Until the late 1960s, when it was discovered that the phosphates used in powdered detergents were suffocating the planet's freshwater lakes and rivers, most people scrubbed and scoured without questioning what effect their cleaners might be having on the environment.
The federal government, in what turned out to be a wake-up call about the toxic makeup of most conventional cleaners, moved quickly to ban phosphates from most products.
And yet, a loophole in the law prohibited phosphates in hand dishwashing soap, but not in automatic dishwashing detergent, points out Karen Fleming, senior vice president of marketing and consumer relations at Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation.
Even without phosphates, most cleaners contain toxic chemicals such as petroleum-based brighteners and ammonia. "There are some cleaning products that contain ingredients that are known to be harmful to people, and when those same ingredients are used in the workplace, their use is regulated by OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]," Fleming says.
The gases from those ingredients are significant sources of indoor air pollution. "The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor air is two to five times more polluted than air outside our homes," says Fleming. And, she adds, household cleaning products are second only to vehicle exhaust as a leading cause of smog in the Los Angeles area.
Fumes from these products can be dangerous and can cause breathing problems and accentuate the symptoms of asthma. Liquids and powders also can irritate and harm the skin.
"A lot of people are very sensitive to petroleum-based products," says John Vlahakis, president of Earth Friendly Products based in Winnetka, Ill.
Environmental and health concerns motivated more than a few inventors to develop safe household cleaning products, and most of these are based on plant materials. Now, there are dozens of effective natural cleaning products on the market.
For centuries, humans have used a variety of oils, fats, salts, minerals, chemicals and scents to make soap and cleaners. It was the discovery of oil in the mid-1800s that led to the development of the large-scale chemical industry, which in turn led to the formulation of many cleaning products.
Various byproducts of oil were found to be very effective for cleaning. Chemists developed hundreds of compounds for use in all varieties of cleaners. The dangers of many of these chemicals started to become apparent during the 1950s.
While natural cleaning products have always been available, they were long overshadowed by their industrial cousins. In 1979 Ecover began producing ecologically sensitive soap on a farm in Belgium, and was the first company to market ecological cleaning products on a large scale. American counterparts arrived on the scene in the 1980s and '90s.
"When the products were first developed, they didn't work that well," admits Fleming. "However, in the last two years in particular, the technology that's now available for vegetable-based surfactants has really developed."
How Cleaners Work
All detergents work the same way. Through a variety of processes, the manufacturer fuses a molecule of oil and a molecule of water to form a surfactant, a lathering and cleaning compound. In conventional products, the surfactant is derived from petroleum. Natural products typically use vegetable-based surfactants.
In a load of laundry, the oil is naturally attracted to dirt and adheres to the stains; the water, repelled by oil, pulls away to remove the stain. Enzymes dig deeper into fabrics to remove more dirt.
In liquid spray cleaners, the refined oils break down grease and stains, allowing them to be wiped up.
Several companies have oxygen products that replace regular bleach. They are formulations of crystals or powders made from minerals and cleaning agents. These products can be used for removing spots from fabrics, can be added to any laundry load to brighten clothes, or can be used on tile, grout or other tough-to-clean surfaces. When mixed with water they release intense oxygen bubbles. The bubbles attach to stains and break them up. It is similar to the bubbling action of hydrogen peroxide—which also is used in some cleaners.
The term natural is used broadly when applied to cleaning products. There's no legal definition of a "natural" cleaning product, Vlahakis laments. "It's really a question of ethics."
Some green-cleaning companies insist on using only plant-derived ingredients, while others use a 95 percent natural ingredient formulation. "What's the other 5 percent?" Vlahakis wants to know.
Others claim that biodegradability is the essence of a green cleaner, even though the surfactant may be petroleum-based.
Many in the natural cleaning industry would like to see some standardized definition of the term. "If there are no standards about what ... natural mean[s], it creates consumer cynicism," says Fleming.
Generally, though, the natural label means that the product contains no petrochemicals, and that the majority of the ingredients come from plants.
That doesn't mean that you can drink a glass of natural dish detergent or sprinkle some laundry detergent on ice cream. These products are chemical formulations of concentrated materials. Ingesting them won't kill you, but it will make you ill.
"No cleaner is entirely nontoxic, even ours," says Steve Zeitler, executive manager of Citra-Solv LLC, a manufacturer of natural cleaners. "What's important is that these products are made from renewable resources and they are biodegradable."
What Is Biodegradable?
The term biodegradable can be used loosely. Technically, "biodegradable" means that a product breaks down into water, carbon dioxide and minerals and is harmless to the environment. Just about everything, however, is biodegradable. What's important is the amount of time a compound takes to degrade, and if it is harmless during the process.
Most cleaning products in naturals stores are formulated to break down safely and quickly—usually within a month. "Once they're entered into the waste-product system [some] products start breaking down within 24 hours. They dissipate, max, within seven days," says Vlahakis.
But consumers should be warned that "biodegradable" also appears on conventional products.
Citrus oils, whose acidic properties have been known for centuries, have long been used as cleaning agents. So the recent explosion of "orange" cleaners is no surprise. Citrus oils cut grease and dirt, so they are effective as base agents for many cleaning products.
Naturals companies have developed formulas that combine a variety of chemicals and oils derived from other plants with citrus oil to make their products effective. Some chemicals such as ethanol and alcohol are used, but only sparingly, and they evaporate quickly, so they are not hazardous.
Surfactants are formulated from the oils of soy, lemon, oranges, peppermint, coconut, clover, limes, geraniums, corn and others. Tea tree oil is powerful and is used around the world as an antibacterial agent—but the Food and Drug Administration won't allow U.S. manufacturers to make that claim until scientific studies are completed. Grapefruit seed extract is also a powerful agent that is used in many cleaners.
Most manufacturers add a light natural scent such as citrus, lavender or peppermint to their products. Vlahakis says parsley may be the next big thing as an alternative for people with citrus sensitivities. Many products, however, are scent-free, since that addition does not make the cleaner more effective.
Natural cleaners are an appealing choice for consumers interested in personal and environmental wellness, because most of their ingredients are derived from agricultural products that are renewable.
"Consumers who came into the natural channel because of organics ... [and then] deepen their commitment to a wellness lifestyle ... move into natural cleaning and paper products," says Fleming. They begin to recognize that "life is affected not just by food you put in your body, but the things you put on your skin and the air you breathe."
What's more, says Vlahakis, "people are finding—it's working."
Joe Lewandowski is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.