6 Healthy Holiday Cleaning Recipes

How clean are your cleaners? Chances are, not very, which is why it's best to make your own.

November 22, 2011

Sure, cleaning can make you happy, but it's more likely to give you a rash, breathing problems, or worse.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Preparing to have a big crowd over for the big Thanksgiving holiday? You could be serving up a dose of cancer-causers, allergens, and hormone disruptors alongside your healthy holiday dinner, according to the health advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE). The culprit? Your clean house.

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The group purchased 20 cleaning products and air fresheners from Clorox, Proctor & Gamble, SC Johnson, and a few other companies and had them independently tested for various chemicals and contaminants. And it turns out that even though these companies have committed to cleaning up their product lines and have even introduced "green" cleaning product lines, they're still contaminating your home. Here's a brief list of what WVE found:

Carcinogens

Clorox Clean-Up with Bleach contained two cancer-causing compounds, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform, which you could easily inhale when using a spray cleaner like this one, or absorb through your skin if you touch a wet surface. Chloroform has been linked to various forms of cancer as well as liver disease, and animal studies suggest that carbon tetrachloride can cause breast cancer. What's disturbing is that Clorox doesn't know how either of those got into their cleaner, says Alexandra Gorman-Scranton, director of science and research for WVE. Chloroform is a disinfection by-product often found in chlorine-treated drinking water or in chlorinated swimming pools, so it's possible the chloroform in Clorox's cleaner was a contaminant introduced during processing. "But the levels you find in water and in swimming pools are 1,000 times less than what we found," she says. "That's not just a trace contamination."

Another cancer-causing contaminant, 1,4-dioxane, was detected in Tide Free & Gentle Liquid Laundry Detergent, Tide Liquid Laundry Detergent, and Simple Green Naturals Multi-Surface Care (which is marketed as a "green" cleaner). Dioxane is easy to remove, and in fact, Procter & Gamble, which manufactures Tide, has processes in place to remove it from its line of shampoos, where it's also hiding. "They obviously know how to do it," she says.

Hormone Disruptors

Hormone-disrupting chemicals do just what they say—disrupt the levels of hormones in your body, leading to bigger health problems like infertility, breast and prostate cancers, and metabolic disorders like diabetes, which are affected by changes in certain hormones (translation: these chemicals are making you fat). The not-so-good news? WVE found them in Febreze Air Effects, Glade Tough Odor Solutions with Oust Air Sanitizer, and Simple Green Naturals Multi-Surface Care.

These chemicals usually hide in synthetic fragrances, with the most problematic being phthalates, a class of chemicals used to keep fragrances from dissipating. What's worse is that both SC Johnson, which makes Glade products, and Simple Green say they have removed phthalates from their product lines. And though they may not be adding these intentionally, they're getting introduced somehow. "It demonstrates a broken system," Gorman-Scranton says. "No one's keeping them accountable for these harmful contaminants."

Proctor & Gamble does not use phthalates in its Febreze products, but those do contain something called synthetic musks, which are chemicals that accumulate in body fat and, in lab tests, have been found to trigger the accumulation of breast-cancer cells.

Toluene, another hormone disruptor that can also interfere with normal brain development in kids, was hiding in Pine-Sol Original Formula and Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner. Where it came from is another mystery, says Gorman-Scranton. She says Clorox suspects it may have been created from a chemical reaction between pine oil and another chemical, but "it's a little bit shocking to have products creating toluene and they're not checking for these things," she notes.

Allergens

Because synthetic fragrances are usually concoctions of hundreds of chemicals, it isn't a surprise that WVE found the potent allergens limonene, DL-Citronellol, linalool, eugenol, and coumarin in all but one of the products they tested, including green cleaners and "free-and-clear" products. Two products from Clorox's Green Works line—Natural Glass & Surface Cleaner and Natural Laundry Detergent in Original Scent—contained allergens, as did Tide's fragrance-free Free & Gentle detergent, Bounce Free & Sensitive fragrance-free dryer sheets. The two Simple Green cleaners, and Lysol's room sprays, Air Wick's scented oils and Glade's plug-in air fresheners, also contained these chemicals, which have been linked to skin reactions and asthma attacks.

