Written by Grove Collaborative

Beginner’s guide to natural cleaning products: Why and how to make the switch.

Last updated: December 11, 2020


Ready to ditch conventional cleaners for natural, nontoxic cleaning products? Here’s what to know when making the switch to eco-friendly, sustainable alternatives to big-name cleaning brands.

Here at Grove Collaborative, we’re big believers in the power of natural products — both for ourselves and for the planet. But we know making the switch can be daunting, especially if you’re accustomed to conventional products and are new to the world of natural, eco-friendly alternatives. That’s why we’ve created Beginner’s Guides to Natural. Each week, we’ll give you a primer on the ins and outs of transitioning to a natural version of a common household item, plus a few of our favorite brands for making the switch. Let’s get to swapping!

Long before natural cleaning products became a thing, most people cleaned with whatever the big chemical companies offered. Back then (those same days when smoking was allowed in hospitals and airplanes), it didn’t occur to the general public that the chemicals in household cleaners might not be all that great for them — or the environment.


Nowadays, we know better. Decades of research have produced a large body of evidence showing the harmful effects of a long list of cleaning chemicals. We’re exposed to them both through our skin and the air when we do the dishes or scrub the tub, spray the mirrors or spritz the floor. And the environment fares even worse, with many chemicals (not to mention most products’ plastic packaging) finding their way into our oceans and waterways.


While most of us may have wised up to the fact that those chemicals that scour our toilets or eat away tough stains probably aren’t, well, all that great for us or our surroundings, misconceptions around natural alternatives still persist. They don’t work as well orThey won’t leave my house smelling as fresh. It’s time to kick those outdated thoughts to the curb!


Since the natural product revolution kicked off in the 1970s, natural household cleaners have come a long way. They’re safer and more effective than ever, thanks to new and emerging technologies, making 2021 the perfect time to make the transition to natural cleaning supplies. If you’ve been dragging your feet on making the switch, our guide is here to make the process easy, effective, and fun — or as fun as cleaning can be.




Are natural cleaning products better?

Just because a product calls itself “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it contains only natural ingredients. “Natural” is not a regulated term, which means that conventional companies can add rosemary oil to a toxic stew of industrial chemicals and slap on a label that says, “Made with natural ingredients.” It’s true — but it doesn’t mean what you might think it means.


And not all natural ingredients are nontoxic. Just because it’s derived from plants or otherwise found in nature, it doesn’t mean it’s not harmful to humans. Arsenic, botulism toxin, and urushion (which is the active ingredient in poison ivy) are all natural substances, but they’re far from gentle on the body.


When consumers are looking for a “natural” cleaning product, they’re usually looking for something that’s safe, nontoxic, biodegradable, naturally derived, plant-based, eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and/or responsibly packaged — and preferably from a company that lives up to its values.

How to read a cleaning product label

One way to identify quality natural cleaners is to look at terms on the label, such as “unscented,” “free of…,” “biodegradable,” and “nontoxic.” Although these terms, like “natural,” are unregulated, they’re far more specific, and consumer protection laws apply to claims made on labels.


The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides help brands and their marketers understand how they can qualify their claims to avoid being deceptive. These guides are also very helpful for consumers, who can use them to better understand what label claims really mean. For example, “free-of” claims are considered deceptive if a substance with the same or similar health or environmental risks is present in the product.


Another way to determine whether a product is truly natural, nontoxic, or cruelty-free is to look for third-party certifications. Certifications signify that a product has been thoroughly tested and found to meet rigorous industry standards for things like environmental impact, chemicals used, and sustainability of packaging.

Guide to green product certifications

ECOLOGO

The UL Environment’s ECOLOGO certification specifies criteria for safer chemicals, recyclable materials, and a low environmental impact. It ensures all chemicals in the product are non-toxic to humans.

EPA Safer Choice Program

The EPA’s Safer Choice certification tells consumers that every ingredient in a product is one of the safest in its class for humans and the environment, based on the EPA’s standards.

Green Seal

Green Seal certification is for cleaning products sold in concentrated form. The standards prohibit harmful chemicals and require sustainable packaging.

Leaping Bunny

Leaping Bunny certification ensures a product contains no ingredients that have been tested on animals and that the company who makes it is in no way involved in animal testing.

Types of cleaning chemicals and agents

The most effective way to tell whether a cleaning product is truly safe and natural is to determine what’s in it, but reading a cleaning product’s ingredients list is a brain-bending, tongue-contorting task if you don’t speak the language of chemistry. And unless you have a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, the words may mean nothing to you, anyway.


