Clean Up Your Act

Cleaning products are supposed to keep us safe, comfortable and healthy. However, because most conventional products can be extremely toxic, our homes literally have us running a poison gauntlet—whether we realize it yet or not. Having a clean home is important to all of us, but the results of using noxious chemicals throughout our daily living spaces can be devastating.One study found that spray household cleaners, including air fresheners, could increase the risk of developing asthma by nearly 50% (1). Fortunately, there are some natural alternatives for keeping a happy, healthy home.

Exposing the Down ‘N Dirty
It seems everywhere we turn in our homes, we are faced with something that must be cleaned somehow. Unfortunately, furniture polish, toilet cleaners, dishwashing products, carpet and upholstery shampoos, detergents, oven cleaners and air fresheners are all guilty of containing environmental, and health-damaging chemicals. Here are some examples of the most common and dangerous chemicals in conventional household products:
• Many household cleaners contain a volatile organic compound (VOC) called 1,4 dicholorobenzene (1,4 DCB), which can reduce lung function by 4% (2).
• Ethylene-based glycol is used commonly as a water-soluble solvent in cleaning agents, but is classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2).
• Terpenes, a class of chemicals found in lemon, pine and orange oils, can morph into carcinogenic compounds when they mix with ground-level ozone (2).
• Chlorine, often labeled as “sodium hypochlorite” or “hypochlorite,” is one of the most common chemicals in household cleaners, although scientists won’t handle it without adequate protection. Decades ago, it was made one of the first agents of chemical warfare and for good reason—it’s dangerous. Chlorine can damage eyes, ears, skin and cause severe respiratory trouble.
• Ammonia, when in contact with bleach, will release toxic chlorine gas that can be deadly even in small amounts.

In addition to inhalation, chemicals can enter your bloodstream through skin absorption. It has been estimated that as much as 60% of what is applied to our skin can be absorbed into the bloodstream (3). So, when using any cleaning products, be sure to open a window and wear a mask and gloves for added protection.

Be a Mean, Green, Cleaning Machine
You can breathe easy knowing that many companies have recognized these potential dangers and have made safer and greener alternatives available. Also, you can stock your house with some natural and non-toxic cleaning ingredients for amazing do-it-yourself power:

Baking soda provides grit for scrubbing and reacts with water, vinegar or lemon by fizzing, which speeds up cleaning times in addition to its deodorizing properties.

Distilled white vinegar disinfects and breaks up dirt—choose white vinegar over apple cider or red vinegars, as these can stain surfaces.

Hydrogen peroxide disinfects and bleaches.

Lemons cut grease—even bottled lemon juice works!

Olive oil picks up dirt and polishes wood; cheaper grades work well and vegetable-based soap (liquid castile) works as a non-petroleum all-purpose cleaner.   

The Ins and Outs
Although keeping your home naturally clean on the inside is important, it is equally imperative to care for the outside in an environmentally friendly way. It might be tempting to use harsher chemicals and products to face the elements and creepy-crawlies out there, but there are gentle, natural options available for caring for you and your home outside.

Gardening and lawn care. Synthetic chemicals for lawns and gardens can be appealing because they can easily help lawns become luscious and help gardens grow great big tomatoes—but there are downsides. These synthetic chemicals can be toxic for children and pets that roam free on grass, not to mention the wildlife.

Instead of spending money on synthetic products, try composting your plant-based food and garden waste to spread into soil. Composting can be done by making a backyard pile, building a bin from scratch or from a kit, or buying one of the many composting bins available on the market.

Pesticides and bug sprays. DEET, an ingredient found in most conventional repellents can melt plastic, damage rayon and, in severe cases, cause nausea, seizures and death. Therefore, it would be wise to think twice before putting a product with DEET on your skin. However, there are some safer options that won’t have negative environmental or health impacts. Numerous products available in spray, stick, oil and lotion form contain natural ingredients such as citronella oil, lavender oil, peppermint oil, cedarwood, lemongrass and eucalyptus. Using non-toxic products can be especially important at outside gatherings and barbeques, where there is food present, as well as family, friends, children and pets. For a general outdoor repellent, citronella candles can be used.

If pesticide is necessary for your lawn or garden try naturally occurring bacterium to kill pests. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis, is lethal to most leaf-eating caterpillars on trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables. It comes in a powder form for use as a dust, or, when diluted with water, as a spray (4). If you would rather not kill the innocent insect dwellers of your garden, there are products that don’t rely on toxicity, but rather form a protective barrier around plants to ward off bugs. These are usually made of a type of clay that is effective in defending plants, especially those with fruits and vegetables, from a variety of bugs (4).

Also, a 50–50 mix of vinegar and water can be used at your home’s entry points to eliminate the scent trail that ants and other pests use to follow each other into your house (5). WF

1. S. Gordon, “Health Hazards in Household Cleaners Exposed,” US News and World Report, July 25, 2008.
2. E Magazine,, week of 9/7/2008 letter, accessed September 30, 2008.
3. K. James, “The Truth About Beauty,” (Hillsboro, OR, Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 2003).
4. “All-Natural Pesticides,”, accessed September 30, 2008.
5. Cancer Prevention Coalition,, accessed September 30, 2008.

Published by WholeFoods Magazine, November 2008