There’s nothing better than having a freshly cleaned, nice-smelling house or car. Life just seems better when the space you’re in is all shiny and clean. But a lot of times, those sparkling clean surfaces and lovely floral scents are hiding some dirty — and harmful — secrets. The thing is, most conventional cleaning and air freshening products contain chemicals that can do serious damage to your health. This is a big deal, because we spend the majority of our time in our homes and cars, so if we’re using toxic products to clean them, we’re getting a lot of exposure. But don’t worry — this doesn’t mean you need to live in a dirty hovel. Thankfully, there are some great non-toxic cleaning products, as well as natural DIY cleaning products and natural air fresheners, that will let you get that fresh, clean feeling without putting yourself or your loved ones in any harm’s way.
Harmful Household Cleaning Products
Dangerous chemicals and compounds abound in conventional cleaning products because, for a reason we can’t really understand, the regulations around household cleaners are incredibly loose. Manufacturers of cleaning products don’t need to prove a chemical’s safety for their product to be sold to consumers, and, according to the National Research Council, less than 20% of chemicals in everyday use products have been tested for acute health effects, and less than 10% have been tested for chronic, reproductive, or mutagenic (meaning changes to DNA) effects. What’s more, the labeling on cleaning products isn’t regulated, and thus can be super misleading. Products can carry the words “green” or “natural” on their labels, and still contain harmful ingredients.
So what sort of harm are we talking here? Well, quite a lot. According to the American Lung Association, household cleaners that contain harmful substances can cause dizziness, nausea, allergic reactions, and eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation, or even cancer. The list of harmful ingredients in conventional cleaning products is long, as is the list of which products contain them, but we’ll try to give you a comprehensive overview of the most toxic compounds out there.
A biggie is volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which are released when using various cleaning supplies and can contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, headaches, and occupational asthma. Then there’s fragrance — which is in basically every conventional cleaning product, from laundry detergent to soap to floor cleaner — which can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, sneezing, and watery eyes; and because “fragrance” is considered a trade secret, companies don’t need to disclose what ingredients fall under that label, just like with clean beauty products. Some all-purpose cleaners contain diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), which are both added to create (totally unnecessary) suds and can form a cancer-causing substance called nitrosamines. Butyl cellosolve is another common ingredient, and it can cause damage to the brain and nervous system. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), commonly found in detergents, cause hormone disruption by mimicking estrogen. Meanwhile, anything that’s “antibacterial” can contribute to antibiotic resistance. On top of all that harm to human health, the phosphates found in dishwashing detergent can cause massive algal blooms in our water systems, messing with the natural ecosystem. Sure makes you want to prioritize non-toxic cleaning products, huh?
How to Find Non-Toxic Cleaning Products
So now that you’re ready to get rid of any harmful conventional cleaning products, you need to know how to find them. First off, become a smart label reader. Check the ingredient list before you buy anything, and steer clear of products with VOCs, fragrance, irritants and flammable ingredients. Also, be sure to keep in mind that terms like “green” or “natural” are not regulated, so you shouldn’t assume something is safe if it’s advertised that way. The best philosophy is just to keep things simple: a few basic ingredients, like fragrance-free soap, borax (aka sodium tetraborate, which is a white powdery mineral that can be used to get rid of stains, mold, and mildew), baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice, can do the job just as well as those dangerous compounds.
Thankfully, there’s also a lot of information online to help you find non-toxic cleaning products. The Organic Consumers Association has some super helpful lists of their vetted non-toxic cleaning products, and the EPA has lists of products that meet their “Safer Choice” requirements. You can also check out the NIH’s Household Products Database to find out what’s in certain products, and then cross-reference those chemicals with OSHA’s database of chemicals to find out how harmful it is. And, of course, there’s the Environmental Working Group, which is one of our favorite references for finding non-toxic cleaning products (and many other products!).
A few more tips: No matter what you use, make sure to keep the area well-ventilated when you’re cleaning inside. You can either replace each conventional product as you finish it, or do a full house detox using the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists!
All-Natural DIY Cleaning Products for your Home
If you don’t want to spend a whole bunch of money on a new slate of non-toxic cleaning products, you’re in luck. It’s actually incredibly easy to make your own safe, healthy household cleaners with basic ingredients you probably already have lying around the house. Here are some easy DIY cleaning products that are great alternatives to pricer non-toxic cleaning products you’ll find in stores:
- All-purpose cleaner: Put 3-5 drops of non-toxic soap, 2 cups of water, and 15 drops each of tea tree and lavender oil into a reusable spray bottle, and shake to mix.
- Soap scum remover: Combine equal parts water and distilled white vinegar in a reusable spray bottle, then add a few tablespoons of organic, non-topic dish soap and shake to mix.
- Wood polish and cleaner: For wood cleaner, mix 1 cup filtered water with 3 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar. For polish, mix 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil with ½ cup fresh lemon juice.
