Cleaning House Naturally

The truth about natural cleaners

Disclaimer: While there are many homemade cleaning products one can use, this post will focus on products sold in stores.  All products were purchased with my own money.  No sponsors or free product testing here, therefore you can be sure the following product reviews are 100% my own unbiased opinion. 

No one likes to clean house, but here's something that will make you resent all that cleaning even more.  Most cleaning products leave a little something behind.  Residue in the form of fragrances, preservatives, allergens, and even carcinogens.  Some cleaners could unknowingly be contributing to your allergies or asthma.  I know this all too well.  I've been using mostly toxic-free cleaners for over a year now, but I also work in a high-end consignment clothing shop.   Everything comes in freshly laundered and at some point, during every shift, I have a sneeze-fest.

50 shades of "green"

The more I researched toxic-free cleaners the more confused I got.  So many products claim to be natural and safe for you, but sad to say, most miss the mark or blatantly lie.  You see, there is no black and white when it comes to what makes a product "natural".  Here's why:

  • Lack of government standards.  Anyone can slap on an organic, natural, safe, or non-toxic label on their product.  There is no standards to measure against.
  • Lack of ingredient disclosure.  Some companies are not forthcoming about the ingredients they use or use broad terms like "coconut derived cleaning agents".
  • Processing.   Some "naturally derived plant based" ingredients are processed in a way that leaves them no better than their synthetic counterparts.
  • Lack of consistency in the product line.  Within most brands, some products were clean and some weren't.  You can't be loyal to a particular brand.
  • Colours and Fragrances.   Unnecessary and used to make pretty products.  Fragrances and natural oils can refer to more than 3,000 different substances. Some are okay.  Most are not.
  • Preservatives.  And hence, my biggest "aha" moment.  The minute you add water to a product you need to add a preservative to keep bacteria out.  It is necessary.  The only way around this is to buy granular and add the water yourself at the time of use.  

In recent years the marketplace has become filled with cleaning products claiming to be safe and natural.   But are they really?

Free & Gentle?

Is tide free & gentle really natural?
sorry...undercover crappy phone pic
Let's start with the "gentler" products of big manufacturers.  Once upon a gullible time, I switched to Tide Free and Gentle thinking it was the better choice for our family.  Surely a big trusted company wouldn't mess with a product marketed for babies!

Turns out Tide wasn't so "free" after all.  According to it took this petition for Tide to remove several cancer causing chemicals from its Free & Gentle laundry detergent.  On Jan. 24, 2013 Procter & Gamble agreed in court to significantly reduce the levels of the chemical 1,4 dioxane (classified as a known carcinogen in California).

Here's the thing, 1,4 dioxane is not an ingredient you add to a product.  It is a known and expected by-product from ingredients ("PEGs" and "eths").  It's in many products people repeatedly use each day.   The problem is Tide uses multiple ingredients that cause this by-product in each bottle.  They agreed to reduce them solely to avoid warning labels on their bottles and still maintain the levels produced were acceptable in North America. thanks Tide.

Becoming "Green smart"

the truth about green and natural cleanersHere's where thing get dicey.  Many smaller "natural" companies do avoid certain toxic ingredients, but often they are not the best choice or even better than conventional cleaners.

The sneakiest problem is surfactants.  Just like in salad dressing, water doesn't cling to oil.  So detergents use a surfactant made up of molecules that have two different ends.  The one end clings to the water and the other end clings to oil and grease.  When the two ends pass by each other, they are attracted and cling all the way down the drain.

Surfactants are derived from oily substances like petroleum or coconuts.  Harsh chemical processing reverses how the molecules naturally work (making the water and oil attract instead of repel like they should).  The processed product, whether it's petroleum or coconuts, can no longer be called "natural".   Many natural cleaners like iQ, method and greenworks boast "coconut derived surfactants".  They want you to think it's from healthy good for you coconuts, but the molecules have been completely messed with.   Surfactants are known irritants.  They also continue working past the drain, affecting our environment and aquatic life.

is method brand cleaner really natural?
An old bottle of method filled with Dr. Bronner's.  Ha!
I often use the Environmental Working Group Guide to Healthy Cleaning for leads on better products.  Surprisingly, both Method and Seventh Generation have failing grades.  At this time, 90% of Method's products score a C to an F grade.  Seventh Generation does a little better with over 40% of its products scoring good A or B grades.

They both address their failing grades in their respective blogs.  Method doesn't think the EWG's rating system is scientifically accurate while Seventh Generation seems committed to improving and offers some explanations for their dismal scores.   Reading the responses makes for an interesting debate.  The main conflict results from the EWG using stricter standards, like those of the European Union.  North American manufacturers don't like that.  Is the EWG too strict?  Maybe, but I want my ingredients to be tested by the highest standards in the world.

Some companies like Method also seem more interested in mass marketing and aesthetics.  In fact, Method didn't want to ruin their pretty packaging with ingredients until consumers demanded it.  Clorox Greenworks doesn't even disclose its full ingredients providing only vague description.   Hmmm?

The Best non-toxic Cleaning Products

Non-toxic All-Purpose Cleaner

Dr. bronner's any good for cleaning?
Discouraged with all the misleading "natural cleaners" out there, I hesitantly picked up a bottle of Dr. Bronner's Almond Pure Castile soap.   Instead of surfactants, Dr. Bronner's uses saponified oils, a gentler molecular process which breaks down oils.

Surprisingly, this gentle soap worked great on everything from counter-tops to cleaning the tub.  I couldn't believe how it easily got rid of all the gunk in my bathroom sink (We are a family of four...that's a lot of gunk!).  Dr. Bronner's Magic soaps boast 18 in 1 uses so for the next few weeks I used this cleaner on everything.  Using the peppermint castile soap I even got rid of an ant problem.  The only thing we didn't like using it on was mirrors.

