Tips for spring cleaning the healthy and safe way

    Safely rid your home of mold and winter grime

    Published: March 2013

    Spring cleaning can not just spruce up your home, but also improve your health, by ridding your home of dust and other allergens that accumulate in rooms sealed against winter drafts. But before you roll up your sleeves, consider which cleaners to use. Those that contain harsh chemicals can irritate your eyes, skin, and lungs. You might choose to use some of the "greener" cleaners that are reportedly better for your health and the environment, but be sure to carefully read the labels on those products, too.

    Here are several tips to keep your cleaning regimen healthy, plus recipes for making less-toxic cleaning products with ingredients that you might already have on hand.

    Get prepped

    "Spring cleaning really comes down to choosing the right products and tools, and targeting your cleaning and disinfectant efforts," says Charles P. Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona. "Each spring, steam-clean carpets to kill the mold, fungi, and bacteria that have built up during the winter. And use bleach to target mold in and around the shower or tub area, especially the tiles and shower curtain." (See our buying guide and Ratings for steam mops.) To fight mold, use a solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water.

    Spring is also a good time to clean or replace air-conditioner and furnace filters, as well as to vacuum or dust your refrigerator's condenser coil, usually found under the unit. Check your vacuum cleaner's manual for instructions on how often to replace the filter. (If you need a new vacuum, check out our buying guide and Ratings for vacuum cleaners.)

    Disinfecting toilets weekly and kitchen cutting boards daily should be part of your regular year-round housekeeping chores, Gerba says. Wash sponges and other cleaning tools at least once a week. Keep bathroom and kitchen clean-up tools separate to avoid cross-contamination. For cleaning, only Pine-Sol Original cleaned well enough in Consumer Reports' latest Ratings of all-purpose cleaners to be recommended, earning high marks among 19 all-purpose products.

    Read the labels

    Cleaning products aren't required to have labels that list all their ingredients, though some companies do so voluntarily, or they provide the information on their websites or to people who call. A label with the words "poison" or "danger" indicates that some ingredients are toxic if ingested; one with the words "warning" or "caution" means there are ingredients that could be dangerous if swallowed. Follow any safety precautions listed, such as avoiding exposure to skin or face.

    Check labels to see if goggles, respiratory masks, rubber gloves, or other protective measures are recommended. And since contact lenses can absorb vapors and trap them against the eyes, causing irritation or damage, you might consider tackling your cleaning while wearing eyeglasses instead. If you find that the cleaning products still irritate your nose, eyes, or lungs, follow your instincts and stop using them. Be sure to store cleaning products as indicated on the package, making sure they're out of the reach of children and pets.

    Think green

    Look for label symbols that indicate you're buying a cleaner whose ingredients probably pose less harm to humans and whose claims have been verified by an independent certifier. Examples of certified claims include Certified Biodegradable, Design for the Environment, Green Guard, and Green Seal. In Consumer Reports' latest Ratings, cleaners from Green Works, whose labels bear the Design for the Environment seal, and Seventh Generation, whose labels disclose all of their ingredients, were among the better spray cleaners. "Don't rely on labels that claim the product is ‘natural,' which doesn't always mean the product is not toxic or nonirritating," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. "For starters, there is no nationally accepted standard definition of the word ‘natural' for cleaning products—and not all natural products are problem-free."

    Air it out

    Open the windows when using household cleaners. Products that unclog drains might contain sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid, which can irritate or burn your skin and eyes and irritate your nose and throat. Scouring powder might have chlorine bleach, which should never be mixed with other cleaners because of the risk of forming toxic gases, which can cause severe respiratory irritation. Oven cleaners might have potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, both of which are extremely irritating to the eyes, lungs, and skin.

    Some household cleaners and air fresheners emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemical gases that can pollute the air and cause headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms. Some VOCs are suspected carcinogens, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a recent study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and elsewhere measured the VOCs emitted by different concentrations of general-purpose, glass, and bathroom cleaners used for 10 minutes in small and large bathrooms with and without ventilation.

    The VOC concentrations they recorded for most of the tasks fell into the "discomfort" range, suggesting that the cleaners can significantly contribute to poor indoor air quality, according to the study, which was published in the Nov. 30, 2010, issue of Environmental Health. And the VOCs hung in the air the longest in the small, unventilated test bathroom, potentially exposing anyone who entered it to the chemicals more than 20 minutes after cleaning ceased. In addition to dizziness and headaches, other key symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include eye, nose, and throat irritation, fatigue and nausea. So when you clean your bathroom, be sure to leave a door or window open or turn the vent fan on, and wait awhile before letting others use it.

    Paint safely

    Spring cleaning and house painting often go hand in hand. But wet paint can release potentially harmful VOCs into the air. In response to stricter federal standards, paint manufacturers are reducing the amount of VOCs in their products. Consumer Reports' latest interior paint Ratings include several products that come with claims that they're VOC-free. Benjamin Moore's Natura makes our recommended list for flat and semigloss finishes, and the manufacturer says that both the base coat and the colorant have no VOCs. So consider choosing low- or no-VOC paints, and use them in well-ventilated rooms. See our Ratings of interior paints.

    Tread lightly

    Spring cleaning can be strenuous when you're moving furniture to vacuum behind couches or climbing a ladder to dust hard-to-reach places. Don't try to lift heavy objects by yourself. And to avoid back injury, use the proper lifting technique: Separate your feet so they are shoulder-width apart, keep your back upright, and bend at the knees while tightening the stomach muscles, advises the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Then lift with your leg muscles as you stand up. When working on a ladder, your belly button should not go beyond the sides of it. And never climb a ladder without having someone nearby who is able to spot you.

    Clean up your medicine cabinet

    You can dispose of expired or unneeded medication several times a year at thousands of drop-off sites, including local firehouses and police stations that participate in the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. This year the event is scheduled for Saturday April 27. Find a drop-off spot by going to the Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration website.

    Make your own 'greener' cleaner

    Spring cleaning doesn't necessarily mean you have to resort to harsh chemicals in your home. Try these recipes for homemade cleaning solutions using products you may already have on hand.

    Microwaves. To speed-clean and mask odors, place a small bowl with about one-quarter cup of fresh lemon juice in your microwave. Then run it on high for 1 minute. Remove the bowl of juice and wipe the microwave oven cavity (the condensation that forms will help to clean it). Baked-on stains should come off with plain water. Repeat if necessary. Scrape off any stubborn gunk with a plastic credit card. Just don't scrape the window, which could damage it.

    Ovens. To clean a greasy oven, mix 1 cup of baking soda with one-quarter cup of washing soda, then add enough water to make a paste. Put on house-cleaning gloves (washing soda might irritate your skin), and then smear the paste on oven surfaces and leave it on overnight. The next morning, wipe off the soda mixture and grime, then rinse all surfaces.

    Showers. If you live in an area with hard water, you can keep showers and ceramic tile free of water spots by using a squeegee on the door and shower stall after each use. It should take no more than 30 seconds and will minimize hard-water buildup. Many showerheads have rubber nozzles that can be rubbed (not scrubbed) weekly to remove scale. If it clogs and it's plastic, soak it in equal parts of vinegar and water. Place metal heads in a pot with 1 part vinegar to 8 parts water and simmer for 15 minutes.

    Windows. Add 1 cup of white vinegar to 1 cup of water. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle. Spray and wipe with a lint-free rag or squeegee, which minimizes streaks because it doesn't leave anything behind. It also makes it easier to clean tilt-out windows, and it's reusable.

    Editor's Note:

    This article first appeared in the monthly newsletter Consumer Reports on Health. 

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