Is cleaning with plant-based and natural cleaners effective?
They claim to be safer, but do they kill germs?
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Have you ever thought it odd that you have to wear rubber gloves while using certain cleaning products, otherwise you’ll have raw, irritated hands? Also, cleaners like bleach can totally ruin your clothes. Warnings indicate possible eye irritation and the need for use in a well-ventilated area.
While there are hundreds of cleaning products for your home, some can do more harm than good.
According to Beyond Toxics, “over 150 chemicals found in the average home have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer, and psychological abnormalities.”
There’s also a lot left unknown; over 80% of the industrial chemicals in everyday-use products have no health information available. The American Lung Association says, “Some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs).”
Harmful chemicals to avoid include diethanolamine, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, 1,4-dioxane, boric acid, ammonia, and bleach per the Environmental Working Group.
It can be hard to know what products you can trust, especially if you lead a busy life or have limited options due to budget, access, or time. If you want to clean more greenly, a good place to start is finding and using products with ingredients you can recognize—and pronounce—as well as searching for products with third party certifications like Made Safe or Green Seal.
Don’t be fooled or confused by marketing campaigns and claims; sometimes cleaners aren’t what they seem to be. A plant-based cleaner is an ambiguous term, and it is not the same as a zero-chemical cleaner. Since some aspects of products (like fragrance) aren’t regulated, companies have a bit of wiggle room when it comes to formulating products. Some products are eco-friendly because they don’t use as much water during production, weigh less during shipping, come in glass bottles, or can be composted. However, the product inside may not be as eco-friendly.
It can be helpful to look for labels like “zero-chemical,” “safe,” “natural,” and “eco-friendly,” when you’re shopping for home cleaning products, but take your shopping a step further and do a bit of research. Check how the product scores on the EWG’s site. See if the product makes the EPA’s List N, which is a list of products that are proven to disinfect against COVID-19. Check the product labels and make sure none of the chemicals to avoid (listed above) are present. And, if you or a family member have asthma or allergies check to make sure the ingredients won't be irritating.
If the options overwhelm you, you can always make your own products at home with just a few cheap and simple ingredients.
We’ve tested several product lines that claim to avoid toxic chemicals to make your home cleaner without bringing any harmful substances inside. Here are some popular safe cleaners we tried out and like.
Natural cleaners: Vinegar, baking soda, hot water
Before you switch your whole cleaning routine, think about what you can replace with tried and true household products like distilled white vinegar, baking soda, and hot water. A mixture of vinegar and baking soda will fizzle and cut through grease and tile stains and is also sensitive enough to remove long-standing coffee stains from your favorite mug.
Both vinegar and baking soda are cheap and easy to keep in your pantry or below your sink, so it’s nice to have them as a backup. You can also mix them with ingredients like washing soda, castile soap, and essential oils to make your own products running from laundry detergent to dishwasher pods.
And don’t underestimate the power of hot water! According to the CDC, you need to boil water for 1 to 3 minutes (depending on elevation) to make it safe for drinking; the boiling temperature for water is 212°F at sea level.
However, most dishwashers and washing machines only heat to about 120°F. Though boiling water may not kill all germs, it can aid in cleaning by creating space between molecules that can be filled by other disinfectants. Essentially, using hot water before another cleaning product will yield successful results, especially for sugary and sticky messes like sugar or syrup.
Force of Nature
The Force of Nature cleaner isn’t what I expected at all. It requires a few extra steps, but it kills 99.9% of germs and is even EPA-approved for use against COVID-19.
The cleaner comes in a small squeeze pack that you mix with water in an open-top plastic beaker that runs for about 10 minutes; we loved it when another member of the Reviewed team reviewed it earlier this year.
The resulting cleaner smells a bit like chlorine, but it is incredibly effective on greasy messes and food stains on countertops. I like the peace of mind that comes along with using an EPA-approved cleaner.
Mixing the concentrate with different ratios of water creates glass cleaner, hand soap, laundry detergent, surface cleaner, and more. Branch Basics is not a disinfectant, so it doesn’t kill germs, but it cleans dirt, grease, stains, and grime from surfaces.
All of Branch Basics’ products are Made Safe, meaning they are made without 5,000 known toxic chemicals. Having a certification like Made Safe is important because it shows the brand’s dedication to products safe for your food, surfaces, and all members of your family.
