A Better Choice — Non-Toxic Cleaning

By Patti Hatzistavrakis

In the last six months, I’ve talked about how small changes in everyday patterns can add up to a healthier life. Portion control, slow burning carbs, reducing sugar intake and drinking more water are all part of the conscious decisions I make daily to be a healthier, happier person. But, this only makes up part of the equation. The air we surround ourselves with is also extremely important, and one we don’t always think about, especially when it comes to the inside of our homes. I’ve always prided myself on a clean home. Everything has its place and is spotless and disinfected. In the past, I used an arsenal of cleaners. From mildew remover, to furniture polish, to kitchen disinfectants, as well as laundry and dish detergents, all were “fast acting” and “powerful”. I never bothered to question why, until I began making lifestyle changes. I started researching the chemicals used to make cleaners so effective and uncovered some disturbing information.

There are a myriad of chemicals allowed, by law, in our everyday cleaning products. Because the chemical combinations are considered “secret formulas”, the ingredients do not need to be disclosed on the packaging. Also, some of these ingredients are actually banned in other countries! Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE’s), which are commonly found in laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaners, are banned in Europe due to evidence linking them to endocrine disruption. Endocrine disruptors can cause reproductive and developmental issues. Some other more common chemical ingredients and their health implications include: Glycol ethers (found in soaps) can cause liver and kidney damage. Phthalates can cause cancer and organ damage. They are usually found in air fresheners. Formaldehyde, found in deodorizers, can cause cancer. Ammonia and chlorine are both known irritants of the eyes, skin and lungs. Fragrances are considered secret formulas and do not need to be disclosed. The chemicals used for fragrances can cause headaches and asthma.

Even “green” cleaners have been found to contain toxic chemicals. Most will still include fragrance, at the very least. Some use sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) as a foaming agent. SLS has been found to irritate eyes and skin and has also been linked to organ toxicity. Borax, a long time staple of green cleaning, including laundry, has recently come under scrutiny as being an endocrine disruptor, particularly in men. Seventh Generation, Mrs. Meyer’s and Earth Friendly Products can be safer alternatives to chemical based cleaners like Clorox, Pledge, Windex and Tide, but should still be used with care.

In addition to the health implications of using chemical cleaners, there are environmental issues as well. It is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to better protect our water supplies and air. Chemical based cleaners add pollution to the environment during the manufacturing process, cleaning process and beyond. Water is being polluted by detergents and other petroleum based cleaning agents. Packaging (including plastic bottles, paper towels and pre-moistened wipes) are filling landfills at an astonishing rate. Air is being compromised due to fragrances and deodorizers. These particles permeate the air and last for hours after the cleaning is complete which could affect the whole family.

After reviewing this information, I had to ask myself, how did my ancestors clean before the availability of these harsh chemicals? My family, as I think most of us can say, cleaned with soap, water and a bit of elbow grease. It turns out that many people are going back to this way of thinking and are making their own DIY household cleaning and laundry supplies. Here’s a few of the basics I learned. Baking Soda has a million uses. It clears odors, removes baked on food, cleans silverware, lifts stains from clothing and is a terrific grout cleaner. Vinegar cleans, disinfects and kills mold spores. When combined with water, it can be used to clean most anything, except marble. Hydrogen peroxide is a powerful disinfectant and drain cleaner. It should NEVER be combined with vinegar. Castile soaps are effective cleaners and can be mixed with baking soda and/or vinegar for extra cleaning power, like to scrub floors. Steam is another terrific option for cleaning and sanitizing floors, counters and the bathroom. Finally, essential oils can be added to DIY cleaners to increase their antibacterial/antifungal properties. Some better options for cleaning are tea tree, grapefruit seed extract, eucalyptus and pine.

In order to “clean up” my cleaning routine, I started to choose more natural, less toxic cleaners. This proved to be difficult, due to the lack of ingredient information on product labels. Here are a few clues: 1) Warning labels such as danger, flammable or caution, indicate the presence of a toxin. 2) Ingredients (or variations of) to be avoided include (but are not limited to): chlor (chlorine), glycol (petroleum based cleaner), phenol (coal tar derivative) and triclosan (antibacterial agent). 3) Colors and fragrances are unnecessary and do not add cleaning strength. When in doubt, I locate the material safety data sheet (MSDS). Manufacturers are required, by law, to make this more complete list of ingredients available to consumers.

Once I felt more comfortable with the less toxic (yet still commercial) cleaners, I moved on to DIY. I’m now using baking soda to clean my tile and grout, a vinegar and water solution to clean windows, mirrors, and counters. I add a bit of oil to the vinegar/water solution to polish wood furniture. I’m experimenting with laundry and dish soaps, using baking soda, washing soda and a bit of castile soap. Even though I’m using much more natural cleaners, I still wear reusable gloves, a mask and keep the house well ventilated.

A few other changes I’ve made include: microfiber towels instead of pre-moistened wipes or paper towels. This helps keep trash out of the landfill. I also use a vacuum with a hepa filter and a steam mop to keep floors and rugs clean and allergen free. We also, of course, have a “no shoes in the house” policy. Lastly, I never use air fresheners, deodorizers or dryer sheets. They are pure chemical compounds filled with toxins like phthalates, acetone and petroleum. Instead, I opt for plants and baking soda to keep the air fresh and clean.

Overall, the adjustments I’ve made to my cleaning and laundry routines have made a huge impact on the cleanliness of my home. Not only is my house still spotless and disinfected, but the air and surfaces no longer contain harsh chemical residues that can harm my family. So, my living space is actually CLEANER that it was before. Non-toxic, homemade cleaners and soaps really do work and can save you money! Not only are these choices better for the environment, but they also help me and my family live healthier, less toxic lives.

Patti Hatzistavrakis is a freelance writer residing in Puna. Patti’s wellness journey started with small steps which have made a profound effect of the quality of her health and happiness. 

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