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Go Green With Your Clean: A Guide to What's In Your Cleaner

We want a clean house but do we know what that really means? Here are the facts and terms you need to know and look for in order to make the best choices for green cleaning.

The green cleaning movement has been around a few years now but you might still be wondering what makes the products "green".  (Hint: it's not the color.) All that's clear is that they don't contain a bunch of chemicals. Or do they? If you're like me, you may be wondering why those chemicals are in cleaning products to begin with.

Here are a few quick facts about cleaning products and how they can help you step up your cleaning game by making the best decisions.

What makes cleaning products clean?

Soap is a type of detergent. And no, detergent isn't just for clothes. Detergents are made of compounds that break up the surface tension of water so that it wets things more evenly. One part of the molecule is attractive to dirt while the other is attractive to water so it acts like a glue and when you wash off the water, you wash off the dirt. Neat!

There are lots of different ingredients added into cleaning supplies for different uses. Some, like enzymes, are used to break up and "eat" grime while others shine or brighten surfaces. 

Once upon a time soap was made in the all natural way by boiling fats in ashes. It may not sound very clean but it holds the same theories we use today. We just added a whole lot more chemistry into the mix. That doesn't mean that there aren't powerful natural cleaners, however.

What makes cleaning products dirty?

Cleaning supplies don't have an off switch. Well, not the kind we're talking about. They don't just stop breaking down dirt when you wash it away. The enzymes used to break down dirt can end up in the environment and start breaking down important parts of the ecosystem. Yeah, whoops. Some components may also increase algae growth. This unbalance in the environment can cause major upset to plants, animals and the whole planet. Luckily, thanks to the green movement, some of these chemicals are already phased out of cleaning supplies. 

What makes cleaning products natural?

Beware, beware, the term "natural" or "green". While this is a blog about going green, gas is natural and so is burning it but that doesn't make it healthy. Unfortunately, there isn't big regulation on the terms "natural" or "green" and it could mean anything from ingredients that were once dinosaurs to liquified grass clippings. 

The good guys will make their cleaners out of natural ingredients that biodegrade before they end up in the natural ecosystem. Still, it's hard to tell which ingredients are non-toxic. That's why companies like EcoLabel, Green Seal and Design for the Environment (DtE) test and label the best candidates for green supplies.

There are other companies and campaigns too, like the Environmental Working Group. If you see a product labeled with any group's label, look into them to see what they represent and how they give out their seal. Some companies need only buy a label to stick on their bottles, so research is key.

Green Bathroom Cleaners

Make Your Own

Making your own cleaner is not very hard once you know the basics behind what makes something clean. I already told you that soap simply breaks up the water to get things more evenly wet and helps attach water molecules to dirt. Once you know that, you can start replacing the chemicals in your cleaners with greener solutions. Literally.

  • White vinegar cuts grease and removes mildew. It's also great for fighting odor. Dilute with equal parts water for a great spray in the bathroom and kitchen or use in full force on the tough stuff.

  • Baking soda is a great natural alternative for powdered cleaners especially on soap scum stains. Powder it on and scour away the stain. Or mix 1/4 cup with 1/2 cup white vinegar and 1/2 gallon water for a natural all-purpose cleaner.

  • Scrub away mildew and mold with lemon juice using a regular sponge or brush. It's naturally high acidic value makes it a perfect alternative to harmful chemicals.

  • If DYI isn't your style, check out our selection of natural cleaners. Just remember to check the labels when you're shopping.

    There are terms you might see on labels of cleaning products about what they may or may not contain. Knowing what these are will help you make an informed choice when shopping for your household.

    Parabens - widely used preservatives that prevent bacteria and fungal growth. They can be found in everything from shampoo to food additives.

    On labels they might appear as: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, heptylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben or benzylparaben.

    There are alternative, natural versions like grapefruit seed extract (GSE).

    Sodium laureth sulfate - (SLS, SLES) acts like soap and irritates eyes and skin in high concentrations. Some products containing SLS have been found to also contain by-products the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems likely to be carcinogens.

    Phosphates - controls the pH balance of a detergent, removes fatty agents, protects against corrosion and fatty build-up. When they get into the ecosystem, however, they play havoc on aquatic wildlife and cause algae to grow rapidly. Here's the kicker: they've already been removed from commercial cleaners in the US and Europe. If a label is claiming "phosphate free", well they're not the only ones and if that's their only contribution to green, it's only because it's government-mandated. TSP, a heavy-duty cleaner, is still available and uses phosphates. Business and professional-brand cleaning products are exempt for the law so if you're looking to go green for the office, this is where to start. Otherwise, you're already free of them in your laundry and dishwasher. 

    Ethanolamine Compounds - (MEA, DEA, TEA) found in cosmetics as well as cleaners. It's used to dissolve greasy soils and remove dirt as well as adjust the pH of a substance. This can affect how long the cleaning product lasts. You'll find it in oven cleaners. Causes eye and skin damage and can irritate allergies. DEA is banned by the European Commission because of concerns of carcinogenic nitrosamines.

    On the label: Triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyle phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearmide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.

    Petrochemical - a chemical made from petroleum. Found in practically everything from cosmetics to adhesives to food additives. Gross.

    Now that you know what you're looking for, you can make the right choices for you and your family easily and confidently! Let us know what your favorite green brand is on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages. And join us every Wednesday for a new blog article on living healthy.

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