If It Can’t Kill Me, Is It Really Cleaning?

A lot of cleaning products are marketed as if they are going to war: they attack grease and grime and wipe out soap scum. When I was growing up, getting set to clean the house certainly had a military feel (in part because my father was in the United States Army). If we were doing anything more than dusting, vacuuming, or washing dishes, we got suited up in cleaning clothes—items that were past their prime (so you wouldn’t care if they got a hole in them or bleached out)—put on thick, yellow plastic gloves, and cracked a window. We scrubbed brass and copper with a thick liquid I now use only outside, and we scrubbed surfaces with abrasive cleansers that would take the finish off my fairly new sink and bathtub. Everything seemed to contain either bleach or ammonia, so I always had to check to make sure I wasn’t about to mix one with the other and create chlorine gas, which is so toxic it was used to kill soldiers in World War One.

As with many things, I started looking for gentler options when my babies got big enough to sit in the actual tub. I remember worrying that some residue left after cleaning would hurt their skin, no matter how much I rinsed. When my youngest developed allergies as a baby, I was even more careful. Anything that was used on his clothes or other fabric he might touch had to be scent-free and dye-free. It might sound like I was overreacting, but after his allergies started when he was a few months old, he would break out in hives if anyone who was using scented detergent touched him. 

Chasdei HaShem, he grew out of those allergies, but I seemed to grow into some. By the time he was two, if I went down the cleaner aisles in Target or Walmart, my eyes and nose would sting. I had to rush to find what I needed and run back out or the symptoms would worsen and take longer to go away. Cleaners I had used for years started to impact my breathing. I had to pass cleaning the oven to my husband or my twice-a-month cleaning help. 

I tried out cleaners that advertised themselves as “green,” such as Seventh Generation and Method, but I have to admit I didn’t investigate the products or their ingredients. I just trusted the promises on the labels that they didn’t use certain environmentally harmful chemicals, had recyclable packaging, and had sustainable sourcing and manufacturing rules. (I also noticed that the availability of those products pushed established cleaning-supply companies to create their own ecofriendly—or at least friendly-ish—options, such as Clorox’s Green Works.)  

Then, I began hearing about “greenwashing,” when companies try to appeal to consumers by giving the false impression that they are better for the environment than traditional products. Companies may try to position their products as being more “natural,” free of chemicals, packaged in recyclable packaging, or sustainable than they actually are. An article at Investopedia.com says the term greenwashing “originated in the 1960s when the hotel industry devised one of the most blatant examples of greenwashing. They placed notices in hotel rooms asking guests to reuse their towels to save the environment. The hotels enjoyed the benefit of lower laundry costs.” But, if people don’t have their towels washed every day, there really is an environmental benefit in terms of water usage and detergent being added to water that then has to be processed before it can be used again. From a Jewish perspective, it seems like the companies should get some sort of credit for their efforts. Just as a person who gives tzedakah but does so begrudgingly gets credit, although of course not all they could earn. 

Photo courtesy of trumans.com

As far as choosing between these products, good luck! I’ve read so many articles and looked at so many websites, and as soon as you find one that looks reliable, you’ll find two more that contradict it. By one magazine, Method is a great company that does good things for the planet. By another, they are awful greenwashers and shouldn’t be allowed in respectable homes. (I happen to love Method hand soap: the bottles have a great design, the soap isn’t overdrying, and they have fragrance-free options in both gel and foaming cleaners.) 

For cleaning household surfaces, I am currently using the products from Truman’s. Is this the most low-waste and green option? For the average consumer, it’s hard to know. I picked Truman’s because it is a small business based in the United States. That means it takes less fuel to make (imagine the impact of sourcing just one or two ingredients from another continent or hemisphere) and to send to customers. Recognizing that it’s kind of silly to pay money to ship water across the country when it comes out of the tap right at customers’ homes, Truman’s provides reusable bottles for its surface cleaners. You just slide in a small cartridge of concentrated cleaner in the top and add water. I also like that its cleaners have little to no fragrance and that everything comes in packaging made from post-consumer recycled paper and cardboard. No plastic! 

I really can’t overstate the importance of buying things that are made from or packaged in post-consumer content. When China banned the import of recyclables in 2018, the amount recycling facilities could get for their plastic and paper plummeted. Every time we make a choice to search out companies that are using post-consumer content as opposed to newly manufactured plastic and paper, we create more demand for those products. Manufacturers sell what people buy. 

But, back to greener cleaners. The choice is up to you. Different companies focus on different things (reducing packaging and using post-consumer materials, making sure all bottles are recyclable or free from things like BPA and phthalates that have been shown to cause health problems in humans, using “natural” ingredients). If you want to stick to buying your cleaning products, there are definitely great brands out there—Seventh Generation, Ecos, Method, Dr. Bonners, and more. 

When you start reading zero-waste books or blogs, you’ll almost immediately see the emphasis is not to buy the least toxic, most recyclable products, but to make cleansers with things you find in your house, like vinegar and baking soda, that don’t have a long list of unpronounceable chemical compounds in them. 

I took my first foray into these cleaners at Pesach when we were eating a lot of oranges. I had seen a “recipe” for a surface cleaner made from white vinegar and orange peels, so I thought I would try it out. Prep was super easy. I poured vinegar into a big mason jar, leaving it about half empty. As we ate the oranges, I would gather the peels and add them to the jar. When the jar was three-fourths full, I topped it off with more vinegar and put it in a cabinet for a few weeks. 

My husband was a little doubtful when he saw me pouring the liquid, which had taken on an orange tint, into a spray bottle. I think he had visions of an orange sink in his future! The vinegar worked great to clean bathroom surfaces, and the orange peel gave it a pleasant smell. (I’m not too sure about using just straight vinegar as a cleanser, though. I like the very mild fragrance of my Truman’s cleaners quite a bit.) At the moment, I am stocked up on cleaning supplies, but I will definitely try other DIY combinations when those run out. 

I have found a DIY cleaning solution that I recommend wholeheartedly for cleaning bathtubs: 

Tub and Tile Cleaner

  • 2 cups vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. dish soap (Note: If you use bleach to clean your grout or other parts of your tub or shower, make sure the dish soap you use doesn’t have a warning about not using it with bleach.)
  • Baking soda

Step 1: Mix vinegar and dish soap together.
Step 2: Shake baking soda on the surface to be cleaned.
Step 3: Pour vinegar-and-soap mixture over the baking soda and allow it to sit for between five and 30 minutes. (If you’re cleaning a wall, you’ll want to shake it into the liquid mixture.)
Step 4: Start scrubbing!

This cleaner does require more elbow grease, but it does a good job, is nontoxic, and costs pennies on the dollar compared to the cleaning products I used to buy. (Plus, my Fitbit logged it as 600 steps, so I burned calories while I cleaned. Top that, chemical-filled cleaners!) 

One last tip. If you aren’t already cleaning your mirrors and glass surfaces with newspaper, you don’t know what clean is. I’ve read the advice to use newspaper in place of paper or cloth for towels many years, but it just didn’t make sense to me. When you handle newspapers, you wind up with ink smudges on your hands. Surely, I thought, newspaper wouldn’t really have good results on mirrors and glass. But then I tried it and WOW! I will never use a paper towel on those surfaces again.

I’ll share my results with other DIY cleaners as I try them out!

Click here to see the full list of changes I’ve blogged about, and their impact.


Header photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash

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