Start by leaving shoes outside the door. Photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly (Flickr)

I’ve never been a clean freak or neat freak, but as the mom of three young children I do lots of cleaning up anyway. As I’ve become more involved in environmental health, I’ve started paying attention to the cleaning and other household products we use in our home.

Common household cleaning products contain chemicals that are associated with cancer, asthma and other illnesses. I’ve also found that 90 percent of these products are completely unnecessary, and cost way more than safer alternatives. And I’m not talking about the fancy-schmancy green cleaning products on the shelves of Whole Foods and similar stores; that stuff is fine if you have money to burn. I started using baking soda, vinegar and warm water, and lots of old terry-cloth rags, and find that these items clean my house as well as the other stuff.

Here’s a guide to DIY household cleaners.

I bought a huge bag of baking soda at Costco and it has lasted more than a year. I make a paste of it with some water and use it to clean the tub and sink. It’s also a great tooth-whitener! Throw some baking soda in your laundry machine and you can use less detergent.

My favorite way to clean my kitchen floor? I dip a small terry-cloth towel in warm, slightly soapy water and then rub it all over the floor with my feet. Great exercise, too! This is a “poor-man’s” version of the electric steam-cleaners, which are another great way to clean your floors without chemicals. I have a small house, so the towel method works well.

Another easy way to reduce exposure to toxins and keep your floors clean? Don’t wear shoes inside your home. Require that everyone leave their shoes by the front door. Your street shoes will track lead dust and other toxins in from the street, so change into some cozy slippers when you get home. This is routine practice in many Asian cultures and they’re on to something — it keeps the house so much cleaner.

We should all avoid most air “fresheners.” Many contain pthalates (a chemical that mimics your body’s hormones), as well as other chemicals regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws. It doesn’t smell so great once you find out what may be in it. Actually, when you see “fragrance” on an ingredient list for any product, that means the manufacturer doesn’t have to tell you what that “fragrance” is made of, so be wary.

If you want something to spray, you can buy orange oil-based sprays, although these cost a bit more than regular air fresheners. If there’s a really bad smell in the house, I just light a match and then blow it out; that kills the smell. You can also use potpourri or fresh or dried flowers to make your house smell nice. If you don’t have small kids or pets (who might knock over candles), natural scented candles (not the kind made by the air freshener companies, of course) are another alternative (never leave candles unattended, of course!). So skip the toxic stuff and you can still have a clean, fresh-smelling house. Happy holidays!

One last note: While this article is about cleaning your home, I want to mention that  exposure to cleaning chemicals at your job can cause asthma. Here is a link to a fact sheet on cleaning products and work-related asthma from the California Department of Public Health’s Work-Related Asthma Prevention Program.

Here are some links with more information on safer and more environmentally friendly ways to clean:

Toxic Matters
Cleaners: Women’s Health and Environment

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Naomi Stotland, MD, Assistant Professor, UCSF Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, San Francisco General Hospital.

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