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Green Cleaning, Part 2…Two Sides of the Coin

2010 July 29

After last week’s blogpost on “Green Cleaning,” I received comments from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including those who insist on totally natural products to some of our partners in the Design for the Environment Partnership, cautioning that some of the green tips I had listed might not be as healthy for consumers and the environment as originally assumed. I have consulted with friends in the Design for the Environment (DfE) program in EPA to guide me through this process. I would like to share some of their thoughts with you regarding the DfE label.

Dfeb&g1I confess that we all would like to abide by the greenest practices possible. However, the definition of green is truly in the eye of the beholder. While I will not attempt to give a course on Chemistry 101, there are some basic chemical reasons why some homemade recipes may work, but may not perform as well as a commercial product. It seems likely, for example, that baking soda alone may not perform as well as a formulated product containing surfactants and other key ingredients. Baking soda works simply by raising the pH of the water, i.e., increasing alkalinity. Surfactants actually lower the surface tension of water molecules enabling water to easily carry dirt and grease away. This chemical interaction is one of the main reasons why we rarely have one-ingredient cleaning products.

Furthermore, some of these homemade cleaning agents like baking soda, borax, ammonia, and bleach may be ineffective or toxic if used incorrectly. In fact, since some are very reactive, they should be used with caution. For example, if bleach is mixed with ammonia, harmful chloramine gas can form. While borax is often suggested as a green detergent, there have been studies that link borax to reproductive, development and neurological toxicities. Lye (used to make soap at home) is extremely alkaline and dangerous in concentrated form. It is “corrosive” meaning that it can cause burns on the skin and permanent eye damage.

In making our homemade concoctions, we might actually neutralize the effectiveness of the natural ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, and lime juice while we’re cleaning. Since we are not naturally born chemists, our mishandling of these supposedly benign household substances may produce more harm than good.  One word of advice in using any type of cleaning product, disinfectant or pesticide—more is not always better. Follow instructions carefully.

So, if you prefer a commercial option that’s safer for people and the planet, look for the DfE logo on the label. The rigorous testing and certification process can give you peace of mind.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force.  Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    July 29, 2010

    Good Presenter….!
    I think this logo’s could be promoted in US and so, next, the people in the world shall follow it, exactly….

  2. robert permalink
    July 29, 2010

    borax soap home is longtime efect better solution for help cleaining than noting to do is mi opinion for the ocean ecosphere

  3. George permalink
    July 29, 2010

    Glad you clarified some of the chemistry because some folk really do think more is better. Having a background myself with supplying additives like fragrance/ essential oil I cringe when I see on websites promoting the use of natural oils. First if the scent help promote good cleaning habits, please add them. But keep in mind most of the available oils were not developed to be entirely soluble and despite claims, generally are not pure. Therefore please use as little as possible. If you are using bleach do not add them only because the bleach attacks them, aggressively. You can add oils to a neutralizing solution if you want to impart a fresh clean effect. Currently, I am not aware of any essential oil source that claim to be DfE approved.

  4. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 29, 2010

    Thanks for your comments. Hadn’t even thought of the fragrance/essential oils angle.

  5. George permalink
    July 29, 2010

    Libby in DfE is a fantastic resource.

  6. Hydroponic Supplies Guy permalink
    July 31, 2010

    This is interesting information. I did not know that cleaning soaps could be harmful to the environment. I wish more of this information was taught in schools.

  7. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    August 1, 2010

    There is an old saying that there can be too much of a good thing and here looks like a case in point. Its usually better to use the greenest products available but you have to use every cleaning solution or insecticide or fertilizer sparingly. Use the solutions in well ventilated areas. And always keep in mind that using more is not going to lead to a better result. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  8. Annie permalink
    August 3, 2010

    it looks to me like some fake cause. green is good and efficient but why should it be some kind of fashion. it looks like ugly way for posing in fron of the masses. For example I don’t thing that all non-green products used for cleaning services are harmful and bed. Soap is not evil :)

  9. Mary Watson permalink
    August 4, 2010

    Soap is harmless unless swallowed. That’s a good point. I’m fed up with people living green, doing everything green,and after all it’s not done for only for health improvement, but also to be a la mode. Some are doing this only to keep up with the fashion trends. But some things called green can also do harm. Imagine London After Builders Cleaners just cleaning it all with vinegar and soda. Some chemical reactions may occur. We should be careful what mixure we’re using.

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