Lastly, I tried it in the kitchen.  Dr. Bronner's soap worked great on greasy dishes.....we're talking squeaky clean dishes and even tupperware.  The almond castile soap also makes a great non-toxic veggie wash. 

Tip:  To get rid of sink and tub grime, sprinkle a little baking soda after spraying with Dr. Bronner's soap.  Let sit for a minute, wipe and rinse.  It works amazing! I buy my big bottles of Dr. Bronner's at my local supermarket.

Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

unbiased nature clean product review
When it comes to "natural" laundry detergents, the key is to stick with granular products.  The reason?  The minute you add water to a product, it needs preservatives.

Nature Clean Unscented Laundry Detergent Powder is the best non-toxic laundry detergent out there.  It's made from 10 non-toxic ingredients mainly natural washing soda.

I've been using it for over 2 years now and have tested it on a variety of stains.  It did a great job especially with dish clothes, which in my house, get pretty gross.   Here's the best part.  For years my washer would sometimes leave a weird mildewy smell on some of our towels.  No more!  Seems this detergent doesn't leave a stinky residue in the machine either!

I did purchase a bag of Nature Clean laundry pacs which is very similar to the granular powder .

Edited February 2015:  While I was not initially a fan of the pacs, I now use them almost exclusively due to the fact that my local grocer no longer carries the powder.  The key is to start your load with hot water and one or two pacs, allow to dissolve for 30 seconds, them give it a swish before switching the temp and loading your clothes.  If you don't do this, you may end up with undissolved pods.

Click here to see where you can buy Nature Clean products worldwide.  Products are available in many Canadian stores.  In the US you can find it on Amazon, and Refreshingly Free.  If you can't find Nature Clean, try the granular versions of Seventh Generation or Planet Ultra laundry detergent.

Soap Nuts

Although I haven't tried them yet, many people have had great success with Soap nuts/Soap berries.  These are dried berry shells from the soap berry tree.  You place 4 to 5 nuts in a special wash bag and you're good to go for about 10 washes.  Reviews are very good and I look forward to trying these in the near future.  One year's worth of laundry costs under $30!

Non-toxic Oxy Stain Removers / Oxygen Liquid Chlorine-Free Bleach

Most "natural" brands have non-toxic Oxy Stain Removers.  These use Peroxide to attack stains.  These work well on some stains (i.e. blood, organic matter) but not others.  For really stubborn stains I had to spot treat with my toxic "oxy" stain remover.  Can't win them all!

Non-toxic Dish Detergent

Here's where things get confusing.  The EWG is not always accurate.  Nature Clean dishwasher pacs scores an A grade on the website but one critical ingredient is missing from the EWG ingredients list:  Linear Alcohol Ethoxylate.  It's on the packaging and the website.  Remember the "eths" we discussed earlier?  All the "green" brands I looked at have between one and three "eths" or "pegs" in them.  Linear Alcohol Ethoxylate is said to be one of the best.  It might be a necessary ingredient for automatic dishwashers because I haven't found anything without it....yet.

I've been using the Nature Clean Dishwasher Pacs which only has few ingredients and only one "eth" low on the ingredient list.  It does a great job getting our dishes clean.  Compared to my old detergent Finish, which scores an F grade on the EWG, I would say we've made a good improvement.  If you can't find Nature Clean, Seventh Generation Free & Clear dishwasher pacs also score well on the EWG.

unbiased nature clean product review
I didn't have the same success with rinse agents.  Think of rinse agent as conditioner for your dishes.  It leaves a nice smooth coating (polymers) on your dishes.  Not using a rinse agent though can leave spots and food residue behind.  I've recently learned that sparkling dishes are REALLY important to my husband....and to be honest I'm not messing with an awesome husband who loads and unloads the dishwasher for me.  Until I find a rinse agent that actually works, a half and half mixture of Finish (which again gets a terrible F grade on the EWG) and Nature Clean works great.

Steam Power!

best steam cleaner mcculloch heavy duty steam cleaner review

For big jobs I decided to try the McCulloch Heavy Duty Steam Cleaner.  The first thing I noticed is that steam cleaning is not as easy as the infomercials make it out to be.  It took a lot of patience, but the payoff was getting big jobs done without any chemicals at all.

mcculloch heavy duty steam cleaner reviewThe steamer comes with two washable re-usable pads.  While I had to scape off a few dry bits of dirt myself, it did a good job cleaning the floors.   I liked how the floors (ceramic and hardwood) had no residue left when I walked on them.   This is great if you have pets or babies in the house.  The smaller wand also did an amazing job on our grout. 

non-toxic products to clean bird cages
Birdy doesn't like nasty chemicals!
Speaking of babies and pets....I love this steamer the most for how easy it makes cleaning our bird cages.  I won't get into too much detail...but this innocent looking bird leave a lot of organic matter behind.  Birds are also very sensitive to chemicals.  This steamer disinfected and blasted away all the poop off the twisty wooden perches, rope perches and cage bars with no chemical residue left behind.

The only con is the space that the steamer takes.   You can find it on Amazon or Amazon Canada where I bought mine.


My goal this past year was to reduce our family's daily toxic load.  I think we've done well.  We only use the odd toxic product for stubborn spot cleaning jobs.

Each family has to decide what's important to them.   For some it might be living without a dishwasher or living with spotty glasses.   In the end, be happy with your choices, do your own investigating, buy granular when you can, don't be loyal to a particular brand, and enjoy the benefits of a cleaner less toxic house.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice article, totally what I needed.


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