Greening Your Indoor Environment

How and why to clean green
By Adam Swenson

We’re all pretty well aware that the quality of our outdoor environment plays a huge role in our health, right? Though people often don’t consider it in the same light, the same could certainly be said for our indoor environment. We spend a lot of time indoors, where our skin routinely comes in contact with floors, counters, and furniture, and we breathe that indoor air into our lungs. While it is important that those surfaces be clean, it is also important that the cleaners themselves don’t make us sick.

Jim Rimer understood this 25 years ago. Rimer was a pioneer in the green cleaning movement—his journey started during the 1980s, when he was a sales executive for a chemical supply company. Over time he noticed that the cleaners made with those chemicals were making people sick. When he tried to address the issue, his company fired him, and Jim began to experiment, looking for a better solution.

Much like great inventors before him, he set to work in his garage, studying chemistry and botany and trying new formulations until he was successful. His all-natural cleaner (All Purpose Cleaner II) even spawned a company: Biokleen.

A family business, Biokleen is now run by Jim’s daughter, Cindy Rimer, and her husband, Barry Firth. Cindy addressed our questions about why more and more people are going green with their cleaning products. “When you use cleaning products with known toxins, it contaminates the air you breathe,” she said. “If such chemicals come in contact with your skin, over time those chemicals can enter into your bloodstream and affect your nervous system, resulting in chemical sensitivities and allergies. Many conventional cleaners warn consumers to use them only in well-ventilated areas, and to use protective gloves and/or avoid contact with skin. Children and pets are the most vulnerable because of their immature immune systems and because they come into contact with more surfaces.”

Many of us grew up believing that the only way to kill all the nasty germs and bacteria in our homes was with chemicals. If we take the chemicals out of the equation, how well are we really cleaning? “The truth is that powerful chemicals are not necessary to effectively clean,” Cindy said. “Even disinfectants cannot completely sterilize every surface in your home or the air within it. Chemical disinfectants only temporarily clean with long-term hazardous effects to you and to the environment. The most common chemicals used to kill bacteria are phenol (a particularly hazardous class of chemicals), quaternary ammonia, pine oil, and sodium hypochlorite, otherwise known as chlorine bleach. Using chlorine bleach is particularly hazardous because it reacts with ammonia and acids to release toxic gas. There are thousands of accidents each year caused by mixing bleach with other cleaning products. These are all corrosive and toxic chemicals. There is also the danger of producing superbugs with the overuse of disinfectants and sanitizers.”

Biokleen believes that consumers need to learn that we don’t need to “disinfect” everything. The situation, oddly enough, is similar to the microbiome in our gut. Disinfectants are like antibiotics—a steady diet of them wipes out all bacteria, but the bad bacteria grows back more quickly, creating an imbalance.

When you’re looking for a natural cleaning product, Cindy says, look for full ingredient disclosure, not vague names like “biodegradable surfactant.” Companies using naturally derived fragrances, for example, will typically list the botanical name with the common name in parentheses: Lavandula angustifolia (lavender). And a third-party certification—like Whole Foods’ Eco-Scale Certification—allows for great peace of mind.

As increasing numbers of people have sensitivities to fragrances or dyes, lines like Biokleen’s Free & Clear are growing rapidly. Since your clothes have constant contact with your skin, it is very important to wash them with a natural detergent if you have any sensitivities.

A final misconception a lot of people have about green cleaners is that they’re more expensive or that they don’t work. In Biokleen’s case, they worked to develop ultra-concentrated cleaning products with professional performance, saving water in manufacturing, reducing plastic use, and saving shipping emissions and costs, since the concentrations meant they could use smaller bottles. This also allowed them to keep costs down for the consumer: Since so little laundry detergent is needed for a load, Biokleen’s cost per load is actually less than most conventional brands.

There’s a lot more to know about green cleaning, but in the end it boils down to safety: for you, for your family, and for the environment.