Most of us would agree that advances in home hygiene have been responsible for better health all round. But few people are aware that household cleaning products are anything but good for human health.
Over the years, scientific attention has focused on the environmental impact of the detergents, solvents and phosphates so commonly found in household products. We know what happens to birds, plants, frogs and the ozone layer when these toxins are released into the air and waterways. But little attention has been paid to the impact on human health.
Emerging evidence is that the cleaners, detergents, polishes and air fresheners can make us sick. Children, the elderly, pregnant women and those whose health is already compromised by allergies and asthma are especially at risk.
The substances found in everyday cleaning products run the gamut from toxic to corrosive to poisonous. Unfortunately, manufacturers are not required to list specific ingredients on the label, so consumers may never know what they're getting.
Any substance that comes into contact with your skin, that you inhale, that you wash down the drain and into the soil will ultimately end up inside your body. Awareness of this has led to a movement to find better alternatives and to 'clean up' the cleaners we use.
Today, a variety of 'green' and low- or non-toxic alternatives are on the market. But how much better are these so-called natural cleaning products? Some would argue that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a commercial product without including some harsh chemicals.
To answer this question, we carried out a road test on a selection of natural alternative cleaning products to see what they contain and how they perform.
Ratings are based on performance - did they clean well - and versatility - can they be used on a variety of surfaces. We checked for clear labelling and cost, and also paid attention to how kind the products were to surfaces and to skin.
Enjo Cleaning Cloth
Distributor: Enjo UK (01482 635 566)
Price: lb80 for the entire Enjo system
The Enjo (pronounced En-yo) system uses a variety of microfibre cloths and gloves for different household jobs. Many might be sceptical about using just a cloth and water to clean (we had our doubts) but, in most cases, it really works. The reason is that microfibres act in a similar way to detergents and surfactants. Using nature's best solvent - water - microfibres in the cloth trap dirt and grease particles until they are released by washing in your normal wash.
We tried Enjo's green glove, designed to clean greasy surfaces like the oven, cooktop and sink. It trapped the grease and mopped down all surfaces efficiently. On really bad stains, we found it was better to leave water or the wet glove on the stain for a while to let it work away before wiping.
This is a remarkable system but, as with all methods that don't involve synthetic chemicals, you'll need to use a bit more elbow grease. Really tough stains may require some sort of detergent, and Enjo makes a cleaner to go with their cloths.
As Enjo uses no detergents or soaps, you will have to get used to a new way of cleaning - using your eyes and fingers to tell you what's clean and what's not. But it's not a difficult switch once you see the product working so well and so quickly.
Although expensive, Enjo can replace the vast majority of your household cleaning products. Also, because the gloves can be washed and used over and over again, they represent value for money over the longer term.
Bio-D Multi-surface Cleanser
Distributor: Bio-D (01482 229 950; www.shoppersplanet.com/nakedearth)
Price: lb2.49 for 1 L
Ingredients: aqua, a blend of coconut oil detergents, vegetable glycerine, sodium gluconate, sodium chloride, trisodium citrate, sweet orange oil
This highly regarded company makes a full range of allergy-tested products for the home. Of all the all-purpose cleaners in this road test, this was the most pleasant to use. It worked equally well on hobs and sinks, baths and floors, and even toilets. It has a faint orange scent that left everything smelling fresh, but not overly perfumed.
The label did not state which detergent(s) were used, but Bio-D managing director Mike Barwell told us it is cocomide diethanolamide (DEA). This is a fairly aggressive detergent/surfactant and some people may have skin reactions to it. Unlike shampoos and other commercial cleaners, however, there are no formaldehyde-forming preservatives in this mix (which can transform otherwise harmless DEA into carcinogenic nitrosamines).
Bio-D is a reassuringly small, family-run company - and not part of any big group of companies, and this product (one of a range of household products) performed at least as well as most conventional cleaners on the market, and was less irritating to the skin than any of the other products included in this road test.
Dr Bronner's Unscented Liquid Castile Soap
Distributor: 21st Century Health (020 7935 5440; www.21stcenturyhealth.co.uk)
Price: lb4.50 for 8 oz; lb6.40 for 16 oz
Ingredients: saponified coconut, hemp and olive oils (with retained glycerine), olive fatty acids
Popular since the '50s in the US, Dr Bronner's is only just beginning to make its presence felt in the UK. These liquid soaps are made from 100 per cent vegetable oils and potassium hydroxide (lye). They are so concentrated they are nearly solid, so you only need to use a little. They are for bathing and for cleaning, either straight or mixed with other household items such as baking soda.
