How to Clean Green: The Only Guide You'll Ever Need

Experts share the best ways to clean your home with natural cleaners while loving your home planet.

You just want to keep your house clean. But you also might want to cut down on the waste you send to landfills and keep harsh chemicals out of the water system. Unfortunately, some of your cleaning supplies could be corrosive or toxic to you or the environment.

Oftentimes, when people consider how to clean green, the instinct is to go back to the basics—vinegar, bleach, microfiber cloths, etc. Here, we help you brush up on these green cleaning staples' powers and limitations.

How to Use Vinegar

What It Does: Sanitize

"You can go a long way toward reducing organisms by rubbing a surface with distilled white vinegar and water," says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. However, you won't remove all the germs from your counter with this cleaning method.

What It Doesn't Do: Disinfect

To disinfect (as opposed to sanitize), an ingredient must kill nearly all the microbes on a surface, which vinegar does not do. It's strongest (and, unfortunately, smelliest) in its undiluted form, says Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and the author of The Germ Code ($18, The more water you add, the less effective it becomes.

What to Know About Cleaning With Vinegar

You can use a vinegar-and-water solution on some kitchen and bathroom countertops, on glass, and in the washing machine. However, avoid using it on:

  • Marble
  • Granite
  • Stone
  • Wood

The acidity can damage the surface. Add baking soda to your vinegar solution to lift stuck-on grime, and watch it bubble up.

How to Use Essential Oils

What They Do: Add Fresh Scent

"Essential oils help vinegar-based cleaning solutions become a bit more pleasant, especially if you're new to green cleaning," says Becky Rapinchuk, a cleaning expert and the author of Clean Mama's Guide to a Healthy Home ($18, Choose oils labeled "100 percent pure" (like those from Plant Therapy), she adds, to make sure they don't contain unnecessary additives.

What They Don't Do: Kill All Germs

Studies have shown that clove and cinnamon essential oils may possess antibacterial properties, but they're not powerful enough to be the only sanitizing agent in DIY cleaning solutions. If you're looking for an essential oil-based product that can serve as a natural disinfectant (and not just a sanitizer), go for one with thyme oil as the active ingredient, Tierno suggests.

What to Know About Cleaning With Essential Oils

To keep your cleaning routine completely au naturel, remove the very top layer (avoiding the pith) from an orange or lemon with a vegetable peeler. Add it to your spray bottle of vinegar water for a pleasant aroma.

Natural Cleaning Guide: Sponge
Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

How to Use Chlorine Bleach

What It Does: Disinfect

No DIY solution disinfects quite as well as bleach, and even experts who clean mostly green have it on hand. "Under my sink right now, you'll find baking soda, vinegar, dish soap, and a bottle of bleach," says Charles MacPherson, author of The Pocket Butler's Guide to Good Housekeeping ($13,

To properly disinfect high-touch surfaces after you or a housemate gets sick, use ⅓ cup of bleach per gallon of water. To disinfect after handling raw meat, use 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. Just make sure you never mix bleach with vinegar.

What It Doesn't Do: Kill Bacteria Immediately

While bleach can effectively kill germs like viruses and bacteria, a common disinfecting myth is that this happens immediately on contact. In fact, it takes several minutes to work. After scrubbing with your water-and-bleach solution, let the surface air dry for at least 10 minutes before you wipe it off. 

What to Know About Cleaning With Bleach

Bleach can be harmful in high concentrations, but careful, every-once-in-a-while household use is fine. A bit of bleach diluted with water going down your drain is acceptable.

Nonchlorine bleach is gentler than chlorine bleach (it uses hydrogen peroxide to lift stains from clothing). However, no nonchlorine bleach products are registered as disinfectants with the Environmental Protection Agency.

How to Use Steam

What It Does: Sanitize Without Chemicals

Superheated vapor is the ultimate green cleaner because it's just water, says Donna Smallin Kuper, a certified housecleaning technician. It can significantly reduce bacteria (the high temps essentially incinerate them), and the hot moisture loosens embedded dirt and grime, letting you use less elbow grease.

What It Doesn't Do: Work Everywhere

On painted surfaces, like walls and furniture, steam can cause peeling. On certain other surfaces, like brick, marble, and wood, it can lead to buckling or warping.

What to Know About Cleaning With Steam

You can sanitize floor tiles with a steam cleaner. Try a handheld version, like Bissell's Steam Shot Handheld Hard Surface Steam Cleaner ($40;, on sealed countertops, glass shower doors, and even mattresses. Allergy sufferers may benefit from steam cleaning, as the process helps kill dust mites.

How to Use Microfiber Cloths

What They Do: Clean Better Than Paper Towels or Cotton Rags

As the name implies, microfiber cloths are made up of teeny-tiny synthetic fibers, each of which helps pick up more debris than that wad of paper towels. They can also leave windows streak-free, whereas cotton rags may deposit lint.

What They Don't Do: Biodegrade

When you wash them, they can shed microscopic strands of plastic that end up in our waterways. Consider installing a Filtrol ($140; in your washing machine to catch those fibers and minimize pollution from all your laundry.

What to Know About Cleaning With Microfiber Cloths

Microfiber cloths have a close (and more sustainable) relative: Cellulose-cotton cloths like DII Swedish dishcloths are similar in that they can be reused multiple times, but they are biodegradable (when they eventually wear out).

Natural Cleaning Guide: Scrub Brush
Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

How to Use Disposable Wipes

What They Do: Disinfect in a Pinch

There's no arguing that disinfecting wipes are convenient. They kill viruses and bacteria within seconds; you can use them in the kitchen, bathroom, or car, and they often come in handy canisters that can be stashed on a shelf or in a cabinet.

What They Don't Do: Decompose

Most cleaning wipes are not bio-degradable and can clog up sewer systems. In 2017, an 820-foot-long "fatberg," or huge mass of solid waste containing sanitary products (like wipes) and cooking grease, was discovered in a London sewer.

What to Know About Cleaning With Disposable Wipes

Using these wipes might make sense if you need to clean up after a family member with a contagious illness like the flu. But for routine cleaning? A reusable cloth without disinfectant is a fine option.

How to Use Anti-Bacterial Products With Triclosan

What They Do: Kill Microbes

Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical. For decades, it has been a popular additive to personal care products like hand soap and toothpaste to prevent bacterial contamination. But it's also found in some cleaning cloths, towels, and mops.

What They Don't Do: Guarantee Safety

A few studies have suggested that exposure to Triclosan can make bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This is concerning because antibiotics are among our most effective weapons against disease. Thus, the FDA banned the use of Triclosan in certain soaps because it wasn't able to rule out the possibility of a long-term public health risk.

What to Know About Cleaning with Anti-Bacterial Products

If the uncertainty over anti-bacterial products is an issue for you, check the labels of your cleaning products to make sure they don't include Triclosan. Companies like Procter & Gamble and SC Johnson post ingredients online. Rapinchuk suggests researching items on third-party sites (such as or apps (such as Think Dirty, Shop Clean). Products with the Green Seal, Greenguard, or EPA's SaferChoice logo have been certified as safer for people and the planet.

How to Waste Less

In addition to cutting back on wipes, focus on the number of packaged cleaners you own and what you can live without. Consider using up what you have, even if it's not a product you'd purchase again, then thoroughly clean spray bottles and fill them with your homemade cleaning solutions, suggests cleaning expert Melissa Maker.

If you want to immediately get rid of the packaged goods, ask a friend or neighbor if they would like to finish them. Recycle whatever you can—check with your local recycling program on how to handle different types of plastics or aerosols.

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