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The best products for 'green' spring cleaning

Wednesday - 5/8/2013, 4:18pm  ET

Michelson_Bio.jpg
Joan Michelson is CEO of Green Connections Radio and a consultant on the green economy and cleantech. (Courtesy Joan Michelson)

How to choose safe cleaners for spring cleaning

Joan Michelson, Green Connections Radio

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Joan Michelson, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - It's the season for spring cleaning -- but what products will you use?

Just because a product claims to be "green" or "all natural," doesn't necessarily mean that is the case. According to Women's Voices for the Earth, an independent testing of common household cleaners found reproductive toxins, carcinogens, hormone disruptors and allergens. And WVE says none of the aforementioned chemicals were listed on the product label.

Here are some tips to help you navigate the green cleaning aisle so you can avoid using potentially harmful cleaners in your home:

  1. You don't need a heavy-duty cleaning product for everyday use.

    Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women's Voices for the Earth, makes an important distinction between "the jackhammer and the flyswatter."

    "Use the least toxic product you can for the job you need to get done," Scranton advises, adding that many people tend to assume "all-purpose" cleaners are the best.

    "There's lots of marketing of products that are stronger, more powerful, etc. And the assumption is that is a good thing. But cleaners that work on really serious stains, or which contain solvents that can cut industrial-strength grease are much more likely to contain harsher chemicals of concern," Scranton says.

    "These pose an unnecessary risk for everyday cleaning when you are wiping up spilt milk, or cleaning some toothpaste off your bathroom mirror."

  2. The best performing cleaners are not so "green."

    Consumer Reports tested 19 products and rated Pine Sol the best by a long shot -- 74 vs. 57 for the next runner-up -- based on "performance, reliability and safety."

    But before you buy it, take note.

    WVE commissioned an independent lab test of 20 products by major manufacturers and rated Pine Sol as one of the most toxic, because it contains toluene (a petroleum derivative), which both the EPA and WVE say may cause complications during pregnancy.

    "Breathing large amounts of toluene for short periods of time adversely affects the human nervous system, the kidneys, the liver and the heart," states the EPA. Exposure to toluene can come through skin contact.

    "We don't think toluene should be in cleaners, because women don't need the extra exposure, and you don't need it for effective cleaning," Scranton says. "It's just an unnecessary exposure."

    It's always good to wear rubber or plastic gloves when using any cleaning or household supplies to minimize contact with the skin. You might want to wear one of those small masks over your nose and mouth, too, if you use Pine Sol.

  3. Best performance for "green" products.

    Two green-labeled products did make Consumer Reports' top three: Seventh Generation and Green Works, by Clorox. Seventh Generation also received the top rating by the Green Guide, a rating system and app WTOP Living covered previously.

    One obstacle: Both Seventh Generation and Green Works are about $1 more than Pine Sol. However, Clorox announced that the price of Green Works will be lower this summer.

    According to other ratings on the Green Guide app, Seventh Generation products consistently received the highest ratings: 8.6 for the all-purpose cleaner and bathroom cleaner and 7.9 for the dishwasher detergent. GreenWorks' all-purpose cleaner also rated respectably with the Green Guide app at 7.4.

  4. Labels for clarity.

    The EPA has a labeling system called Design for the Environment (DfE), and Green Works and Seventh Generation are on the EPA's DfE approved list. Qualifying manufacturers can display the DfE label if they met the EPA's criteria, which includes performance as well as health and environmental safety.

    According to the EPA, the DfE label means a scientific review team screened each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects. The label also means the product contains only ingredients that pose the least concern among other chemicals in their class.

    There's also the Green Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and Green Seals, as well as the Good Guide app, which you can use to scan products in the store.

    Scranton says Whole Foods' Eco-Scale labeling is interesting, too, because it's color-coded. That makes it easier for consumers to shop by their priorities. It also provides product transparency.

The bottom line: Focus on how you're using the products and your priorities. For run-of-the-mill cleaning of countertops and bathroom surfaces, for example, eco- friendly products with fewer chemicals will likely work just fine.

You can buy a heavy duty cleaner as a back-up for those occasional times when you've got quite a greasy mess on your hands.

The benefits of keeping potentially harmful chemicals away from your nasal passages, skin and water outweighs the extra cost of the best-rated eco-friendly products, especially since their prices are coming down. This is especially true if there are kids in your home.

Use the labels that resonate with your priorities to decide which one suits your needs.

WVE demonstrates how to make an all-purpose cleaner.

Joan Michelson is CEO of Green Connections Radio and a consultant on the green economy and cleantech. She can be reached at joan@greenconnectionsradio.com.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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