Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” surface cleaner, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
From mopping down tiles to disinfecting that heavily-used doorknob, multi-purpose surface cleaners can do it all… and people love it. In fact, the multi-purpose cleaner industry is projected to reach a value of $5.15 billion by 2026. We know that highlighter icy blue liquid gets surfaces clean… but what else is it doing that our eyes can’t see?
What to Be Wise On:
There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of a non-streaky swipe across a wooden banister, granite countertop, or glass window, but it’s key to be cautious about what’s going on behind the scenes. The inhalation of some of the chemicals in many multi-purpose cleaning products is associated with respiratory effects like asthma and can harm marine life and our waterways. Let’s take a look at what’s getting the crumbs off your table and leaving a heavenly lemony scent… because some kinds of multi-purpose surface cleaners can do a lot of harm to human health, water systems, and the climate as a whole.
The Factors to Consider:
Multi-purpose cleaners can contain a lot of ingredients to get your surfaces squeaky clean, from alkalies, to sanitizers, to foaming agents. They also may include dyes… for purely aesthetic reasons. And for that characteristically potent clean smell? You can probably expect a variety of fragrances. Many general-purpose cleaning tasks don’t actually require the use of disinfectants – the EPA recommends only using them in high-touch areas. So, look for options certified by the EPA’s Design for Environment Program of safer chemistry. A good rule of thumb? Don’t use the neon stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Alkalies are a common ingredient in household cleaners because they help to remove oily dirt. They range in strength from mild mixtures, like baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar, to stronger mixtures, like trisodium phosphate. It’s important to know that trisodium phosphate and other phosphates can cause eutrophication, which is the mineral over-enrichment of bodies of water. This can be a natural process that develops aquatic ecosystems, but it can also be an indication of nutrient imbalances as a result of pollution. While it might sound beautiful, algal bloom – a result of eutrophication – can be harmful to aquatic life and can contaminate drinking sources.
On the other hand, baking soda and pure acetic acid (vinegar), according to their OSHA Material Data Safety Sheet (which lists the hazardous ingredients of a product), can alter the pH of aquatic environments of soil, harming planet and wildlife, but only in very high quantities – not from cleaning your kitchen table. Baking soda and vinegar as a cleaning agent is actually extremely effective – this mixture can neutralize tons of stinky and staining substances while also killing germs and pathogens, like salmonella. If you’re not interested in DIY-ing your cleaning products, you can also look for those with a neutral or low pH, like dish detergent.
According to the CDC, for an ethanol-based cleaner to be considered an effective disinfectant, it should contain at least 70% ethanol. Ethanol is made from corn and is often used as an alternative to fossil fuel sources. It has driven up corn prices and production, which is often grown as a monoculture crop and can pose serious biodiversity problems and has land-use implications.
Another commonly used sanitizer we’re all familiar with is bleach. The active ingredient in bleach is sodium hypochlorite. Sodium hypochlorite has some scary and serious implications if it gets into surface water without treatment, and has been demonstrated to impair the functioning of the liver, enzyme systems, and metabolic cycles in fish exposed to it. While it’s extremely effective against germs and bacteria, bleach can also pose some human health problems. Over-exposure can cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation… which can get serious enough to require medical attention. No, thanks. Use bleach with caution, and never mix a bleach-based product with an ammonia-based product. This creates a gas that can lead to respiratory problems and even death. Bleach mixed with alcohol can form chloroform, which you may be familiar with from spy movies. The inhalation of chloroform can cause liver and kidney damage. So, basically…don’t mix bleach with other stuff. Please.
We all are familiar with that lemon breeze scent that comes along with the shiny clean surface at our parents’ house. Unfortunately, there’s an insidious side to that smell. Recent research has found that the fragrances in cleaning products can react with ozone, a harmful gas that can exacerbate lung problems like asthma. Ozone can come from indoor sources, like electronic devices. When this reaction occurs, it forms formaldehyde, a human carcinogen (or cancer-causing substance).
Something about a bright blue or cheery yellow may seem to make our cleaning products a little more effective…but they’re purely aesthetic. What’s not so beautiful about them is that these color additives are primarily derived from petroleum and coal, or fossil fuels, which contribute significantly to climate change. Can’t go without those colors to light up your day? Check out Liquitint Blue HP Dye or Liquitint Bright Yellow Dye. A study on the polymers in these two color additives found that they do not pose an unreasonable risk to the environment.
We’ve talked through the ingredients of multi-purpose surface cleaners and we can all agree that they’re heavy-duty. This means that the packaging they come in has to be able to withstand degradation. Enter: plastic. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a plastic commonly used for cleaning products because it’s UV resistant and able to withstand extreme temperatures. Good news? HDPE is readily recyclable (depending on your local municipality’s recycling capabilities).
Not so good news? A study using a life cycle assessment (LCA) evaluation on products manufactured from virgin HDPE and recycled HDPE from post-consumer packages had some interesting results. Using a CML 2 method, they found that when it comes to human toxicity and eutrophication, the virgin HDPE has significantly higher impacts, but in ozone layer depletion, climate change, and acidification the recycled HDPE was the clear loser, creating significantly higher impacts. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a clear answer? Guess we should dig a little deeper…
…One of the main ingredients in multi-purpose cleaners is water. Due to the water-energy nexus, moving and cleaning water requires energy, and so the more water used, the more energy needed…and the higher the emissions. Even worse, water weighs a lot. The heavier the bottle, the more fuel, and energy is required in transportation.
Seems like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, huh? Not so fast. If you want to ditch the plastic and water, opt for lighter-weight products. Some brands offer highly concentrated tablets that can be dissolved in water at home, so the emissions associated with shipping are significantly less. And, you can re-use whatever spray bottle container you already have.
A Few Takeaways:
Multi-purpose cleaners get a lot of jobs done just in one bottle (or tablet!), and there are a lot of different factors to consider when choosing the one that’s right for you. Many multi-purpose cleaners have strong chemicals in them that can cause both human and planetary harm. And, while chemicals aren’t inherently evil, those fragrances and dyes sometimes aren't as friendly as they look or smell. The container your cleaner comes in matters, too – opt for highly concentrated tablets to cut down on waste. If you’re feeling crafty, you might even want to make your own cleaner with vinegar and baking soda.
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Common Questions We Get:
“What are the most environmentally friendly cleaning products?”
Environmentally friendly cleaning products don’t really exist… and if a product states that it is, it’s probably greenwashing. As consumers, we want to use products that work and don’t harm the planet. A recent survey found that 60% of people studied would pay slightly more for an environmentally friendly all-purpose cleaner, so you’re not alone. Luckily, there are options out there that can have a less harmful impact on the environment. Look for fragrance-free and dye-free products, and don’t use disinfectants or sanitizers unless absolutely necessary (like in high-touch areas).
“What are examples of green cleaning products?”
We hate to break it to you, but there’s no such thing as a “green” cleaning product. All products have some form of impact on the environment. However, there are some options that prevent waste, increase energy efficiency, and are designed to be safer. Check out the list of our favorites, and look for options certified by the EPA’s Design for Environment Program of safer chemistry.
“How do you make a natural multi-purpose cleaner?”
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a multi-purpose cleaner in nature, and while individual ingredients or materials might be derived from nature, that does not mean they’re more “sustainable.” If you’re looking to make a multi-purpose cleaner at home, consider baking soda mixtures and vinegar mixtures. A study found that two of these mixtures, using the peels of citric fruits and rosemary as scents, were effective in cleaning and deodorizing surfaces and relatively safe for people and the planet. Cha-ching!