Are Natural Cleaning Supplies Just As Effective As the Regular Stuff?
Going all-natural might not be the most-effective route when it comes to sanitizing your home.
You may be thinking a lot about cleaning supplies lately. Over the past few years, I’ve been trading in my traditional sprays and soaps for eco-friendly, non-toxic alternatives. But as many of us are cleaning and sanitizing our homes more often than ever, you may be wondering: How do natural cleaning supplies stand up to their counterparts? Are non-toxic formulas as effective as traditional cleaners? We asked the experts.
First Things First, What Does Natural Even Mean?
Despite the influx of brands that are determined to make your home a cleaner, healthier place, what’s “natural” is up for interpretation. There are no regulatory guidelines for what makes a product natural, and experts can’t agree on a sound definition.
There’s also no such thing as “chemical-free” ingredients, explains Dr. Samantha Radford, PhD., chemist and founder of Evidence-Based Mommy. What we think of as natural products are made with chemicals extracted from nature.
You might be wondering what should you be looking for when choosing a natural cleaner. According to Donna Smallin Kuper, author and IICRC-certified house cleaning technician, most natural cleaning supplies claim to be free of ingredients that are potentially hazardous human health or the wellbeing of the environment — although this is debated among experts, as well. If you’re not sure about the safety of a cleaning product, we recommend doing some research through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before purchasing to make sure you’re comfortable bring it into your home.
Finally, just because a product is free of potentially hazardous ingredients doesn’t mean you can use it anywhere. After all, some formulas are meant to clean glass while others are specially designed to tackle tile grout. Before breaking into any cleaning solution, check out the directions to understand how to use the product.
If It Foams, It Cleans
So how can you tell if your cleaning supplies actually, you know, clean? According to Dr. Brian Hedlund, a microbiologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, formulas that foam remove dirt, grime and some germs from surfaces. This includes cleaning sprays and wipes that froth or produce even tiny bubbles; it doesn’t need to be a full lather.
Dr. Radford agrees, adding anything that foams is likely creating micelles, or basically bubbles. “Usually, nonpolar particles (like oils or grease) can't be removed by water,” she says. “Micelles (or bubbles) trap nonpolar particles inside them so that they can then be rinsed away.”
Take those dish soaps that claim they cut through grease: According to Dr. Hedlund, these products are made up of molecules that work with water to surround the grease, remove it from the surface and discard it with the wastewater.
Translation? Natural or not, a formula that foams can successfully lift grease, dirt and leftover food off your surfaces to be removed with a wipe-down.
Not All Cleaning Products Sanitize
This is the important part: Cleaning and sanitizing are not the same thing. Cleaning with soap and water or a natural cleaner can remove many germs from a surface, but it doesn’t kill germs. “‘Disinfect’ is a regulated term that means that a product kills 99.999 percent of bacteria or viruses within five to 10 minutes of application,” Dr. Radford explains. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends a two-step process of cleaning then sanitizing to reduce the spread of germs in your kitchen (read more about it here).
The EPA has a list of registered disinfectants that can successfully kill a variety of pathogens — including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We hate to break it to you, but natural ingredients like vinegar and tea tree oil don’t make the list.
According to Dr. Radford, “Vinegar can kill germs, but not as effectively as disinfectants. It takes at least 30 minutes for vinegar to kill germs well.”
That said, “There are certainly some disinfectants that are safer than others,” says Dr. Radford. “L-lactic acid, citric acid, hydrogen peroxide and ethanol are safer choices [compared to bleach].”
No matter what kind of disinfectant you choose, you should always follow basic safety precautions when using it. For starters, do not spray into your eyes or mouth. While you should wait a few minutes to let the solution kill all the lingering germs and bacteria, many experts recommend rinsing any disinfected area that comes in direct contact with food right after you sanitize it.
What About Homemade Cleaning Solutions?
If you don’t want to buy — or can’t find store-bought disinfectant — you may already have a sanitizing solution lurking in your cabinets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC), household bleach and solutions that contain at least 70 percent alcohol can successfully disinfect your home, but it’s important to know how to use them.
“Do not mix bleach with anything other than water,” Dr. Radford emphasizes. “Bleach mixed with other common household cleaners like vinegar or peroxide can release toxic, potentially fatal fumes.”
You can make your own bleach solution by combining a 1/3 cup of bleach with a gallon of water, according to the CDC.
In order to use bleach-based cleaners safely, Dr. Radford recommends applying them in a well-ventilated area. Once you apply a bleach solution to your surface, let it sit for 10 minutes before wiping it up and rinsing the space with water. She adds it’s a good idea to keep bleach away from children or anyone with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or other chronic respiratory issues. Another tip: Always wear gloves when using bleach-based cleaning products to avoid damaging your skin.
At this time, there are no natural solutions registered by the EPA as approved disinfectants. However, no matter which route you go — natural or not — it’s important to read the labels of your chosen cleaning products for claims and ingredients carefully. They’re not all created equal and correct usage is one of the most important ways to ensure safety and the cleaning results you’re looking for.