It’s not always as straightforward as you’d think.

By Amanda Lauren
Updated September 06, 2019
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If you’re trying to live a less toxic lifestyle, an easy place to start is by changing the products you use to clean your home. While many cleaning products seem harmless, they are often formulated with hazardous chemicals also known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds)—but sorting the less-toxic cleaners from the more-toxic ones is easier said than done.

A 2018 study showed that standard household cleaning supplies can potentially emit as many VOCs as cars, and while using natural cleaners, green cleaning products, or cleaning products labeled eco-friendly feels like a simple solution, it isn’t as easy a fix as you would think. The government has no standards or regulations when it comes to labeling any kind of product as natural, so natural cleaning products and all the other buzzwords associated with the term are essentially meaningless when it comes to the actual safety or formulation of household products. How do you know what’s really natural and safe to use? Read on.

Understand the labels

The key to finding natural cleaning products is more than just reading the label: You need to know what makes a formulation safe or unsafe.

Start by scanning the label for terms such as non-toxic (which is arguably the most important thing to look for), plant-based, organic, clean, biodegradable, chemical-free, paraben-free, cruelty-free, synthetic fragrance-free, preservative-free, or hypoallergenic. Most safe products will have at least one or two of these listed.

Finding the right natural cleaning product is also a matter of keeping your needs in mind. For example, if your skin is highly sensitive, try to find hypoallergenic cleaning products. It’s also a good idea to wear gloves when you clean to limit exposure. Another tip: If you find fragrances irritating, choose products labeled fragrance-free. Most cleaning products sold at supermarkets and stores such as Target or Amazon will be ranked by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This non-profit organization grades the safety of cleaning, personal care, and cosmetic products and their ingredients and can also be a resource for any concerns you have about your natural cleaning products.

Sometimes natural doesn’t necessarily mean better

You may be trying to eliminate hazardous chemicals, but there are some occasions when they get a pass, especially as a last resort. (Some spills and messes need a stronger solution and a disinfectant, especially if bodily fluids are involved.)

Sometimes, using a disinfectant is also safer in the long term than not using one. For example, if you have a mold issue in your bathroom, it’s far better to nip it in the bud with powerful cleaners. Wearing a mask ($18 for 20;, using gloves, and keeping the space as ventilated as possible while you clean is far less dangerous than allowing mold to become a serious problem. (It also means less scrubbing for you.) The key to using powerful cleaning products and disinfectants safely is not to expose yourself to them on a regular basis and to keep children, infants, or anyone with health issues that may be exacerbated by the cleaner (such as asthma) out of the room when you do.

One alternative to natural cleaning products: Make your own natural cleaning spray

If you want total control over the ingredients in your cleaning products, it’s easy and inexpensive to make your own multi-purpose spray. Take an empty spray bottle and fill it halfway with white or cleaning vinegar. Fill the rest with water. (Distilled or filtered water is best, but tap water will do.) Shake it up to mix. If the smell of vinegar isn’t appealing to you, consider adding a few drops of your favorite essential oil. Lemon is especially good for this purpose because it can help cut through grease.

Combining vinegar with baking soda (there are more baking soda uses than baking, after all) will naturally lift dirt, grease, and soap scum. Just apply baking soda to the surface you’re trying to clean and spray the vinegar solution; it should fizz on contact. Let the mixture sit for a minute and then wipe clean. For tough, stuck-on messes, try using undiluted vinegar with baking soda.

Don't want to make your own natural cleaning spray? Try EWG grade A-rated Aunt Fannie’s, which has vinegar-based wipes, all-purpose spray, glass cleaner, and floor cleaner (from $8; Aunt Fannie’s products have additional ingredients that boosts the power of vinegar, giving it an edge over homemade cleaners.

Or try an all-in-one cleaning solution

A multi-purpose cleaning concentrate, when diluted, can be used to create a bathroom cleaner, hand soap, multi-purpose cleaner, laundry detergent, and streak-free cleaner. This really takes the guesswork out of non-toxic cleaning and pares down the amount of cleaning products in the house. Finding one concentrate you know and trust can mean finding a reliable natural cleaning product for almost everything.

One option: Branch Basics—also rated A by the EWG—takes a truly holistic approach to cleaning, using one multi-purpose concentrate (To Buy: $49; The plant-based concentrate is non-toxic and free of parabens, phthalates, synthetic preservatives, synthetic fragrances, alcohols, ethoxylates, and SLS. If you prefer a scented product (don’t we all associate certain smells with cleanliness?), just add your favorite essential oil.