Green All-Purpose Cleaners

Saturday, 17 April 2010 | Tags: , , , ,

Making eco-friendly choices is an important part of taking care of your health and the environment. And it's getting easier these days with more companies bringing new, non-toxic products to market. We put three popular green cleaners to the test to see how well they cut the grease and cleaned up at home.

Why Go Green?

For Your Health

Toxic ingredients in chemical-based cleaning products can seriously impact your and your family’s lives by increasing your risk to a number of long-term health problems, including cancer, organ damage, reproductive, nervous, and immune system issues, and asthma.

For Our Environment

Remember: everything you put in the garbage or down the drain will eventually end up in our lakes and oceans, whether still in its original form, or broken down into other forms. Many cleaning ingredients and their by-products are poisonous to plant and animal life.


The Basics

When you’re looking at green products on the shelf, it’s important to do your homework and read the labels, ingredients lists, and claims.

  • First, look for words like non-toxic and phosphate-free on the label. These are good choices to start with.

  • Next, look for ingredients clearly listed on the label. The shorter and easier the list is to understand, the better.

    • Some companies don’t include ingredients on the bottle because they claim it is proprietary information. Check their websites for more information, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with them directly to find out if any of the ingredients to avoid (see list below) are in their products.

  • If the bottle or packaging is made of recycled material, bonus points! The bottle should be recyclable at minimum. Avoid aerosols.

  • Read the product warnings: irritant, poison, flammable? It may be best to avoid this product.

  • Put on your skeptical hat and question the marketing messages you’re hearing and reading: do the statements made in the commercials or on the label really make sense?

  • Look for the EcoLogo label, or the Green Seal Certified label. Both are third-party organizations that certify environmentally-preferable products of all kinds.

Ingredients to Avoid

While it seems a chemistry degree may be required to decipher some ingredient lists, it’s important to know the key toxins to avoid, including both the chemical name and the common name. In fact, keep a list in your wallet or on your cell phone to help you remember.

Here’s our list of some toxins to avoid, and simplified explanations as to why. (For more in-depth information on these ingredients, see the “Sources” section below.)


  • Chlorine or anything starting with “chlor”. Aka chlorine bleach, sodium hypochlorite, bleaching agent. Not only is it a toxic compound itself (causing eye and lung irritation), it produces deadly dioxin by-products, which disrupt reproductive, endocrine and immune systems of humans and animals. When released into the environment, chlorine forms compounds with other naturally-occurring chemicals that have also been linked to cancer.

  • Ammonia. In both gas and liquid form, ammonia is irritating to eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, can cause headaches and nausea. It can even burn the skin, and mixed with bleach, vinegar, or other acids, it can produce deadly gases. Ammonia is found in many floor cleaners, tile cleaners, and glass cleaners. In the environment, it breaks down into nitrogen. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish and plants, even in small or dilute amounts.

  • Surfactants. It stands for “surface active ingredient”, these chemicals create suds in detergents and cleaners, as well as personal care products. You may see it on the label as nonylphenol ethoxylate, nonoxynol, or octoxynol. These chemicals break down (aka biodegrade) into nonyphenols, which are slow to biodegrade further and also create havoc with fish, giving males some female characteristics. They’re also suspected to have long-term negative effects on human reproductive systems.

  • Phosphates. Many laundry and dishwashing products are going “phosphate-free”, which is a great move on the part of cleaning manufacturers that have adopted it. Phosphates are actually naturally-occurring minerals and aren’t normally toxic. However, the overload of phosphates from cleaning products that goes into our water systems, causes algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water, and thus kill fish.

  • “-enes” like Benzene, Toluene, Xylene. These are found in a variety of household cleaners and are linked to cancer and nervous system issues.

  • Formaldehyde. Used as a preservative, it’s found in detergents, carpet cleaners, and air fresheners, and is proven to cause cancer.

  • Diethanolamine(DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA). Both are found in many cleaners and are linked to cancer.

  • Hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid. Found in toilet bowl cleaners and drain cleaners, both cause eye, lung, and skin damage. Sulfuric acid especially.

  • Pine and citrus oil. They sound natural, but these ingredients can react with ozone to produce formaldehyde, which causes cancer.

Beware the Buzzwords

Some products may appear to be eco-friendly by using words that evoke a sense of nature, or by including natural ingredients. However, some may actually just be clever marketing techniques to make you think their product is the green choice. Here are some buzzwords to be aware of:

  • Biodegradable: it sounds good for the environment, but in some cases, it may not be. For example, a chemical in most laundry detergents (nonylphenol ethoxylate) is considered biodegradable because it breaks down. Do you remember nonylphenol ethoxylate, mentioned above in surfactants? That’s what we’re talking about.

