Guide to Safer Cleaners and Disinfectants

Excerpted from The Household Detective: Protecting Your Children from Toxins at Home, by Jan Williams Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) (book is available here with membership)

Dangerous Products in the Home

People have learned to keep their houses clean in order to ward off disease and infection. To help us do this, we have created a wide variety of cleaning products and disinfectants. The problem is that our zeal to be clean has gone too far. Today, the cleaner is frequently more dangerous than the things we are trying to clean up. Many common household products contain alcohol, ammonia, bleach, formaldehyde, and lye. These substances can cause nausea, vomiting, inflammation and burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system, and are linked with neurological, liver and kidney damage, blindness, asthma, and cancer.

Fortunately, we can achieve a level of cleanliness, which is both hygienic for children as well as esthetically pleasing for adults without using hazardous household cleaners and disinfectants. You can either make your own household cleaners and disinfectants from a variety of common, less toxic household ingredients, or you can purchase less toxic commercial brands in stores. In addition to making your child’s environment safer, most of these less toxic alternatives will also save you money. And, if your child likes mixing and making things, you can combine housecleaning with a supervised play activity for your child.

Did You Know?

The average American home has 3-10 gallons of hazardous materials.

In 1993, 1.8 million human poisonings were reported to the poison control centers in the U.S. Ninety-two percent of the incidences took place in the home and 60% of the cases involved children under the age of five.

What You Can Do

First, remember what you’re trying to do — make your home hygienic and safe for your children. This means effectively cleaning up food from counters and getting dirt off of your floors. We’re not trying to eradicate the Ebola virus. So, when choosing

a cleaning or disinfecting product, ask yourself, is my child going to be at greater risk from some unknown germ or from a chemical known to harm people?

Cleaning Alternatives

Homemade Remedies and Cleaners

Air Freshener. To absorb odors, place bowls of vinegar, or baking soda around the house. Be sure to keep them out of the reach of children and pets! To make the air more fragrant, use essential oils or boiled herbs. To make boiled herbs, simply choose any herb or spice the smell of which you enjoy and boil it in water for a few minutes until the heat causes it to release its odor. Let it cool a little and put it out in a bowl. You can also add salt to discourage the growth of fungus.

Drain Cleaner. Use hair and food traps to keep the drain from getting clogged. If it does become clogged, try the following recipe. First, pour about 1/2 cup of baking soda down the sink. Then add at least a cup of vinegar. It will start to fizz. Put the cover over the drain. Finish up by rinsing the drain with a mixture of boiling water and salt. You might have to repeat the whole procedure more than once.

Toilet Bowl Cleaner. Sprinkle baking soda around the inside of the toilet bowl and then clean with a toilet brush. Also try letting white vinegar sit for a few minutes in the bowl before cleaning with the toilet brush.

Oven Cleaner. Make a paste of baking soda and water. First wipe away any residual grease. Then scratch off burnt spots with a scouring brush or steel wool. Finally, apply the paste and scrub.

Laundry Detergents. By adding baking soda, you can reduce the amount of commercial detergent you use substantially. If you’re using liquid detergent, add about 1/2 cup of baking soda at the beginning of the wash. If you’re using powdered detergent, add 1/2 cup of baking soda during the rinse cycle. Baking soda softens the water, thus increasing the potency of your detergent. When buying your commercial detergent, it is better to use a biodegradable, less toxic, phosphate free brand.

Window Cleaner. Put 3 tbs. vinegar per 1 qt. water in a spray bottle.

Automatic Dishwashing Detergent. As you pile your dishes up in the sink, sprinkle them with baking soda. Then, later on when you put them in the dishwasher you can use a lot less commercial detergent. It’s the some basic idea as with the laundry detergent.

Carpet Cleaner. To absorb big spills, spread cornmeal all over the spill. Wait about 15 minutes, then vacuum it up. For stains, put 1/4 cup biodegradable liquid soap with 1/3 cup water into a blender to make a foam. Put the foam on the stain and rub. Finish up with a splash of vinegar.

Kitchen Cleanser. Just use baking soda on non-scratch surfaces, and a vinegar and water mixture on other surfaces.

Tub and Tile Cleaner. Mix 1 and 2/3 cup baking soda, 1/2 cup liquid soap, 1/2 cup water, and finally, 2 tbs. vinegar (if you add the vinegar too early it will react with the baking soda). Then apply, wipe, and scrub.

Shoe Polish. Use a little olive oil.

Disinfectant. Make a solution of 3 tbs. liquid soap, 2 cups water, and 20-30 drops of tea tree oil, which is a natural disinfectant.

Metal Polish

Brass and Copper. Cut a lemon in half, sprinkle it with salt and rub the lemon on whatever needs to be polished. Buff with a cloth to remove excess lemon juice.

Silver. Put a sheet of aluminum foil into a plastic or glass bowl. Sprinkle the foil with salt and baking soda, then fill the bowl with warm water. Just soak your silver in the bowl and the tarnish will migrate to the aluminum foil. Finally, dry and buff your silver.

Fabric Softener. Add 2 cups white vinegar and a few drops of an essential oil to your rinse cycle. WARNING! Vinegar can cause colors to fade a little.

Fragrance. If you are not chemically sensitive or allergic, essential plant oils can be a pleasing addition to homemade cleaners. A few drops of these fragrant oils can enhance our perception of cleanliness.

Commercial Cleaners and Disinfectants

If you don’t feel like making your own cleaners, there are a number of less toxic alternatives, which can be found at organic and natural grocery stores, co-ops, and many larger conventional stores as well. Reading the label is always a good way to familiarize yourself with the substances in a product.

Organic and biodegradable products are generally the safest. Natural products tend to be the next safest, with conventional cleaners and disinfectants being the least safe.

WARNING: Storage of Cleaners and Disinfectants

Whatever you choose to do, whether it be making your own cleaners or purchasing them in stores, remember that many products can be harmful to children and pets if ingested, even baking soda and vinegar. So, remember to keep all cleaners and disinfectants safely out of the reach of children.