Your Guide to Non-Toxic, Earth-Friendly Household Cleaners

Written by Posted On Thursday, 16 August 2018 11:15
Your Guide to Non-Toxic, Earth-Friendly Household Cleaners CurrentCast

All of our kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms depend on a variety of cleaners. We rely on detergents to keep our dishes and clothes clean, bleach for those bright whites, and disinfectants for toilets and counters.

Such cleaners are important to general hygiene, especially in households home to busy families and little ones. It can even be immensely satisfying to spend a Sunday afternoon cleaning—I know I take pleasure in tidying up, especially if dirty dishes and clothes have been stacking up for quite some time.

Unfortunately, a lot of the household cleaners we use on a daily basis are rife with chemicals and toxins, some that are known hazards to human health. While it is possible to find cleaners that have limited chemical makeup and more plant-based ingredients, it can still be tough to parse through the selections offered in home and grocery stores.

As someone who recently transitioned from household cleaners to purely non-toxic, earth-friendly solutions, I can attest to the difficulty of this transition! In this guide, however, I’ll discuss chemicals to avoid, DIY household cleaner options, and other considerations to keep your home safe and toxin-free.

Chemicals to Avoid

In general, it’s wise to opt for cleaners that have as few ingredients as possible. The same actually goes for grocery shopping if you’re aiming to select healthier foods (the principle being that more ingredients often indicate higher levels of processing).

Always scan the ingredient list of any cleaner you pick up. All cleaners should have this list, although it can be hard to find. You may have to peel away a label to view the full list of cleaner ingredients.

Here are a few chemicals you definitely want to avoid on those ingredient lists.


This chemical appears in many household glass cleaners, particularly those that advertise they are “streak-free.” We all love having clean windows and transparent surfaces, and streak-free cleaners do indeed do the work they promise they’ll do.

But ammonia can actually be immediately harmful, particularly to individuals with respiratory problems. Inhalation of ammonia can lead to lung inflammation, throat irritation, airway destruction, and other dangers. Yikes! It is particularly dangerous for elderly individuals or children, so if you have a busy household, keep ammonia out of your cabinets.

Ammonia is also often present in some polishes, particularly silver polish.


When we hear the word “chlorine,” we all think of that familiar smell of summertime swimming pools. Accordingly, it’s easy to assume that chlorine is non-toxic—after all, if our kids swim around in it, shouldn’t it be safe?

However, it actually isn’t. Chlorine in swimming pools is the same chlorine used in household bleach, cleaning products, toilet bowl disinfectants, scouring powders, and even tap water. Their difference lies in their concentrations and strengths.

Chlorine is used to chemically treat bacteria, ensuring that drinking water and germ-ridden areas don’t elevate our risk of infection and illness. Ironically, however, chlorine can actually lead to severe respiratory problems and thyroid issues.

If you’re looking for a solid bleach for whitening purposes, opt for chlorine-free bleach powders. I also am a big fan of using baking soda.


These are amongst the worst toxins available to consumers in generic household cleaning products, including detergents, shampoos, and hairsprays. They may even appear in your workout clothes, particularly those that are composed of synthetic materials. In fact, phthalates are ultimately used to stabilize plastics, ensuring that they are harder to break.

Phthalates are frequently behind the fragrances in cleaning products and solutions, and they can pose some serious hazards to male and female fertility and liver health and function. They can also trigger respiratory issues if they are found in fragranced air fresheners or sprays. Even fragranced soaps can carry phthalate culprits.

Be wary of the word “fragrance” or “perfume” on ingredient labels. These are likely references to phthalates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that exposure to phthalates is widespread in the U.S. population, despite the hazards they pose to health (and their prevalence!).


Unfortunately, this hard-to-pronounce chemical loves to hide in multipurpose and household cleaners, particularly those used in kitchens and for common surfaces. While this chemical is a solid solvent, it can lead to liver and kidney damage, throat inflammation, and respiratory problems.

