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How to Shop for Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products, According to a Microbiologist

Not all eco-friendly cleaning products are created equal. Here's how to know which ones to buy, and which to leave on the store shelf.

Written by
Tehrene Firman

With so many eco-friendly cleaning products available, it can be tricky to know which ones to put in your cart... and which to leave on the shelf. But Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of The Germ Filesis here to help.

First thing's first: Just how effective are eco-friendly cleaning products at cleaning your home? To answer that question, knowing the difference between "cleaning" and "disinfecting" is crucial. "Cleaning is simply the act of removing visible dirt and grime from a surface, whereas disinfecting means you're killing germs that potentially can make you sick," he says.

According to Tetro, most eco-friendly cleaning products you'll come across focus on cleaning. "They use ingredients that are excellent at removing the chemical components of dirt and grime. This includes compounds such as soap and citric acid," he says. "Research has shown these can help remove microbes from surfaces, which is always an added advantage." With that being said, he says many don’t claim to kill specific organisms, such as Staphylococcus aureus, influenza, or SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

Even though these eco-friendly cleaning products aren't meant to kill certain strains of bacteria or viruses, Tetro says they're still a must-have for your home. "For the majority of places in the home, cleaning is sufficient," he says. The only places you may want to consider disinfecting are areas where germs can thrive (like the bathroom and kitchen), as well as high-touch items.

The next time you buy eco-friendly cleaning products, here are four qualities Tetro says to keep in mind.

Qualities to Look for in Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products

1. Bio-Based Solvents

The solvents in cleaning products break up stains, get rid of grime on surfaces, and dissolve dirt. In standard options, those solvents are typically chemical substances. That's why Tetro says to look for bio-based solvents made from plants, which are much safer and just as effective. "Look for bio-based solvents from things like citrus, seed, vegetable, and pine oils," he says.

2. Biodegradable

Tetro says your cleaning products should only use biodegradable ingredients in the formula—aka those that are able to decompose and be reabsorbed by the natural environment without harming the planet. "Opt for biodegradable packing too, if possible," he adds.

3. Little to No Toxicity to Animals

Typical cleaning products contain chemicals that harm the environment and are highly toxic to animals and aquatic life. Because of that, Tetro says to choose an eco-friendly option that's very clear about having "little to no toxicity in animals, and especially fish."

4. Low Phosphorus or Nitrogen Content

Also make sure your cleaning products have low phosphorus or nitrogen content. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the ingredients can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, which negatively effects the water quality. "This can lead to problems such as algae growth," Tetro says. To do an even deeper dive into what to look for, read the rest of the EPA's sustainability considerations here.