Written by: Nikki Loscocco-VanZandt B.A., LMT
While studying aromatherapy I became intrigued with the idea of using essential oils to clean my home. I thought “ why not” use essential oils to clean with as they contain antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial properties which makes them ideal candidates. As I began to experiment with cleaning using essential oils I started to notice how pleasant the rooms smelled; I really enjoyed the aroma. Now that was something new; never before had I cleaned and liked the way the cleaning products smelled. In fact I began to look forward to cleaning; well I am still not over enthusiastic about it but it is a lot more fun to clean now that I am not breathing in strong chemicals.
When using essential oils it is easy to customize the scent based on mood and seasons all the while using them for their disinfecting properties. When utilizing essential oils in this manner you end up with a clean house and the benefit of aromatherapy at the same time. I have been cleaning with essential oils for almost a year and no longer use commercial cleaners. It wasn’t until after I started using essential oils to clean with that I started to look into the ingredients in commercial cleaners and that’s where this research comes in. This paper focuses on what makes essential oils beneficial for cleaning as well as reasons to avoid commercial cleaning products.
If you have walked down the aisle at any grocery store or big box store you will notice the plethora of cleaning products. There is a product for everything imaginable and on top of that a variety of synthetic scents to choose from. I was in a store not to long ago and took a moment to observe the long aisle of cleaning products which appeared to go on forever; it was five shelves high, I felt flabbergasted. There are so many products and so many chemicals available in these products and not to mention very costly, wasteful and harmful to the environment. Meanwhile, I have been using a simple method involving essential oils, distilled water, white distilled vinegar and baking soda to clean with. Simple, natural and quite frankly affordable and it smells wonderful to boot! Using these products produces less waste, is better for the home environment and the external environment; it’s a win- win situation.
The Rise of the Synthetic Age
After World War II a huge increase was seen in the production of petrochemicals and synthetics. Production of these chemicals has increased greatly over the years. In 1940 petrochemicals and synthetics were produced at the rate of one billion pounds per year; compare that to 1980 over 400 billion pounds per year were produced (Steinman & Epstein, 1995). Since 1965 more than four million distinct chemical compounds have been reported in scientific literature and of these seventy thousand are used in commercial production (Steinman & Epstein, 1995).
With the onset of this chemical production “boom” an increase in health problems has been observed such as asthma and allergies. Other conditions have been noted as well such as headaches, insomnia, reproductive issues and mild depression. This increase of symptoms has been linked to synthetic chemicals and petrochemicals in our environment. While you cannot avoid everything, it is important to make your home a safe place and control what you can. After all you do have complete control to what you use and bring into your home.
The Increase in Allergies and Asthma
The number of Americans suffering from asthma and allergies has increased significantly over the years. Researches do not know the exact cause of this increase however genetics and stress are looked at as contributing factors as well as the role of indoor environments. Studies show that asthma rates doubled between 1980-1994 (Groman, 2007). According to Groman (2007) the numbers show that over fifty million Americans have allergies and fourteen million have asthma. Asthma is also the most common childhood disease according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (Groman, 2007). The question is why are these conditions becoming more widespread?
The answer is not completely known yet but indoor air quality is suspect and indoor environments are being researched. Indoor air quality has been steadily declining through the years. Studies show that indoor environments are typically five to ten times more polluted than outdoor environment (Groman, 2007). Indoor air quality has been declining as the use of petrochemical and synthetic ingredients (such as cleaning products) has been increasing. Other symptoms that are commonly associated with the use of these petrochemical and synthetic cleaners are sore throat, insomnia, headaches and mild depression. So what is in these products? That is a question which is not that easy to answer.
