Spring is a time for new beginnings; out with the old and in with the new. And it’s the ideal time to open the windows and give everything a good airing! The origins of spring cleaning – the ancient art of doing a thorough clean at the beginning of the season – are not known for sure, but the tradition is still practised widely. However, with today’s modern cleaning products, are we just refilling that fresh spring air with nasty, harmful chemicals? Many shop-bought products are full of artificial chemicals that claim to be harder on dirt and grime. But does this come at a cost to our health?
Scientists have, for a number of years, been warning that man-made chemicals affect human health, having been linked with reduced immunity, low sperm count, cancers and decreased intelligence. One of the biggest offenders is the cleaning products industry. In addition to scientific research, various organisations have been campaigning to tighten regulations and get the harmful chemicals removed from the market. They have had some limited success, but it is still down to us as consumers to be more vigilant in our buying habits.
When it comes to cleaning, you need to be aware that whatever you put in the water to clean the floors or the oven releases toxins that you will breathe in as you clean. Then, when they get poured down the drain, they contaminate our water supply, jeopardising the health of our ecosystems. Yes, this water will be cleaned and treated, but not before all those chemicals have already damaged the environment.
Here are some key chemicals to avoid:
Artificial musks are used in all kinds of products. If it has a fragrance, chances are it is artificial. Look for products with natural oils in the ingredients list that match the fragrance on the bottle, or buy non-scented and add your own. Artificial musks can disrupt the body’s hormone system; they have a long chemical life and can build up in the body. Due to these factors they have been found in the natural environment and even in breast milk.
The term parfum usually refers to the fragrance’s smell, and is used to cover a multitude of different chemicals that should be avoided. They cause allergies for millions of people and they can be found in most household cleaners.
Parabens are preservatives that are used in cosmetics and bathroom products to stop them growing mould. They mimic oestrogen in a way which is believed to interfere with the hormone system and increase the risk of breast cancer for women. Some parabens have been banned, but others still exist in everyday products.
Phthalates are industrial pollutants that leak from the products containing them. These products include PVC, toys, clothing, flooring, wallpaper, cosmetics and fragrances. They are ingested, inhaled or absorbed into our bodies and they have been linked to fertility problems, foetal and birth defects, altered hormone levels and genital deformities. Unfortunately, manufacturers whose products contain them are not obliged to disclose them on the label, so it is hard to avoid them.
Solvents can cause irritation when absorbed through the skin and nails, or when inhaled. They are used in all types of detergents.
Triclosan is found in most dishwashing detergents and antibacterial hand washes. It can alter hormones, especially thyroid hormones, and affect normal breast development. It also helps build up the resistance of harmful bacteria to antimicrobial agents such as antibiotics.
There are a host of man-made chemicals that should be avoided by all. However, it has been found that women and children in particular are most at risk. Women’s reproductive systems can be put in danger, with many of these products using hormone-disrupting chemicals. There have also been numerous links found between some of these chemicals and breast cancer, which typically affects more women than men. Children (and foetuses) are at a higher risk as their bodies are still developing and their organs and immune systems are not yet strong enough to combat the effects that some chemicals have. Small children are at further risk as they come into contact more frequently with their environment. They are constantly putting their fingers into their mouths and eating food from just-wiped surfaces. And, due to being so small, they are exposed to higher concentration levels.
So, what to do? A simple rule to follow would be: if you need to put on rubber gloves, a face mask or protective clothing to use a product, maybe it shouldn’t be brought into your home in the first place. A few initial ways to tackle this issue are to buy brands that use more plant-based substances, avoid the above types of chemicals, and only buy products that are clear about the ingredients that they use. A second option is to make your own. Although many people feel they do not have the time or know-how to make their own, home-made cleaning products are often quick and simple to make, and they can save you money too. You can search for recipes online, get a book, or start by switching to some of the products mentioned below.
Here are a few of the best natural cleaning agents:
Bicarbonate of soda (sodium bicarbonate) can be used to deodorise and clean fabrics. Mix with water or sprinkle on dry. It makes a very effective carpet cleaner – just sprinkle it on, leave for half an hour and then vacuum.
Lemon juice can be used to clean surfaces and remove stains and limescale. For tough limescale, just leave it for half an hour before wiping clean. If left in the fridge, a cut lemon will also absorb all the nasty smells. Mix lemon juice with water to whiten whites and brighten colours, either as a pre-soak or by adding lemon juice to the wash like you would a softener.
Vinegar can be used as a surface cleaner, stain remover, de-scaler, deodoriser and disinfectant. It can also work wonders on windows – just mix with water, wash on, and polish off with screwed up newspaper. (Malt works just as well as white wine varieties, but is obviously a bit more pungent.)
Olive oil or beeswax can be used as furniture polish (use sparingly).
Tea tree oil can be used as an antiseptic and a disinfectant. It is also effective on mould and mildew.
So, this spring may be the time to upgrade your green cleaning credentials! If you’d like to find out more, or have some tips of your own to add, why not come along to one of our socials (‘Coffee with PinT’ on the second Sunday of the month, or ‘Pint with PinT’ on the fourth Thursday of the month) and carry the conversation on with us there?
Washing up liquid: http://forums.moneysavingexpert.com/showthread.php?t=286469
Supporting articles / more information
https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/chemicals_house_products.pdf (Jan 2002)