A Guide to Safer House Cleaners

16 January 2018

"Environmentally Friendly" Cleaners

You may have noticed a growing number of household cleaning products on the market which claim to be ‘environmentally friendly’.   This sounds like great news but unfortunately all detergents are a burden on the environment in one way or another.   In fact there is no such thing as a completely ‘environmentally friendly’ cleaning product and therefore they should be used in the smallest possible quantities.


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At Commonsense we aim to keep this burden as low as possible by providing a range of products primarily using plant based ingredients, commonly occurring minerals and essential oils.

Ordinary cleaning products are primarily made up of petrochemical components which have many disadvantages.  Included among these are their harmful effects on human and animal health.  These effects are compounded by the fact that any residues left after use are poorly biologically degradable and build up in the environment where they cause significant damage:

  • Residues are toxic to aquatic life.   
  • Production consumes a lot of energy in comparison with that of environmentally sound products and other dangerous residual products are often released.
  • Remaining stocks of petroleum (the basis of petrochemical ingredients) will soon be exhausted.
  • Irreparable damage is often caused to nature reserves and ecosystems during the extraction of petroleum.

Active Washing Ingredients

Active washing ingredients in ordinary petrochemical-based detergents and cleaning products take a long time to break down completely so may build up and cause substantial damage in the surrounding ecosystems.

The most common ingredient is Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulphonates (LAS), a petrochemical surfactant, but you will not usually see this on manufacturers’ lists of ingredients.  They may be listed simply as ‘ionic detergents’.

Ordinary detergents are still largely made up of this group of ingredients and the problem of poor biological degradability has not yet been dealt with successfully.

Also possible on ingredient lists are ‘optical brighteners’ and ‘low foam surfactants’, both of which are usually petrochemical derivatives.

‘Protein digestors’ and ‘proteolitic enzymes’ may be produced using genetic engineering.

Other descriptions of ingredients may be meaningless e.g. ‘natural apple based fragrance’(fragrance cannot be made from apples) or ‘filtered spring water’ (all spring water is filtered).


Common washing and cleaning products contain phosphates as a main component or polycarboxylate, which does not degrade at all.  Phosphates cause excessive plant growth in the environment, choking up ponds, lakes and rivers.  The natural balance in the sea is also disrupted through excessive algae growth, causing all the associated adverse consequences for the environment and local economies.

Commonsense provides products which use natural materials and offer comparable performance without the harmful impact on the environment.

Protect the environment while you wash

There are a number of simple steps that you can take to lessen the burden of laundry washing on the environment and also prolong the life of your washing machine.

  • Keep a hand’s breadth of free space above the washing in the drum. Washing with a half-full drum wastes energy and an overfull drum doesn’t wash your clothes.
  • Avoid excessive doses of washing powder or liquid. Adjust the dosage to the level of dirt.
  • Wash at the lowest recommended temperature. Your wash will then be clean, you will save on electricity costs and energy won’t be wasted.
  • Regardless of which washing powder or liquid you use it’s a good idea to clean your washing machine regularly.  Rinsing it with household vinegar every 2-3 months will lessen scaling and extend the machine’s life.  Use 200 ml vinegar and put the machine through a warm wash with no clothes in it.

Effects of common household cleaners on human health

Ingredients in many common household cleaning products have the potential to damage human health and may be particularly dangerous to children.

Some examples are:

  • Sodium hypochlorite used in chlorine bleach. This is a very corrosive lung and eye irritant. If mixed with ammonia or acid-based cleaners (including vinegar) it releases highly toxic chloramine gasses.
  • Formaldehyde used as a preservative in many household products including laundry detergents.   Formaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen. Even in very low levels it can cause nausea, respiratory problems, skin rashes and allergic reactions.
  • Chlorine dishwasher detergents usually contain chlorine in dry form which activates when it contacts water and releases chlorine fumes into the dishwasher and into the surrounding air.

In addition common washing and cleaning products may cause skin allergies and irritations.  This is because of frequently used ingredients such as optical whiteners that stay on fabric and may cause a reaction when they come into contact with the skin.  In chemically sensitive people this may cause a variety of symptoms from mild skin irritation to severe skin rashes and eczema.

Products stocked at Commonsense do not use raw materials that have this property of staying on the fabric.  This way we can reduce the risk of skin irritations and allergies caused by these residues.

Caution: Even ‘environmentally friendly’ automatic dishwashing powders may contain metasilicate or sodium silicate.  These are corrosive and can cause burns to the mouth, throat and stomach if swallowed.  Keep out of the reach of children at all times.

Homemade Natural Cleaners

Many safe effective cleaners can be made at home from inexpensive and easily available ingredients.  There are many versions of these cleaners in books, on the web and in magazines.  Most are based on combinations of the following ingredients:

  • White vinegar – available from supermarket.  Cuts grease, removes stains, softens water, disinfects.
  • Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate) – all purpose non-toxic cleaner.  Cleans, deodorises, removes stains and softens fabrics.  Slight abrasive action.
  • Washing soda (sodium carbonate) – cleans clothes, softens water, cuts grease, disinfects and improves cleaning power of soap.
  • Essential Oils – disinfect and add fragrance e.g. tea tree oil, citrus oils, eucalyptus, lavender.

All Purpose Cleaner

Mix equal parts of vinegar and water.  Apply with a cloth or spray bottle.  The smell will disappear as the mixture dries.


3 Tbsp vinegar, 1⁄2 tsp washing soda, 1⁄2 tsp liquid soap, 2 cups hot water.  Mix in spray bottle or bucket.  Apply and wipe clean.

Floor Cleaner

The simplest floor cleaner can be made by adding 1 cup white vinegar to one bucket of water.

For wooden floors add 1 cup liquid soap, 1 cup white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 bucket of hot water.  Add a few drops of pine essential oil for fragrance if you like.

Glass/Window Cleaner

Mix 1 tsp liquid soap, 3 tbsps white vinegar and 2 cups water.  Pour into a refillable spray bottle.  Spray onto windows.

Wipe with crumpled newspaper instead of paper towels for lint-free results.  

Toilet Bowl Cleaner

Sprinkle generous amount (e.g. 1⁄2 cup) of baking soda into bowl.  Leave for a few minutes then squirt with vinegar.  Scour with toilet brush before flushing.

Tub and Tile Cleaner

Apply vinegar to sponge and wipe around tub, then use baking soda as scouring powder.  Rinse thoroughly.

Mildew Remover

To remove tub and shower mildew make a paste from baking soda and water.  Pour 1 cup baking soda into large bowl and add enough water to form paste.  Spread onto mildewed surfaces.  Use a hardbristled brush for general mildew removal and an old toothbrush for mildew between tiles.

Laundry Brightener

Add 1⁄2 cup of lemon juice to the rinse cycle.

Oven Cleaner

Sprinkle water generously over bottom of oven.  Cover grime with 1 cup (or more) of baking soda until surface is white.  Sprinkle some more water over top.  Let mixture set overnight.

Grease will have lifted next morning so it can be wiped off.  Wipe off residue with a little liquid soap or washing up liquid on a cloth.


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