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Myth Busters

Do 'Green' Cleaners Work?

Many can disinfect as well as clean

Myth: Natural cleaning products don't kill germs and therefore are ineffective.

See also: Toxin-free pesticides.

Facts:
Some "green" cleaners, such as the Clorox Green Works line made from a component found in coconuts, do little more than help remove dirt. They don't disinfect — nor do they claim to — so they don't kill germs. But many other natural cleaners, both those you can make at home and those you can buy at the store, can disinfect as well as clean, says hygiene expert Donna Duberg, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University. And they do it without exposing you and your family to harsh chemicals found in commercial cleaning products that can irritate your skin, eyes and lungs.

green clean

Natural cleaners can disinfect as well as clean. — Rita Maas/Getty Images

For example, simple and inexpensive white vinegar is very effective at killing E. coli, salmonella and shigella bacteria, says Duberg. "It's good for nearly everything — from soaking the vegetables to washing the floors," she says. "Mix it with enough baking soda to make a paste and you'll get the scum out of your bathroom."

Karyn Siegel-Maier, author of The Naturally Clean Home, suggests making your own disinfectants by combining vinegar with essential oils such as rosemary, thyme or basil. In studies, basil oils have been shown to kill E. coli, listeria and salmonella bacteria. Siegel-Maier also recommends using tea tree oil, a natural mold killer. She cleans her kitchen with a homemade cleaner made from Castile soap, a little water and 15 or 20 drops of basil or rosemary oil. Seventh Generation's line of green cleaning products uses a thyme extract called thymol to disinfect.

Studies show that when it comes to killing germs, commercial disinfectants do pack more of a punch. But Duberg questions whether you need to bring such intense firepower to simply clean your counters, especially considering the potential side effects. Instead, she says, practice prevention. Clean regularly and you won't need industrial strength cleaners to cut through the grime, she says. And when you do spray your surfaces, let them stay wet for at least a minute before wiping them down. "Vinegar is almost 100 percent effective at killing germs if you leave it on for at least 60 seconds, and it leaves a nice shine," says Duberg.

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about families and health.

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