Did you know the cleaning products we use to keep our home spotless and germ-free are often packed with hazardous chemicals? Chemicals that are both harmful to our health and our environment. Finding products that are both non-toxic and eco-friendly that actually work can sometimes be a bit of a trial and error. To help make things easier for you, I’ve not only listed more than 14 non-toxic cleaning brands but explored the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting (because yes, there is a difference and it does matter!).
Deciphering Ingredient Labels
I don’t know about you when but when I flip a cleaning bottle over to read the ingredients (if they’re even listed) I feel like a kindergartner learning to read for the first time, stuttering as I read through letters that create words such as “butoxydiglycol,” which can be found in products such as Lysol’s Bathroom Cleaner.
Pronunciation aside (because there are non-toxic chemicals I can’t pronounce either, ha), many of the ingredients found in most commercial cleaning products can be pretty hazardous. Take butoxydiglycol, for example, a solvent cleaning agent that can be found in household cleaners and degreasers (it’s particularly good at removing soap scum). This chemical was banned by the EU at concentrations above 3% in aerosol cleaners as it’s been proven to irritate and inflame human lungs. 1 Then there’s 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent found in Simple Green. If 2-butoxyethanol is absorbed through the skin it’s been found to damage red blood cells and irritate eyes. 2
You can read more how harmful cleaning chemicals impact your health here.
Do non-toxic cleaning brands work?
This was something I struggled with for a while. My concern was that the non-toxic products I bought, or the DIY all-purpose cleaners I was making, weren’t going to work as well as the harsh chemical sprays I was used to using.
The reality is when it comes to keeping your home clean on a day to day basis, antibacterial and harsh cleansers are usually unnecessary. Or as experts shared here, “you don’t need weapons of mass disinfection to keep your home clean.” Of course I am not saying that these cleaners aren’t effective, they are. But, as I just mentioned, they’re often not necessary.
In order to better understand this I had to do some digging.
What’s the difference between disinfecting, cleaning, and sanitizing?
Cleaning vs disinfecting vs sanitizing.
Knowing the difference will help you select which cleaning products to use and when.
So let’s define them.
Here’s how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines them.
Cleaning: removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects (doesn’t necessarily kill them). Cleaning works by using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.
Sanitizing: lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.
Disinfecting: kills germs on surfaces or objects (inactivates 99.999% of germs). This process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.
For instance, you want to clean/sanitize countertops before and after food preparation and clean eating utensils and/or kids’ toys after use. But you should use disinfectant on high-risk areas that collect lots of germs, such as doorknobs, cabinet handles, areas exposed to feces, etc. 3
So what does this mean?
When it comes to your day-to-day cleaning and sanitizing in your home (I am not referring to hospitals here) you don’t need to use harsh chemicals. This is where eco-friendly and non-toxic cleaners are extremely useful.
A simple all-purpose cleaner will effectively and beautifully wash your mirrors, windows, counter tops, floors, etc. Yes, you might need to use a bit more elbow grease while cleaning your tub with non-toxic cleaners but at least you know you’re not inhaling toxic fumes, polluting the waterways, or harming your kids. The CDC reported kids ages 5 and under accounted for 35.7% of all calls to poison control centers from January to March 2020, with 46.9% of those calls involving disinfectants. 4
NOTE: This is not to say that all-natural cleaners are completely non-toxic. Essential oils used in certain “green” cleaners can equally be irritating to skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract. Just because it’s labeled “all-natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe to ingest. 5
What ingredients should I be avoiding and how can I avoid them?
It’s hard for consumers to know exactly what ingredients are being used in our cleaning products and what the labels actually mean. To better assist us, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Working Group have compiled a thorough list of safer cleaning products that we should be using.
You can also search the EPA’s Safer Choice Ingredients List here.
Safer Choice is the EPA’s label for safer chemical-based products. Every chemical, regardless of percentage, in a Safer Choice-labeled product is evaluated through EPA’s rigorous scientific process and only the safest ingredients are allowed.” 6
Safer Chemical Ingredients List (SCIL) is a list of chemical ingredients, arranged by functional-use class, that the Safer Choice Program has evaluated and determined to be safer than traditional chemical ingredients. This non-toxic cleaning brand list is designed to help manufacturers find safer chemical alternatives that meet the criteria of the Safer Choice Program. 7
Not sure how to decode the labels on your cleaning products? Check out EWG’s Decoding the Labels page here.
Also recommend you check out EWGs Safer Cleaning Supplies For Your Home Tip Sheet while you’re at it. Full of helpful tips as you transition to a more “natural” cleaning routine.
What to be on the lookout for:
According to the EPA when it comes to choosing safer cleaning products you should look for the following:
- Products that are third-party certified.
- The signal word Warning rather than Danger on the label.
- Fragrance-free and dye-free.
- All ingredients listed on the label or a website.
- No overwhelming chemical odor 8
When choosing Safer Disinfectants look for the following:
- EPA registration number.
- 0 rating on the Hazardous Materials Identification System (HMIS) health rating scale.
- The signal word Caution or Warning rather than Danger on the product label.
- Hospital-grade classification (this is a requirement of child care licensing agencies in most states).
- Short dwell time or the time the disinfectant must be left visibly wet on the surface. 9
What ingredients do you want to avoid?
Some of the most common ingredients to avoid/be on the lookout for include nonylphenol ethoxylates (look for “nonylphen” or “nonoxynol” within the ingredient name) and 2-butoxyethanol, butoxydiglycol, ethylene- or diethylene glycol monobutyl ether, diethylene glycol monomethyl ether or methoxydiglycol, Artificial Dyes, Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, Undisclosed Fragrance/Perfume, Benzophenone, Dimethicone, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, and Methylisothiazolinone.
- Always clean before you disinfect! Soil and grease interfere with any disinfectant’s germ-killing abilities 10
- Keep an old toothbrush to scrub the counter and those hard-to-clean tile corners.
- Consider investing in a microfiber cloth. These are not only reusable but, according to the EPA, help to remove organic matter (dirt, oils, grease) as well as germs (up to 99%) from surfaces. (Note: it does create microplastics in the wash — we will talk about how to avoid that next week).11
- If you want to use a sponge, microwave it for two minutes every day (make sure your sponge is wet and doesn’t contain any metal), or put it in the dishwasher every time you run it. 12
Non-toxic cleaning brands:
Common Good (offers refills)
** Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castille Liquid Soaps (one of my favorite brands!)
Eco Me (all-purpose cleaners, dish soap, etc.)
**Ecover Zero (Dishwasher Tablets + dish soap (one of my favorite brands!)
Method (dish soaps, all-purpose cleaners, etc.)
Molly’s Suds (natural cleaning supplies)
Public Goods (Great Dishwasher Detergent Pods + refillable cleaners, etc.)
Puracy (Dish Soap, All-Purpose, etc.)
Veles (all-purpose (refillable) zero waste cleaner made from food waste)
Rebel Green (Dish Soap, All-Purpose, etc.)
Seventh Generation (their Dishwasher Detergent Pods are great!)
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