Hundreds of different chemicals are used in household cleaning products, and many of them can be highly toxic. To make it a bit simpler, we broke down some of the most product ingredients by specific task, with job titles like:


Solvent:

Dissolves solids like greases and oils, keeps a product’s ingredients mixed together, and helps create the right viscosity (thickness).


Surfactant (surface active agent):

Reduces water tension to make water wetter. It consists of a two-part molecule featuring a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a hydrophobic (water-hating) tail. The head stays attached to the water, while the tail tries to get away from it, grabbing onto dirt and grease instead — effectively suspending the soil in the water to be rinsed away.


pH adjuster:

Increases or reduces the pH of a solution, making it more acidic or more basic so it’s safer for the skin. The pH range affects how effective other ingredients are.


Antimicrobial agent:

Kills germs. Different disinfectant ingredients are more effective on different microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and mold.


Fragrance:

Scents the product. Synthetic fragrances — and some “natural” ones — can be toxic, but manufacturers aren’t required to list the ingredients in them.

Ingredients in cleaning products to avoid

Conventional cleaning products contain a large number of harmful chemicals that are volatile, which means that without any prompting, they evaporate from a liquid to a gas when they’re exposed to air. These volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, can do significant damage to the human body and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites studies that show VOC levels in the average home are up to five times higher than outside, in large part due to the conventional cleaners we use around the house. Here are some harmful chemicals that are likely in those cleaners:


Terrible Ten Infographic

Grove Sustainability Tip

Did you know?

Cleaning chemicals end up in the water supply when they’re sent down the drain. According to the EPA, wastewater facilities only treat organic materials, not hazardous chemicals, which end up in local rivers, lakes, and coastal waters — and the aquatic life that lives there.

How do I clean my house without chemicals?

If such toxic chemicals are needed to get things clean around the house, how do products without them work? Well, the truth is that harsh chemicals really aren’t needed to get things clean around your home. Natural solvents, surfactants, preservatives, pH adjusters, and fragrances can make your rooms sparkle, shine, and smell fresh and fabulous just as well as the bad stuff can.


These are some common proven ingredients used in natural cleaning products, each with a score of 1 or 2 on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the least toxic and 10 is the most toxic.

Safe solvents

Isopropyl alcohol — Also known as rubbing alcohol. Made by the indirect hydration of propylene.


Water — Often called “the universal solvent.” It can dissolve both acids and bases.


Safe surfactants

Sodium lauryl methyl isethionate — Water soluble and derived from coconuts. Considered one of the safest surfactants on the market. Also used for its foaming properties.


Sodium methyl 2-sulfolaurate — Derived from plant-based oleochemicals, typically from coconuts.


Safe pH adjusters

Capryloyl glycine — A synthetic amino acid derivative that also acts as a surfactant.


Citric acid — An acid compound found in citrus fruits or derived from the mold-based fermentation of sugars. Also used for its antimicrobial properties.


Safe antimicrobial agents

Lactobacillus ferment — A probiotic bacteria that works as a broad-spectrum antimicrobial in water-based products.


Sodium chloride — Also known as salt and used as a mild disinfectant and mold-preventer.


Safe fragrances

Essential oils — Concentrated plant extracts that have various properties and a luscious aroma.


Distillates — The aromatic water left over from the essential oil distillation process.

How to switch to natural cleaning products

Switching from toxic products to their natural counterparts doesn’t have to be confusing or stressful. If you feel motivated to switch out of guilt or fear, you may feel like you have to do it all at once, right now. And that can be overwhelming, which is no fun for anyone. So, relax, take your time, and enjoy the process of finding wonderful new products that smell great and feel good to buy. Here are four ways to switch.

The monthly swap

Pick one or two natural products to try each month, and spend some time really getting to know them. Decide if the products live up to your expectations. If they do, you’ve made the switch! If something doesn’t work the way you thought it would, try something else next time.

Replace as you go

Whenever you run out of a cleaning product, go natural when you stock up again. Spend a little time perusing what’s out there, reading up on what other people like. By the time you’re ready for a refill, you’ll know if the product is for you. If it is, keep buying it! If not, keep looking.

Prioritize and replace

You may have a health condition that warrants replacing cleaners that cause lung irritants or which may be linked to cancer. If you’re trying to avoid certain chemicals, suss out the cleaners in your cupboard that contain them. Replace those products with safer alternatives.