The one product without allergens? SC Johnson's Pledge Fragrance-Free
Multi-Surface Everyday Cleaner.

"By and large, companies want to do right by their customers and provide good and healthy products," Gorman-Scranton says. But she hopes the report will spur lawmakers to create rules requiring cleaning companies to not only disclose ingredients on product packaging, but also to regularly test for contaminants such as dioxane, allergens, and chloroform. "No one's holding these companies accountable, so it's easy to let things slide."

Easy, but not healthy. Until the cleaning industry cleans up its act, your safest bet is homemade, carcinogen- and allergen-free cleaners, and we've got six easy recipes for you.

#1: All-Natural Air Freshener
Gorman-Scranton says that the scented oils they tested were particularly high in allergens, so save your lungs (and those of your holiday guests) with some truly clean air. To get rid of tough kitchen odors, boil a pot of water with some orange peels, cloves, and cinnamon sticks and leave it simmering on the stove for a while. Ventilate damp spaces like bathrooms to avoid smelly mildew build-up, or just set out a bowl of white vinegar to absorb nasty odors.

#2: Lemon Oil Duster

Ingredients:

10 drops pure lemon oil
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
A few drops olive oil
Recycled, clean flannel cotton cloth

Directions:

Mix this in a jar and pour it onto your cloth whenever dust builds up. It's important to keep dust to a minimum; previous studies have found it to be full of flame retardants, allergens, pesticides, and other household chemicals.

#3: Window Cleaner

Ingredients:

¼ cup vinegar
½ teaspoon natural liquid soap (optional; I use natural dish liquid or Dr. Bronner's)
2 cups water

Directions:

Put all ingredients in a spray bottle and shake to blend. To use it, spray onto the glass, covering as much as you can finish in a few minutes at a time, scrub as needed with the rough side of a kitchen sponge, and squeegee off. Use a cotton cleaning cloth to dry off the blade of the squeegee between swipes, and to wipe up any liquid that puddles at the bottom edges of the windowpanes.

#4: Oven Cleaner

Ingredients:

2 cups hot water
1 Tablespoon natural dish liquid
1 teaspoon borax

Directions:

Mix the ingredients, spray on a spill, let sit for 20 minutes, and wipe off with a clean cloth. For handling an extra-greasy mess, wipe off as much loose goop as possible first with crumpled newspaper then use the spray.

If this doesn't handle your post-holiday disaster of an oven, check out our Nickel Pincher's tips to learn how to annihilate greasy, caked-on spills.

#5: Multi-Surface Cleaner
Pure, undiluted vinegar is a potent multi-surface cleaner. But if you feel like you need something with a little more grit, try this.

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons borax
1 teaspoon washing soda (not baking soda)
Hot water
4 Tablespoons vinegar
½ teaspoon natural liquid soap
¼ teaspoon tea tree oil
8 drops rosemary oil
8 drops tangerine oil
8 drops lavender oil

Directions:

Dissolve borax and washing soda (you’ll find both in the laundry boosters section of the supermarket) into 2 cups of very hot water, strain the mixture through a very fine sieve, then funnel into a 1-quart spray bottle (or forget the sieve and just pour in slowly, leaving behind any undissolved powder). Add the rest of the ingredients and shake to blend. Top off with more hot water and shake again.

#6: Laundry Detergent
Even though they found contaminants and allergens in dye- and fragrance-free products, it's hard to generalize the results of this report to all Free & Clear detergents, Gorman-Scranton says. But if you're particularly sensitive to allergens, it may be worth having a go at homemade laundry detergent. Here's one of our three easy laundry detergent recipes.

Basic Laundry Powder
Works best in warm or hot wash water.

Ingredients:

½ cup soap flakes or grated plain bar soap
½ cup borax
½ cup washing soda

Directions:

Combine ingredients well and store in a jar with an airtight lid. Use ½ to 1 tablespoon per load.