Guide to a safer and low waste cleaning routine

There's nothing better than the feeling of a clean home. Or at least I think so. A clean feeling home, to me, used to be the smell of bleach and air freshener. Now, I can feel good about my home being cleaned in a safer and healthier way for me and for the environment. I've ditched harmful chemicals and convenient, single-use products for a simpler cleaning routine. 

I hope you can use this comprehensive guide to slowly make similar changes in your home.

Ingredients of concern

There's no way a bright blue liquid or something that burns your nostrils when you clean is safe to use. If you're trying to live more sustainably, the first thing to go should be the harmful chemicals used to clean your home. Not only would you be preventing these chemicals from entering our atmosphere, our soil, our groundwater, or our waterways, but you'll be preventing them from polluting your home and your body.

There are many companies taking advantage of the sustainable movement and using greenwashing tactics to sell you on a product. Greenwashing is when a business or individual attempts to pass something as environmentally friendly when they have no evidence-based proof that it is at all. They'll often use words like "green", "eco-friendly", "environmentally friendly", "all-natural" to help the consumer feel good about purchasing.

But don't be fooled. Arm yourself with the knowledge to decipher between those false claims. It's not by any means easy, especially because companies only have to list ingredients of known concern as listed by the EPA. A great place to start is to familiarize yourself with certain harmful ingredients. The list could go on and on, but here just a few major ones to look out for.

Phthalates

In terms of cleaning products, phthalates are fragrance carriers and are typically found in cleaners with the listed ingredient 'fragrance' such as air fresheners (1). There are studies that have found phthalates to act as endocrine (hormone) disrupters in humans and in animals and some studies have linked them to asthma (2). Look for products that say phthalate-free and avoid mysterious and vague fragrance ingredients. 

If you're looking to eliminate odors, baking soda will do the trick. Essential oils are also a great alternative to fragrance when used correctly and safely. Please know that there are certain essential oils that are not safe to use around pets or babies. I'm no expert on them, but check out this article by Healthline to read more about the topic.

Chlorine Bleach

Used in many household cleaning agents, chlorine bleach is a corrosive chemical and is hazardous to our health and to the environment. When in contact with our respiratory system and eyes, it can be irritating and even cause cell death. Chlorine gas can be fatal and is created when chlorine bleach is mixed with certain other chemicals (3)

When introduced to our waterways, chlorine bleach is toxic to freshwater fish and invertebrates. When it hits our soil and water, it can react with organic compounds, creating carcinogenic chemicals. Additionally, there is the potential to raise the pH of our soil (4)

Safer alternatives to chlorine bleach are oxygen bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and lemon juice. 
Hydrogen dioxide is considered a chemical disinfectant by the CDC, just make sure you keep it in a dark container so that it does not lose its stability and usefulness (5).

Ammonia

Often found in glass cleaners and polishing agents for jewelry and bathroom fixtures (1). Ammonia is naturally occurring but can also be manmade. When it finds its way into our waterways, it can be damaging to aquatic life and can also harm vegetation. Over accumulation or fertilization in the soil can lead to leaching into bodies of water. Higher concentrations can cause skin, eye, and respiratory system irritation, as well as burns when in direct contact (6)

Try cleaning your windows and mirrors with a water-vinegar solution instead of commercial glass cleaners. My lemon-vinegar all-purpose cleaner works wonders on my windows and mirrors as well as on my bathroom fixtures. There are also many tutorials on cleaning your jewelry with some foil, boiling water, baking soda, salt, and dish soap (do your research on different kinds of metals and stones).

Aerosols

Technically not an ingredient, but aerosol spray cans are still something to avoid despite their confusing history. Once prominently containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), aerosol sprays are now 90% clear of these particular ozone-depleting chemicals thanks to heavy regulation. However, they are now comprised of hydrocarbons and compressed gases that are linked to global warming and also emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) further contributing to "asthma-inducing smog" (7).

Sodium Hydroxide

Also known as caustic soda and lye. It is used in the manufacturing of many soaps and household cleaners and also an active ingredient in drain cleaners as it helps to convert grease into water-soluble soap (8). It is highly corrosive and any poisoning and/or high exposure can lead to hair loss, eye damage, respiratory issues, or gastrointestinal burns (9). There's no major environmental concern that I was able to find but there are certainly safer options for drain cleaners health-wise. A drain snake to manually remove hair and build-up works well. I usually will do that in combination with pouring baking soda and vinegar down the drain, letting it sit until the bubbles stop, then pouring boiling water down to rinse.

Phenols

Phenols are naturally occurring but heavily manufactured in the United States. There are also many derivatives or types of phenols. They're used in disinfectant cleaning solutions (i.e Lysol) and can cause severe skin damage when in concentrated forms among other health concerns (10). Cat owners should be aware that your cats are highly susceptible to the toxic effects of phenols due to a deficiency of a certain enzyme (11). Phenols are also toxic to aquatic life and can accumulate in the environment (12)

Phosphates

Mainly used as water softeners in laundry and dishwashing detergents. They are not considered toxic or carcinogenic to humans but have some environmental implications. Excess phosphates in our waterways can lead to eutrophication or excess nutrients that can cause algal blooms. Algal blooms can be detrimental to ecosystems and deplete the oxygen supply in bodies of water. Look for detergents that are labeled as phosphate-free (13).

