1. Believing the word "natural" on a label. Unfortunately, the word "natural" (or "green" or "ecofriendly") on a label or cleaning recipe is no guarantee a product is safe or even natural. If the ingredients aren't clearly listed on the label, check out the brand's website. If a cleaning product manufacturer still isn't totally transparent about what's in the bottle there, or if the names of the ingredients are unfamiliar to you, try looking up the product or the ingredients in the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Healthy Cleaning database. Better (and cheaper) yet: Make your own cleaning products from nontoxic ingredients you know and trust.
2. Coming on too strong. Failing to dilute vinegar, lemon juice, and other natural cleaners as directed increases the risk of damaging what you are trying to clean, plus, it's a waste of money. For most cleaning jobs, you only need a very dilute solution to do the job, so follow label instructions, and if you are making your own products, stick with recipes from sources you trust.
3. Mixing products. Combining two or more products might seem like a good way to boost your cleaning power, but combining the wrong things can produce dangerous gases (see no. 9) or possibly neutralize their cleaning power completely. Pick a single product—the gentlest one that is likely to work—and follow the instructions.
4. Rushing the process. Spray or wipe a cleaner onto a surface and let it sit for at least a couple of minutes before scrubbing or wiping it off. This allows the cleaner time to surround and lift dirt particles and lets the gentle natural disinfectants kill germs. You may even want to make a final pass right before heading out the door or off to bed, spraying germ hot spots like door knobs, soap dispensers, and faucet handles and leaving them to air-dry, for maximum effect.
5. Buying poor-quality essential oils. Essential oils like lavender, thyme, and rosemary don't just smell great—they're also powerful disinfectants. "All contain a multitude of plant chemicals that possess antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and antiviral actions," explains ethnobotanist Michael Balick, PhD, author of Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal. "By adding a few drops of these essential oils to your homemade cleaning products, you can boost their cleaning power and impart a delightful fragrance that makes cleaning more pleasurable."
But high-quality essential oils are pricey to produce, and some unscrupulous venders may cut corners, using dangerous solvents or diluting the essential oils to produce a less-expensive product. To get the full power, be sure to choose products that contain 100 percent essential oil, preferably organic (so you aren't buying concentrated pesticides), produced by steam distillation and produced and packaged per the International Organization for Standardization Guidelines (ISO).
6. Assuming natural products won't damage surfaces or fabrics. Nontoxic cleaners may be safer for you than commercial chemical cocktails, but that doesn't mean they aren't capable of reacting with, fading, scratching, or etching surfaces and other items you want to clean. Natural stone surfaces are notorious for being damaged by unwise cleaning product choices. Always test your cleaner on a small, inconspicuous area before proceeding.
7. Assuming natural products won't damage you. Just because a product is natural and nontoxic doesn't mean extended exposure can't irritate or even damage your skin or eyes. If you are doing more than giving something a quick swipe, it's a good idea to wear gloves. Stash a pair in each bathroom and keep a pair in the kitchen to use on surfaces and things that food touches. (Try natural latex rubber like these from If You Care.) If latex is a problem for you, stick with vinyl gloves. If you are using anything that might drip or blow into your face, a pair of safety goggles is another good insurance measure.
8. Using too much water/cleaning product. Your home is not the deck of a ship: You don't need to slosh buckets of liquid around to do a good job. The wetter you get things, the longer it will take you to dry everything out again and the higher the chances that moisture will remain, fueling the growth of unhealthy molds. For hard surfaces, spritz or wipe on just enough product to wet a manageable section of the surface, let it sit to work, scrub as needed, and then wipe the surface dry with a dry cloth. Be even more careful when you are working with absorbent surfaces, making sure that the cleaned object can dry rapidly and completely after you clean it. (If you do come across a moisture problem, here's how to get rid of mold naturally.)
9. Using chlorine bleach or anything containing chlorine. If you grew up associating the smell of chlorine with safe swimming pools and clean white laundry, you might struggle with giving it up. But keep this in mind: The very characteristics that make chlorine good at killing germs make it dangerous for all cells and living creatures in general. Low concentrations may be safe, but higher concentrations (straight out of the bleach bottle) can burn your skin and mucous membranes, and high enough concentrations can kill you.
Need more reason to put the cap on your love affair with bleach? Chlorine is a highly reactive element and combines readily with other substances to form toxic compounds, such as dioxins, haloforms, chloroform, and other organochlorides, that build up in the environment and are harmful to wildlife and humans. Above all, never, ever combine it with other cleaning products, especially ammonia or anything acid (vinegar, lemon juice), as that will instantly release chlorine gas, the element's most immediately dangerous form.
10. Using disposable wipes and paper products. Marketers may try to hoodwink you into thinking paper towels and single-use wipes are safer for your family than cleaning cloths and sponges, but it simply isn't so. If you wash and disinfect cleaning cloths and sponges properly, they are just as safe, are more effective, and are far less expensive for you and the environment in the long run. Save paper towels (or rags that are getting threadbare and are ready to be discarded) for really vile jobs, and go reusable for everything else.
11. Cleaning out your humidifier infrequently (or not at all). Changing the water daily and scrubbing the holding tank out twice a week with a nontoxic surface cleaner should help keep bacteria, viruses, and mold from reproducing and getting spewed out into the air you breathe.
12. Climbing on chairs or balancing on the top step of stepladders. If you need to reach something above your head, be sure you have the right tools, and use them safely so you don't fall and end up in the emergency room. If you have high ceilings and/or windows, stock up on cleaning tools with extendable handles so you can stand firmly on the floor and extend your reach as needed.
13. Sweeping up dry rodent waste. Mice and rats (and even other wildlife like raccoons) sometimes make latrines out of places we would rather they hadn't, including attics, crawl spaces, and porches. While it is very important to clean up urine and droppings promptly to avoid being exposed to potential parasites and nasty germs they may contain (as in roundworms, hantavirus, and bubonic plague), going about it the wrong way by kicking up dust and carelessly touching surfaces can put you at a high risk of exposure and infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing rubber gloves, spraying the waste with a mixture of 1 part chlorine bleach and 10 parts water, letting that soak in for 5 minutes, and then wiping up the visible mess with paper towels and putting them in the trash. Once the visible waste is removed, give your gloves a good wash with your disinfectant, toss any soiled clothing into the washing machine, wash your hands, and give the entire area a good cleaning. It's also important to humanely trap the offending animals (and/or securely close off their entry points if it's an enclosed area) to prevent further problems.
14. You don't properly store your homemade cleaners. Storing your homemade, plant-based cleaning concoctions in plastic can be problemtic. "Because essential oils break down plastic over time, it's best to store your homemade cleaning products in labeled, dark glass containers," explains Balick. (Plastic spray bottles are fine for short-term storage of smaller quantities.) "Also, remember to store all cleaning products—even those made with natural ingredients—in a cool, dark location where children and pets cannot reach them," Balick adds.
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