We mixed a small amount of the product with water and used it as an all-purpose cleaner, with good results in the kitchen and especially the bathroom. Mixed with baking soda and water, it made a good cream cleaner for getting grime off the hob and sink.
But years of using regular soaps and detergents leads to a tendency to use too much of Dr Bronner's soap, and it would be nice if the label offered more suggestions for use. This is important because, in high concentrations, it requires more rinsing. Also, Dr Bronner's costs nearly twice as much in the UK as in the US, so using too much can be costly. Used sparingly, this pure soap product is an effective cleaner for all surfaces, including the toilet.
Dr Bronner's comes scented and unscented. The scented version uses only essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint, tea tree, eucalyptus and almond.
Ecover Multi-surface Cleaner
Distributor: Ecover (01635 528 240; www.ecover.com)
Price: lb1.35 for 500 mL; lb2.09 for 1 L
Ingredients: Over 30 per cent: water; under 5 per cent: plant- and sugar-based surfactants, ethanol (fermented from sugar), vegetable-based soap, natural gum, natural essential oils, preservative
Over the years, Ecover has built a solid reputation as manufacturers of green cleaners. Many of us are familiar with their dish detergent, which is fairly widely available in major supermarkets. Less widely distributed is their range of other cleaners, including this all-purpose cleaner (which are more likely to be found in healthfood and natural health shops).
Used over a wide range of surfaces such as the bath, kitchen sink, hobs and floor, this cleaner performed very well. It is low-sudsing, minimally perfumed with essential oils and easy on the hands. When rinsed well, it leaves no residue. Like Green People's (see below), however, we would like to see some advice about wearing gloves during use as, though it is relatively mild, some skin types will be sensitive to the detergents used.
Ecover trumpet that they disclose all the ingredients in their labelling, but this is not strictly true. They didn't name the detergent(s)/surfactants in their cleaner or the preservative used, or the precise essential oils included. Instead, they followed the lead of conventional manufacturers and described the ingredients. Not very helpful to the consumer.
We contacted Ecover's UK office for more information, but no one could tell us which detergents were used. Phone calls to the Belgian head office also produced no response. Chemically aware consumers are increasingly demanding such information and it's no longer acceptable to state 'vegetable-based surfactant' or 'preservative' as a shorthand for any range of chemicals.
Distributor: 21st Century Health (020 7935-5440; www.21stcenturyhealth.co.uk)
Price: lb1.50 for 2 oz
Ingredients: d-limonene, orange oil, surfactant (coconut-based)
This product is billed as an all-purpose cleaner and degreaser. It has, we are told, won the Edison Award for Environmental Achievement.
Citra solv, made from orange-peel extract, is highly concentrated, contains no water, and is a good example of how natural products should sometimes be approached with care. This was by far the most unpleasant and corrosive product tested and should never be used without gloves. The label contains copious warnings about possible skin and eye irritation (but doesn't specifically say to wear gloves), and its combustibilty. It notes that the product can damage 'some plastics', but doesn't say which ones. When we used it neat on a CD case to remove price-tag glue, it removed the glue, but also quickly began to melt the plastic case.
Used neat, it was effective in removing oven grease, but the orange smell was sometimes overwhelming. This is not surprising. d-Limonene (responsible for melting the plastic) is known to elicit allergic reactions and should be used with care by sensitive individuals.
The product is economically priced as orange oil is easy to process. But neat, it was too aggressive for everyday use. Used diluted, it was the least effective of the cleaners tested and required as much scrubbing as with plain water. Without a foaming agent, some may find this difficult to use (since foam, while it does not clean, acts as a marker of where the product is and where you've already cleaned - useful to some people).
Green People Multi-Purpose Cleaner
Distributor: Green People (01444 401 444; www.greenpeople.co.uk)
Price: lb6.99 for 130 mL
Ingredients: aqua, glycerine, decyl glucoside, cocomoniumcarbamyol chloride, and lavender, rose geranium, tea tree, mandarin peel, bergamot and sweet orange oils
Green People, best known for their organic toiletries, also produce a small range of household cleaning products. This tiny bottle is costly, but it is also highly concentrated. We found that just a little produced a massive amount of foam - good for lifting greasy deposits from a variety of surfaces.
