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Culture: Carole Baker explores spring cleaning for the environment

By Carole Baker

Carole Baker
Carole Baker

It’s that time of year when we get an urge to spring clean our homes to make way for the new, but did you know the ingredients found in many conventional cleaning products mean our homes may look clean but may not be at all healthy for us?

Many popular products contaminate the air with a mix of carcinogens, hormone disrupters, neurotoxic solvents, mood altering chemicals and reproductive toxins.

Many scientists regard household cleaning products as one of the most important sources of indoor pollution (which can then spill into the environment) and also one of the most insidious threats to human health.

With thanks to ethicalconsumer.org

The most common toxic threesome


Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as an anti fungal agent, preservative and antimicrobial. According to some breast cancer charities, they are absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumours.

Parabens are also linked to hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.

The EU has banned five parabens from cosmetics but only restricted the amount used of the most common ones – methylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben.


Triclosan and triclocarban can be used as an antimicrobial in cleaning products. Its use in toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorants, cosmetics and hand soaps is restricted by the EU, but recently the US completely banned its use in liquid soaps and bars of soap.

Triclosan, which is classified as a pesticide, can affect the body’s hormone systems – especially thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism – and may disrupt normal breast development.

The EU classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment. Widespread use of triclosan may also contribute to bacterial resistance to antimicrobial agents. The good news is companies are beginning now to look for alternatives and Unilever will have them phased out by the end of this year.


Phthalates are a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are most commonly used to make PVC soft and flexible but are also in synthetic fragrances. Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant and laundry detergent.

Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer.

Several phthalates have been banned in the EU but not all, including diethyl phthalate (DEP). Because the chemical constituents of ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ do not have to be listed on labels, one way to avoid phthalates altogether is to go for fragrance-free products or those free of synthetic fragrances.

Finding out what’s in your products?

I’m in ‘glasses denial’ so it always seems to me they are making the lists of ingredients smaller on all labels but I am often embarrassingly found with my magnifying phone app peering at the labels of many products!

Cleaning products only have to have a list of the main ingredient families in the product, and how much of each there is in a series of weight ranges eg. ‘Non-ionic surfactants – 5 per cent’. But manufacturers also have to put a website address on the packaging where you can get a list of each specific ingredient rather than just the families. Some more responsible cleaning manufacturers list all their ingredients on their packaging – haven’t seem many of those!

Alternative DIY cleaning cupboard essentials

Baking soda: Otherwise known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda, this domestic wonder powder is a key ingredient in many homemade cleaning products. As a powder it’s a mild abrasive that can scratch off dirt and absorb odours. When dissolved in water it is a mild disinfectant, cuts through grease and softens water. Use it as a thick paste with water as an abrasive cleaner or sprinkle on carpets and vacuum up as a deodoriser. A dish of it in the fridge will absorb smells.

Soda crystals/washing soda: For a stronger version of soda, go for soda crystals (also known as washing soda), which are more effective at getting rid of grease. If you’ve well and truly burnt your saucepan then sprinkle a couple of handfuls of soda crystals in the pan and cover with a couple of inches of water and bring to the boil – stir with a metal spoon and the burnt bits will gradually float off and you will also be left with a very, very sparkling looks-like-new pan!

Borax substitute: The EU has reclassified the ‘borate’ group of chemicals that borax belongs to, so it is no longer available as a cleaning and laundry product. Dri-Pak now make borax substitute which is a mineral compound, with the perfect pH for cleaning, and is gentler than soda crystals yet stronger than bicarbonate of soda.

Soap flakes: Pure vegetable soap flakes or liquid soap flakes made from rapeseed and sunflower oil (no palm oil).

White vinegar: Simply made from the fermentation of ethanol, vinegar is a mild acid that cuts through grease and disinfects by killing many types of bacteria. I had a problem with my dishwasher last week – it was leaving white films on everything and I tried the usual supermarket dishwasher cleaner and also cleaning the filters etc to no avail. I read about white vinegar and bought a job lot online, filled the dishwasher with five litres and put it on a hot wash empty and voila all back to normal!

