July 30, 2019
When dust, mold, and bacteria collect in your home, they contribute to indoor air pollution and impact the health and comfort of your space. On the other hand, cleaning your home with toxic chemicals can increase the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in your air and leave you vulnerable to other health risks. A recent study revealed that professional cleaners who use strong chemical sanitizing products on a daily basis are more likely to develop asthma and other serious respiratory conditions. This catch-22 has led many consumers to seek out healthier and more sustainable alternatives, or “green” cleaning products.
Green cleaning products favor natural ingredients and fragrances and omit toxic chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, sodium hypochlorite, and sodium hydroxide, (the chemicals we typically rely on for higher cleaning performance). On a relative scale, this makes them healthier and more environmentally-friendly in content, but are they truly better for our indoor air quality than traditional, non-green alternatives? We decided to investigate.
To set up our experiment, we headed to our local store and picked up three green cleaning sprays and three non-green cleaning sprays. For green cleaners, we chose to test Meyer’s Clean Day Multi-Surface Cleaner, Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner, and Open Nature Disinfecting All-Purpose Cleaner. For non-green cleaners, we chose Lysol All-Purpose Cleaner, Fantastik All-Purpose Cleaner, and Windex Crystal Rain Ammonia-Free Formula. Although being ammonia-free doesn’t make Windex “green,” we were interested to see if eliminating ammonia would make it healthier than the other cleaning products in its class.
We staged the test in an enclosed (about 4ft by 6ft) room. To monitor VOC levels, we placed an Awair 2nd Edition on a clean counter in the room and gave the sensors time to calibrate to the environment. Once the device was fully acclimated, we proceeded to test each product individually, leaving ample time in between tests to ventilate the room and return VOC readings back to baseline levels.
Before testing each product, we recorded the current VOC levels in the room to serve as a baseline for comparison. Next, we proceeded to spray the cleaning solution onto the counter near the Awair device, taking care not to spray the device itself.
Immediately after spraying the solution, we used a clean paper towel to wipe the moisture away (as if cleaning the counter) and then disposed of the paper towel outside of the testing room. Next, we recorded VOC readings (measured in parts per billion, or ppb) taken by our Awair device at one, three, five, and 10-minute intervals after spraying the cleaning solution.
On average, the green cleaning products we tested increased VOC levels by 52 percent, boosting the room's VOC count to an average total of 387 ppb. This reading is just slightly above Awair's "healthy" range (between zero and 333.5 ppb).
This marginal increase in chemical exposure may aggravate existing respiratory conditions and pose a health risk to vulnerable populations (infants, elderly, and sick individuals), but it is not considered a significant threat to the general population. It's also worth noting that, for all three green products tested, VOC readings returned to healthy levels within 10 minutes or less.
In contrast, the non-green cleaners we tested increased VOC levels by an average of 638 percent — almost 15 times more than the green cleaning products. This drastic spike caused VOCs to skyrocket to an average total of 2259 ppb and remain high for a much longer period of time. For all three non-green cleaners, VOCs stayed at unhealthy levels long after the 10-minute testing period had ended.
Of the green cleaning products we tested, Seventh Generation Clean Day Multi-Surface Cleaner performed the best, increasing VOC levels by only 18 ppb. That said, the solution had a higher particle density and a strong smell that lingered in the air for an extended period of time.
Contrary to our hunch, the ammonia-free Windex performed worse than the other non-green solutions, despite being advertised as a “non-toxic” formula. When we took a closer look at the ingredients, we discovered that the product contains Isopropanolamine (a strong chemical disinfectant) and a chemical fragrance containing acetic acids and methyl ionones, both of which are volatile organic compounds. Fantastik and Lysol both contain alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride a chemical surfactant and disinfectant commonly used in cleaning sprays, wipes, detergents, and pesticides.
In our experiment, green cleaning products proved to be much healthier for indoor air quality than non-green products.
Cleaning performance, however, is a different consideration. The reason why so many people use Windex, Lysol, Fantastix, Clorox, and other chemical-heavy products is because their streak-free shine and cleaning power is difficult to beat. Determining what product is best for your needs often means considering the context, weighing the pros and cons, and trying out different brands.
For sensitive populations (those with existing respiratory conditions or illnesses, elderly, and young children) even a slight increase in VOC levels can pose a significant health risk that outweighs the intended benefits. If you or a loved one fall into this category, you can use the Environmental Working Group (EWG) product database to research the ingredients in popular cleaners to learn the risks before making a purchase.
Even if you're healthy, it's important to be thoughtful about your cleaning habits and choices. Some tough cleaning jobs may require stronger chemicals, but most routine cleaning tasks don't. To lower your health risks, tailor your product choices to the mess at hand. For everyday cleaning tasks (such as wiping down your counter, stovetop, or kitchen table), green cleaning products are typically strong enough to get the job done without skyrocketing indoor air pollution.
If you’re committed to non-green cleaning brands but still want to protect your health, you don’t necessarily need to abandon your favorite products. Instead, bear these risks in mind and be proactive about protecting your health and your home.
If you’re using a high-chemical product, here are a few ways to reduce your VOC exposure:
Curious about how other cleaning products are affecting your air quality? Start investigating with your Awair device to see how your favorite brands stack up.
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