Cleaning the bathroom can be daunting, even if you're armed with traditional cleaners laden with bleach and strong but perhaps environmentally unfriendly ingredients. But what if you want to go green and still get the toilet bowl, sink and tile to sparkle?
Start by stocking up on white vinegar and baking soda.
These two staples of the kitchen can help keep your bathroom clean in a way that's safe for the environment.
A little bit of chemistry helps explain why. "Vinegar, because of its acidity, can be good for (cleaning) hard water and soap scum," said Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a public interest group devoted to protecting health and the environment.
Baking soda, on the other hand, is alkaline, said Annie B. Bond, author of books on green living, including "Home Enlightenment" (Rodale, 2008). Mix the baking soda it with some water and make a paste, and it can be used as a scrub.
And don't forget the soap — a mild castile soap made from olive or vegetable oils.
Just as the move toward green in general is growing, so is the interest in green cleaning products, said Urvashi Rangan, director of the consumer safety group for Consumer Reports. The number of products on the market has grown.
"Within what we have looked at, anecdotally speaking, we have seen some green cleaners start to perform better and better," she said.
What makes a cleaner green?
"In my book, green has to be both good for health and the environment," Bond said.
Many conventional cleaners can damage both, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA advises consumers to be alert for "signal words" on labels. Among them: danger-poison, corrosive, severely irritating, highly flammable, highly combustible or strong sensitizer.
It recommends products that are biodegradable and solvent-free, have a bio base, such as pine or citrus, and are low in volatile organic compounds.
However, labels aren't always a great source of information about what's in a cleaner; companies aren't required to list all the ingredients, although some do.
Sutton cautioned consumers to be alert for "greenwashing," in which a company promotes the one green aspect of the product but doesn't give the full picture of other ingredients.
"A lot of folks, because of the quandary, are moving toward homemade cleaners — vinegar, baking soda, a lot of recipes you can find out on line," Sutton said.
The effectiveness of these cleaners largely depends on the size or depth of the job.
Rangan said some homemade bathroom-cleaning products are "better suited for people who are not leaving the hard cleaning jobs until the last moment."
Also, she said, vinegar is "not going to kill some of the bacteria you want to kill if, say, you had someone sick in the house." Alcohol or hydrogen peroxide might better serve that purpose, and "soap gets you a long way," Rangan said.
"Stronger isn't necessarily better, and sterilization and disinfection isn't always the goal," she said. "Know when you've got an issue going on."
Some solutions for typical bathroom trouble spots:
Vinegar will help get rid of the soap scum. If you need to scour, try a paste of baking soda and water.
You can brighten the sink and "get the white back" by pouring in vinegar and leaving it there for a while, Bond said. Also, try the soft scrub made from baking soda and water. "It's not a matter of elbow grease. It's a matter of letting it set for a period of time," she said.
"To de-grease and sweeten sink and tub drains, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda down drain followed by 1 cup vinegar; let bubble for 15 minutes; rinse with hot water," Consumer Reports' Greener Choices website says. "You might have to repeat the procedure more than once or leave the baking soda and vinegar to 'cook' overnight."
"The toilet bowl is difficult, even under the best of circumstances," Bond said. "Go to a health food store and get a really good bathroom toilet product."
For those who want to try a homemade product, Consumer Reports suggests pouring a cup of borax into the toilet and letting it set overnight. "In the morning, scrub and flush," it said. "For an extra-strength cleaner, add 1/4 cup vinegar to the borax."
Clean with diluted vinegar and then do a water rinse afterward, Sutton said.
For those who don't want to make their own cleaning products or buy a green one, there are other ways to get greener. "If you've bought your old conventional cleaners, try using a little less of them," Rangan said. That could mean diluting a window cleaner or targeting your cleaning as much as possible. If there's a spot of black mold in the bathroom, for example, go after that without bleaching the whole wall.
And, she said, "you don't need an antibacterial product."
Sutton said consumers should also look for products that are fragrance-free, and avoid air fresheners. "It's not killing or destroying odor, it's covering up odor that floods your nose," she said.
There's still a lot of educating left to do about green cleaning, Sutton said.
"It takes a little knowhow, and when you get the knowhow, you're set for life," Bond said.
EPA Green Homes website: www.epa.gov/greenhomes/
Consumer Reports' Greener Choices: http://www.greenerchoices.org/products.cfm?product=0111homemadecleaners