October 2008: Non-Toxic Cleaning Supplies

This month we are taking a look at how we might “clean up” our cleaning supplies in order to maintain a healthier household.  You’ll hear about some favorite products that Audrey Buchner and Jen Cortina have found that help keep their houses clean (without leaving behind numerous toxins).

I know that when our beloved cleaning woman started working for us almost a decade ago, she brought in tow many products like waxes, various spray bottles and strong bathroom cleaners.  I had no idea that I was unknowingly bringing in harmful chemicals into the house that can irritate lungs, skin, eyes, ears, and much more.  Over the years there has been an increasing awareness of the dangers of chemical household cleaners and, fortunately, many new brands are out there that offer great cleaning with minimal chemical exposure.  Jen and Audrey have many ideas for you.

Mary Griffin recently told me about an Oprah she saw where they discussed the dangers of household cleaners.  If you missed it, here is the link: (thanks Mary!)


Here is an excerpt from Dr. Andrew Weil’s Q&A Library (1).  I’ve included my own additional comments in blue.

Question: Is Housecleaning Dangerous?  How important is it for my health to use all-natural cleaning products? Or is (it) more for the environment’s benefit?

Answer: If you’re chemically sensitive to fragrances or have allergies or respiratory sensitivities, you may want to use natural cleaning products to avoid inhaling chemicals that can trigger your symptoms. But even if you have no sensitivities that might be activated by conventional cleaning products, you might want to rethink your use of those that contain carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. The danger these chemicals pose depends on the extent of your exposure – how often you use the products and how long you’re exposed to the fumes. Here are some common products that I worry about:

  • Chlorine bleach. When mixed with ammonia, vinegar or other acid-based cleaners, chlorine bleach releases toxic chloramine gas; exposure can trigger mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems. Avoid mixing these substances. We all know that bleach is great for disinfecting, but it is really, really strong stuff.  I only keep one bottle in my house, reserved only for a weekly flush out of the jets in the Jacuzzi.  You know those yucky black things that come out of the jets if you haven’t used it for a while?  Gross.  For all other disinfecting jobs, I use a vapor steamer cleaner.  For information on the steam cleaner I use, go to http://www.allergybuyersclubshopping.com/whitewing-steam-cleaner.html?id=14.    As for laundry whites, I’ve converted to using borax and/or a non-chlorinated bleach, Ecover.  The ingredients are hydrogen peroxide and water.
  • Metal polishes. Some contain petroleum distillates, which can irritate the eyes and lungs; long-term exposure can damage the nervous system, kidneys, eyes, and skin. He offers some substitutes below, see toothpaste.
  • Ammonia . Can irritate eyes and lungs and cause headaches.
  • Furniture and floor polishes. Contain nitrobenzene, which if inhaled can cause shallow breathing; if ingested can cause death. All I use on my wood is vinegar and water.  But I may have to try some of the Method and Shaklee products that are on Audrey’s and Jen’s list below!
  • Mothballs. Contains naphthalene, a suspected carcinogen, which may damage the eyes, blood cells, liver, kidneys, skin, and central nervous system.
  • Toilet bowl cleaners. Contain hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate, which can burn the skin and cause blindness if splashed in the eyes. I use the following recipe for a bathroom cleaner:  1 teaspoon borax, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 teaspoons vinegar, 1 teaspoon dishwashing soap (see brand below), per 2 cups hot water.

Instead of conventional products, you can buy all kinds of natural cleaning products, everything from nontoxic bathroom cleaner to environmentally friendly dish soap. You can even make your own cleaning products from such household items as vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, tea tree oil, and baking soda. A number of books describe how to make your own household cleaners from stuff we all have in the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets. One I particularly like is Clean & Green: The Complete Guide to Non-Toxic & Environmentally Safe Housekeeping, by Annie Berthold-Bond published in paperback by Ceres Press. Some natural cleaning products I’ve tried have been great; others have failed to work as well as the conventional products. For example, I have not yet found a fragrance-free natural dishwasher detergent that works satisfactorily in my automatic dishwasher (Audrey and Jen have a great recommendation, however;  see Shaklee on the list below).  In the near future I will be introducing a line of natural cleaning products endorsed by Weil Lifestyle. My first criterion is that they have to work.  Whether you choose to make your own environmentally friendly household cleaners or buy those already on the market, keep in mind that while these products are supposed to be nontoxic, they should be kept out of the reach of children and pets. Store them as carefully as you would conventional cleaners.  Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D.  I have not seen any new cleaning products launched by Dr. Weil, but I did find some additional information on his website naming down-to-earth, nontoxic suggestions for cleaning your home naturally with basic household ingredients:

Baking soda: An all-purpose cleaner; especially effective on glass coffee pots and glassware; removes red-wine stains from carpeting. A paste (made with water) can shine stainless steel and silver; the paste can also remove tea stains from cups and saucers. Make a paste with a castile- or vegetable-based liquid soap and a drop of essential oil (tea tree or lavender) to clean sinks, countertops, toilets and tubs. Pour 1 cup down the sink to clear a clogged drain, followed by 3 cups of boiling water.

Boiling water: Use weekly to flush drains and avoid clogs.

Coarse salt: Cleans copper pans and scours cookware. Sprinkle salt on fresh spills in the oven, then wipe off. Sprinkle salt on rust stains and squeeze a lime or lemon over them, let sit for several hours and wipe off.

