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Green Cleaning

July 28, 2006

Got a stain on the floor to clean and still want to be green? You could start off with the “universal solvent”--water--but sometimes you need more. Here in Maine industries have worked for years to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals used to clean things such as dirty engine parts. Sometimes it’s a matter of using less solvent and more scrubbing power or hot water based parts washers. But what about the homeowner who wants to clean-up a grimy corner in the kitchen? With food, kids and pets nearby, you’ll probably want a cleaner that’s non-toxic, non-flammable and environmentally friendly (i.e. non-ozone producing and biodegradable).

There are several popular household cleaners out there that claim to be green, but the major ingredient in these cleaners is the chemical butyl cellosolve. Butyl cellosolve is a synthetic solvent that is derived from petroleum, is readily absorbed through the skin, and can irritate the eyes, nose and skin. It has also been linked to damage to the reproductive system.

Another popular alternative green cleaner contains terpenes that are natural solvents extracted from citrus fruit or pine trees. Terpenes have a strong odor that may be offensive to some folks. They are also considered volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone air pollution and can be flammable.

Soaps made of palm, olive or coconut oil are some of the mildest and most benign of the green cleaners. These soaps are traditionally used for washing hair, skin and even teeth, (There may be a taste issue here!) but they can also be used for household chores. Anyone who has done much backpacking or backcountry skiing in Maine will be familiar with Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile concentrated soap, whose multiple uses come in handy in the wilderness—and at home.

Finally, you may have the fixens for an all-purpose cleaner and deodorizer right in your kitchen--vinegar and baking soda. For example, vinegar and water in a spray bottle makes an excellent glass-cleaning alternative to ammonia; use newspaper instead of paper towels to wipe and you’re recycling too. Baking soda can be used to scrub sinks and counters and deodorize cutting boards.

Cleaners are made to clean and may have chemicals, even natural ones; that may cause allergic reactions in some people. So always read the labels. You also want to make sure that the green cleaner that you buy was made in an environmentally friendly way. What good have you done if powerful synthetic solvents were used to extract the goodness? So do your research. For more information on other household products and safer alternatives see: and

Some say that these environmentally friendly cleaners don’t work as well as the traditional cleaners, but isn’t your health and our collective backyard worth a little more elbow grease?

This column was submitted by David McCaskill, an Environmental Engineer with the Maine DEP's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. In Our Back Yard is an informational column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. E-mail your environmental questions to or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.