  • Fruit, vegetables, flowers, plants: in some cases, these are just masks for more harmful ingredients. In other cases, the ingredients themselves may be synthetic, aka another chemical. Look for cleaners that are plant-based (e.g. palm oil, coconut, citrus extracts, etc.) rather than those that use “plants” to mask more dangerous ingredients.

    • While some green cleaner manufacturers use palm oil as a eco-friendly alternative, eco-activists don’t see this as a good thing since it leads to the destruction of precious rainforests for palm farms.

  • Anti-bacterial: killing all bacteria is not necessarily a good thing. While there are definitely bad bacteria, anti-bacterial products don’t differentiate between good and bad. Many eco-scientists recommend to avoid using these products. They feel that exposure to the toxic chemicals that make them anti-bacterial is not worth the benefit, and recommend using plain soap and water instead.

Other Considerations

  • Your skin and your lungs are the easiest way for toxins to enter your body, so always wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. (Turn on your bathroom fan or oven fan while you’re working.)

  • Rethink your cleaning tools. Are you addicted to paper towels and disposable wipes or cleaning pads? Break the habit! Look for microfibre cloths that help trap bacteria without spreading it around. Wash other mops and cloths frequently to help prevent bacteria build-up. Soak sponges and sponge mops in vinegar overnight.

  • Go fragrance-free. Avoid air fresheners, detergents, soaps, etc. with strong fragrance. These odours only mask other smells and give you a false sense of “clean”. The chemical fragrances may actually irritate eyes, skin, and lungs, and have been linked to asthma, as well as fertility issues.

    • In fact, eco-scientists say that clean should smell like nothing at all!

  • Unless an automatic dishwasher detergent says non-toxic on the label, assume it contains chlorine. It’s best to avoid this product.

Safer Alternatives

  • 100% pure liquid castile soap: use this as your general all-purpose cleaner. Follow the instructions, which usually are to dilute 1 part pure liquid castile soap with 4 parts water.

  • Lemon juice: great for cutting grease, add ¼ cup lemon juice to your 4:1 liquid castile soap/water mixture for some extra grease-fighting power. Lemon juice also has disinfectant, anti-bacterial, and bleaching properties. Use the squeezed lemon halves to wipe down counters and kitchen surfaces. (Follow-up with a damp microfibre cloth to pick up any stray bits of pulp.)

  • Vinegar (1/4 cup) and salt (1/4 cup) mixed together make a gentle scouring cream. Be sure you are using distilled white vinegar made from grain. Organic is even better. Avoid any vinegars that are made from petroleum. (Check out this great list of uses for vinegar.)

  • Baking Soda (60ml or 1/4cup) mixed with 1 litre of water also works well as an all-purpose cleaner. Add some liquid castile soap and use a firm bristled brush for a tub/tile cleaner.

  • Olive Oil (30ml) diluted with white vinegar (15ml) makes a great wood furniture cleaner and conditioner.

  • Borax is somewhat controversial. Up until recently, it has been considered a good alternative for bleach, used in laundry, and as a great way to get rid of ants, other pests like fleas, and weeds. However, it contains high levels of arsenic, so it should be used with caution. Keep away from children and pets.


We recruited some professional house cleaners to help us test three popular eco-friendly all-purpose cleaning products:

  • Seventh Generation Natural All Purpose cleaner (unscented): $5.89/946ml
  • Bio-Life (store brand) All Purpose Surface Cleaner (pear violet): $2.49
  • Method All-Purpose Surface Cleaner (cucumber): $4.99 (828 ml)

Cleaning Test

  • Some of our testers found the scent of Method and the Bio-Life to be too overpowering, while others enjoyed the crisp cucumber scent of the Method product.

  • When it came to glass, our cleaning products appeared to leave some residue. The Seventh Generation worked the best on glass out of the three.

  • Seventh Generation worked well on tubs and sinks, and cut through soap scum.

  • A few of our testers felt they all performed about the same.

  • Some testers felt that a regular (non-green) household cleaner was still required for the tougher jobs.


We didn’t have a clear winner on performance, though Seventh Generation stood out for its unscented formula, and Method stood out for its enjoyable cucumber scent. We think that its best to choose a brand that works for your budget, or give the Fabulous Four a try (vinegar, liquid castile soap, baking soda, lemon).



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