green-cleanersBy Barbara Kessler

Getting to the bottom line on green cleaners is like trying to slice through the soap scum on your neglected shower door with a spritz of glass cleaner. You won’t be seeing a clear picture right away.

Much is in progress with “natural,” “environmentally friendly,” “biodegradable,” “certified biodegradable” and “non-toxic” products designed to clean your bathroom, kitchen and floors, and it is difficult to drill to the basics. For one thing, the EPA’s certification for retail cleaners is in the early stages. For another, there’s a fast-accumulating array of such products now available, from Seventh Generation to Planet to Ecover to Shaklee to Biokleen. Even that bleach-drenched brand Clorox has jumped into the green cleaning game.

This blossoming is a great development for the environment, your over-sensitive nose, babies that crawl on floors and the free marketplace, which will help winning items rise to the top if consumers get informed. But on the other hand, it makes for a dazzling bubble bath of claims that challenges the average consumer’s time allotment for product education. Do you want to take the EPA’s pdf on environmentally safe cleaners along on your 20-minute dash to the grocery?

So we plowed through some government documents, talked to some manufacturers and sampled several green cleaners for you. And we came to these conclusions: Less is more. Ingredient disclosure is good. Yes, green cleaners do work. In our estimation, they clean some surfaces pretty darn well, but not all to the same degree.

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Testing Green Cleaners: The Bathroom, The Kitchen

Finally, if you learn anything as you prepare to green your clean, learn what you don’t want in a cleaner – environmentally damaging ammonia, bleach, chlorine, phosphates, strong acids and inorganic fragrances — and you’re 80 percent of the way home. A clue, if the label talks about how you shouldn’t mix the product with bleach or ammonia because it could create toxic fumes capable of igniting nearby sewer gases, you might consider this to be a non-green cleaner.

Of course, there are questions remaining, a key one being, how well do these green products sanitize or disinfect? Do they wipe away germs?

Technically, they do and they don’t. Most are not registered as “disinfectants” with the government, but then neither are most conventional cleaners.

Still, green cleaners being sold today are more sophisticated than their precursors of 10 to 15 years ago, according to a spokesman for the EPA.

“A common criticism of ‘green’ cleaning products is that they are not effective …One reason is that companies simply removed ingredients of concern, but did not replace those ingredients with chemicals of similar functionality. Without those functional ingredients, the products didn’t perform to customers’ expectations,’’ says Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman. “Through informed substitution, companies are now choosing safer ingredients, but also making sure that they have the needed functional ingredients in their products. As a result, the products work well and are safer.”

For example, the “plant-based surfactants” listed on the labels of many green cleaners actually are more than just hefty talk. The surfactants act to change the surface tension of water and thereby encapsulate dirt particles, helping you to whisk them away. Inasmuch as the germs are in the dirt, then the combined act of applying the cleaner and rubbing it around, is cleaning, if not technically “disinfecting” the surface.

Another source of comfort on this matter of effectiveness comes from the world of commercial cleaning, where green cleaners have long been in use due to greater demand from industrial and government clients. The hotel, office or government facility you just visited may well have been cleaned with some of the hundreds of green cleaners now used by janitorial services because businesses, retailers, employers and government entities have been trying to improve indoor air quality, meet clean air mandates and reduce respiratory problems and absenteeism among guests and employees.