As we progress into the 21st century, the millennial generation is beginning to take on a greener and cleaner outlook on the environment. Limiting plastic use, increasing the ease of recycling, and even switching to more natural cleaners are some examples of this. However, not all natural cleaners are created equal. Alternative and less toxic cleaning products can vary greatly in effectiveness but also ingredient list. Alternative cleaners often are made from ingredients such as baking soda, liquid soap, and vinegar which are easily found in many households, and many of the ingredients are inexpensive, so you may save money over time. However, it’s important to realize they may require more “elbow grease,” which means you may have to scrub harder.
Although the ingredients in homemade cleaners (e.g., baking soda for scrubbing, vinegar for cutting grease) are safer, not all are nontoxic. Treat them as you would any other cleaner, with caution. I had the pleasure of interviewing local mom Jennifer Korneski this week, who has a Masters in Public Health and is a health educator, on her take on natural cleaners.
Dr. Husain: What made you make the switch to natural cleaners?
Jennifer: My whole life I used national-name brand cleaners with bleach and other harsh chemicals, I literally was the queen of Clorox wipes! As a health educator, I talked with others about physical health like nutrition and exercise but as a consumer regrettably didn’t pay much attention to environmental health, I honestly didn’t think “green” cleaners worked. Shortly after our dog was diagnosed with lymphoma and passed, I had a conversation with a friend who switched to a natural brand, and I realized I could clean effectively and safely.
Dr. Husain: Wow, sometimes it takes events like that to make us really think and re-evaluate our habits...You know, I’m not sure if the two were related, but I think any chance to sit and reflect on our lifestyle is a helpful opportunity. How have you seen the switch to natural cleaners play a change into your family's everyday lifestyle and habits?
Jennifer: I can clean with peace of mind from worrying about fumes lingering in the air that my family could breathe in. For example, the steam from running the dishwasher can contain irritating fumes especially for young children or children with asthma. I run my dishwasher any time of day and don’t have to worry about the steam. Many dishwasher detergents are highly alkaline which is caustic and can burn skin or eyes and if ingested can be fatal.
I’ve gotten my children into the habit of helping to keep their bathroom clean and they can freely use spray to clean the counter without worry of skin or respiratory irritation. I would have never let them use cleaning sprays in the past. Prior to switching, I was the person who would hold my breath while using bleach in the bath tub, open the window and run down stairs. I’ve simply found cleaning is quicker and easier!
Again it’s peace of mind. Knowing that that there are child-safety caps on cleaners doesn’t always mean that a child can’t get into an open bottle, pods or spilled detergent. Before my friend converted her home, her young son ingested Lysol and after two ambulance rides, was saved from a fatal poisoning.
There are a lot of environmental factors that affect our health and are out of our control, but we are thankful that we can control the risks inside our home by our choices.
Dr. Husain: That’s a great point. I think we can drive ourselves crazy with worry and anxiety, especially being a mother in this day and age. I’ve heard of some children with asthma being sensitive to not just dishwasher fumes but also fumes from burning leaves. There’s a wide variety out there, and if you see a flare in your child’s asthma when the dishwasher is running, then it’s totally worth switching detergents. That being said, it’s definitely a long and intimidating list of things we could change in a home to make it safer. What recommendations do you have for someone making the switch to all natural cleaners?
Jennifer: One could start by switching out a few cleaners at a time, but I’d recommend just jumping full in and converting your home.
The most important cleaners to switch out are the ones that are used most frequently like all-purpose cleaners, disinfectants and laundry products, which come into contact with skin and lungs on a regular basis.
From an environmental perspective, when switching out your cleaners note that they should not be tossed into the garbage or in the recycle bin, they need to be boxed and removed with hazard clean up in your township. Certain chemicals cannot be combined with others such as bleach and ammonia, which produces a dangerous chlorine gas. Cleaners that contain phosphates can drain into waterways and can produce excessive algae, which depletes oxygen levels and disrupt aquatic life.
Dr. Husain: So true and thanks for pointing that out to our readers. Safety is key when dealing with these cleaning supplies. Many all-natural cleaners can be ineffective or not as effective as other name brand cleaners. Are there specific ingredients families should look for in products?
Jennifer: This is one of the main reasons families do not make the switch to natural cleaners because many of them on the market do not clean as expected but there are natural brands that are highly effective based on their formula and combination of ingredients.
Here is an example of a few natural ingredients I’ve found effective in the cleaners we use and are worth looking for on labels. Citric acid is an effective alternative to harsh chemicals that dissolve hard water, soap scum, and mineral deposits. Certain essential oils such as from the herb thyme, has been shown to kill viruses and bacteria. Glycolic acid from sugar beets is a safer alternative to use on common fixtures to dissolve hard water, soap scum, and mineral deposits.
Dr. Husain: So glycolic acid from sugar beets seems like a tough ingredient to just “find!” Do you recommend any easy and safe DIY recipe(s) for the home?
Jennifer: I personally do not make my own cleaners although you can certainly research recipes online. If you try essential oils, they have amazing properties but have a lot of safety precautions especially around young children.
I personally love to create simmer pots. They are a great alternative to chemical based air fresheners. A simmer pot is like a stove-top potpourri, that will fill your home will a wonderful aroma. The best part is the fun of creating different combinations and using what you have in your pantry and fridge!
For a warm winter scent, I simmer an orange peel, 4-5 bay leaves, 2 cinnamon sticks and 1 tablespoon of whole cloves with a few cups of water. For a fresh scent, nothing beats the scent of citrus. Combine lemon, lime and orange slices with 4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme. Simmer on low for a few hours, keeping water at a simmer, not a boil.
Dr. Husain: I love that! I agree-the scent of cinnamon and citrus totally gets me! I’m going to have to try that recipe! Jennifer, what’s the best way for people to contact you if they have questions?
Jennifer: Absolutely! Email is best for me: [email protected].
I hope this article was helpful! One important thing to keep in mind is that regardless of which types of cleaners and disinfectants you use, these products are essential to control communicable diseases, they are potentially hazardous to children, especially if these products are in concentrated form. Remember to use caution around cleaners, disinfectants, and sanitizers in any form.
The products must be stored in their original labeled containers and in places inaccessible to young children.
If you do create your own cleaning supplies, even if they’re diluted disinfectants and sanitizers in spray bottles, you should still keep them labeled and stored out of the reach of children.
In general, I recommend cleaning solutions-whether natural or chemical- should not be sprayed when children are nearby to avoid inhalation and exposing skin and eyes. Even ingredients like vinegar cause irritation to the eye, as can baking soda. Baking soda, if ingested in large quantities, can also be dangerous.