Green Cleaning, Part 2…Two Sides of the Coin

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.