Green clean

Tips for choosing eco-friendly cleaning products

Professor Dudley Burton recommends phosphate-free cleaners.

Professor Dudley Burton recommends phosphate-free cleaners.

Photo By Ted Cox

Kermit wasn’t kidding when he crooned, “It’s not easy being green.” For example, try purchasing an environmentally friendly cleaning product. For health reasons, it’s necessary to clean our homes and kitchens, but most of the cleaning products on the market are manufactured using complex chemical processes and may contain harmful ingredients.

Major chemical companies offer cleaners that they claim are better for the environment than other products (that they themselves manufacture), with leaf-covered labels and statements like “mostly natural.”

But just how green are these products? What makes one product friendlier to the environment than another? And are there good alternatives to store-bought cleaners?

To get some answers, SN&R sat down with professor Dudley Burton, chairman of the environmental studies department at Sacramento State University, where he has taught for seven years.

Burton has noticed a trend of major companies now offering products marketed as “green.”

“Industries are to some extent being forced in this direction, to utilize characteristics of natural products,” he said.

The power of cleaning products lies in the use of surfactants—large molecules that help water remove oil and dirt from various surfaces. One end of a surfactant attaches to dirt or oil, and the other end attaches to water. When the water is removed, the surfactant and the dirt are lifted away, leaving a clean surface behind.

Surfactants can be derived from natural sources—like papaya, pineapple or coconut—or from petroleum. Most manufacturers use petrochemicals when creating cleaning products.

“Generally speaking, historically, making surfactants the petrochemical way was easier because you had more specific control over the chemicals that were involved,” Burton said. “Whereas with [surfactants derived from] coconut, you don’t know whether it was old or half-rotten, how it was harvested or how long it’s been sitting there. It’s got a lot of impurities.”

But as prices for petrochemicals go up, and as consumer demand for green products increases, companies are offering products with naturally derived surfactants.

Burton shared some tips when it comes to purchasing cleaning products. First, do your homework before shopping. Burton recommended checking out the Green Seal Web site (, which reviews and certifies items, such as household cleaners and industrial cleaning products, based on their environmental impact. There’s also Scientific Certification Systems, which evaluates and verifies companies’ claims, such as a product’s biodegradability.

Burton recommends phosphate-free cleaners. While it’s usually good for growing healthy plants, phosphorus dumped into water systems can increase algae growth and upset the delicate ecological balance. Burton said to look for products with “phosphate free” on the label.

But he added that it’s not just ingredients consumers should be concerned about. Even when the surfactants are naturally derived, those natural ingredients still need to be processed. Plus, the product must be packaged and shipped, with each step requiring large amounts of energy.

So is there an alternative to purchasing manufactured cleaning products?

Yes: baking soda and vinegar. Mixing three parts baking soda with one part water makes a paste that’s great for removing bathroom stains. Spraying vinegar on windows and wiping them with old newspaper gets a streak-free clean.

Besides being completely natural, baking soda and vinegar won’t leave the house with that unnatural “forest” smell. But because they don’t have all those harsh chemicals, they may require a bit more elbow grease to get the job done.

Whatever cleaning method you choose, Burton offered a few more ideas to keep in mind.

“Probably the most important thing is to use them conscientiously,” he said. “Don’t use more than you need. Don’t dispose of them inappropriately.” Dump wastewater in a sink—never in a storm drain or on the ground outside.

With a little bit of research and common sense, cleaning the house the green way isn’t that hard after all. Maybe Kermit got it wrong.