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Which matters more: being green or clean?

An expert weighs in on whether you should use chemicals to kill germs or limit exposure with gentler products.

You may be one of the many wondering if bleach should still have a place in your home or conversely, if all those gentler, so-called healthier cleaning options on the market are actually getting the job done. The questions aren’t easy ones—even for a scientist.

“It’s difficult to answer because it can depend primarily on what types of germs you’re expecting to kill. And we just don’t know how different cleaners compare to each other. You can only really be sure how well any of these things are cleaning if you’re analyzing the areas treated,” says Bruce Blumberg, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and one of a group of environmental health scientists helping green chemists to develop chemicals that are inherently without hazard.

The good news: We probably worry far too much about bacteria in our homes. “Overall you need to make intelligent choices for yourself. Our obsession with sterilizing everything isn’t helping us,” says Blumberg. “Use your common sense. You don’t want or need to kill all bacteria, but you do want to avoid pathogens.”

Here, some insight into how to get things clean and when to consider going green:

bleach, but strategically (and sparingly).

Yes, bleach is considered toxic, but if you dilute it and use as little as possible, it’s a valuable cleaning agent. “Bleach does a really good job of killing bacteria and it doesn’t leave a residue on surfaces. It’s unstable, so it breaks down and it’s gone. I have no issue with using it in the bathroom and kitchen, just not everywhere in your home,” says Blumberg. Tip: Use it to sterilize the drain in your kitchen sink—one of the dirtier spots where germs can proliferate.

minimize the fragrance.

We’re trained to think that just-cleaned fresh scent is what we want, but anything fragranced—even more natural cleaners—can contain phthalates. “If a product says it contains only essential oils and states that it’s phthalate-free, it may be a good choice. Avoid those that just say ‘fragrance’ because these generally contain phthalates, which can be released into the air and are known endocrine disruptors (EDCs),” say Blumberg.

choose plant-based cleaners for less contaminated areas.

These are a step in the right direction in terms of cutting down on toxic chemicals. Many are made up of detergents and ethyl alcohol from corn sugar with phenoxyethanol as a preservative. The combination will clean and have some effect on removing bacteria—and phenoxyethanol is less biologically active than a paraben, notes Blumberg.

ditto for homemade vinegar solutions.

These household cleaning dilutions are usually recommended at a 1:1 ratio (½ cup distilled white vinegar to ½ cup water) or 2:1 ratio, with the acetic acid in vinegar acting as the disinfecting agent. But the jury is out on how well they clean. “It depends on the concentration. Straight vinegar will kill lots of bacteria but not all and once you dilute it, it’s hard to know how effective it is. If your goal is to kill pathogenic bacteria, you want to be sure they’re really dead.” Tip: Use it on windows and less trafficked areas.

be mindful of porous surfaces.

Here is where greener cleaners can sometimes be a problem. You want to be careful of what substance you put on a porous counter because it can soak in and stick around, advises Blumberg. “Fragrances and detergents aren’t necessarily toxic but they don’t dissipate so both your counter and the food you put on it as you’re doing your preparation can absorb them.”

watch for headaches.

If you’re extra sensitive to the more heavy-duty chemicals, you need to act accordingly and limit your exposure. If you experience headaches with any particular cleaner—even a gentler one—just don’t use it.
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