Spring Cleaning Without Toxic Products

Refresh your home and minimize indoor air pollution
clear bowls, a scrubber, and cleaning solution on a white marble counter
© Nat Bowornphatnon | Dreamstime.com

Our children will inherit the Earth, but keeping our small part of the planet healthy and clean for them while we bring up that next generation can be hard work.  When it comes to green products, many parents have to balance environmental concerns with pocketbook challenges. Especially now that spring cleaning season is upon us, the slippery subject of cleaning products and whether they do more harm than good may be weighing on the minds of parents.

Some of the most popular cleaning products contain harsh chemicals and fragrance ingredients that can harm your health. Environmental Defence staff tested the homes of volunteers and found that indoor air quality quickly deteriorates when many conventional cleaning products are used. For parents, this is even more alarming, since kids are more sensitive to many pollutants than adults. The good news is that safer options are widely available. Even better, DIY alternatives for many cleaning items are not only easy to make, they can provide significant cost savings over store brands.

The indoor air pollution problem

Outdoor air pollution is a serious health concern, and not just for people with asthma or lung disease. The World Health Organization has declared that air pollution is a cause of cancer. While it is important to heed air quality warnings from meteorologists and local radio alerts, indoor air pollution is also a health concern. Canadians spend so much time indoors with our long winters and wild weather that toxic substances lurking in building materials, furniture, and cleaning products can have a significant impact on our health.

Kids are especially sensitive to the effects of pollution. Pound for pound, their developing bodies are not able to metabolize toxic substances as efficiently as adult bodies, and exposures to toxic substances can have greater consequences. When it comes to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (substances that can mimic or impact human hormones) like phthalates added to cleaning product fragrances, kids and babies are more vulnerable than adults. And phthalates aren’t the only potential pollutant in cleaning products.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short, are a common type of air pollutant.  VOCs are a broad category of chemicals, some of which are linked to asthma and other health conditions, including cancer. A key concern with VOCs is that some of them can react with other pollutants present in the air, and form other contaminants that are even more toxic. For example, limonene, a common fragrance ingredient, can react with ozone to form the carcinogen formaldehyde. Ozone is a common ground level air pollutant, especially on smoggy days.

Cleaning products that aren’t so clean

Of course, kids love to make a mess, leaving parents with a lot of cleaning to do. So how concerned should parents be about the impacts of cleaning product chemicals on indoor air?

To investigate the impact of cleaning products on indoor air quality, my colleagues and I at Environmental Defence donned rubber gloves and tested indoor air while our friends and supporters cleaned their kitchens. We tested for VOCs to see how levels of these contaminants changed during cleaning.

For our tests, we gave 14 volunteers a set of cleaning products to clean their kitchens. We provided nine volunteers with a selection of popular conventional cleaning products (based on sales and retail shelf space) from different cleaning categories – wipes, sprays, and liquids. For comparison, we provided three volunteers with certified green products and two volunteers with products that had non-verifiable green claims on the label (no disclosure or partial disclosure of ingredients on the label).

We then sampled the air in the volunteers’ homes while they cleaned their kitchens for half an hour. CASSEN Testing Laboratories, an accredited laboratory, then checked the samples for VOCs. As no standard for indoor VOC levels exists in Canada, we compared the results to the German AGÖF institute’s standard for indoor VOC levels. It suggests that a healthy home should have no more than 1,000 micrograms/m3 of VOCs in the air. So, what did we find?

  • After cleaning, the air quality in 12 of the 14 tested households exceeded the German recommended level for indoor VOC levels.

  • For eight households, air quality went from decent to poor during the cleaning (four of those households had relatively poor indoor air to begin with, but the cleaning made it worse.)

  • VOC increases for conventional products were three times higher compared to the green products.

  • For the nine homes where conventional cleaners were used, total VOCs increased by an average of 120%.

  • For the three homes cleaned with certified green products with full disclosure labels, the increase averaged only 35%.

Quick tips for healthy indoor air

What do these study results mean for your spring cleaning? Here are some handy tips to keep your indoor air quality in good shape while getting the job done:

  • Choose green products that list their ingredients in full.

  • Avoid heavily fragranced products or go scent-free.

  • Keep rooms ventilated by opening windows or turning on fans during and after cleaning.

Finding safer alternatives

Green products release significantly less VOCs into indoor air. But don’t fall for products that claim they are green on the label. Make sure to choose products with ingredients fully disclosed, or products that feature a certified green label like EcoLogo or Cradle to Cradle. Companies are not currently required to fully list their ingredients, but some forward thinking businesses offer this information to customers voluntarily.

Make your own cleaners

For alternatives that are simple, cheap, and planet-friendly, a few ingredients found at most grocery stores will go a very long way. Baking soda is a great deodorizer that is safe for kids and pets, and vinegar is a handy and cheap ingredient to use in making your own cleaning products.

With a few simple ingredients—baking soda, vinegar, vegetable oil, and lemon juice—that are easy on kids and the environment, you can take care of many of your spring cleaning needs.

All-purpose cleaner

Dissolve 4 Tbsp baking soda in one quart warm water, or use baking soda on a damp sponge.

Surface cleaner

Mix together vinegar and salt.

Floor cleaner

A few drops of vinegar in a bucket of hot water. For wood floors, mix a one to one ratio of vegetable oil and vinegar into a solution and apply a thin coat. Rub in well.

Carpet cleaner

Sprinkle baking soda liberally over dry carpet, wait at least 15 minutes before vacuuming.

Pro tip:

we know kids delight in mixing baking soda and vinegar to make science fair “volcanoes.” Making homemade cleaners with parents is a fun and safe way for older kids, who can handle the ingredients safely, to engage with doing chores. They might not even think of it as a chore!

Clean safely, whatever you use

Even the most environmentally-conscious parents will find themselves pressed for time – or under pocket book pressures – that might mean choosing an item that is less than green. In this or any case, follow a few simple rules to mitigate the dangers of any cleaning products.

Read Labels

Labels can be tricky to read, but they are crucial. Cleaning products can contain corrosive chemicals and pose hazards to skin and eyes. Unfortunately, sometimes warnings about contents can be hidden in the fine print. In our study of cleaning products, we found some instructions on labels that stated safe use required diluting the product, but this was printed in a small font that was hard to see. Always double check to be sure you use the product in the approved way.


Ventilation can be as easy as opening a window, or turning on a fan, and can have big impact on your home’s air quality. Always keep windows open or ventilation fans running during and after cleaning (for 30 minutes to an hour), if the fans vent to the outdoors. This is especially important if you live in a condo or an apartment. Better air circulation will keep harmful VOC levels from building up.

Keep kids safe

Having older kids help with chores, or even mix vinegar and water for DIY sprays, is a good idea. But it’s important to keep children, especially babies, out of the room when using most cleaning products. Crawling children have their mouths closer to the floor, so they will inhale more VOCs if emissions are released from products used in mopping surfaces.

Following these tips, and choosing green products, or making your own when possible, are great, kid-safe ways to get your spring cleaning done without dirtying the planet.