Humble Suds is a line of plant-based products with six or fewer ingredients. All products are eco-friendly, recyclable, and safe for pets and people, which may be important to you depending on your values. Humble Suds products are also gluten free, making them a good option for those with allergies.
The natural scents are bright and fresh without being overwhelming. The Scour Cleaning Paste is a must-have in my home. You can use the paste to clean grout, stovetops, showers, sinks, and even your produce. The paste is made from baking soda, castile soap, vegetable glycerin, and citrus oils.
Humble Suds products are also made without sulfates, phthalates, parabens, and harmful VOCs. The website offers a full ingredient list, but does not have particular claims for killing germs.
I like using the all purpose cleaner in my bathroom and bedroom, and I love that it comes in a glass spray bottle, because it’s reusable and doesn’t create any plastic waste. I recommend the Starter Kit so you can see how the products work in your home.
Grove Collaborative is an online marketplace for “clean” goods, including home cleaning products like scrubber sponges, reusable glass bottles, and refill packs of laundry detergent, glass cleaner, and more.
The company’s purpose is to vet products to guarantee they’re safe for your home so you don’t have to spend the time doing so. The brand is a Certified B Corporation, which is an esteemed sustainability marker that speaks to the brand’s high standards.
While Grove offers a variety of cleaners from sustainable brands like Method, Pure Sense, and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, we like products by Seventh Generation because it is a Certified B Corporation, which speaks to its environmental and social transparency. Grove Collaborative’s multi-purpose cleaner concentrate is free of parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, and synthetic ingredients.
By using its glass bottles and refill system you cut down on plastic waste in addition to keeping toxins out of your home.
Cleancult is another home cleaning line with zero-waste refills, refillable glass bottles, and natural formulas. You receive the cleaners in repurposed milk cartons, pour them into glass bottles with protective silicone covers, and then repeat.
The brand is Leaping Bunny Certified, carries many vegan products if that’s important to you, and is working on other sustainable certifications. Cleancult’s products clean and remove dirt, but they don’t necessarily disinfect or kill germs.
Cleancult also has a recycling program where you can send your used cartons back, and they’ll be “broken down and given fresh life, transformed into new products like tissues, paper towels, and even eco-friendly building materials,” which transfers the burden of recycling from the consumer to the company; even shipping is paid for!
You may know Hello Bello for its baby products like diapers, but the brand also has a plant-based cleaning line consisting of surface wipes, laundry detergent, hand soap, and home cleaners.
Created by Hollywood A-listers Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, Hello Bello creates safe products so you don’t have to decide between your children’s health and a clean home.
I enjoyed using the 3-pack Cleaning Starter Kit because it was easy and effective against dirty surfaces. You fill each bottle with water and drop in the tablet to make the product. Each cleaner smelled bright and left surfaces—even my floors—streak-free.
According to its website, Hello Bello “prioritize(s) ingredients that are safe and effective and avoid(s) chemicals of concern” though you’ll have to check individual products for full ingredient lists. Hello Bello doesn't have any claims to kill germs though, so you’ll need a disinfectant if you want to do so. I recommend reading the company’s standards to see where your values align before purchasing products.
Chrissy Tiegan and Kris Jenner made headlines earlier this year with the introduction of their Safely cleaning line collaboration.
Safely products claim to be plant-powered, highly concentrated, have uplifting scents, and come in refillable bottles. All of Safely’s products are also free from “stabilizers, sulfates, parabens, phthalates, dyes, and animal byproducts,” making them a safer alternative to many grocery store brands. Safely’s Hand Sanitizer kills 99.9% of common bacteria (although it’s not on the EPA’s List N), and products are pet and child-safe.
The cleaning line comes in two scents—Rise and Spring—both of which are created with natural ingredients like jasmine, geranium, amber, and patchouli.
I cleaned with Safely’s Essential Home Kit, and I’ll admit that I didn’t like how strong the scent was or how long it lingered, almost like when you leave a hairdresser smelling like mousse, hairspray, and anti-frizz cream.
Though the products are in plastic bottles, they are refillable. I’ll also say that the bottle design is a bit uncomfortable to hold and spray, but you could always use another bottle you have at home.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.