A spotless house is deeply satisfying. But when that cleanliness comes at the cost of our health and the environment, it loses some of its luster.
Conventional cleaning products containing ingredients such as ammonia and chlorine can cause respiratory and skin irritation. They can also increase indoor air pollution by releasing hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Not all VOCs are hazardous, but some, such as phthalates and benzene, are linked to cancer and reproductive issues. Research published this November found that people in the cleaning industry are 50% more likely to develop asthma and other lung diseases because of regular exposure to harmful chemicals.
When washed down the drain, various chemicals from conventional cleaners, including 1,4-Dioxane (which makes cleaners sudsy), phosphates (found in various household cleaners) and phthalates (often used in scented products), can pollute waterways, harming wildlife and humans alike.
Packaging waste is another ecohazard. It’s estimated that somewhere around 700m to 1bn plastic laundry jugs are discarded annually in the US; a 2020 survey found that 468m spray bottles from cleaning products are discarded annually in the UK; and only 9% of all plastic gets recycled (only to spew microplastics, which also contain toxic chemicals, in the process).
There is good news: more plastic-free packaging options are becoming available, and consumers aware of the potential dangers in cleaning products are “ratcheting up the pressure on companies to prove their formulas are safe”, said Samara Geller, the senior director of cleaning science at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The green household cleaning market is growing quickly, from $260bn in 2021 to a projected $398bn by 2027, and green cleaning products have been found to release fewer hazardous VOCs than their conventional counterparts. “More companies are realizing that using harmful ingredients and being vague about what’s used to make products is eroding public trust,” said Geller.
Still, maintaining demand for ingredient safety and transparency is crucial, especially in light of a bill introduced in Congress in October, which, if passed, would narrow manufacturers’ responsibility for explaining what ingredients are in their products.
Here’s how you can make your cleaning routine more eco-friendly.
Look for products with third-party environmental certifications
Marketing terms like “green” and “natural” can be misleading. Look for third-party certifications, which can offer reliable guidance on what’s really in a product, and whether it’s safe and eco-friendly.
Certifications with stringent, comprehensive criteria include the EWG’s Verified label, given to products formulated without chemicals, fragrances and VOCs harmful to human and environmental health, says Geller. The Ecocert label, which indicates a product was made responsibly and meets high international environmental and human health standards, and the Safer Choice symbol, which indicates that a product complies with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s environment and health standards, are also reliable.
When in doubt, it can be helpful to scrutinize a product’s ingredient list; usually, the fewer the ingredients and the more recognizable they are, the better. SmartLabel, a digital tool, offers access to detailed, up-to-date product information online and sometimes through a QR code on a product package, and the EWG’s Healthy Living App can be a quick way to check product ratings on the go. The American Cleaning Institute’s Cleaning Chemistry Catalog is a huge online database of household cleaning product ingredients and their safety levels.
Choose plastic-free concentrates to reduce emissions and prevent waste
Concentrated cleaners, designed to be diluted with water by consumers at home, use less packaging. This reduces the amount of material that ends up in landfills. Compact concentrates also take up less space during shipping, allowing more product to be transported at once.
“Even beyond sustainability, it costs less, it saves space and it saves time, because you can have more sitting in your cupboard,” said Katie Gamble, who runs the eco-friendly cleaning supply company Nature Bee. “You can have 16 bathroom cleaner replacement tablets in the space of one bottle.”
Nonetheless, if your concentrated cleaning products are packaged in plastic, they’re still likely contributing to landfill waste and microplastic pollution. Try a different option: the company Blueland sells a plant-based soap powder that can be shaken from its refillable silicone container onto a sponge and used to wash dishes, sinks and tile. Other brands sell dry formulas that can be mixed with water in repurposed empty bottles. Etee’s unscented dish soap concentrates come in beeswax tubes, while Nature Bee offers hand soap, multipurpose cleaner and powder-to-gel dish soap concentrates in paper packets. One cube of French-milled solid dish soap can replace three bottles of conventional liquid dish soap while looking much more chic on your countertop.
If you prefer to buy liquid cleaners, the blogger Celia Ristow has compiled a list of zero-waste grocery stores across the US, where you can top up repurposed containers with a range of lower-footprint options.
Pair green cleaning products with eco-friendly supplies
Cleaning tools like rubber gloves, sponges, plastic scrub brushes and paper towels are disposable and non-biodegradable, and can contribute to environmental issues. For example, the production of paper towels is water-intensive, contributes to deforestation and through bleaching creates the chemical byproduct dioxin, a highly toxic environmental pollutant and a carcinogen.
The best cleaning tools are made with biodegradable materials, and are designed to be longer-lasting than their conventional counterparts. Swedish dishcloths are an example; made from cellulose fiber and cotton (check for sustainable sourcing), these reusable cloths harbor less bacteria than sponges, don’t shed microfibres and can replace 17 rolls of paper towels each. If you’re loath to give up paper towels because you use them as napkins, consider investing in a pack of everyday organic cotton napkins – cloth’s not just for fancy dinner parties. For something closer to a traditional dish sponge, consider ones made from burlap or loofah, or heftier palm-fiber scrubbers, all of which can be composted at the ends of their lifespans.
Washing-up gloves are usually made out of latex, an organic substance, mixed with chemical plasticizers like phthalates that prevent them from biodegrading. Eco-conscious alternatives that use pure natural rubber without these synthetic additives break down more efficiently when you’re finished with them. Just be wary of bioplastic gloves; they may be made with biodegradable materials such as cornstarch, but research has found that, post-manufacturing, they can contain as many harmful chemicals as conventional plastics.
When it comes to mops and brooms, look for plastic-free handles made from built-to-last materials like steel and sustainably harvested wood, and fabric mop pads that can go into the wash, not just the trash.