The beginning of spring brings with it a sense of growth and rebirth as the air turns warmer and the first flowers of the season begin to bloom. Outside the world takes on a renewed freshness as the ground sheds its winter coat.
Inside your home, however, the dust, dirt and grime of a long season spent indoors are probably at their peak. This is why spring is an ideal time for doing a deep cleaning of your home, and 60 percent of Americans engage in such a ritual each year, according to a 2010 survey by The Soap and Detergent Association.
The tips that follow will help you to get your home truly clean using inexpensive and non-toxic products you probably have on hand already … but first, some insight into WHY natural cleaning is so important for you and your family.
What Should a Clean Home Smell Like?
Many homeowners have good intentions when they don their rubber gloves and proceed to douse every surface with pine- or lemon-scented cleansers. For many, a home is not considered “clean” unless there’s a lingering (and often overpowering) scent of disinfectant, bleach and pine trees in the air.
But a truly clean home, one that’s fresh and free of toxins, should not have any chemical or artificial smell to it at all.
Unfortunately, pine, orange, lemon and other cleanser and disinfectant scents are often indicative of a chemical toxin left behind, one that may be putting your family’s health at risk.
According to a report by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “When cleaning products and air fresheners are used indoors, occupants are exposed to airborne chemicals, potentially leading to health risks.”
Specifically, they found terpenes, chemicals used to give many pine, orange and lemon-scented cleaners their scent, can react with ozone to produce toxic compounds, including formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is not only linked to developmental effects and organ system toxicity, but it is also classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Out of the 17 cleaning products tested, the researchers found 12 contained terpenes and six contained ethylene-based glycol ethers, which the U.S. EPA classifies as hazardous air pollutants.
Just how much of these chemicals are you exposed to during cleaning? The researchers found:
- While using a glycol-ether containing cleanser in a small, moderately ventilated shower stall for 15 minutes you could inhale “three times the acute one-hour exposure limit” set by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
- While cleaning a Southern California kitchen with a terpene-containing cleanser on a day when outdoor ozone levels are high, you could inhale one-quarter of the total daily guideline value for particulate matter (a type of air pollution that may increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and other health problems) in a two-hour period.
What Other Toxins May be in Your Cleaning Products?
From your kitchen to your bedroom and everywhere in between, if you use most chemical cleaners you could be dousing your home in:
- Phenols: A disinfectant used in an array of household cleaning products. Long-term exposure has been linked to heart disease and damage to the heart, kidneys, liver and lungs in animals.
- Naphthalene: Used in mothballs and toilet deodorant blocks, this chemical can destroy red blood cells, leading to hemolytic anemia, and is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the Department of Health and Humans Services (DHHS).
- Benzene: A widely used chemical in some detergents, benzene can have a harmful effect on your red blood cells and bone marrow, and long-term exposures to high levels in the air can cause leukemia.
- Phthalates: Widely used as plastic softeners, phthalates are also added to household cleaners to help them retain fragrance. They’ve been linked to sperm damage in men and reproductive problems in newborn boys.
This is only a sampling, as manufacturers are only required to list chemicals of “known concern” on their labels. There are about 3,000 top-selling chemicals in the United States, but of them over 90 percent have no basic toxicity information, and most testing is on a voluntary basis.8 So many chemicals you’re likely using in your home right now have never been tested for safety.
Safe and Healthy Natural Cleaning Alternatives
You should know that you can clean your home using safe, natural ingredients that require no warning labels and pose no risks to your family’s health. Here are some of the best natural alternatives to try (you’ve probably got many in your pantry right now!):
- Baking Soda: A natural deodorizer and cleanser, sprinkle it on drains, bathtubs and kitchen counters, or mix it with water to form a scrubbing paste. You can also sprinkle it on carpets and upholstery, wait 15 minutes or so, then vacuum it off for natural deodorizing.
Baking soda even works as an oven cleaner (sprinkle the bottom of your oven with a little water, then generous amounts of baking soda, and let it sit overnight before wiping clean).
- Vinegar: Use white vinegar to clean windows, mirrors and counters, or mix it with castile soap and water as an excellent floor or bathroom cleaner. You can also mix apple cider vinegar with baking soda for a simple drain cleaner. Vinegar also cuts grease, and setting out a bowl of it in your kitchen will help absorb food odors.
- Lemon Juice: You can use this like you would vinegar, although lemon juice works especially well for removing hard water deposits and tarnish on silver.
- Course Salt: A great option when you need a cleaner with scrubbing power. Try mixing salt and vinegar for a simple and effective all-purpose surface cleaner.
- Hydrogen Peroxide: Use it to disinfect cutting boards or toothbrushes, or to remove stubborn stains (works especially well for blood stains) and whiten laundry.
- Vodka: Vodka is a disinfectant that you can also use to freshen upholstery (spritz it lightly onto fabrics).
- Essential Oils: You can mix natural antiseptic cleaners using water and a few drops of essential oils, such as grapefruit seed extract, clove or tea tree. Tea tree oil is especially effective against mold and mildew. Filling a spray bottle with water and your favorite scented essential oil (peppermint, lavender, vanilla, etc.) is also a simple recipe for a fabric or air freshener.
5 More Spring Cleaning Tips
Once you’ve raided your pantry and mixed up some natural cleaning staples, you’re ready to begin. But first, attack the clutter!
According to the ancient art of feng shui, clutter creates low, stagnant energy that can negatively influence your mood. Clearing your personal space of clutter allows your positive energy to flow, creating a greater sense of well-being in your home.
So be ruthless in identifying objects around your home that you no longer use or that do not belong where they are, and finding a proper home for them or, alternatively, donating them to charity.
Now that you’re really ready to clean, these cleaning basics will help you make the most effective use of your time:
1. Break cleaning into manageable pieces: You don’t have to clean your whole house at once. Instead, focus on one room at a time, de-cluttering and cleaning each thoroughly before moving on to the next.
2. Work from top to bottom: Dirt will fall to the floor from above, so do the high-up cleaning first to avoid having to repeat an area.
3. Create solutions for problem areas: Does your mail always pile up on your kitchen counter? Do you shoes overflow from your closet? Set up a file cabinet for mail or a shoe rack for your shoes so the problem doesn’t continue to reoccur. Establishing a proper place for just about every item in your home is essential to staying organized.
4. Put routine cleaning on a schedule: By staying on top of routine cleaning tasks, it will help your home stay fresher longer. For example, plan doing dishes, filing mail and cleaning kitchen counters on a daily basis, while vacuuming, dusting, and bathrooms can be done on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule.
5. Have fun! Cleaning is probably not at the top of your list of “fun” things to do … but it’s got to get done so you might as well enjoy it. Put on some lively music, throw open some windows to let the fresh air in, recruit some family members (or really good friends), and stay focused on the end result: a clean, fresh-smelling home that feels like your sanctuary.