True confession: I hate housework. I grew up in a large family and from an early age we were all taught how to clean properly and were responsible for thoroughly cleaning our five-bedroom home regularly. By regularly, I mean EVERY. Damn. Day. With a deep cleaning every week. Laundry was done every day.
Dishes were washed, dried, and put away after every meal. Bath linens were washed daily, then folded precisely and put back in the linen closet. Bed linens were changed on all the beds every Saturday. We’re talking hospital corners. The whole nine. All surfaces were dusted and polished. Floors were swept and mopped. Carpets were vacuumed. Every. Damn. Week.
Because I had asthma as a child, cleaning was very uncomfortable for me. The dust that spewed out of the fan in the back of the 1960s vacuum became airborne and made me sneeze. Chemicals in window cleaners and household cleaners emitted toxic fumes that made me dizzy and caused me to wheeze. But, that did not stop the progress of housecleaning. Chemical cleaning smells and inhaling concentrated amounts of dust came with the task and were all we knew. I grew up thinking that household cleaning was hazardous to my health and I was determined not to do it when I became an adult. Sometimes letting dust bunnies accumulate is better for your health than stirring up dust particles and making them airborne by cleaning.
Since those days, vacuums have become highly efficient. When I bought my first house, I plunked down $1000 and bought a high end vacuum that filtered everything, even the finest particles. If clean air is important to you, skip some other indulgences and invest in the best vacuum you can afford. They are now so well made that the air that spews out the back is cleaner than the air taken in during the act of vacuuming. And, best of all, these vacuum options are now more affordable.
Let’s talk airborne allergens. Dusting should NOT be done with a feather duster. You’re just moving that dust around. It floats in the air, getting inhaled, and then settles down to accumulate in another place. Waste of time. Dust instead with a damp cloth so you are actually picking UP the dust. And, in washing your damp dust rag, you are washing that dust down the drain.
Another airborne allergen is fragrance. You know that sweet smell in candles and cleaning products? That is a chemically derived fragrance. The fragrance industry is actually part and parcel of the chemical industry. They manufacture scents that smell “clean” but are very far from clean. If you have any doubt, pop into a typical nail salon. You can barely breathe in there because the smell of chemicals is so strong, right?
Chemical companies synthesize a fragrance that may smell good but it is exactly the same as the nasty smelling chemicals. Your brain, your mood, your breathing, and your overall health are negatively affected. Better to smell real cinnamon than to smell a candle that is chemically scented to smell like cinnamon. If you think about it, it doesn’t even make sense that we would buy a toxic version of something that already exists in nature and is safe and smells better! If you like the scent of cinnamon and vanilla, put them in a pot on the stove and simmer them. Your whole house will smell amazingly cozy and you won’t have damaged any brain cells.
So, give up the scented candles and buy unscented or beeswax candles instead. Your body will thank you for it. As for scented cleaning products, invest in some good essential oils and add a few drops to your homemade cleaning products. Be aware of the impact of chemical versus natural scents on your physical and mental state and on your mood. Be certain that the products you are using to scent the air, like candles, potpourri, et cetera, are natural scents such as food products and essential oils and not chemically derived fragrances.
One of my least favorite products is Lysol™ deodorizing spray. Some people are obsessed with using it to clean and deodorize the air in places such as the bathroom. Did you know that Lysol spray is purposely made sticky? You spray it in the air and it doesn’t actually diminish odors, it masks them. The sticky spray particles are inhaled by the user (and anyone who has the misfortune of being nearby), coating the hairs in the nose so you can only smell the Lysol.
The bad smell is still in the air, you just can’t smell anything but what is stuck up your nose. The sticky particles are also inhaled into your lungs. Your lungs will produce mucous to rid the lung cilia of the sticky substance. Excess mucous floods your lungs, causing chest congestion, wheezing, and hopefully coughing to clear it out, but ultimately, you are drowning in your own phlegm. This is an asthmatic reaction that can send the sensitive to the Emergency Room.
Lysol also has other harmful effects that damage body systems, like endocrine disruptors and central nervous system effects. Would you knowingly spray a pesticide in your bathroom? Doubtful. Lysol is classified as a pesticide by the FDA. I rest my case.
The worst airborne allergen is mold. You need to be vigilant with that stuff. Don’t let it get a foothold in your home. You want to kill it before it spreads. Unlike dust, airborne mold spores are living organisms. If you inhale them, they’re in your lungs and growing in your body. If you come in contact, they can grow on the surface of your skin, causing bacterial infections.
If you have mold anywhere in your living environment, whether it is your own home or a rental, clean that mold up and out. If it’s just a damp smell in your basement, get a dehumidifier and keep it going all summer. Basement dampness can be the first sign of mold growing behind your walls and you may need a professional to remove it. Get on that! You can’t sell a home with mold. And, your landlord’s building can be condemned if it is found to contain high levels of mold. Don’t jeopardize your health. Be proactive when it comes to mold.
