The toxic and the toilet

Eco-friendly ousecleaning services grow to meet demand for nontoxic homes

Sarah Dahl of A Natural Sparkle cleans a client’s kitchen with nontoxic cleaning products.

Sarah Dahl of A Natural Sparkle cleans a client’s kitchen with nontoxic cleaning products.


Sarah Dahl is hard at work scrubbing countertops. She’s using a mixture of Borax and Dr. Bronner’s Magic soap. What she’s not using, and won’t use anywhere in the home, are toxic cleaners.

“Most of what I use is vinegar and baking soda,” says Dahl, who started green cleaning at her own home because of her husband’s allergies and her daughter’s asthma.

Her business, A Natural Sparkle, is a green housecleaning service that not only uses nontoxic cleaners—many of which she makes herself—but also uses reusable cloths and sponges to avoid waste.

It’s one of a handful of eco-friendly services recently started on the West Coast and across the United States as more people become aware of chemical cleaners’ potential hazards.

According to the nonprofit Green Seal, which has developed standards for environmentally preferable household cleaners, corrosives found in many products for drains, ovens and toilets can burn the skin. Chlorine bleach irritates the lungs and eyes and contains trace amounts of cancer-causing organochlorines. Ammonia also irritates the lungs and eyes. Phosphates, found in dishwashing detergents, can cause algae blooms when leached into waterways from drains.

A number of other cleaning products contain air-polluting volatile organic compounds, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and petroleum, the drawbacks of which are well-documented.

Laura Mederos remembers the moment she decided to convert her cleaning business, Wow Cleaning Services, to green cleaning. She was working in a bathroom with a chemical cleaner.

“I breathed it in too much, and—I’m not lying, no joke—I started gagging, choking,” she says. “My chest hurt for three days.

“I’m the type of person who hates to go to the doctor. I don’t have insurance. That’s when it started.”

Mederos also noticed that air fresheners triggered intense headaches—which have stopped since she switched to nontoxic cleaners, such as vinegar for glass and pumice stones to remove water stains.

“We try to stay away from any product that has ammonia or chlorine, phosphates and that sort of stuff,” she says.

Tina Hardy, one of Dahl’s clients, said she became interested in nontoxic cleaners when she was pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter, Matilda. She wanted to create a safe home for her child, which evolved into wanting a nontoxic home for herself, her husband and pets, as well. And it all started with cloth diapers.

For those unwilling or unable to pay for a housecleaner, here are a few green-cleaning tips from the experts:

For dusting, use a microfiber cloth with a small bit of natural wood polisher, such as the one by Method. To clean countertops, mold and mildew, mix a teaspoon of eco-friendly dishwashing liquid, such as Dr. Bronner’s, with a teaspoon of Borax and a quart of warm water; pour it in a spray bottle.

Or just pay an expert who enjoys housecleaning anyway.