Going Green: Naturally clean
inset: wellness educators and entrepreneurs, Betty Kern and Cindy Coons
Think about all of the cleaning products in your bathroom, under your kitchen sink, and around your house. Bleach, toilet cleaner, air freshener, soap, laundry supplies, spray bottles of window, bathroom, and all-purpose cleaners—the list goes on and on. We use these products to keep our homes clean and protect our families from germs, but troubling reports indicate that many of these products might be doing the opposite—releasing toxins into the air and, in some cases, making us sick.
More than 85,000 commercial chemicals have been developed in the past sixty years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But typically, when health testing is done, it’s only performed on a single chemical, not the cocktail of substances that make up any of those cleaners under your sink. Further, the EPA asserts that the air inside your home is two to five times more polluted than the air outside, and releases from household cleaners is a contributing factor.
Five years ago, Rochester mother Cindy Coons’ daughter, who has asthma, was having coughing fits almost every night. “My husband would bleach her white sheets, and she would cough at night,” says Coons, who was surprised to learn the harmful effects everyday products can have. “Once we switched to a natural cleaner—now I actually make my own detergent—her coughing was reduced. Then we found other things around the house—like her toothpaste had blue dye in it—that would cause coughing fits. All these little things you don’t realize you’re putting into your mouth or you’re using can be affecting your health and your ability to stay well.”
For instance, offers Coons, chlorine gas—which is emitted when bleach or other cleaners containing chlorine mix with other common chemicals like ammonia—was first used as a weapon during World War I. Air fresheners contain a number of known toxins, including formaldehyde and phenol.
“The chemicals sprayed on surfaces remain after the surfaces dry, and can be absorbed into your body,” she says.
Perhaps worst of all are products that claim to be “natural,” “pure,” or “healthy”—terms that are not as heavily regulated as claims like “organic.” Many products that profess to be natural are, in fact, just as unhealthy as those that don’t. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on laundry detergents containing sodium laureth sulfate, a chemical compound classified by the EPA as a probable carcinogen known to cause skin and eye irritation. Whether the chemical was derived from plants or petroleum, it’s the same chemical—with the same consequences.
Today, Coons is a wellness educator and entrepreneur who promotes the benefits of essential oils and natural solutions. “People don’t know what they don’t know,” she says. “If they’re willing to learn about what else is out there and incorporate it, it can be a life-changer.”
One of the things Coons and colleague Betty Kern demonstrate in their classes is how to easily make natural replacements for these harmful chemicals. “We overcomplicate cleaning,” Coons says. “They market us a toilet bowl cleaner, a spray cleaner, an oven cleaner, a soft scrub, and every single thing is supposed to have its own use. Why? Because they want you to spend money, when in fact it’s very simple and healthier to use natural solutions.”
A shopping list of items common in recipes for healthier alternatives includes baking soda, borax, castile soap, club soda, Epsom salts, Fels Naptha soap, glycerin, washing soda, and white vinegar. (Borax does have slight toxicity, but is generally regarded as safe for cleaning by organizations like the EPA and Environmental Working Group.) A final item is essential oils—natural oils distilled from plants, each with their own antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, or antibiotic properties. Common oils found in natural cleaning recipes include eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, lime, mints, orange, and melaleuca, also known as tea tree.
Lemon oil is used for many cleaning recipes because it neutralizes odors, kills bacteria, and fights illnesses. Tea tree oil is known for its strong antiseptic properties and its ability to cleanse and rejuvenate. Peppermint is cooling and invigorating, while grapefruit oil is a great disinfectant.
Because they are highly concentrated, essential oils must be diluted when cleaning, meaning a few drops can go a long way in a recipe—and in your budget. Best of all, these oils are natural and toxin-free, and your preferences can dictate which ones you use in your recipes. \
“I have a twelve- and a ten-year-old, and I certainly don’t want to be doing the cleaning all the time,” says Coons. “What’s really nice about incorporating these natural alternatives is that I can give them a list of chores to do and they can actually do them by themselves and I know they won’t hurt themselves.”
To get started, try some of the recipes here (courtesy of Cindy Coons and doTERRA Essential Oils):
Toilet Bowl Cleaner
- 1 cup borax
- ¼ cup vinegar or lemon juice
- 6 drops lemon essential oil
Pour into toilet bowl, and let rest two hours. Scrub and flush.
- 1 tsp borax
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- ½ tsp castile soap
- 2 cups very hot distilled water
- 5 drops lemon essential oil
- 1 ½ cups vinegar
- ½ cup purified or distilled water
- 8 drops of any citrus essential oil
- 2 cups liquid castile soap
- ¼ cup white vinegar
- 1 tbsp vegetable glycerin
- 3/4 cup water
- 10-15 drops essential oil (lavender, lemon, lime, orange, peppermint, etc.)
Combine all ingredients in a bottle. Shake well before adding to wash. Use a quarter cup for an average load.
For more information, check out Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home and The Naturally Clean Home: 150 Super-Easy Herbal Formulas for Green Cleaning, both available from the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.
(If you’re not up for making your own cleaners, visit ewg.org to consult the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which analyzes and grades more than 2,000 popular products on their ingredients and possible health concerns.)
Matthew Biddle writes the Going Green column for Spree Home.