Q: I'm trying to move away from mainstream cleaning products, but does that mean I'm left with nothing but vinegar and baking soda?
A: Decades of marketing have taught us that your house isn't clean unless you can see a bald man reflected in your floors and your children can eat out of your toilet bowl. And of course, those grimy dishes, tubs and toilets have to sparkle with one easy stroke!
The result is we've got cupboards stocked with toxic soups (think: chemical whiteners, colourants, perfumes, ozone-killing volatile organic compounds and petrochems) that are often the most dangerous products in our homes. Anyone with asthma or chemical sensitivities can tell you just how harmful these products can be to your health, but what about the ecosystem?
Sure, many of the ingredients in chemical cleansers break down into harmless substances, but others make it through the city's water treatment process to wreak havoc on our waterways. An American study found that nearly 70 per cent of streams tested positive for hormone-mimicking detergent metabolites.
But it's hard for you to tell which bottle or spray is better or worse, since most labels don't list any ingredients at all, though there are some clues. Products with the word "warning" somewhere on the bottle are moderately hazardous. "Caution" means slightly toxic. Stay away from anything labelled "danger," "poison" or "corrosive" - they're the most toxic.
The ecological nightmare is only compounded when you factor in the growing trend towards disposable cleaning wipes, mops, even toilet wands that are clogging our landfills unnecessarily.
If you're looking for a good, all-natural, truly eco-friendly all-purpose cleaner but want the ease of the ready-to-spray types, there's plenty of choice out there. Seventh Generation ($4.99 at Big Carrot on Danforth), Ecover (from $5.79 at Noah's on Yonge or Bloor and Big Carrot), Nature Clean (from $4.89 at the Carrot, Noah's and Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor) or Citra-Solv (from $5.89 at the above stores) all make all-purpose sprays. Concentrated Simple Green All Purpose/Degreaser isn't quite so pure (note: it does contain ammonia-based ingredients) but is still safer than comparable cleaners with bleaches and solvents, and markets itself as non-toxic and biodegradeable (from $4.99/L at Noah's and Canadian Tire).
Skip all the ammonia and, in some cases, the nerve-damaging butyl cellosolve found in mainstream glass cleaners. Water with vinegar or lemon juice works fine for windows, as does Nature Clean's All Natural glass and window cleaner (from $3.19 at Grassroots, Noah's and Big Carrot).
Or bypass cleaning products altogether with the Blue Wonder cloth. Its patented microfibre knit (half polyester, half nylon) is ultra absorbent and anti-bacterial, and enables you to clean windows as well as sinks, stoves, pots, TVs and pretty much any surface you can think of without any cleaners. Just wipe and rub (order online at www.bluewondercloth.com or call 1-888-821-2583). Mabu makes a similar all-purpose, naturally bacteria resistant cloth from vegetable cellulose pulp ($3.99 at Big Carrot).
Corrosive toilet bowl cleaners are some of the most toxic products in your repertoire. No need, when even for tough jobs you can pour in a cup of borax and a quarter-cup of vinegar, let it sit for a few hours, then scrub. If you want the ready-made kind, Ecover Toilet Bowl Cleaner works well (from $6.59 at Noah's and Big Carrot).
Noxious oven cleaners (full of lye and corrosive sodium hydroxide) can be replaced with Nature Clean Barbecue and Oven Cleaner (from $5.39 at the Carrot, Grassroots and Noah's). Or try soaking the charred surface overnight with baking soda and water, then scrub with baking soda and a soapy sponge.
Most conventional dishwashing liquids and powders are petroleum-based. Some even contain hormone disrupters. And while most laundry detergents and dish soaps stopped using ecosystem-disrupting phosphates years ago, some dishwasher detergents still contain these potential carcinogens. Ecover, Nature Clean and Seventh Generation all make great dishwashing soaps and/ or powders. One small, completely unscientific study found Ecover's suds cut through grease the best (from $8.19 at Big Carrot and Noah's).
And of course, no discussion of modern cleaning agents is complete unless we face up to our addiction to anti-bacterial er, everything. Please, people, let it go. Exposure to household germs isn't a bad thing, but it is a bad when those bug-fighting ingredients make their way into 58 per cent of our streams. If you must banish bacteria, try Benefect Disinfectant Spray - it's 100 per cent plant-based, with no added dyes or fragrances. And it kills 99 per cent of germs (from $4.99 at Grassroots and Noah's).
Whatever you do, try to buy in bulk and look for concentrated formulas that you dilute at home in order to conserve packaging.
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