GoEco Explains: Natural Alternatives to Chemical Cleaning Products

The impact of chemical cleaning products on both the environment and our health is being discussed more and more these days. While your Dettol shower shine may make you smile, the rampant contamination of our waters and soils certainly won’t. Some of the worst offenders are products you’ll find in most households like all-purpose spray, oven cleaner and window cleaner, which typically contain chemicals such as ammonia, bleach and glycol ethers.

What’s The Problem With Chemical Cleaning Products?

More often than not we end up washing cleaning products down the drain, causing dangerous contaminants to enter water streams like rivers and lakes, damaging natural ecosystems and their food chains. While poisoning may be the first issue that springs to mind, the nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia that remain even after waste water treatment promote uncontrolled growth of particular freshwater plants such as algae. Known as algal blooms, great swathes of the stuff can lead to clogged waterways and suffocate other animals and plants (read a little more about algal blooms here). This damages biodiversity and impacts food sources of other species.

Enormous algal blooms as a result of increasing concentrations of nitrates and phosphates are suffocating other species and damaging biodiversity.

Surfactants, commonly found in many household cleaners, also cause problems. By reducing water tension in rivers and streams, they increase the absorption by plants and animals of pollutants present in the river. Other cleaning compounds are toxic to wildlife, and have been demonstrated to affect the reproduction and growth in organisms including mammals and fish. And that’s before you even consider packaging; ever noticed just how plastic-filled the home cleaning aisle is?

Are There Particular Chemicals Should I Be Avoiding?

While the best option is to replace your traditional cleaning products with natural alternatives, there are a few key ingredients that we would recommend avoiding.

Triclosan

Labelled an antibacterial, triclosan is found in certain cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste and mouthwash, and even clothing. It is prone to bioaccumulation (build up in the body of an organism) meaning it can swiftly enter the food chain in worrying quantities. It has been linked to endocrine (hormone) disruption and toxicity in aquatic species.

Phosphates

As mentioned above, phosphates found in floor cleaners and many other household cleaning products that find their way in water systems are not removed during waste water treatment. Instead, they make their way to streams and lakes where algae life then explodes, suffocating other species. Not only are phosphates a widespread ingredient in cleaning products, their run off from agriculture such as fertilisers and even animal waste only exacerbates the problem in our lakes and streams.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATs)

QUATs are commonly used disinfectants in wipes, sprays and other household cleaners, and unfortunately come under a host of alias’ such as alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride (BAC) or hexadecyltrimethylammonium (‘cetrimide’). They are the standard for disinfectants and have been a hot topic of conversation given their use in hand sanitisers and similar during the pandemic, and what their increased use will mean for the environment. Studies determining the toxicity of these compounds for aquatic life have been limited, but their increasing prevalence is setting off alarm bells in the ears of many environmental scientists, who are demanding further studies into what this boost in concentration in our water systems will mean for our health, and the health of ecosystems.

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)

Commonly found in stain removers, drain and surface cleaners, NPEs break down into NPs, one of the most notoriously bio-accumulative and persistent toxic chemicals. Extremely toxic to wildlife, there is also evidence that overexposure to NPs can cause reproductive and developmental defects, making their persistence in the food chain worrying. Unfortunately, identifying NPEs within the ingredients list can be a bit of a nightmare, as it is not always listed or could be named in a few ways. While the high toxicity of this substance has seen it phased out of laundry detergents, the best way to avoid it altogether is to opt for natural cleaning recipes.

That Sounds… Complicated…

Yep. You may have noticed a common theme here; many chemicals will be listed under a variety of different names (or not listed at all in a recognisable form), and as such avoiding them can become a bit of a nightmare. Probably the best piece of advice we can give you is to go for simplicity. Look for the cleaners that contain fewer compounds, and ideally ones you vaguely recognise from your science classes!

With a whole host of science-ey sounding names, avoiding particular chemicals can be tricky; when in doubt, go for simplicity, with shorter lists of more recognisable ingredients.

Or even better… read on for our natural cleaning recipes that will save the environment, save you money and keep you in control of the products and chemicals you are exposed to in your home. As an added bonus, you can re-use old commercial cleaner packaging for these DIY recipes, kicking plastic pollution to the curb too!

Natural Cleaner Recipes

All-Purpose Liquid Cleaner:

  1. Infuse vinegar with citrus peel to give the vinegar a fresher smell. You can do this by filling a jar with leftover citrus peel (clementine, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit), then filling it to the top and leaving it for two weeks in a sunny spot to infuse. Then drain the vinegar and discard the peels. You can make it in batch and store the vinegar in a glass jar in a dark, cool place.
  2. Add 120ml of the vinegar and 460ml of water to a water-tight container of your choice. You can also add essential oil here if you wish. Shake well to mix.
  3. To use: shake the mixture and spray onto any surface. Wipe clean with a damp cloth.

To be aware of: if you don’t have time to infuse the vinegar, you can also just mix the juice of half a lemon into the mixture. This cleaner is NOT suitable for use on natural stone countertops or tiles. It may smell like vinegar when you first spray it, but this will soon dissipate.

Oven Cleaner:

  1. Mix 135g of baking soda with 60ml of warm water and 1 tsp of salt to make a paste.
  2. Spread the paste all over the oven, or focus only on the parts that need cleaning, and leave overnight.
  3. Remove the paste the next day with a plastic scraper, wetting as needed and wiping with a damp cloth to remove any streaks.

Toilet Cleaner:

  1. Pour some white vinegar and a good amount of bicarbonate of soda into the toilet bowl. Option here to add 10 drops of your favourite essential oil. Leave to sit for a few minutes.
  2. Scrub the bowl with a brush to fizz-up the mixture and clean the bowl.

Air Fresher:

  • Option one: mix water and 10 drops of your favourite essential oil in a spray bottle. Simply add more essential oils if you think it’s needed after spraying and sniffing it.
  • Option two: put some essential oils on a cloth and wipe over a radiator.

Windows and Mirrors:

  1. Mix together 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts water.
  2. Spray on windows or mirrors to polish and clean.

Top Tip: to get streak-free windows and mirrors use an old newspaper to wipe them.

Microwave Cleaner:

  1. Fill a microwave-safe bowl with about 500ml of water and two tablespoons of vinegar. You can also add some drops of your favourite essential oil.
  2. Run the microwave on high for 5 minutes, allowing it to steam up. Do not open the door and leave it for 15 minutes to work its magic.
  3. Remove the bowl (may be hot) and the turntable. Wipe down the turntable and inside of the microwave.
  4. If any dirt remains use a rag dipped in the water-vinegar solution.

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