Green Cleaning Products: Are They Safe And Do They Work?

Climate change has many consumers searching for green cleaning products to protect the environment, but is it possible to go green and still clean properly? 

Many traditional cleaning products contain toxic chemicals that can harm our health, air and water, and while many consumers prefer products that are free of those toxins, those eco-friendlier products often won’t clean and disinfect as thoroughly as their chemical-laden counterparts, says Tricia Holderman, author of Germinator: The Germ Girl’s Guide To Simple Solutions In A Germ-Filled World.

“There really is no such thing as a definitive green disinfectant, at least not yet,” says Holderman, owner, president and CEO of Elite Facility Systems, a consulting company that works with businesses to implement facility safety and cleanliness practices. 

“Yes, there are plenty of so-called green disinfectants on the shelf right next to the other disinfecting products. But unfortunately, they are not technically disinfectants, because anything that is green cannot kill all types of germs.”

Holderman offers these caveats on going green to clean:

  • Know the limits of green cleaning products. The primary purpose of disinfectants is to kill germs. Holderman says green disinfectants are good at killing mold, but have a tougher time with viruses. 

“The EPA has a list just for disinfectants as well as a Safer Choice list,” she says. “This list identifies products that can kill germs; however, most have not been tested on the coronavirus.” 

Instead, the EPA List N is for products that have been tested for killing strains and variants of the SARS-CoV-2. Holderman says “green cleaning products don’t always ensure a better clean than traditional products,” but adds there are eco-friendly cleaners that manufacturers have improved. “You should use green products under the right circumstances,” she says. “One cleaner does not fit all. Everybody wants to have one spray bottle we can take from the kitchen to the bathroom to the garage, but that’s not how green cleaning works.

“There are times you may have to choose a commercially-prepared, chemical product – for example, when cleaning in a hospital in order to properly disinfect.” Larger facilities, Holderman says, such as gyms, offices, hospitals and grocery stores, present many opportunities for pathogens. Thus, those cleaning and disinfecting jobs are best left to List N products.

Holderman recommends checking the label of your preferred cleaning item, be it green or a traditional product, to see what pathogens the product has “kill claims” for. Also check the product’s “dwell time,” which is the amount of time a disinfectant must remain visibly wet to kill a pathogen.

  • Not all green cleaners are safe for people and the environment. “The plus with green cleaners is the environmental aspect,” Holderman says. “You can use them more often while having the comfort that they’re free of certain harmful chemicals.”

However, Holderman says some cleaning products listed as “natural” can still be harmful to people and the environment. Critics caution that green cleaners with natural or plant-based ingredients aren’t guaranteed to be safe; some of those products may contain synthetic chemicals.

“Follow the labels and wear gloves when indicated,” Holderman says. “Some products have odors that affect COPD and asthma.” 

According to Clean Water Action, someone interested in green cleaning products should look for ones that are biodegradable, non-toxic, phosphate-free, have recyclable packaging, are labeled with a full disclosure of active and inactive ingredients, contain natural fragrances, and are free of dyes, hypochlorite, and chlorine. Safer Choice assists businesses and consumers in finding products that are safe for humans, pets and the environment while meeting quality standards. 

Some safe and effective green cleaners Holderman lists are: vinegar, mainly acetic acid; hydrogen peroxide; sodium bicarbonate (baking soda); and citric acid, a plant-based degreaser, stain remover and disinfectant.

 “Alcohol products are the most natural,” Holderman says, “but it needs to be a high percentage of concentration – 60-plus percent – in order to be effective on surfaces to kill most pathogens. For killing viruses, it needs to be 70 percent alcohol and to dwell for 30 seconds.” 

Holderman notes it’s not just the ingredients of the cleaner, but temperature is a factor in the cleaning. “Hot water at 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit can kill bacteria and viruses,” she says. 

Like products in other industries in this age of accelerating technology, Holderman thinks green cleaning products will continue to be developed and introduced frequently. “I believe they will increasingly be chosen for consumer and corporate use,” she says.  

Tricia Holderman (www.triciaholderman.com) is the owner, president and CEO of Elite Facility Systems and the author of Germinator: The Germ Girl’s Guide To Simple Solutions In A Germ-Filled World. With over four decades of experience as a national authority on infection prevention.