Ask Eartha: The dirt on disinfectants (column) |

Ask Eartha: The dirt on disinfectants (column)

Dear Eartha,

Last week’s Eartha brought up more questions for me and my household regarding disinfectants. Can you talk more about why it is so important to scrutinize the ingredient list on cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants and what ingredients in particular to avoid? — Blaire, Breckenridge

Thank you for your follow-up response to last week’s Eartha. Disinfectants and sanitizers both promote a debate over health concerns and toxicology. Chemical compounds contained in these popular consumer products can indeed be harmful to our bodies. These compounds can find their way into our system through our eyes, skin, other orifices and can even be carried airborne into our lungs.

As we discussed last week, disinfectants are designed to kill pathogens and micro-organisms, whereas sanitizers are designed to reduce their abundance to safe levels for the body. For these reasons, the use of disinfectants should be more closely scrutinized. Amongst the most common chemical compounds found in these products are Bleach-Sodium Hypochlorite (a respiratory irritant), Phenols and Quaternary Ammonium Compounds. The EPA ranks these compounds between category I and III respectively on the toxicology chart, with category I being ‘highly toxic’ and category III being ‘moderately toxic’.

With sanitizers and disinfectants both in mind, some ingredients to be mindful of include: triclosan, benzalkonium chloride, phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, chlorine, glycols and other petrochemicals. These ingredients are included in many commercially available cleaning products for their cost-effectiveness. Many of these compounds are preservatives or other additives that prolong shelf life and chemical potency. Nonetheless, they are all detrimental to our health and should be avoided.

The bottom line is, take notice of the ingredients in your household cleaning products and personal care products. Scrutinize them and be picky. Why? Because you can! Healthy alternatives exist, and the companies that offer them should be supported.

Seek out disinfectants that utilize botanicals or citrate-based compounds as the main active ingredient. Thymol and Silver Dihydrogen Citrate are two examples of these active ingredients that the EPA ranks in Category IV (relatively non-toxic), the lowest level toxicology on their established rating scale. Ethyl and isopropyl alcohol are other healthier alternatives for many eco-based sanitizers. Mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) are excellent healthy alternatives to parabens, formaldehyde, triclosan and many other popular toxic preservatives utilized across the industry.

Whole Foods and Natural Grocers are great local resources to shop and inform yourself on healthy alternative products. Seventh Generation offers effective botanical disinfectants and are available at both these stores. Highly effective healthy disinfectants include lemon juice and borax. Lemon juice is effective against nearly all commonly found forms of household bacteria. Borax is a non-carcinogenic natural substance that fights bacteria and effectively disinfects hard surfaces. White vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda are great healthy alternatives that can tackle other common household cleaning jobs that don’t require complete disinfecting. For more information and job-specific cleaning tips, visit the cleaning guide page at

Be sure to utilize disinfectants and sanitizers with moderation. Remember that moderate exposure to various bacteria and germs can help promote a healthier immune system. With this in mind, our home environment should not be a ‘dead zone’; Killing off every living microorganism is not the answer and will only lead to increased microorganism strength, tolerance, and an even more toxic environment. For these reasons, balance is key. Try to isolate disinfectant use to bathrooms, kitchen counters where raw meat, poultry or fish are prepared and to high traffic areas like faucet handles and door knobs. Additionally, be sure to clean all surfaces first before disinfecting. This insures adequate disinfectant potency and will help reduce your perpetual dependency on disinfectants altogether.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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