Green Disinfection Myths: Natural, Green, or Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products and Disinfectants
Author: Janice Stewart and CeCe Mikell/Monday, March 16, 2015/Categories: Green Cleaning, Cleaning Science
Claiming to “disinfect a home” is a legally-binding marketing claim, but if you believe the marketing hype of the products or homemade concoctions you use rather than relying on research and regulation, you may be placing your company at great liability. Consider this: the words “natural,” “green” or “eco-friendly” on a cleaning product label have no scientific meaning when it comes to cleaning products, and they definitely do not guarantee the product is safe or even from nature.
But we do know that cleaning professionals and consumers alike are clamoring for definitions and standards to improve understanding of these terms and others being used to “imply” that a product is something it might not actually be. The fact is that cleaning product manufacturers are not required by law to list all ingredients on their labels or make them public.
The one exception: manufacturers of disinfectants and sanitizers are legally required to list their active ingredient and prove that their products kill the germs they claim to kill.
Myth: There are lots of kitchen pantry items and nature-made solutions that disinfect.To be clear, there’s not a definitive YES or NO answer here. While many acids, bases and oils kill organisms (and centuries of science back up that generalization), none have yet been shown definitively – not just theoretically – to disinfect a specific and harmful group of bacteria, mold, or fungi. To do so, a manufacturer would have to very specifically define the exact measurements and dilutions, the application method, the dwell time, and the removal method that consistently and reliably achieves disinfection.
There are several industry groups, including the Natural Products Association and the Environmental Working Group, who are attempting to clarify what the terms “natural,” “green” and “eco-friendly” mean and whether manufacturers are using them appropriately.
Typically, cleaning products marketed as “natural,” “green,” or “eco-friendly” use chemicals made from corn or other biological sources in place of petroleum. While these may be renewable resources, their “natural” ingredients are still chemically identical to those made from petroleum, so their potential health and environmental impacts during and after use would be the same. Since “natural” doesn’t even always mean non-toxic, it is important to read and follow all directions carefully on all cleaning products to mitigate any potential harm.
In addition, the terms “natural,” “green” and “eco-friendly” are not to be confused with the term “organic,” which technically only refers to a method of agriculture that avoids the use of pesticides and antibiotics, and is in the process of being further clarified by governmental agencies. The use of the term “organic” outside of foods intended for nutritional consumption is not regulated, and has no credible meaning.
Myth: We use green/natural/eco-friendly disinfectants.To protect your business, you may want to de-couple the term “disinfect” and “sanitize” from any claims of being green, natural, and eco-friendly. “Disinfectant” and “sanitizer” are highly regulated words in our industry, and should not be bandied around lightly, especially if we want to be viewed as knowledgeable professionals. It is important to use chemicals and chemical disinfectants judiciously, but from an infection control and home hygiene perspective, there are regularly contaminated areas in our homes that need to be disinfected properly. Parsley juice, tea tree oil, or whatever other seemingly benign grocery items claim to have killing properties do not provide the level of disinfection needed.
EcoLogo from Canada and the US EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) are the recommended places to look for choosing safer, more environmentally friendly chemistries. There will be certified green alternatives for disinfectants and sanitizers available in the future, but in the meantime we’ll have to be patient and make the best choices based on what we currently have available.
Myth: You can disinfect every kind of surface in a home.Again, this is both a YES and NO answer. Technically, yes, you could achieve disinfection – even sterilization – of every surface in a home…if you used expensive clean room technology.
But you’re not going to stay in business doing that, so be sure the tools available can disinfect hard, non-porous surfaces (mainly in the kitchen and bathrooms). Claiming to disinfect fabrics (carpets and draperies), natural wood surfaces, natural stone, floors and even mattresses and furniture is inaccurate at best and opens your business up to liability should a client who gets sick challenge your claim.
There are many methods for killing microbes, which include bacteria, viruses and fungi. They do not all do the job the same way or with the same degree of success. The effectiveness of any disinfectant depends on several factors:
Myth: All steam cleaners disinfect.All cleaning professionals seeking natural cleaning and disinfecting solutions should be interested in dry steam vapor cleaners, which use water in the form of dry steam vapor (not just steam) to clean surfaces.
In addition to validating the disinfection claims of applied chemicals, the US EPA also recognizes “devices” (equipment using more physics than chemistry) which claim to disinfect, like dry steam vapor machines. All US EPA recognized disinfecting devices will have a US EPA Establishment Number posted on them.
Although the US EPA does not require registration for these devices like it does with chemicals, the EPA does regulate that, “…‘false or misleading claims’ cannot be made about the effectiveness of devices.” This means if the manufacturer claims the device disinfects surfaces, it must provide scientific data to the EPA showing the effectiveness of the system, the type of testing done, what germs it kills and how long it takes to kill the germs tested.
Dubious claims include, “meets EPA standards for disinfection.” This implies it has the ability to disinfect (we all know steam disinfects at some level) but has no real meaning in context since there is no recognized scientific research to prove the device is effective as a disinfectant.
For example, one EPA recognized DSV device has proven it kills community-acquired MRSA with a 17-second contact time on a non-porous surface. If you use another DSV device that is manufactured a bit differently, doesn’t reach the same temperature, and doesn’t produce the same percentage of steam vapor, you cannot guarantee disinfection against MRSA in 17-seconds. Basically, you are guessing, which is dangerous when you have real outbreak to combat.
The first dry steam vapor cleaners to be recognized as disinfecting devices by the EPA are the Advanced Vapor Technologies Ladybug Dry Steam Vapor Cleaners with the TANCS system, patented by ADVAP,proven for broad spectrum disinfection and carrying a US EPA Establishment Number.
As professionals in the cleaning industry, we should understand it is not legally accurate, and may potentially be seriously harmful, to use the term “disinfectant” with “natural,” “green” or “eco-friendly.” If you see these terms on a product label, you should immediately be suspicious. In addition, homemade recipes should avoid claiming disinfection or sanitization. Couching claims more truthfully, as in, “we know traditionally and under certain circumstances these ingredients can kill germs but we don’t know how many, what kinds or to what extent,” will keep more cleaning technicians and clients healthy and safe.