How green is my dishrag?

I wish there was a trustworthy list somewhere on the big magical information-net of all the cleaning products and what chemicals they contain. There is not. And cleaning products are not required to list their ingredients.  “Green” cleaners are, generally speaking, more “greenish.” There’s a spectrum, not a black-and-white roster. I don’t know everything about green housecleaning and I won’t pretend to. Here’s what I do know.

As a general rule, most of the stuff that you can buy in the cleaning products aisle is safe – if you use it exactly as directed and don’t mix it with anything else. As an equally general rule, a lot of it is potentially very dangerous if you use too much of it, too concentrated, in an area with bad ventilation, or mixed with other products. As far as how it impacts the environment – well, phosphate is pretty darn bad, bleach is less bad but still not great, and most stuff honestly has not been studied or cataloged for long term impact.

I am really interested in using the gentlest chemicals that work for me mostly because my youngest son and I are super-sensitive to chemical smells. Using perfectly ordinary cleaners (409 or Fantastik, for example) will give us horrible headaches. I can’t even stay in my office when the Marines in my building go all crazy with the floor-wax stripper and the high-speed pine cleaner. (Another good reason for me to not be a photographer – walking into my husband’s darkroom makes me sick. Literally.)

So let’s be honest, if we all really wanted to be “all the way” green and totally safe with our cleaning products, we could use vinegar, plain bar soap, baking soda, and salt for almost every last one of our cleaning needs. It would work fine. Hot soapy water kills bacteria just as well as anti-bacterial specialty products, and it doesn’t have the extra chemical (triclosan) that makes normal germs want to mutate into superbugs, and “may or may not” be a carcinogen. I could scrub my dishes with baking soda, sterilize them with boiling water, and they would be restaurant health-code safe to eat off of. Plain cheap vinegar works better than any window cleaner I’ve ever tried.  But I’ll confess, I’m spoiled. If I’m going to put effort into cleaning my house, I don’t just want it “acceptably hygenic,” I want it to smell pretty and look sparkly. That means at least some measure of specially-designed cleaning products.

The badger favorite is the method line of products. Perfectly green? No, probably not. There is simply no database of all the possibly harmful chemicals out there. And I’m sorry, call me paranoid, but I don’t really buy their claim that you can safely eat any of their products or at least lick any surface you’ve cleaned with them.

Greener than most? For sure. They have a pretty extensive list of “chemicals we will not use no matter how cheap and effective they are” which includes all of the worst known and suspected human and environmental toxins. Their products work really really well, and they smell wonderful.  And they don’t give me headaches at all, even when I use them to clean a tiny bathroom. The main drawback is that they are kind of expensive. On the other hand, I don’t really buy off on the hype that I need one product to clean my kitchen counters, a different one for my bathroom sink, and another one entirely for the top of my appliances. I pretty much only buy their wood for good furniture polish and their multi-surface cleaner, so it isn’t a huge investment every spring cleaning season.

Bonus info you didn’t ask for 😉 – if you want to see how your favorite cleaners stack up in the environmental, social, and toxicity departments, there is a website for that.  The only drawback is that they can only go by chemicals that are already known to be toxic. Still a good resource, though. Check out their “worst household chemicals” page – it’s a bit scary how many of the most poisonous things on that page are hand soaps. If that doesn’t make you stop biting your nails…

1 Comment

  1. Irene said,

    February 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Whoa, seriously epic lists on that website!! That is nice to know. I don’t think I’ve put a lot of thought into cleaners before. You’re actually supposed to go by the directions on the bottle?? Whoops….

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