Green People get full marks for listing all their ingredients on the label, including the detergent used, a potentially harsh quaternary compound. That explains why, having used the product with and without gloves, we found the cleaner to be somewhat hard on the hands, and would have liked to have seen some sort of advice on the label to wear gloves when using this product. Many manufacturers may assume that users will do this anyway, but this is not always the case.
Likewise, many people interested in green products blithely assume that, if the ingredients are organic and they include essential oils, they must be safe when in prolonged contact with the hands. In fact, many essential oils can be very drying to the skin. This product - apart from containing lavender and geranium - also contains several citrus oils and tea tree, all of which can be hard on the skin with prolonged contact.
It was also the most expensive of all the products we tested, which is a big drawback, particularly as there is no advice given on how best to dilute it and how best to use it on different surfaces.
Distributor: SIS-Global Eco (01284 700 170; www.soapnut.com)
Price: lb5.45 for 100 g of powder
Ingredients: powdered Sapindus trifoliatis (organically cultivated)
Although soapnut has been used in India for thousands of years, it was only 10 years ago that an enterprising Indian farmer cultivated it for export. Recent research into its properties has shown that soapnut is high in saponin (chemicals that produce foam and have an action similar to the non-ionic surfactants used in conventional products). It can be used to clean your body as well as your home. The manufacturers even suggest that this product can be used in the garden as a natural pesticide.
The distributors point out that soapnut is not for everyone - and this is very good advice. It requires a major shift in your point of view to mix up a brown-coloured powder and use it - with loads of elbow grease, of course - all over yourself or your home, from cleaning your teeth to washing the car.
We found that it worked best on surfaces that were rinsed with running water, such as toilets, baths, sinks and showers. On surfaces that required wiping, all but the weakest solution could leave an unsightly film. As a thick paste, it was useful for breaking up new grease in the oven, but could not shift baked-on grease.
The product was very kind to hands and smelled a little bit like chocolate, and is a reasonable choice for those who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity, but wish to use some sort of cleaning agent in addition to water. However, it required a little more elbow grease than most of us are used to.
The range of harmful ingredients in everyday products is simply staggering. For a good overview on the toxic effects of cleaners and a range of alternatives, readers may wish to read Cleaning Yourself to Death (New Leaf, 2001; lb8.99) by Pat Thomas.
Most of us are used to buying our cleaning products off the supermarket shelves. When we think of alternatives, often the first place we look is back in the supermarket - where green alternatives are often pretty thin on the ground. Why not consider making your own? The simplest (and cheapest) ingredients are often all that is needed for the majority of household cleaning jobs.
If you're the kind who just has to have a shiny new bottle for everything, consider the Clean House Clean Planet Kit. The kit contains five new bottles - two spray, two squeezy and one jar-type - each with a recipe on the label to help you make safe cleaning products for glass and mirrors, floors, bath and kitchen as well as natural furniture polish from ingredients like baking soda, club soda, olive oil and vinegar. Included is a bottle of Dr Bronner's peppermint soap for those mixtures that require a bit of detergent power. The bottles can be refilled again and again, and costs lb17.95 from 21st Century Health (020 7935 5440).
For years, the concern over the use of household cleaners has focused on the impact they have on our environment. However, many of the chemicals used in household cleaners - from dish detergent to toilet cleaner and air fresheners - are known to poison people as well as plant life. In addition to harsh detergents, consider the following common ingredients in household cleaners:
* Formaldehyde, used as a preservative, is a known human carcinogen
* Naphthalene, a petroleum distillate, is poisonous to humans and a potential carcinogen
* Paradichlorobenzene, sometimes used as a disinfectant, is irritating to the skin, eyes and throat, can cause drowsiness and headache, and may cause liver cancer in some animals
* Propellants, such as butane, isobutane and propane, are used in all pressurised sprays and are potent neurotoxins
* Phenol, also known as carbolic acid, is corrosive, poisonous, can cause central nervous system disorders and circulatory changes, and is a suspected carcinogen
* Perfumes derived from petrochemicals (many of which are designated hazardous waste by government agencies) can cause a variety of symptoms, including mood swings, central nervous system disorders, allergic and asthmatic reactions, headaches and more
* Colours and dyes, usually made from coal tar, are carcinogenic, and can also contain impurities such as lead and arsenic, also known to cause cancer.