The complete overhaul

If you’re ready and have the wherewithal to dive in head-first and never look back, make a master list of the cleaners you use. Head to a large retailer with a big selection, or better yet, order up a Grove box with everything you need. When your cleaners arrive, put the old ones in a box and donate them.

Tips for choosing natural cleaning supplies

  • Ask around. Maybe your friends and family have favorite natural cleaners they’d love to recommend.

  • Read online reviews. Numerous online product review sites will give you both sides of the story.

  • Follow your fancy. Buy based on a scent, a product design, or even the cool packaging.

  • Stick with a brand. If you love a brand’s toilet bowl cleaner, maybe you’ll love its dryer sheets, too.

What to expect when you switch to natural cleaners

Many natural products are scented with essential plant oils, some of which have antimicrobial properties themselves. Essential oils smell delightful, filling your home — or imbuing your laundry — with nature’s own heady, delicious perfumes. On the other hand, some natural products use the germ-killing power of vinegar, which has a strong, unpleasant odor initially but quickly evaporates, leaving behind the aroma of clean.


A little extra muscle

In some instances, you may feel like natural cleaners don’t perform quite like your old conventional products. For example, a natural dishwashing liquid may not be as powerful against cooking grease as the famous product used to degrease animals after an oil spill. Sometimes, you may need to scour a little harder or scrub a little longer to get the best results, but the energy you expend in elbow grease, you make up for in clean air — and muscle tone!


A satisfied feeling

Green brands tend to give a portion of their profits to organizations and initiatives that educate, advocate, and support a clean environment. Grove Collaborative and many of the brands we partner with are Certified B Corporations, which are companies that balance profit with purpose, using their power, platform, and pocketbook as a global force for good. When you support these companies, you support the cause. And that should make you feel good.


Sustainable packaging

Most authentic natural cleaners come in packaging that’s sustainably sourced and biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. Concentrated formulas usually come in smaller containers, and some companies sell refills that will fill your original container two or three times, which reduces waste and saves you a little money.

What are the best natural cleaning swaps?

Getting started is always the hard part. At Grove, our overarching aim is to make choosing natural products easier and to provide more choices than the one or two typically offered in big-box stores. Here, we’ve chosen a few amazing, top-rated natural cleaning product swaps our customers love to get you going.


All-purpose cleaner


Use Grove's All-Purpose Household Cleaner Concentrate in all of your rooms for a deep, grease-cutting clean that dazzles. Cruelty free and made in the USA, this cleaner is crafted using 100% natural scents (no synthetic fragrances here!) and comes in plastic-free packaging as part of our reusable bottle system.


Dishwashing liquid


Seventh Generation liquid dishwashing soap is nontoxic, biodegradable, and dye- and fragrance-free, and it’s Leaping Bunny-certified. The refillable container saves on packaging.


Glass cleaner


Aunt Fannie’s Glass & Window Vinegar Wash is infused with peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary, and other essential oils for sparkling, streak-free windows.


Floor cleaner


Grove Collaborative Floor Cleaning Concentrate starter kit comes with a glass bottle and two ounces of ultra-concentrated cleaner suitable for all hard floors, including finished wood.


Toilet bowl cleaner


Method Antibac Toilet cleaner uses citric acid and other nature-made ingredients to kill germs and remove stains. Mint and geranium oils leave behind a clean, fresh scent.


Tub & tile cleaner


Our Grove Collaborative Tub & Tile Cleaner starter kit comes with a glass spray bottle and four tubes of our highly concentrated, plant-based cleaner scented with rosemary and orange oils.


Laundry detergent


Our Grove Collaborative Ultra-Concentrated Laundry Detergent is packed with enzymes and luscious, all-natural scent — or no scent at all. EPA Safer Choice Program-certified.


Dryer sheets


These wool dryer balls last for 1,000 loads and even reduce drying time by 25 percent. Splash on a few drops of your favorite essential oil for naturally scented clothes.


Air & room fresheners


Caldrea's Linen & Room Spray — which can be used on everything from laundry to sheets to pillows — is paraben- and formaldehyde-free, and its essential oils make your rooms smell like heaven. Leaping Bunny-certified.


A cleaner for every surface


Looking for more cleaning how-tos and other sustainable swaps you can make at home? Grove has you covered with our buying and cleaning guides. And let us know how if you have any cleaning questions (or share your own tips using #grovehome) by following Grove Collaborative on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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