that is easily absorbed through your skin.
Greener Picks: Ecodiscoveries Glass gets rid of everything from soot to fingerprint smudges with its water- and plant-based formula. ($6.50, 32 oz; ecodiscoveries.com)
Aubrey Organics Liquid Sparkle Spray Cleanser cleans with soy, aloe vera, and soap-bark extract. ($5.50, 16 oz; aubrey-organics.com)
Stay Away From:
2-(2-Methoxyethoxy) ethanol. A member of the glycol ether family, its toxicity has caused reproductive and developmental malformations in some studies.
Monoethanolamine (MEA). This chemical is a known cause of asthma.
Greener Pick: BabyGanics Floor Cleaner Concentrate has a soybean-oil base that won’t aggravate skin and allergies. ($9, 16 oz;babyganics.com)
Tub and Tile
Stay Away From:
Sodium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), or phosphoric acid. These are all lung irritants and can burn eyes and skin. Bleach has also been linked to the rising rates of breast cancer in women, reproductive problems in men, and learning and behavioral problems in children.
Organochlorine. Found in chlorine bleach products, this chemical has been shown to cause cancer in animals.
Ammonium quaternary compounds. These have been shown to cause asthma.
Greener Picks: Naturally Clean Tub and Tile doesn’t just kill the mildew and mold in your shower, it destroys the organic material that they grow in and prevents it from coming back. ($5.50, 16 oz; chemfreesolutions.com)
Bon Ami is a top pick among allergists because the natural ingredients contain no detergent, bleach, perfume, or dye. It’s a biodegradable scrubbing powder that’s made from the soft rocks of calcite and feldspar, and it doesn’t scratch tile. ($1.50, 14 oz;bonami.com)
BioShield Toilet Bowl Cleaner is made from citric acid and sugar-based cleaning agents—sans bleach, ammonia, dye, and petroleum derivatives. ($6.50, 25.5 oz; bioshieldpaint.com)
Stay Away From:
Phosphate. This water- softening ingredient is discharged into lakes and rivers after the dishwashing cycle, where it spawns an overgrowth of algae, which in turn deprives fish of oxygen. Although many states have banned phosphates from laundry detergents and some cleaners, they are still allowed in dishwasher detergents.
Greener Picks: Ecover Automatic Dishwasher Powder is made from plant- and mineral-based ingredients. ($8, 48 oz;ecover.com)
Earth Friendly Products Wave is phosphate-free and made from coconut oil. ($5, 40 oz; ecos.com)
Stay Away From:
Petroleum-based components. Even though petroleum is biodegradable, it’s nonrenewable, so using it in household products contributes to our nation’s dependence on imported oil.
Synthetic fragrances. These scents can be made from up to 4,000 different chemical components and aren’t required to appear on the label because they are considered “trade secrets.”
Greener Picks: Mountain Green Dishwashing Liquid is made with purified water, coconut and palm oils, and natural apple fragrance. ($4.60, 25 oz; mountaingreen.biz)
Mrs. Meyer’s Dish Soap cleans with soap-bark extract made from saponins—one of nature’s best de-greasers. ($5, 12.5 oz;mrsmeyers.com)
Earth Friendly Products Dishmate comes in a variety of scents formulated with essential oils. ($4, 25 oz; ecos.com)
Stay Away From:
Synthetic fragrances. These can be an allergy trigger. It’s important to be careful when it comes to air and fabric fresheners in aerosol spray bottles, since they produce small droplets that are quickly absorbed by the body.
Greener Picks: Ecodiscoveries AirZyme uses natural enzymes that eliminate stinky odors rather than just masking an unwanted smell. ($11, 32 oz; ecodiscoveries.com)
Earth Friendly Products Eco Breeze Fabric Refreshener uses essential oils instead of synthetic fragrances. ($5, 22 oz; ecos.com)
Laundry Detergent and Fabric Softeners
Stay Away From:
Monoethanolamine. This chemical is a proven asthma inducer.
Borax and enzymes. These eat the fibers of your clothes—never a good thing when it comes to durability.
Benzenes. Once heated in the dryer, these carcinogenic chemicals in dryer sheets release gases that cause allergies and can damage the central nervous system.
Tallow (rendered animal fat). This is used in fabric softeners and leaves a waxy residue on clothes. With towels, for example, this residue buildup eventually makes them less absorbent; it can also clog your dryer’s lint filter.
Greener Picks: Mountain Green Laundry Detergent is made from coconut and palm oil, and works by making clothes slippery enough for dirt and residue to just slide off in the washing machine. ($10, 32 oz; mountaingreen.biz)
Safonique Detergent uses a hypoallergenic formula that’s dermatologist-tested and scented with essential oils. ($7, 100 oz;safonique.com)
Seventh Generation Fabric Softener uses natural canola oil to add softness and decrease static in clothes. ($5.50, 40 oz;seventhgeneration.com)
Nicole Duncan is an assistant editor.
Staffers’ takes on the Greener Cleaners:
Earth Friendly Products Parsley Plus All-Surface Cleaner
“Old coffee and spaghetti sauce stains disappear with just a few sprays.”
Babyganics Floor Cleaner Concentrate
“This keeps my floors clean and safe for my baby, who puts everything in his mouth.”
Naturally Clean Tub and Tile
“I don’t have to clean the tub as often because this keeps scum from accumulating.”
Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Dish Soap
“Doing the dishes is actually more enjoyable now. This leaves my hands soft.”
Ecover Automatic Dishwasher Powder
“This leaves my dishes clean—without those annoying white spots.”
Earth Friendly Products Eco Breeze Fabric Refreshener
“A quick and easy way to freshen up fabrics—and the scent is especially soothing.”
Mountain Green Laundry Detergent
“I was surprised at how clean my hiking gear came out—and no over-powering scent.”
Seventh Generation Fabric Softener
“Unlike other fabric softeners I’ve tried, this doesn’t leave a white residue on my clothes.”