We all want a germfree home. But we're short on time, and few of us understand how cleaners—even some "green" ones—affect our health. Too often we rush the job, leaving germs behind, or misuse cleaners, causing issues from skin irritation to dangerous respiratory reactions. Fortunately, you can correct the most common mistakes and limit your exposure to toxins, leaving your home with a healthy sparkle. Here, five familiar slip-ups, and how the experts say to fix them.
You Rush the Job
If you spray cleanser and immediately wipe it away, chances are you're leaving germs behind. "The cleanser surrounds soil particles and lifts or emulsifies them," explains Debra Johnson, training manager at Merry Maids, a nationwide cleaning company. "Allowing the product to sit gives it the chance to finish the job."
Disinfecting agents need this "dwell" or "contact" time to maximize their ability to kill bacteria and other microscopic organisms, adds Robert Orenstein, DO, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease researcher. The surface germs you miss could include foodborne bacteria like Salmonella and the parasites responsible for toxoplasmosis.
The Healthy Move: Observe the dwell time on the label—the EPA requires household disinfectant manufacturers to print this information, and other cleaners often include it as well. Although some products (like soap scum remover) need only 2 to 3 minutes, others can require 60 or more, says Johnson. Some pet stain removers may need several days, while most multisurface cleaners require 60 seconds.
Combining certain cleaners can have risky results. "When bleach and acids found in many toilet cleansers and bathroom scrub products come in contact, for example, they create chlorine gas, a highly toxic substance that was used as a chemical weapon in World War I," says Donna Duberg, an assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University. "Anytime you mix the two, you could pass out—and in an enclosed space, this error could be fatal."
Another dangerous move? Mixing bleach and ammonia, which can inflame your airways and damage the lining of your lungs, says Clive Davies, chief of the Design for the Environment program at the EPA. His advice: Never mix any cleansers.
The Healthy Move: Use one product at a time, and choose the least toxic option. For instance, while you need heavy cleaners for tough jobs such as removing mold and grease, you don't need harsh chemicals for surfaces, like countertops and tables. Duberg suggests trying a solution of 10% vinegar in water, which is 99.9% effective in killing bacteria and "leaves a nice shine."
Even healthy skin absorbs chemicals from cleaning products; its permeability is one of the reasons birth control and nicotine patches are so effective. According to Davies, the surfactants (wetting agents that allow the cleanser to carry away soils) in many cleaners can make it easier for toxic substances to work their way below your skin. "A class of common solvents called ethylene glycol ethers can damage red blood cells, kidneys, and the liver and could potentially cause cancer," he says. These substances were found to cause adverse reproductive and developmental effects in a 2008 study from the Jagiellonian University Medical College in Poland.
The ingredients in some household cleansers may also trigger contact dermatitis, causing inflamed and swollen skin, as well as chapping and cracking. "These breaches provide a direct route for bacteria and chemicals to enter your bloodstream," says Howard Sobel, MD, a New York City- based dermatologist.
The Healthy Move: Wear gloves—either disposable latex or reusable rubber ones, suggests Johnson. And use a different color for each task (for example, reserve green for dishwashing, yellow for cleaning your bathroom) to avoid cross-contamination.
You Don't Wash Pillows and Comforters
We all know that washing linens kills dust mites—microscopic critters that feed on protein, like human hair and skin cells—but we often ignore the other places they thrive, such as pillows, comforters, and duvets. Not only can dust mites, dander, and pollen worsen allergy and asthma symptoms, but contact with contaminated clothes and bedding can also aggravate skin conditions like eczema, says a 2008 study from the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
The Healthy Move: Wash sheets weekly in hot water (140°F or above); launder or dry-clean pillows, duvets, and comforters at least once a month, recommends Gary Rachelefsky, MD, a professor of allergy and immunology at UCLA. Keep heavier items from losing their shape by tossing a clean tennis shoe in the dryer to prevent lumping. If you have down bedding, consider switching to synthetic—feathers are another food source for dust mites.
While it's easy to get trigger-happy on big messes, more isn't always better. "Many cleaners are very toxic, so overusing them can create an unhealthy environment," says Duberg. "Too much spray means more aerosols coming in contact with mucous membranes through the eyes, nose, and mouth. This can irritate the linings of airways and lungs and cause allergic responses."
People who use spray cleansers at least once a week are 49% more likely to report asthma symptoms than those who don't use them at all, says a 2007 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The study also found that applying cleaners directly on a rag didn't cause noticeable symptoms.
The Healthy Move: "A few spritzes on a cloth is probably adequate for most jobs," says Laura Handrick, vice president of innovation for The Maids Home Services. Wipe the surface afterward with a clean, dry rag to remove product residue.
In general, always read the product instructions, which list EPA-mandated warnings and directives. "These may include wearing eye protection or rubber gloves or spraying in a well-ventilated room," says Duberg. Also, don't assume a product is harmless because it's labeled natural, adds Handrick: "Poison ivy is natural too. Read the label, whether it's 'green' or not."