- Oven cleaner: Mix baking soda with water to make a paste, and spread the paste all over your oven, then leave it on for 12 hours. After, wipe the paste off with a damp cloth, then spritz the inside of the oven with distilled white vinegar, then wipe it down again.
- Glass cleaner: Mix distilled white vinegar and water in a reusable spray bottle.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of simplicity. Warm water and soap is often more than enough to make things sparkly clean!
Detoxing Your Car: How a Dirty Car Can Harm Your Health
Another place where many of us spend a lot of time is the car. And, even for the neatest neat freaks among us, it’s easy to neglect cleaning the interior of your car, even if you have a spotless house. Unfortunately, doing this isn’t just harmless slobiness — turns out, a dirty car can actually be really bad for you.
A study from microbiologists at the University of Nottingham took swabs from steering wheels, footwells, and seats, and found E. coli all over most of the cars they tested. While they didn’t report precisely how much of the E. coli and other bugs were present, other studies have found between 283 and 700 bacteria per square centimeter in the average car — and given that the average public toilet has 500 bacteria per square centimeter, this is both scary and really disgusting.
Another study found higher amounts of harmful bacteria in cars where there had been food or drink spilled, as well as in cars of parents with small children. Both of these facts are concerning, since 70% of people eat in their cars, and children are far more susceptible to disease from bacteria (in fact, one strain of E. coli, E. coli 0157, can be lethal for kids).
Non-Toxic Cleaning Products for Your Car
Okay, so you need to clean your car. But, just as with conventional household cleaners, conventional cleaners for your car can contain all sorts of harmful chemicals as we mentioned. You know that chemical smell in the car after you take it to a car wash? Anytime you smell anything extreme like that, you can be sure it’s harmful to your health. And just like your house, there are some all natural DIY cleaning products you can use in your car:
- Distilled white vinegar mixed with water can be used for cleaning your windshield or upholstery. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to vinegar.
- Rubbing alcohol is great for removing stains. You can also mix ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol with a liter of water to get rid of frost on your windshield during the winter.
- Cornstarch can get your car windows sparkly and clean. Just mix ½ cup with 4 cups of water, spray on your windows, and wipe clean.
- Coconut oil is a wonderful conditioner for leather seats.
What’s that Smell? Natural Air Freshener Ideas for Your Car
A few weekends ago, Adrienne found herself in an Uber filled with little tree air fresheners. The windows were closed and one of the little trees was tucked into the AC vent, which was blowing the scent right into her face. After a few breaths, she coughed and rolled down the windows and her driver asked her if she liked the smell. She then began a long conversation with him about the health risks associated with chemical air fresheners and cleaners that you inhale (both in your home and in your car). He seemed genuinely surprised and alarmed, which made her realize that we need a lot more education and awareness around this issue!
Those little tree-shaped air fresheners are basically as ubiquitous as seatbelts in cars (especially if you ride in taxis or Ubers), but unfortunately they’re not harmless either. Recent research has found that many air fresheners react with high levels of ozone from outdoor air to form formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer in humans, and fine particles, which can worsen asthma and other lung disease as well as increase your risk of heart attack or stroke. Many air fresheners also contain phthalates (a 2007 NRDC study tested 14 air fresheners, and all of them tested positive for phthalates, though none listed them as an ingredient), which can cause birth defects and reproductive problems.
Luckily, there are some very effective, DIY natural air freshener alternatives:
- Put a few drops of essential oil on a few clothespins, then clip the clothespins to your car’s air vents.
- Mix a few drops of your favorite essential oil with baking soda in a mason jar, and shake to mix. Then, make a little cardboard lid for the jar, poke holes in the cardboard, and put it in your car.
- Spray essential oil onto a piece of craft foam (cut it into a fun shape if you want!) and hang it from your rearview mirror.
Voila, your car will smell great, with no risk to your health!
Conclusion: Why Non-Toxic Cleaning Products Matter, and How to Detox Your Space Naturally
Keeping your home and car clean is important, but it’s also important to remember that “clean” also includes the products you use. Cleaning your space with many conventional products can be dangerous for you and your loved ones, leading to all sorts of health issues, from headaches to skin irritation to cancer. To keep your space, and your body, clean, just remember these key takeaways:
- Conventional cleaning products aren’t well regulated, and contain many toxic compounds, including VOCs, fragrance, sudsing agents, and many more.
- These chemicals and compounds cause a wide range or health issues, both acute and chronic.
- You can use various online resources (like EWG) to find non-toxic cleaning products, or your can create simple DIY cleaning products that don’t pose a risk to your health.
- Keeping your car dirty is also dangerous to your health, as it can serve as a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
- It’s easy to use simple household ingredients, like vinegar and baking soda, to clean your car.
- Car air fresheners are also dangerous, but there are many ways to use non-toxic essential oils as a natural air freshener.
What are your favorite non-toxic cleaning products or non-toxic cleaning tips? Share them in the comments below!