There's a plethora of chemicals out there to consider and even more confusing and conflicting information on the internet. There is an app called Think Dirty you can download on your phone to help decipher the environmental and human health safety of cleaning and personal care products. You can look up or scan a product in your home and see what their rating of the product is in terms of its chemical makeup. 

**Before you rush to ditch any of your cleaning products, be sure to read their labels for specific disposal instructions. Earth911 provides some more information on that here

Third-party certifications

Another way to ensure a safer and/or better cleaning product is to look for third-party certifications on labels. These certifications are another way to ensure certain environmental standards but it's good to know that some are more reputable than others. Some well-known certifications to look out for include...

  • EPA Safer Choice helps identify safer choices for products that are better for our health and for the environment
  • Green Seal which certifies products and services and ensures "they have met or exceeded leadership-level, life-cycle-based criteria for sustainability"
  • ECOLOGO® utilizes "lifecycle-based environmental certifications that indicate a product has undergone rigorous scientific testing, exhaustive auditing or both"
  • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certifications indicate "environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests". This would be a good certification to look for on paper packaging. 
  • SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) also sets standards for sustainable forest management and talks about labeling and claims here

Bulk and concentrated cleaning products

When it comes to solid municipal waste, cleaning products come with a lot of it these days. First, there's the idea that we need a different product for every surface. So with that idea comes a plastic bottle or paperboard box for each product. Why not simplify things and also make sure you're generating as little package waste as possible. Buying cleaning products in bulk or concentrated amounts is a perfect way to do so. 

Here are the products I purchase in bulk amounts and/or in concentrate:

Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate) 

Not just for baking! It can be used to clean and deodorize your sinks, bathtub, oven, stovetop, toilet, your laundry, and just about anywhere. You can use it to unclog your drains, make pastes for grout cleaner, and to clean your jewelry. It provides a nice grit to clean up caked-on messes. Can be found in a large cardboard box at most grocery stores in the laundry aisle. 

Super Washing Soda (sodium carbonate)

Similar to baking soda but different. You can't use it to bake or make toothpaste (and should never ingest), but you can use it to clean just about anything around your home. It cuts through grease and is helpful in boosting your laundry detergent's ability to remove stains. Also found in a large cardboard box at most grocery stores in the laundry aisle.

Castile Soap

Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 liquid Castile soap has, well, 18 different uses around the home. As far as cleaning goes, it can be made into an all-purpose spray for cleaning granite and marble countertops and as dish soap. It's concentrated, so it's important to dilute. Proper dilution and application ideas can be found on their website. You can purchase Dr. Bronner's in a 1 gallon, 100% post-consumer recycled bottle at most grocery stores now, but more likely at Whole Foods-type stores. 

Distilled White Vinegar

Lasts me a very long time and can be bought in 1-gallon sizes at most grocery stores. It can be used in many ways; from softening your laundry to cleaning sprays and glass cleaners. While it's not registered as a disinfectant by the EPA, it does have antimicrobial properties and works well together with lemon juice in that regard (14)

All of these products are biodegradable, multipurpose, easy to find, and are relatively cheap, especially when you don't have to buy them very often. With any mineral or chemical, I know there are some concerns with the mining process of nahcolite and trona to create sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate. You can read more about it on Treehugger. Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap does contain organic palm kernel oil, but they are very transparent about their fair trade source in Ecuador.  

DIY cleaning alternatives

If you have a little bit of extra time on your hands (doesn't take much), you can use those bulk and concentrate products to create your own safer, cleaning alternatives. Apart from my dishwasher detergent, I make all my own cleaning products. 

Disclaimer: I am not a chemist and don't claim to be one. I have adapted my own recipes from many like-minded blogs and articles found over the past few years. Try these alternatives at your own risk and don't mix anything with commercial cleaners such as chlorine bleach. Just because these ingredients are "all-natural" does not mean they can cause some level of harm or irritation when used improperly. 

Lemon Vinegar All-Purpose Cleaning Spray

I use this to clean my countertops, outer surfaces of my toilet, my floors, and other non-porous surfaces around my house. Check out my post on how to make it here

Sink/tub/toilet/grout Scrubbing Cleanser

One part Super Washing Soda to one part baking soda. Sprinkle on the surface you intend to clean, add some water and start scrubbing. Rinse down completely with water. Wear gloves and make sure the area is well ventilated, as sodium carbonate can be irritating to your skin and eyes and shouldn't be ingested or inhaled. 

Glass Cleaner

Use the lemon vinegar all-purpose spray or mix one part vinegar with one part water. 

Dish Soap

I'm generally a lazy measurer and just dilute a little bit of liquid Castile soap with water. Lisa Bronner suggests a 1:10 dilution (Castile: water). You can add in a couple of drops of essential oil if you like, but Dr. Bronner's sells different scents. If I do add anything to my cleaning sprays, I stick to lavender, lemon, sweet orange, or lemongrass. 

