Five Eco-Friendly Household Cleaning Products That Actually Work

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It’s finally spring, and we all know what that means: time to break out all the cleansers. The simple approach is to spray, spray or rub a number of common cleaning products onto a home’s walls, windows and floors, wipe them down and – poof – an instant shine.

Unfortunately, dusting and degreasing a living space may not be so simple. According to a recent study by consumer advocacy group Choice, many of the most popular cleaning solutions, including options from Pledge and Ajax, work no better than tap water.

It’s not that water is such a good disinfectant, it’s more that common cleaners don’t necessarily do much. Choice’s method was to coat the ceramic tiles in grime, then use mechanical scrubbers to see which products removed the most detritus in 40 scrubs (which, let’s be honest, is probably more laborious than most). The water removed 40% of the dirt, as much as Pledge’s Clean It Multi-Surface Spray and more than Ajax Floor Cleaner.

The thought of spending money on useless products is bad enough. Worse still: the sad fact that many of these cleaners are also loaded with toxic chemicals, which are scary enough on their own (hence the skulls and crossbones on the packaging) but much worse when they are combined. For example, even small amounts of vinegar mixed with bleach will produce throat-choking chlorine gas. According to the American Lung Association, air freshener fragrances can form carcinogenic formaldehyde when they come into contact with ozone.

Perhaps surprisingly, Choice does not endorse eco-cleaners as an alternative. “Generally what we find with eco-products [is] they tend to be quite expensive and they tend not to work as well as those filled with heavy chemicals,” Choice representative Ashley Iredale told the Guardian newspaper just after the study was published. “It’s worth doing your research because very often you’re spending a lot of money on something that does nothing.”

Canadian sustainability advocate Candice Batista, the national environmental expert for the Marilyn Denis show, agrees that research is needed to find effective, non-toxic alternatives. Apps such as Think Dirty, GoodGuide and the EWG Database offer consumers information about specific brands, their ingredients and their claims, she says. “When shopping, it’s also important to learn how to read labels. Most products that contain the word “fragrance” are not green, so avoid them. If a product claims to be biodegradable, there must be an official biodegradability designation. It will look like this: OECD 301 D.”

Batista also recommends a less is more approach. “We don’t need as many cleansers as we think, and we tend to overuse them,” she says. “We became obsessed with killing germs and thinking that if the house smells like bleach, it should be clean. It is not the case at all.”

For serious DIYers, she recommends making a good all-purpose cleaner from a simple solution of 2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 teaspoon liquid castile soap, and 11/2 cups water. “I use it on the stove and kitchen and bathroom sinks,” she says. “You can add essential oils if you want, for a scent.”

For everyone else, here are Batista’s five favorite eco-cleaners that actually do their job.

Disinfectant Cleaner Spray: Seventh Generation Disinfectant

California-based Seventh Generation makes one of the few sanitizers that is also food safe. Because the ingredients are all naturally derived, including coconut extract, lemongrass oil, and a cornstarch-based water softener, it not only smells fresh, but isn’t toxic – reassuring for parents worried about leaving marks on kitchen counters or tables. $4,

Multi-Surface Cleaner: Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds

Sal Suds Certified Biodegradable All-Purpose Cleaner has a similar scent to many pine soaps. But the aroma comes from natural fir and spruce extracts, not synthetic fragrances. It’s also gentle on skin (though dries out a bit if left on too long), while useful for a number of cleaning jobs including dishes, laundry, windows (no streaks ), even makeup brushes (it’s certified cruelty-free by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics and shouldn’t hurt your eyes). $10,

Scouring powder: Bon Ami

For 134 years, Bon Ami has been making scouring powder – an abrasive scrub that removes dirt from cracks between tiles, dirty bathtubs or coarse kitchen utensils. Their recipe is simple and includes only five all-natural ingredients such as baking soda and crushed limestone. $3,

Dishwasher tablets: Ecover Automatic

Ecover’s plant-based, fragrance-free and phosphate-free biodegradable cleaning tablets have been proven in independent testing to remove just about any type of food scraps, including peanut butter, baked on cheese and leftover burnt soup. Bonus: The packaging is recyclable, making it more sustainable than alternatives wrapped in single-use plastics. $7.80, that right.

Stain Remover: Nellie’s Wow Stick

For taking care of stains on clothes and upholstery, Nellie’s Wow Stick is an eco-friendly alternative to other stain remover sticks and pens. Instead of an ingredient list that reads like a chemistry experiment, it’s made with natural, biodegradable elements like orange peel oil, glycerin, and palm kernel extract. $11,

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