2-Butoxyethanol can be particularly harmful if used in areas that are not properly ventilated, such as window-less bathrooms or closets. Be sure to eliminate this bugger from your cleaner lineup right away to keep your respiratory system and internal organs safe.


This substance has been hotly debated for quite some time. Borax is technically a salt and a mineral, and many people claim that it is safe to use within the home. However, some studies do indicate borax’s potential to harm skin and respiratory systems, particularly if individuals come in close contact with its actual powdered form.

For this reason, I would recommend staying away from products that contain Borax, as “natural” as it may seem.

Anything that is “Antimicrobial” or “Antibacterial”

Be wary of this terminology, even though the word “antibacterial” may be what we look for when we browse the aisle of cleaning products in Target. Don’t we want the products that allegedly fight that bacteria we’re trying hard not to bring into our homes?

However, items advertised as antibacterial likely contain a host of chemicals that can lead to all kind of organ failure and dysfunction, such as triclosan and phosphates. While these substances do, for the most part, rid your surfaces and clothes of bacteria, they can also pass the skin barrier and enter nasal passages to great detriment.


Avoiding cleaning products that contain these harmful, toxic chemicals is one thing. Yet you can take it a step further by seeking out alternatives to these solvents and synthetic substances, either through DIY recipes or some serious label scrutinizing.

Some people opt for any containers that say “plant-based,” “organic,” or “100% natural.” However, be wary of this terminology. It may not actually designate environmentally friendly, non-toxic ingredients. In fact, a lot of this language is starting to be used for marketing purposes, as manufacturers are catching on to their “trendiness” in household conversations.

Always, always look at ingredient lists. Some products will specify whether or not some ingredients are plant-derived, but simply because something is plant-derived does not make it safe. Look for 100% biodegradable, vegan ingredients for guaranteed non-toxicity and earth-friendliness, and aim to purchase from brands that have an eye for sustainability and eco-consciousness.

Some of these brands are already starting to appear in prominent grocery and hardware stores, such as Mrs. Meyers and Dr. Bronners.

You may also wish to venture into the world of DIY cleaning products. DIY cleaners are what currently fill my cabinets, and I’m delighted to say that these save me so much money every year, smell amazing, and ensure that my home is free of toxicity and harmful chemicals.

There are scores of DIY recipes out there, including ones for beauty products, lotions, laundry detergents, and more. The basic ingredients you’ll need for most of these DIY household cleaning product recipes include baking soda, white vinegar, lemon juice, liquid castile soap, and essential oils (for scenting purposes).

In fact, a very simple multipurpose counter cleaner mixes white vinegar, water, and eucalyptus essential oil. Simply spray on surfaces and let the acidic vinegar work its magic.

Certainly, DIY household cleaners are not for everyone. Some people love the feel and smell of chemical products and feel more confident that these substances can “kill” bacteria more effectively than natural ingredients. However, it’s still important to be mindful of what these substances are doing to our physiology (beyond protecting us against germs).

Other Considerations

My pursuit of non-toxic household cleaners had a lot to do with a burgeoning commitment to zero-waste living. I’ve already written about the values of a low-waste home and strategies for limiting waste in the bathroom, the epicentre of waste generation (besides the kitchen) in any given home.

You may find that slimming down on the chemicals requires reducing waste in your home, particularly plastic waste. Given the fact that plastic pollution is becoming an ever-pressing global dilemma, non-toxicity in the home can be a substantial commitment to the environment itself.   

In fact, zero-waste homes and lifestyles are often low-toxicity in and of themselves! Learn more about the other values of a low-waste home here.

One of the best ways to ensure that your home is low-toxicity is to do your research and to do it wisely. Remember that just because a substance is “organic” or defined as “natural” does not necessarily make it safe. Luckily, studies do exist when it comes to these harmful substances—you just have to hunt them down in the first place.

A good rule of thumb for cleaning products is to opt for those that you wouldn’t mind consuming by accident. Baking soda and vinegar, for example, would be pretty icky to digest, but ingesting these products won’t compromise your health in any way.

Good luck!

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Kate King

Kate King is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger. 

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