Single-use cleaning items 

Consumers are heavily marketed to with convenience. Who wouldn't want to save as much time as possible by grabbing a pre-made rag and wiping things down? As always, that convenience comes a heavy price.

The United States uses 13 billions pounds of paper towels each year (15). Cutting down trees and using our earth's resources is not worth the convenience of these wasteful, single-use items. Old towels, cotton t-shirts, bar mop towels, flour sack towels, and literally any absorbent cotton or bamboo cloth can be used in place of paper towels. They can be thrown in the wash like normal towels and you can wash them in hot water to disinfect. I use different color towels in my kitchen and in my bathroom to make sure they stay separated. 
I use these for everything but my bathroom
These are for bathroom use only

Disinfectant wipes
are another wasteful, single-use item made from synthetic fibers and harmful chemicals. Use your cloth towels in combination with a vinegar spray (or safer commercial spray) to wipe down surfaces.


Single-use dust wipes come in various forms that even get in those hard to reach places! But all super unnecessary. Microfiber cloths are wonderful at dry dusting and can be thrown in the wash with your reusable un-paper towels.

Single-use dry/wet mop covers are in the same boat. Check out these reusable alternatives I use over my Swiffer instead in the picture below (purchased on Etsy years ago). They are fleece on one side to trap hair and dust on my floors, and terry cloth on the other side to use as a wet mop. Many shops on Etsy handmake and sell these for larger Swiffer sizes and for their wet mops too. I throw them in the wash with my towels when I'm done using and that's it!


The fabric wings fit perfectly over the Swiffer
This is the wet mop side

Sustainable cleaning tools

When it comes time to replace your worn out sponges, scrub brushes, toilet bowl brushes, plungers, 
etc, look for items that are made of renewable resources and/or are recyclable or compostable (bamboo) at the end of their lives. These purchases may be more pricey than your typical plastic ones, but they will last longer and create less landfill waste if they are recyclable or compostable. There's no need to ditch all of your plastic tools all at once, that defeats the purpose of low/zero waste.

Bamboo, silicone, and aluminum are all examples of these. Zero waste shops are popping up all over the place and most have online stores where you can find such items (shipped in minimal packaging too), making it much much easier to find these alternatives. Package Free Shop and Wild Minimalist are two of my favorites. I'll be the first to admit I have gone the cheaper and faster route to order things on Amazon but supporting small or local businesses is best for everyone.


My metal scrubber for pots/pans and silicone sponge. Both dishwasher-safe, reusable, long-lasting


Water and energy usage

Finally, it's just as important (if not more important) to reduce the usage of water and energy while cleaning as it is to reduce packaging waste. Saving water and energy is not only helping our earth, but it is also helping your wallet by reducing those utility bills. Here are a few tips and tricks I've learned along the way to do just that:
  • Limit water usage when washing dishes by turning off the faucet in between scrubbing. If you have a newer model dishwasher, simply scrape your food waste off and skip the rinsing. Most newer dishwashers work very well at cleaning food residue (especially those certified by Energy Star) and this method can save about 5,000 gallons of water a year (16)
  • Limit energy usage when washing dishes by using cold water to rinse and by running the dishwasher when full. Hot water uses energy to heat up and if you don't fill up your dishwasher often, you can try running just on the rinse cycle.
  • Fill up a cup of water to rinse your sinks and tub rather than continuously running the faucet.
  • Try sweeping and dry mopping more often than vacuuming to save on energy.
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There's a lot to be conscious of when it comes to cleaning your home. These changes and swaps won't happen overnight, and shouldn't happen overnight. The key to making lifestyle changes like this is taking it slow and making small changes over a long period of time. Don't give up and lean on me for support if you need!

Relevant posts

References

  1. Experience Life. https://experiencelife.com/article/8-hidden-toxins-whats-lurking-in-your-cleaning-products/
  2. Toxic-Free Future. https://toxicfreefuture.org/science/chemicals-of-concern/phthalates/ 
  3. NCBI, Thomas Benzoni; Jason D. Hatcher. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441921/
  4. USDA. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Chlorine%203%20TR.pdf
  5. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/disinfection-methods/chemical.html#Hydrogen
  6. Scottish Environment Protection Agency. https://apps.sepa.org.uk/spripa/Pages/SubstanceInformation.aspx?pid=1
  7. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-aerosols-still-bad/
  8. Chemicalsafetyfacts.org. https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/sodium-hydroxide/
  9. Naturalpedia. https://www.naturalpedia.com/lye-toxicity-side-effects-diseases-and-environmental-impacts.html
  10. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=146&tid=27
  11. Diane D. Addie, et. al. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1098612X15588450
  12. Scottish Environment Protection Agency. http://apps.sepa.org.uk/spripa/Pages/SubstanceInformation.aspx?pid=81
  13. Safe Household Cleaning. https://www.safehouseholdcleaning.com/phosphates-cleaning-products/
  14. Nilgun H. Budak, et. al. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1750-3841.12434
  15. Ocean Conservancy. https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2012/10/12/paper-towels-whats-the-big-deal-anyway/
  16. Energy Star.   https://www.energystar.gov/products/appliances/dishwashers/dishwasher_hand_washing









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