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” tub & tile 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.
While most all-purpose cleaners will get the job done just fine, sometimes people want a little extra oomph to ensure the bathroom is as clean as possible. Experts recommend cleaning a tub or shower on a bi-weekly basis, and that means that there could be a lot of heavy-duty chemicals going into removing all that grime. What should we be aware of? Read on, Mr. Clean.
What to Be Wise On:
Nothing is grimier than a grimey bathroom… except maybe some of the commonly-used ingredients that go into making a tub sparkle. Candidly, many products aren’t even trying to hide it. Several leading brands that sell tub & tile cleaners have warning labels right on their products stating that they are hazardous to humans and domestic animals. From fragrances to phthalates to ammonia and bleach, tub & tile cleaners can use several questionable ingredients all in the name of sanitation. No, thanks. Learn the trade-offs of making that bathroom tile shine.
The Factors To Consider:
While it’s sometimes difficult to find a full ingredient list for traditional tub & tile cleaners, here are some of the most common offenders to keep an eye out for. To help you make a more conscious purchase, you can also look out for EPA Safer Choice labels – products with this label meet more strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health, so they're safer for you, your family, your pets, workers’ health, fish, and the environment.
Ammonia is one of the most commonly produced industrial chemicals in the U.S. and is often found in tub & tile cleaners. Ammonium hydroxide breaks down oils and grime, which is why it’s used in many products to eradicate all the gross stuff that gets stuck in your tile grout. Ammonia is not a disinfectant, however, so some products turn to bleach, which can kill bacteria and germs on contact.
Bleach is a solution made of chlorine gas, caustic soda, and water that results in the formation of sodium hypochlorite. While known for its whitening properties, bleach isn’t the most effective at cutting through grime. But, you’ll never find bleach and ammonia in the same product. Combining these two materials produces a toxic gas called chloramine that can lead to actual pneumonia or even fatality when inhaled in acute doses.
Even when used individually, ammonia and bleach both need to be handled with care. Although ammonia is produced naturally from decomposed organic matter, it’s not without its faults. Just like bleach, ammonia can be corrosive to skin, eyes, and lungs. Ammonia is also a common cause of fish kills and can negatively impact aquatic growth and gill development.
Baking Soda, Vinegar, and Sodium Percarbonate
Luckily, there are some safer alternatives to ammonia and bleach. A homemade mixture of baking soda and white distilled vinegar has been shown to remove grime without ammonia. Combining the acid (baking soda) and the base (vinegar) creates salty water and carbon dioxide gas that can help lift dirt from the surfaces being cleaned. These common kitchen supplies don’t release noxious gasses, making them a great substitute to ammonia. Similarly, sodium percarbonate, or oxygen bleach, is a white, odorless powder that has become a common replacement for bleach. This material can perform the same function without harming human health.
The downside? The production processes for these alternatives aren't any better than ammonia and bleach. Since bleach, sodium percarbonate and vinegar are manufactured in large petrochemical facilities that use methane, and since baking soda comes from trona mining, which also emits methane, all of these materials release high proportions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. So even though these alternatives can reduce risks to human health, they still come with a high environmental toll in production.
Since ammonia and bleach aren’t the nicest smelling materials, it’s common for tub & tile cleaners to incorporate fragrances to mask those pungent smells. While we might prefer smelling citrus over the strong stench of bleach, fragrances bring their own host of concerns. When fragrances mix with smog (which already worsens lung diseases), they can form formaldehyde, a human carcinogen. And, 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). Opting for tub & tile cleaners that are fragrance-free can contribute to a healthier breathing space in your home.
The pronunciation isn’t the only thing confusing about phthalates, which is a large class of chemicals used as binders and plasticizers in many household products, including tub & tile cleaner. More companies are labeling cleaners with “no phthalates,” and for good reason. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. While some major retailers and brands have been phasing phthalates out of products over the past decade, it’s still safer to grab a cleaner that specifies it’s phthalate-free.
The ingredients in some tub & tile cleaners can be pretty corrosive, so they often require some heavy-duty packaging. Most traditional cleaners are packaged in high-density polyethylene (HDPE) because it’s a non-leaching plastic that can withstand extreme temperatures and is UV resistant. Even though HDPE is one of the easiest plastic polymers to recycle, a life cycle assessment (LCA) showed that recycled HDPE actually has higher impacts on ozone layer depletion, climate change, and acidification than virgin HDPE.
For those looking to ditch plastic…there’s good news! More brands are emerging that offer highly concentrated tablets that can be dissolved in water at home in a reusable glass container. Plus, the tablet options weigh far less than a typical tub & tile cleaner, which can significantly cut back on shipping-related emissions.
A Few Key Takeaways:
Tub & tile cleaners might keep some of the dirtiest places in our homes clean, but they can come with a lot of unintended consequences. Many of these cleaners have ingredients and come in packaging that can stymie human and aquatic life development. Opting for package-free tablets made without some of those more concerning ingredients can cut down on waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
Common Questions We Get
“How do I clean my bathroom naturally?”
While we’d hardly say there’s anything “natural” about the ingredients that go into cleaning your bathroom, we also want to clarify that just because an ingredient is derived from nature doesn’t guarantee that it’s more sustainable. If you’re looking to ditch bleach or ammonia, however, consider baking soda and vinegar mixtures, which are effective in cleaning surfaces and are relatively safe for people and the environment.
“Can you disinfect the bathroom without bleach?”
It will be difficult to fully disinfect without bleach, but if you want something less harsh than chlorine bleach, look for oxygen bleach, or sodium percarbonate. This can clean and disinfect as well as chlorine bleach, but without the obnoxious smell and with far fewer impacts to human health. And remember, many general-purpose cleaning tasks don’t actually require the use of disinfectants – the EPA recommends only using them in high-touch areas.