Redefining Clean: The Search for Sustainable Cleaning Products

With the increasing amount of antibiotics in our waterstream, as well as other pollutants that are difficult to remove, we need to be more careful about what we put down the drain. Despite the municipal water systems which remove many pollutants, there are many compounds that just can’t be filtered out. Non-biodegradable cleaning products that include toxic chemicals leach into the environment through our water systems, and their fumes contribute to indoor air pollution that harms human health in short term and long term ways.

Dirt vs. Germs

It is important to understand what kinds of “dirty” pose a real threat to human health, what is cosmetic, and what is a marketing ploy. Since we can’t see germs, but we are told that they are dangerous and live in our home, marketers of these products can use our fear of germs to sell products that they tell us we need. In the past century, disease has been reduced enormously by our understanding of pathogens, and how to get rid of them. At the same time, dozens of new cleaning products have entered the market, with different combinations of ingredients in order to make them original, and therefore, marketable. This certainly doesn’t equate to every ingredient serving a practical purpose.

For decades, we have known that humans must be exposed to a variety of bacteria in order to build up healthy immune systems. While “killing 99.9% of germs” sounds like a good thing, the truth is, you don’t want your home to be a sterile place with no microbiome. There are some mixed reports among microbiologists as to whether antibiotics are harmful to human health, but we know that they contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, which is creating “superbugs”.  There needs to be a healthy variety of good bacteria in our gut, on our skin, and many other parts of our bodies, and strong chemical disinfectant kills the common beneficial bacteria alongside harmful ones.

As the CDC puts it, learn the difference between cleaning and disinfecting.

Cleaning is the process of physically removing germs, usually using soap or detergent. This does not necessarily kill the germs, but it does remove them and lower their numbers. You want to clean in situations where you can see crumbs, dirt, grease, etc.

Disinfecting kills the germs on the surface of objects using a chemical, but does not necessarily remove germs. An example would be misting your bathtub with bleach. You want to disinfect areas after you clean them (or while you clean them) if you want to take an extra precaution against disease.

There are many situations where only disinfecting doesn’t make any sense, and situations where only cleaning isn’t enough. For example, if you are going camping, touching a lot of soil, and you want to get the dirt off your hands, hand sanitizer isn’t going to help with that, because hand sanitizer disinfects rather than cleans. Similarly, if your sick friend just finished coughing on your countertop, you will want to make sure you disinfect the area (and probably clean too). It’s important to think about what your goal is before you decide how to clean (or disinfect) something.

The Holy Trinity of Household Cleaners: Hydrogen Peroxide, Baking Soda, and Vinegar

My environmental science teacher in high school told us that you can clean your entire house with just these three ingredients. We all expressed skepticism when she told us that hydrogen peroxide could be used as mouthwash, and gasped as she gargled a mouthful of it right in front of us. After all, any substance that is safe to put in your mouth must be safe for the plants and animals outside, not to mention safe for your little ones and pets in the home.

Add the occasional lemon juice and castile soap, and I think you’re more than covered. If you are like me and are also going for cheap, simple options, these are all great choices for you. Personally, I have learned to really enjoy using these simple, biodegradable cleaning products. They don’t have strong, sickly artificial smells, leave residue, or make me lightheaded. (Yes, vinegar has a strong smell. But I’m used to it, and I know it’s safe!)

Vinegar is based on acetic acid, which will cut through grease and dirt effectively, while killing around 80% of germs, including the flu virus. If you do have pets, especially small animals, the only 100% safe choice is vinegar. Make sure to use it when washing food and water bowls, fish tanks, and cage floors. Overall, I think vinegar is a great option for small messes and doing a quick wipe-down of your surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom to keep things in check.

Hydrogen peroxide is often used as an antiseptic for cuts and infections, and even in hospitals. Maybe your mom dabbed a bit on your splinter when you were a kid. Well, it’s also used in many laundry detergents, and as a cheap and widely available antiseptic. It does mildly “bleach” things, so I use it on my white carpet to clean spots. I use it as a bathroom cleaner, because it limits the growth of bacteria, and is a fungicide, which means it will kill mold spores. Make sure that you store it in a dark place, because it breaks down when exposed to light, and will lose its potency. That’s why the bottles are never transparent!

Baking soda is my go-to deodorizer. Its texture also helps when you need to scrub out dirt and grime. It is a base, which means that it causes dirt and grease to dissolve in water. A baking soda and water mixture is great for scrubbing your kitchen sink, and it will eliminate odors too! Put some in your laundry, sprinkle some in your shoes, or brush your teeth with it. I love the versatility of baking soda!

If these options aren’t working for you, and you would rather buy a cleaner with a brand name, there are quite a few green options to be had. Put on your skeptic hat and read carefully about cleaning products before you buy. Are they given the vague label of “eco-friendly” or are they explicitly biodegradable? Is the company operating a carbon-neutral factory? You can certainly find products that meet this criteria, but be wary of impersonators.

No matter what cleaning products you are using, the most green thing you can do, as always, is reduce the amount you use. Be conservative with your cleaning products to reduce the burden on our water system, and your impact on indoor air pollution. In the famous words of Dr. Bronner, “DILUTE! DILUTE! OK!”  The less cleaning product you use, the longer your current bottle will last, which will mean less energy lost in the production of a new one.

There is so much more to talk about with cleaning. Here I discussed the basics, but castile soap deserves its own post, and there is more to be discussed with tea tree oil, essential oils, and apple cider vinegar. I also hope to go much deeper on these cleaners, because there are a lot of conflicting reports out there. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!

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