Essential oils: Mix lavender or tea tree essential oils with water and spray on kitchen or bathroom surfaces for an environmentally and people-friendly antibacterial spray.

Grapefruit-seed extract: Add a few drops to water in a spray bottle for an odorless way to kill mold and mildew.

Lemon juice: Use as a bleaching agent on clothing, and to remove grease from your stove and countertops. Add 2 Tbsp lemon juice to 10 drops of (real) lemon oil and a few drops of jojoba oil to clean and polish wood furniture.

Olive oil: Use to lubricate and polish wood furniture (three parts olive oil to one part vinegar; or two parts olive oil with one part lemon juice).

Potatoes: Halved potatoes can remove rust from baking pans or tinware – follow with a salt scrub or dip the potato in salt before scrubbing.

Tea tree oil: Can be added to vinegar/water solutions for its antibacterial properties. Use it to kill mold and mildew, and on kitchen and bathroom surfaces instead of chemical products. Add 50 drops to a bucket of water to clean countertops and tile floors.

Toothpaste (white, plain): Cleans silver; can remove water stains on wood furniture – dab on, allow it to dry and wipe off

White vinegar: Cleans linoleum floors and glass (from windows to shower doors) when mixed with water and a little liquid soap (castile or vegetable). Cuts grease and removes stains; removes soap scum and cleans toilets (add a bit of baking soda if you like). Pour down drains once a week for antibacterial cleaning. Add to water in a spray bottle to kill mold and mildew.  In my own home, I have replaced Windex and all-purpose cleaners with bottles of diluted vinegar.


So that is what Dr. Weil has to say about cleaners (and it seems he leans more towards using common household ingredients), but what about all the new brands that tout non-toxic and earth friendly?  To help me answer this question, I turned to Audrey Buchner and Jen Cortina, who have both done their homework on which natural cleaners work best.  I’ve combined their recommendations into one single list, but put Audrey’s comments in purple and Jen’s in orange.  This is an awesome list gals!  Thank you for helping us to make our cleaning safe!

Audrey and Jen’s Favorites

– Method wood for good (like pledge and even better!)
– Method laundry detergent
– Shaklee dishwasher detergent
– Shaklee dish soap
– Method tub scrub (like soft scrub)
– Method all-purpose cleaner
– Shaklee Basic H
– Method glass cleaner (windex equivalent)
– Method toilet bowl cleaner
– Greenworks all-purpose cleaner (greenworks made by clorox)
– Greenworks glass and surface cleaner
– Greenworks bathroom cleaner
– Bona hardwood floor cleaner
– Caldrea countertop cleaner – kind of $$
– Greenworks liquid dish soap
– Method liquid fabric softener
– Kirkland all natural h.e. laundry detergent, works well.
–  Shaklee laundry spot remover.   Available from http://www.melaleuca.com/
– Sol-U-Mel stain remover, which is AWESOME for upholstery, carpets and clothes.  You can also use as a deodorizer.   LOVE THIS ONE.
– Prespot laundry stain remover, which i don’t think is as good as shout.
– Melapower h.e. laundry detergent, which is only nice because it is incredibly concentrated (smallest pacakge for # of loads vs other stuff you can buy at target, etc).  but i think other brands, even
– Koala pals shampoo and the koala pals berrylicious and green apple toothpastes (for the kids).  Although not as good as shampoo and conditioner from Whole Foods.

Additional comments:

I think these non-toxic products seem to do the job, and sometimes even better, than the traditional cleaners.  I really love the way the Method products smell.  I love Caldrea too but feel like these are more a luxury at the prices they are at.   Mrs. Meyers seems to be a bit pricey too.  I’ve only found a couple of things I don’t think works as well (fabric spot removal, fabric softener sheets).  Also, in general, I find pricing to be somewhat higher but not by much.  Melaleuca seems to be the best priced for the amount you get (and in fact equivalent if you buy their membership and get preferred pricing), and why I am going to try more of their things.  You must buy them over the internet, phone or through a distributor, unfortunately.  Shipping is not a lot though and they deliver very quickly. I have a friend who buys almost EVERYTHING from them – beauty products, vitamins, cleaning products, medicines…. Shaklee products can be purchased  from their website although you can locate a local distributor (like the Avon lady).  Their website is http://www.shaklee.com/index.shtml.

(For additional reading and resources), here are a few good sites. The EWG site has a section to check icky things in personal care products. Among other very frightening sections.


Products that did NOT make the list:

– Seventh Generation automatic dishwasher detergent – left food and spots on my dishes/silverware. I also tried Mrs. Meyers, which is better than the Seventh Generation, but still not as good as my old cascade
– the 365 (whole foods) fabric softener sheets. didn’t think that they really did much.


Thank you SO much gals for your research and wisdom!  We look forward to next month (when all of our homes will be so much cleaner and healthier, right?) when we tackle the subject of SNACKS with Elizabeth Bigelow.  Until then, take care!

Kathryn Guylay

Disclaimer: This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. For “green” dry cleaning, there are a number of options cropping up around town. I use Skokie Valley Cleaners since they do delivery. There is also a green dry cleaners in Plaza del Lago (next to Yellow Bird) when I need things back quickly. There’s another one in Wilmette on Central Avenue…just across from Village Hall. I definitely prefer green cleaning since my husband wears a suit every day and I’m constantly getting his shirts, suits and ties cleaned.

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