Lemons: Lemons are acidic and can provide some antibacterial and antiseptic properties for cleaning. Adding lemon juice to vinegar can help neutralise the vinegar smell. Use your leftover lemon slices from your gin and tonics to clean the sink or taps – brings stainless steel to a sparkle!

Essential oils: can be used as a natural fragrance and also many have antibacterial qualities. My favourites are :

Tea Tree – an antiviral and antibacterial, anti fungal and antiseptic

Lemon -– antiviral, antiseptic, antibacterial and lovely fresh smell

Bergamont – powerful antiseptic

Eucalyptus – antiseptic, good if there’s colds about!

Lavender – antiseptic, antibacterial and relaxing smell!

Myrhh – anti fungal

Peppermint – antiviral, antiseptic

Rosemary – antiseptic, antibacterial, anti fungal

Elbow grease: the completely free and always renewable cleaning product!

Microfibre, cloths and mops – these manage to lift dirt dirt without the need for any products at all – just water.

Make your own. . .

Laundry detergents

A quick and easy way to ensure a more ethical wash is to make your own. This is not only cheaper, it is also easy to do. There are multiple recipes online and are based on a few simple and easily available ingredients: bar soap, washing soda, borax, essential oils (if not already included in the bar soap), oxygen booster (optional).

Laundry brightener: Add ½ cup of strained lemon juice during the rinse cycle.

Fabric rinse/softener: Add ¼ cup of white vinegar during the washing machine’s rinse cycle to remove detergent completely from clothes, eliminating that scratchy feel.

Dry cleaning: Most commercial dry cleaners use hideous amounts of toxic chemicals. Many delicate dry clean only items can be washed at home by hand – use cool water and a mild liquid soap. Squeeze or wring gently and lay flat to dry.

Household cleaners

General, all-purpose liquid cleaner:

1 cup vinegar, 2 cups water and ½ a lemon, 10 drops of tea tree oil.

Air freshener: (many of these are soooo toxic especially the spray ones and also the little trees you hang in your car) A simple recipe of 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar (or lemon juice), and 2 cups water with 20 drops of your favourite essential oil in a spray bottle can be sprayed in the air to remove odours. Or sprinkle the essential oil on a cloth and wipe it over a radiator.

Windows: Put 3 tablespoons vinegar,

3 litres water in a spray bottle. Some recommend using half vinegar and half water. For extra-dirty windows try this:

½ teaspoon liquid soap, 3 tablespoons vinegar, and 2 cups of water. Shake well. The best way, apparently, to get streak-free windows is to use newspaper to wipe them.

Toilet cleaner: Pour 1 cup of borax substitute into the toilet before going to bed. In the morning, scrub and flush. For an extra-strength cleaner, add ¼ cup vinegar to the borax substitute and a few drops of tea tree oil.

Ovens: To clean extra-greasy ovens, mix together 1 cup baking soda and ¼ cup of washing soda, then add enough water to make a paste; apply the paste to oven surfaces and let soak overnight. The next morning, lift off soda mixture and grime; rinse surfaces well (gloves are recommended as washing soda may irritate skin). You could alternatively put a dish of washing soda and water in the oven and turn on and let the steam clean it – this works well in microwaves.

Disinfect surfaces: Mix two parts water to one part vinegar or lemon juice and add 10 drops of tea tree oil.

Dishwashers: use 1 cup borax substitute and 1 cup of baking soda. Use 2tbsp per load. Use white vinegar in the rinse cycle.

I’ve found this wonderful organisation naturewatch.org/compassionate-shopping which has produced great recipe books for homemade household cleaners and personal care products – perhaps next month I’ll look at personal care products and some homemade recipes? Any particular ones you want me to research then please email me on enquiries@carolebaker.co.uk

Carole Baker is founder of The Self Centre, Bury St Edmunds


The suggestions in this article are the personal opinion of the author. Please do not take any new remedies if you are currently on any medication without the consent of your GP.

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