Detoxing Your Home

A smart guide to spring cleaning—for your health and the environment

Labels like “all-natural,” “biodegradable,” “plant-based,” “non-toxic,” “eco-friendly,” and “hypoallergenic” can make walking down the cleaning aisle a dizzying experience. With a government-sponsored regulating body yet to emerge and law that allows product manufacturers to withhold naming ingredients on packaging, consumers may find it impossible to decode green claims. To help, we asked Steve Ashkin, who worked as a chemical formulator during his 30 years in the cleaning industry and now runs The Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit information clearinghouse based in Bloomington, Indiana (greencleaningnetwork.org). He gave us tips for removing household gunk without harming the planet; since Ashkin is aggressively brand-neutral, we provide the product recommendations that follow each tip based on his guidelines. And cleaning greener needn’t cost a fortune. For example, Ashkin agrees with this basic notion: One good way to detox a house is simply to open the windows.

KEY
BIO: Biodegradable
The product contains elements that will biodegrade after being disposed of
NONTOX: Nontoxic Does not include chlorine, ammonia, or other chemicals deemed hazardous when inhaled.
NAT: All-Natural Made from natural, plant-based (as opposed to petroleum-based) ingredients.
HYPO: Hypoallergenic Causes fewer allergic reactions, contains fewer allergens.
SUSTAIN: Made sustainably A catchall term that can indicate a range of corporate practices, including purchasing carbon offsets, making packaging from recycled materials, and replanting resources for the natural ingredients after they’ve been harvested.
RE: Recyclable The item can be recycled or has been recycled or repurposed.

 

1 GET A GOOD DOORMAT. Homes get dirty primarily because we take what’s outdoors, indoors. Ashkin says using an entryway mat does a surprisingly good job of trapping the particles and moisture brought in by shoes, reducing the need to sweep, vacuum, and mop. Buy a mat that resembles low-pile carpet—in other words, something soft and absorbent with a textured surface—and wipe your feet two to three times before entering. Then, vacuum the mat twice a week. Avoid the slew of doormats hitting the market that are labeled “green” just because they’re made from materials like recycled flip-flops or rubber tires. What doormats are made of matters less than how effectively they grab dirt and wetness from the bottoms of shoes. Ashkin suggests an even better fix: Impose a no-shoes policy inside your house.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND
Dr. Doormat ($59)
Available at drdoormat.com
BIO | NONTOX

Low Profile Water Trap Mats ($60)
Available at brookstone.com
HYPO

2 BUY A GOOD VACUUM CLEANER AND CHANGE THE BAG OFTEN. Counterintuitively, indoor air quality can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor space, according to the EPA’s Web site. One way to scrub the air, says Ashkin, is to suck up potential allergens with a vacuum cleaner that filters its exhaust; a HEPA filter, for example, can trap up to 99.9 percent of dust and particles. Ashkin also says to change the bag when it’s half full to maintain optimal suction, and to avoid trendy bagless vacuums, which are difficult to empty without releasing dust back into your house. For help in choosing a vacuum, Ashkin points to the Web site maintained by the Carpet and Rug Institute (carpet-rug.com), a not-for-profit organization that lab-tests and certifies vacuums based on particle emissions and the ability to remove soil without harming your carpet. The C&R Institute also certifies vacuums under its Seal of Approval program. Vacuums awarded “gold” certification (including the three listed below) must have closed canisters and multilevel filtration systems that remove 99.9 percent of pollen, pet dander, hair, mold, dust and dust mites, and other respiratory irritants.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND
Oreck XL Gold
($500)
Available at The Oreck Clean Home Center (2121 N. Clybourn Ave.; 773-477-1700)
HYPO

Hoover 12-inch Signature Lightweight Upright ($319)
Available at vacuumcleaners.net; 888-822-8861
HYPO

Riccar Vibrance Standard ($299)
Available at B & V Vacuums (5615 W. Lawrence Ave.; 773-685-1880)
HYPO

