The sign of a clean home isn’t necessarily the scent of chlorine bleach. Instead, it may be the scent of oranges, lemons or lavender, even eucalyptus or pine trees.
Better than traditional cleaners with harsh chemicals in them, many nontoxic cleaners are safer for pets and people, especially young children, says Lisa de Lima, vice president of grocery and marketing at My Organic Market in Rockville.
Chemicals and artificial ingredients in mainstream cleaning products can be detrimental in more ways than the average person might imagine, she says.
“You don’t want to be breathing in the fumes that mainstream products give off,” Ms. de Lima says. “Even if you aren’t absorbing it through your skin and lungs, it’s ending up in the environment and is eventually coming back to you. The water table and soil [are] being polluted, and it goes into the food eventually. There’s no way to avoid it.”
Nontoxic cleaners are used by many people to improve the environment and health of a home. The air in the average American home is contaminated with chemicals, far greater than outdoor air, according to studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We sell bleaches that are non-chlorine-based,” Ms. de Lima says. “You don’t want chlorine getting into the water stream. A lot of cleaning products use petroleum as a base as well. Therefore, you are cutting back on petroleum use, which is obviously a positive environmental benefit.”
Baking soda, borax, cornstarch, isopropyl alcohol, lemon juice, mineral oil, soap, steel wool, trisodium phosphate, vinegar and washing soda are substitutes that can be used in the kitchen and bath, Ms. de Lima says.
Many additives in products such as laundry detergents cause blooms of algae, upsetting the balance of nature in waterways, she says. Sodium hypochlorite in chlorine bleach, petroleum distillates in metal polishes, ammonia in glass cleaner, phenol and cresol in disinfectants, nitrobenzene in furniture and floor polishes, and formaldehyde in various products are ingredients to avoid.
Anything can be toxic if consumed at certain levels, even salt or water, says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications at the Soap and Detergent Association, a nonprofit trade association based in Northwest. In a survey done by the organization last year, researchers found that nine out of 10 consumers thought their cleaning products were safe when used as directed.
“As far as our take on nontoxic cleaners, it’s really a marketing term rather than a science term,” Mr. Sansoni says. “With formulated cleaning products, when you use them properly, they are safe when used as directed. If you use them properly, store them safely and keep them out of the reach of children, you won’t have very many problems.”
As houses have become more energy-efficient, they also have become more airtight, making it harder for toxic fumes from cleaners to escape, says Sona Rejebian, vice president of marketing at Earth Friendly Products in Winnetka, Ill.
“We have closed all the leaks,” Ms. Rejebian says. “Any volatile compound that escapes from any product is stuck in the house. We are breathing it in. Often people are told to open their windows every once and a while to get rid of the compounds.”
The problem is worse for people inside a house all day, such as housewives and children younger than 5, she says. The ratio of toxins that a child absorbs contrasted to his or her body weight is more severe than the amount of toxins a 150-pound adult might absorb.
Toxins are not just breathed in; the skin also absorbs the pollutants, Ms. Rejebian says. When washing dishes, for example, the dishwasher’s hands absorb the chemicals in the cleaner.
“Your skin is your largest organ in your body,” Ms. Rejebian says. “Patches for contraception and smoking work because the skin is porous. Every time you use something that is wet and sits on your skin, your body absorbs the toxins. Sometimes there are chemicals in the products that make your pores enlarge, and you absorb more toxins than you would normally.”