I’ve learned to make housecleaning bearable by weeding out the poisons in my home that made me sick. Surface cleaning can also be bad for your health. You know: Floors. Counters. Sinks. Bathroom tile and fixtures. Furniture. Fabrics. Appliances. And, windows – ack! Open the cabinet under your kitchen sink. What’s down there? If you have a childproof lock on that cabinet, you already know the answer — it’s poison, quite literally. If your child needs to be rushed to the Emergency Room after ingesting something from under your sink, then you already know you’re cleaning your house with poison.
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If it’s poison to ingest it, why would you use it to clean surfaces that you or your child or your companion animals come into contact with? Kids put their fingers in their mouths after touching the surfaces you’ve cleaned. Animals clean themselves constantly and they are laying on the floors you just used that poison on. And, lastly, YOU are touching these same surfaces that you just used rubber gloves to clean because you didn’t want to get the poison on your hands.
Are you getting the visual here? When you apply poisonous chemicals to surfaces believing you are cleaning or disinfecting them, you are turning your house into a hazardous area. Unless your family is all outfitted in hazmat suits, right down to the dog, you are living dangerously in a home that has been poisoned. Sounds alarmist? You should be alarmed. The chemicals found in most standard cleaning products have been deemed hazardous by the EPA.
Most cleaning products are laden with chemical toxins. How many of the cleaning products under your sink are chemical cocktails making outrageous claims of their cleaning, degreasing, and disinfecting ability? If ANY of them have chemical names in the ingredient list, dispose of them responsibly like you would any other poison.
Bring them to your local recycling center and make sure they aren’t just dumping them down the drain. If you wouldn’t drink/eat it, do not use it to clean your home. Not only are chemicals in cleaning products skin and eye irritants, many contain ingredients that are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and may also cause birth defects. Why take any chances with your health or a family members’ health? Not to mention the health of your companion animals.
Specifically, avoid ingredients such as bleach, toluene, parabens, formaldehyde and anything with benzene in the name. Also avoid anything that has chemical fragrance.
Many people are now going the natural route, and most magazines and websites are now featuring homemade cleaning products. They clean surfaces naturally with a mixture of vinegar and water. You can clean almost anything with some variation of these ingredients: vinegar, baking soda, borax, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, and natural soaps like Castile or hemp.
Here are some links containing lists of safe natural ingredients you should stock your cabinets with to use for cleaning, with simple formulas you can create right in your own home. If you don’t like the scent of vinegar, you can add a few drops of lavender essential oil. This provides an aromatherapy benefit too, as lavender has a calming effect on your brain. If you prefer another scent, like lemon or orange, because that is the smell that you associate with cleanliness, then by all means, use essential oils of lemon or orange or pine to clean surfaces.
But, notice that it is the scent that you associate with cleanliness. That’s how fragrance makers get you to buy their chemistry experiments. It’s a psychological association with cleanliness. They synthesized those natural scents and turned them into chemical fragrance. Doesn’t it make sense to just use the natural source? Here are some safe simple options: non-toxic solutions.
Okay, so maybe you’re not a Do-It-Yourselfer. For pure convenience, you just want to buy the lovely new “natural” cleaning products that are now increasingly more present in your local grocery store. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We should support companies that produce healthy products and are trying to make a difference by not contributing to the pollution of our planet. But, not all natural products are alike. There is natural and then there are the “greenwashed” products. Greenwashing is making your product look like it’s natural but it actually isn’t. If you’re wondering what Treehugger would recommend, click here.
I have to admit that I fell victim to a greenwashed product myself. I bought a window cleaner made by a company called Green Works™ that was a clear liquid in a clear bottle, as opposed to the familiar blue spray that we shall not name here. When I used it to clean my countertop, my nose immediately picked up a chemical scent. I looked at the label more closely.
Yup, chemicals. Turns out that Green Works is owned by Clorox™ — the least natural company on the grocer’s shelf. In 2007, Clorox purchased Burt’s Bees™, a small natural beauty brand sold in health food stores for a whopping $925 million. At the time, I wondered why Clorox would be interested in tiny little Burt’s Bees. They were just trying to greenwash their image so they could hop on the “natural” products bandwagon, straddling both the latter and the chemical side, making money off of all consumers. They made the Burt’s Bees buy just before launching the Green Works brand. Those rascals! I was furious at myself for falling for it. So, let the buyer beware!
So, what should you buy if you don’t want to make your own concoctions? There are many reputable brands on the market. I advise that you consult the Environmental Working Group’s recommended products that can be found here. Then go to the store and check them out for yourself. Some are very costly due to package design and marketing, but there are many affordable options.
I encourage you to visit the links here to find options for both off-the-shelf products or for recipes for homemade cleaners. This site and this one has great tips. Cleaning can be a fresh, pleasant, and healthy experience. I won’t go so far as to say it’s fun. But, I’ll definitely settle comfortably for healthy. As you begin the new year, consider cleaning up your cleaning supplies. While you’re at it, put on your favorite music and make it a sensory experience. Happy cleaning!