3 SWITCH TO NONTOXIC HOUSEHOLD CLEANERS. Fumes produced by common household cleaners may or may not cause cancer in human beings as they are known to do in animals; however, a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that exposure to cleaning products accounts for 15 percent of asthma cases. When shopping, be aware of “greenwashing”—a term used to describe an emerging class of products that are falsely or misleadingly marketed as eco-friendly; for example, cleaning wipes that are “biodegradable” when in fact the claim applies only to the cleaning solution and not the wipes themselves. Instead look for more substantive language such as “no chlorine bleach” or “no synthetic fragrances or dyes.” For those who don’t trust products from newer, eco-friendly brands to clean well, Ashkin says to try nontoxic products from well-known makers; for example, Clorox, which recently introduced its Green Works line. Even though there are no federal requirements for green consumer goods, Ashkin says, the big corporations are more or less self-policing when it comes to the veracity of product claims. “If, for example, Clorox claims its green product works as well as conventional cleaners and it doesn’t, they’ll have to answer to competitors,” he says.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND
Clorox Green Works

Available at most stores
BIO | NAT | NONTOX

Method
Available at methodhome.com
BIO | SUSTAIN | NAT | NONTOX

Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day
Available at Target and Whole Foods
BIO | NAT | NONTOX

Seventh Generation
Available at Walgreens
BIO | HYPO | SUSTAIN | NAT | NONTOX

4 USE—AND REUSE—MICROFIBER. Reduce paper waste by investing in a few microfiber cloths, which can survive up to 1,000 washes. Microfiber is an ultrafine synthetic fiber, typically a mix of polyester and nylon, woven into a textile. Because the fibers are so fine, microfiber cloths and mops trap more particles and hold more water than sponges, paper towels, and cotton mops. Microfiber does absorb oils and can also replace disposable Swiffer wipes due to its own electrostatic properties.

WHAT WE RECOMMEND
Rubbermaid 16-inch microfiber general-purpose cloth
(six pack, $61)
Available at homedepot.com
HYPO | RE

Zwipes microfiber cloths ($8)
Available at acehardware.com
HYPO | RE

Libman Tornado microfiber mop ($12)
Available at target.com
HYPO | RE

Bona Microfiber Mop (six pack, $162)
Available at acehardware.com
HYPO | RE

 

GREENER CLEANERS
So far, only a handful of cleaning services in Chicago bill themselves as green. We asked three such services about their practices and which products they use:

SPARKLE QUEEN
773-832-4895, sparklequeen.com
Lead time: Schedule appointments two to four days in advance.
Fee for average two-bedroom apartment:
First cleaning is $82 per hour; then a flat fee will be determined for subsequent appointments, usually $100 per visit.
Number of professionals sent:
Two.
Why they’re green:
Sparkle Queen uses green cleaning products, including microfiber towels.
In business since: 2003.
BIO | NAT | NONTOX

THE GREEN MAID
877-677-6243, greenmaidinc.com
Lead time: Schedule appointments one week in advance (but they can often do week-of).
Fee for average two-bedroom apartment:
$108.
Number of professionals sent:
Three.
Why they’re green:
They use only Green Seal certified products and microfiber, and drive a fuel-efficient compact car for transportation.
In business since:
2007.
NONTOX

GREENSWEEP CHICAGO
773-697-8190, greensweepchicago.com
Lead time: One week in advance or sooner.
Fee for average two-bedroom apartment:
$75 to $130 depending on state of home.
Number of professionals sent:
Two.
Why they’re green:
GreenSweep uses only Shaklee cleaning products, microfiber towels, reduced packaging; tries to conserve water when possible, and print all its office paperwork and advertising materials on recycled paper.
In business since: 2008.
BIO | HYPO | NAT | NONTOX | RE

 

Illustration: Courtney Wotherspoon

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