Some Skip Commercial Cleaners for Those Made From Pantry

By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY

Cyndi Raskin Schmitt had never thought much about the chemicals in her cleaning supplies until three years ago.

Raskin Schmitt was bathing baby Emilie, who playfully snatched the washcloth and began cleaning both her tub and herself. That led her to worry about the residue left behind by her cleaning supplies: Was her daughter rubbing scouring powder into her skin? Was she bathing in a chemical soup?

Raskin Schmitt, 35, got rid of her commercial cleaners and found that she could clean virtually the entire house with pantry staples that were safe enough to eat: vinegar, baking soda and warm water. Undiluted vinegar, she says, cleans mirrors without streaking — or strong odors, once it dries — but costs as little as a penny an ounce.

And while she still keeps a close eye on her now-3-year-old daughter — who likes to wipe down the countertops — Raskin says she feels much safer.

“It’s nice to know that she can help and not get hurt,” says Raskin, who is from Dunedin, Fla.

Experts say there are plenty of reasons to try going green.

Many conventional cleaners are made with petroleum and are among the “most common and worrisome pollutants” in America, says Stanford University School of Medicine pediatrician Alan Greene, author of Raising Baby Green.

Like Greene, a growing number of doctors are concerned that chemicals used to make homes cleaner could actually make them sick.

Household cleaners prompted one-quarter of all calls to poison-control centers in New York City last year, according to a March report. Across the USA, 80,000 children are taken to emergency rooms each year because of accidental poisoning, and about 30 children die, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 70% of non-fatal poisonings involve children ages 1 to 2.

Greene says these cleaners could be risky even when used correctly.

Conventional cleaners often contain volatile organic compounds whose fumes can trigger asthma attacks and irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory passages, says Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and environmental health specialist at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Because most homes are well-insulated but poorly ventilated, indoor air is actually three times as polluted as outdoor air, Galvez says.

Indoor air pollution may have contributed to the increase in asthma rates since the 1980s, says Philip Landrigan, director of Mount Sinai’s Children’s Environmental Health Center. Landrigan says doctors now consider pediatric asthma a “national epidemic” that afflicts nearly one in 10 children.

“Using less toxic, less irritating materials is sensible, especially if there are small children in the house, or if children have asthma or other respiratory problems,” Landrigan says.

Children may be more vulnerable to air pollution than adults, says Urvashi Rangan, a scientist with Consumers Union and director of, which has recipes for many homemade cleaners. Because of their size, children inhale 50% more air per pound, Rangan says.

They also expose themselves to more chemical residue when they crawl on the floor or put things in their mouths.

Common household chemicals may also affect children’s reproductive systems, Greene says.

Fragrances in cleaning supplies and air fresheners commonly contain chemicals called phthalates, which interfere with the male hormone system and have been linked to genital abnormalities in baby boys. Some cleaning supplies contain chemicals that may lower sperm counts, Greene says

Brian Sansoni of the Soap and Detergent Association says manufacturers make sure all products are safe before selling them. The tiny amounts of chemicals in cleaning supplies don’t pose a threat, he says, as long as they’re stored and used properly.

Sansoni says people could injure themselves if they aren’t careful when mixing their own cleaners.

“With mix-at-home concoctions, consumers are on their own,” Sansoni says. “We think they should think twice before mixing once.”

And Sansoni notes that even apparently “green” products may not be as eco-friendly as they appear.

Although the Department of Agriculture sets standards for organic food, there is no similar government standard for cleaning or beauty products. When it comes to cleaners, words such as “natural,” “organic” or “green” are just marketing terms, Sansoni says.

Consumers often get no guidance from a product’s label, either, because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their ingredients, Rangan says. Going green may get slightly easier next year, however, when members of the Soap and Detergent Association and others will begin voluntarily disclosing their ingredients, Sansoni says.

The good news, doctors say, is that harsh chemicals are rarely needed to kill germs. When it comes to health, consumers really need bleach or other harsh chemicals only for messes involving blood or bodily fluids that can spread infections, says infectious-disease specialist Aaron Glatt, a professor at New Island Hospital in New York. Elbow grease — the mechanical labor of scrubbing — often disinfects just well as chemical solutions.

Says Glatt, “Some of the cleaning agents out there are overkill, literally and figuratively.”

You can clean ‘green’ and still cut costs

Cleaning supplies marketed as “environmentally friendly” often cost more than other products. The cheapest glass cleaners, however, can be made from ingredients found in your own kitchen.