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In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 55 percent of students said they consider the health effects of cleaning products when deciding which to purchase. Even college campuses are making choices that are environmentally sound and health-conscious.

Robert Blackwell*, a custodial services employee at Boston University in Massachusetts, says, “We use chemical-free [machines] that require minimal water. We’re trying to contribute to the health and safety of staff and students.”

Mystery Ingredients Revealed

Cleaning products can be made from simple, natural ingredients. But most of the well-known brands contain a variety of potentially toxic chemicals and additives. Here are some things to look for on labels:

  • “Flammable” or “Corrosive” warnings:Can cause irritation and headaches. Use carefully in well-ventilated areas.
  • Ingredient names ending in “ol” or “-ene”: Indicators of  toxic solvents.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Can cause headache, nausea, allergic skin reaction, eye, nose, and throat irritation; cancer-causing in animals and humans.
  • Trisodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA): Can cause skin, eye, nose, and respiratory irritation; may be cancer-causing.

More Ingredient Explanations

Ethoxylated nonylphenols (NPE):
Found in laundry detergent and dust-control products.

Health effects: Can disrupt the endocrine system (e.g., hormones and cell growth); Extremely toxic to aquatic animals.

Sodium hypochlorite or “chlorine bleach”:
The chemical in household bleach and bleach-containing products, such as cleaners and disinfectants.

Health effects: Skin irritation, severe eye injury, headache, respiratory irritation. If bleach is mixed with other cleaning agents, poisonous acids and gases form.

CAUTION! Never mix products containing bleach with those with ammonia (such as commercial window-cleaning solutions). The combination can create a fatal gas.

Healthier Alternatives

Products are safer for your body and the environment when they’re:

  • Nontoxic and hypoallergenic
  • Biodegradable and natural
  • Chlorine- and phosphate-free

But perhaps you’re thinking, “Those products are expensive.” According to the recent Student Health 101 survey, 93 percent of students consider price when choosing what to buy. Nicole F., a sophomore at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, says, “I opt for cheaper products because I’m on a tight budget.” But healthy doesn’t automatically equal pricey.

More green-clean myths and facts

Myths & Facts: Cleaning Products

Myth: If a full list of ingredients is on the product label, it’s safe.
Fact: Toxic chemicals are often hidden in generic terms like “surfactants” or “dispersal agents.”

Myth: Healthy products cost more.
Fact: Most “green” products are comparable in price to traditional brands. Also compare ingredients; many store-brand options are now available. If you make homemade cleaning products they’ll cost only pennies.

Myth: Natural options don’t last as long as the big bottles of conventional products.
Fact: Many natural products are concentrated, meaning you’ll use less each time and therefore, save money.

Easy Do-It-Yourself Options

It’s cheap to make your own cleaning products. Here are some easy options:

  • Cleaner and deodorizer: Mix equal parts distilled white vinegar and water. Use on countertops, showers and tubs, and even to clean gold jewelry. Larissa S., a senior at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, says, “I use vinegar to clean my shower, mirror, and stainless steel.”
  • Deodorizer and degreaser: Sprinkle baking soda in drains or place an open box in the fridge. Mix with water to form a paste and scrub kitchenware and other greasy items, or use as a toilet bowl cleaner.

Not all cleaning products are created equal, so take the time to choose carefully.

* Name changed for privacy.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are found in:

  • Aerosol spray products
  • Air fresheners
  • Disinfectants
  • Degreasers
  • Dish soap

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people are exposed to “very high pollutant levels” when using products containing VOCs. Further, they explain that the chemicals remain in the air long after you’ve stopped cleaning.

Use these products with caution, if at all, and only in rooms with access to fresh air.

More chemical-free cleaning recipes

Do-It-Yourself Cleaning Products: Safe, Effective, and Cheap!

Stain remover for clothes:
Mix water with a squirt of natural dish soap and hydrogen peroxide. Plain club soda works, too.

Drain de-clogger:
Mix 1 cup salt, 1 cup baking soda, and ¼ cup cream of tartar in a bowl. Pour ¼ cup of the mixture down the drain at a time, followed each time by 2 cups of very hot water. (Protect your hands and arms with towels or oven mitts.)

Toilet bowl cleaner:
Pour 1 cup borax (available at grocery stores) and ¼ cup white vinegar in the toilet bowl. Let stand (even overnight) and then scrub with a toilet brush.

Glass cleaner:
Combine 1 cup water, 1 cup white vinegar, and ½ tsp. natural liquid soap in a spray bottle. Alternatively, use newspaper dampened with a bit of vinegar directly on the glass.

Disinfectant:
Undiluted vinegar or a lemon wedge will kill most household germs.

Silver cleaner:
Scrub gently with plain, white toothpaste.

Coffee-maker cleaner:
Fill the reservoir with white distilled vinegar and run it through a cycle.

TIP! You can make your own personal-care products, too. For example, Albert R., a senior at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, shares, “Vinegar and baking soda can replace shampoo.”

EXTRA TIP! A few drops of lavender essential oil, herbal tea, or the zest of a lemon or orange will add a pleasant scent to your homemade cleansers.

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Alison Lazzaro is a registered nurse and recent graduate of The College of New Jersey. She currently works in the intensive care unit in a busy trauma center in Delaware.