Spring is a time to clean under rarely-moved furniture, wash bedding and curtains you never wash, and tag sale items you bought and never used. Harsh chemicals like bleach and ammonia (never together!) are commonly used to cleanse the home of unwanted dirt and microbes. Yes, your house will smell like you sterilized the living hell out of it, but is that what you really want?
Problems with harsh chemicals: In general, if a product has a skull and crossbones on it, you probably shouldn’t have it in your home. Bleach is a very common cleaner, so let’s use that as our example. If you’ve ever used it, you have noticed the pungent smell, and using a bit too much gives you stinging, watery eyes, and a bothersome cough. Prolonged exposure can cause lung problems, and contact with skin can cause chemical burns. Fantastic. If you read the label, it says not to mix bleach with ammonia. Definitely don’t do this, as the chemical reaction can actually kill you. The problem doesn’t stop at household cleaning products. Hygiene products, like antibacterial soaps often contain harmful ingredient like triclosan, which is linked to hormone disruption.
Why a little dirt is a good thing: Nasty chemicals like bleach are toxic to humans, organisms that are a billion times larger than bacteria. If it’s toxic to us, it is devastating to a bacterial colony. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the particular colony is of an illness-causing variety, but constant use of harsh, antibacterial chemicals lead to two things:
- Antibacterial-resistant evolution (they get stronger and more nasty). Microbes develop new ways to resist harsh chemicals as a means to adapt to their environment. Chemicals, like cleaning products, hygiene products and antibiotics, eventually become less effective in eliminating the bacteria.
- Decrease in human immune system. Systematically killing off bacteria reduces the number of exposures. The human immune system requires exposure to pathogens in order to create antibodies to resist them. Sterilizing your environment leads to a weak immune system, leaving you more susceptible to antibacterial-resistant bad guys later down the line.
Natural cleaning products as a solution: Decreasing the amount of harsh chemicals we use can do a few things; decrease exposure to harmful toxins, keep bacterial evolution in check, and strengthen the immune system. Natural products will not kill off every bacteria, giving the body the exposure it needs to create an immune response. Since some of the bacteria can survive in the environment, there is no need to bulk up their defenses.
Your options: There are a number of options, and there isn’t one product (chemical or natural) that will take care of every strain of microbe. Using a combination of the following options will most likely cover all of the bases.
- Plain soap: There is very little evidence showing that using antibacterial soap keeps people healthier than when using plain soap and water. Antibacterials can contain harmful chemicals like triclosan, so its best to stick to the basics. Tom’s of Maine is a great brand that can be found at most mainstream stores. Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile soap is harder to find, but is also a good option for soap, laundry detergent, and countless other things. It’s one of my favorites!
- Vinegar: All vinegars prevent microbial growth, including mold, but white vinegar and garlic wine vinegar seem to have the most antimicrobial properties. Although a good option for a multi-purpose cleaner, it may not kill bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, or more commonly, the cause of staph infections. Vinegar does not need to be diluted and can be used on a number of surfaces, but avoid using it on unfinished wood. It doesn’t stain wood, but the vinegar smell will be absorbed.
- Baking soda: This abrasive powder will not kill bacteria, but can be used in combination with vinegar to create an antibacterial scrub. It can also be used in combination with vinegar to create a drain cleaner. Much better than Draino.
- Hot water: Prolonged exposure to hot water can kill bacteria. Dishwashers are meant to use high heat and steam to disinfect dishes. Water needs to be above 150F degrees to kill bacteria, a temperature that would be uncomfortable to human skin. Using hot water to hand wash dishes, for example, is not hot enough to kill bacteria, but does helps activate the detergent in soap to wash away more of the bacteria.
- Essential oils: Tea tree oil and lemon oil have natural antimicrobial properties, and make a great addition to vinegar or castile soap cleaners. They add a mainstream-product smell to your cleaner that you may miss while providing extra bug killing properties. They are each also good for a number of body ailments, check out the links above for more info.
Rethink common cleaning tools. Sponges are good at soaking up water, but also make a wonderful home for bacteria. If you’re set in your ways, disinfect them often by microwaving or throwing in the dishwasher. If you can take them or leave them, try using washcloths on dishes instead, then throw them in the washing machine.
Is there still room for harsh chemicals? In short, yes. There are some very harmful microbes out there, and places like hospitals and nursing homes are susceptible to colonizing all of them. This puts already immune-compromised patients at risk. These facilities use harsh chemicals to make sure their patients are not exposed to potential pathogens that may make their condition worse.
It is your choice to use them in your own home. It may be wise to use something stronger when a bout of the cold or flu is running through your family to minimize new exposures. In short, save the big guns for when you have a seriously unruly colony on your hands. For ordinary, every day use, natural cleaning products are your best bet. Check out EWG’s website for a full list of safe natural cleaners.