What non-toxic multipurpose spray cleaners really work?

If it wasn’t on your mind before 2020, it most likely is now…. is it CLEAN?  Many people wonder before touching surfaces, outside and inside the home.   The solutions for  “concern” over cleanliness are also being absorbed into our skin, drying out our skin, being inhaled into our lungs, and broadcasted into the atmosphere.  So, let’s get to the bottom of it: what cleaners are safe, and of those, what cleaners really CLEAN?  As in, clean up the mess AND disinfect.  Give me some of those!

For true disinfectants, the EPA has developed a list “N” that will even kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus; however, this list is full of products with ingredients that will also harm us.  In response, TURI (Toxics Use Reduction Institute based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell) has produced a list of “Safer Cleaners” that do not have toxic ingredients.  From 431 formulations on the List N that are classified for “Residential Use”, only 15 made the list by TURI for non-toxic ingredients!  That’s only 3.5%!  The reason is that most of the active ingredients classified by the EPA as disinfectants, and some of the “inert ingredients” are also toxic to us.  For example, over half of the products on List N contain quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) as active ingredient.  Quats kill microbes by binding to the negatively-charged surfaces of microbes.  They have been studied to induce asthma in cleaning workers, decreased lung function in farmers, and greater immune reactions and decreased fertility in mice, among other effects. They are very persistent and are difficult to remove from surfaces, so it’s important not to use them on food prep surfaces.  This is the type of info we need!  Unfortunately, I just identified a common quat (Benzalkonium chloride) in one of the anti-bacterial soaps I use at home :(.  Time to get safer! 

I wanted to focus on spraying cleaners, because we’ve all been doing a lot of spraying lately.  Spraying counter tops, spraying doorknobs, spraying toilets, spraying toys, spraying steering wheels…you name it!  If we could spray each other, I’m sure we would.  Back to the task: it would be so much simpler if we could buy one spray for the whole house, right?  Such cleaners do exist… check out our shortlist here!

  • TotalClean is our new offering that is safe for adults, children and pets, and is fragrance free!  Using an iodine-based formula, it cleans surfaces and removes odors, without adding harsh chemicals like quats or overwhelming fragrance.  Use it anywhere you can use a water-based cleaner: counter tops, toilets, leather, glass, marble, stone, linoleum, tile, stainless steel, painted surfaces, fabrics, carpet, stove tops, appliance exteriors, sinks, floors, cabinets, tubs and walls.
  • Force of Nature is great for those concerned with toxic chemicals and environmental preservation!  In addition to being an EPA-registered disinfectant, it is a safe cleaner using only vinegar, salt and water, and their “bundles” includes the spray bottle and appliance and “capsules” used to make the cleaner.  This avoids lots of packaging waste and all you have to do is add water and electricity (plug in the appliance) to make a refill.  Genius!
  • Lysol with Hydrogen Peroxide Multi-Purpose Cleaner is an EPA-registered disinfectant that dissolves grease and soap scum, and comes in a number of scents (Citrus Sparkle, Fresh, Cool Spring Breeze and Oxygen Splash are the ones I’ve seen). As one of the household names of bleach (most of their cleaners are bleach-based), you need to make sure that the multi-purpose cleaner you buy is “bleach-free” to avoid that chemical.
  • Arm and Hammer Essentials Disinfecting Wipes are a convenient way to disinfect–great for keeping in the car, bathroom, classrooms, etc.  Using citric acid, they are a registered disinfectant by the EPA. 

Can I make them myself?  Yes, but some are better than others.

For example, you’ve probably seen countless recommendations for using vinegar-based home cleaners, which do break down dirt and help remove it.  However, vinegar is not the best disinfectant according to the EPA.  In order to be classified as a disinfectant, the product must kill 99.9% of harmful germs within 5 to 10 minutes, and vinegar only kills some of those germs, including E. Coli and Salmonella (healthline.com).  If you want to make your own disinfectant, look at the ingredients on the Safer Cleaner list.  The first three, citric acid, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and hydrogen peroxide, are cheap and accessible ingredients!  Here are some recipes for cleaners based on these ingredients:

  • Ethanol-based cleaner with white vinegar (I like this recipe because it incorporates eucalyptus oil, which is a powerful antimicrobial essential oil).  
  • Citric acid is quite powerful and the Method brand on the TURI list is 5% citric acid and 95% inert ingredients.  It is not recommended to use on natural stone or marble, wood, delicate surfaces or electronic screens because of its acidic effects. For this reason, and the popularity of natural stone counter tops in the US, I’m not going to post a recipe for homemade citric acid multi-purpose cleaner here, but citric acid is best used in descaling and de-greasing appliances.  Here is how to clean 5 household items using citric acid. 
  • Hydrogen peroxide (3-6%) is safe to spray undiluted on surfaces, meaning you can pour a brown bottle from the drug store straight into your spray bottle. “According to The Ohio State University Extension, cleaning counters with undiluted hydrogen peroxide is effective at killing E. coli and Salmonella bacteria on hard surfaces like counters when it’s allowed to sit on the surface for 10 minutes at room temperature.”  (healthline.com also has 21 other ways to use it).  However, according to this website it is slightly acidic, and can damage natural stone counter tops over time (don't use it every day).  There are various recipes to make cleaners, however hydrogen peroxide should never be mixed with vinegar because it makes peracetic acid, which has dangerous fumes.   Hydrogen peroxide should also be used within 6 months of opening the original bottle, because it decomposes into oxygen and water by being exposed to sunlight and heat, losing its disinfecting properties.