A Look at Commercial Cleaners
If you have ever looked at a label on a cleaning product you are aware that it is somewhat of a mystery as to what the ingredients are. If you have not looked at a label on one of these many products then the next time you have the chance to look, check it out. I had never really given it a thought before; I figured the ingredients were listed on the product label. In fact, the ingredients are not all listed. Typically a label lists the main ingredient followed by the broad name of “inert ingredients” which often makes up 90-95 percent of the product. “Inert ingredients” does not tell you what is in that bottle of cleaner. I looked to MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) sheets as well and found that if it is not an industrial cleaner a full list of ingredients is not needed nor is it provided.
As it turns out commercial cleaning product companies are not required to list the products contents; it is viewed as proprietary information. There is no government law for these companies to list ingredients on their labels, furthermore; there are no standards to test cleaning products for safety. Because there are no standards for ingredient testing the toxic screening process varies form company to company (“The Dirt on Cleaning Product Companies,” 2008). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only regulates pesticides.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) only regulates occupational exposure to industrial chemicals. Household cleaners fall under the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) which is an independent regulatory agency. This group is responsible for ensuring household products are safe from unreasonable risk of injury or death (Steinman & Epstein, 1995) and they have jurisdiction for over more than fifteen thousand consumer products. While federal regulations require manufactures to provide minimal information on their product labels, it is limited and does not tell the consumer whether it is a carcinogenic, neurotoxic, or a product with possible negative reproductive effects. Since all ingredients are not disclosed on labels, various independent scientists and health organizations have tested home cleaning products. Listed below are some of the harmful chemicals commonly found in what the average consumer uses to clean their homes.
- Phthalates – carriers for fragrance which are found in a wide variety of cleaning products, from glass cleaners, deodorizers, laundry detergents and fabric softeners. Have been linked to adverse effects on males; reduced sperm count. Also, increased allergies and asthma symptoms in children (Gorman, 2007).
- Monoethanolamine (MEA) – A surfactant found in all-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners and some laundry detergents. An inducer of occupational asthma.
- Ammonium quaternary compounds – disinfectants found in disinfectant sprays and toilet cleaners. Inducers of occupational asthma.
- Glycol ethers – 2-butoxyethanol is a common example and is found in glass cleaners and all- purpose spray cleaners. It has been linked to reduced fertility and low birth weight in exposed mice. It is considered to be a neurotoxin and is a possible carcinogen.
- Alkyl phenol ethoxyates (APEs) – a surfactant. Found in laundry detergents, stain removers, and all-purpose cleaners. They have been shown to be endocrine disrupters and are commonly found as contaminates in rivers and streams.
- Fragrance oils – contain highly toxic substances and can be lung and skin irritants. They may also have a negative effect on the nervous system. “Fragrance” can be a mixture of up to several hundred ingredients (“Scented products emit toxic chemicals”, 2010).
Making your own cleaning products is an excellent alternative to any of the cleaners on the market as you can regulate what goes in them. Creating your own products gives peace of mind and they are easy to make. Most of all you know the exact ingredients, you have complete control, it is fun and it smells so much better and has therapeutic value! For some this may seem like a daunting task. When purchasing “safer” or “green” products there are certain logos to keep in mind and look for; the USDA Organic logo, the Green Seal logo, the Leaping Bunny logo and FSC. All of these seals are the most reliable (Delaney, 2009).
A Look at Essential Cleaning; a Safer Alternative
Essential oils and cleaning go hand in hand. You end up with a clean home that smells great all the while receiving the therapeutic benefits of the essential oils! Another benefit is you avoid all the chemicals found in commercial cleaners. Using essential oils to clean your home creates a healthier environment, saves money and produces less waste. This greener way of cleaning involves the use of items you more than likely already have in your home. Items such as white distilled vinegar, distilled water, baking soda, borax, castile soap, vegetable glycerin and of course essential oils. Essential oils bring not only a pleasant aroma that is not harmful to your indoor environment but they also bring their antiseptic, antiviral and antibacterial properties which also reduces the likelihood of illness during cold and flu season.
Items needed for your home cleaning arsenal:
- White distilled vinegar – a great disinfectant, removes stains makes a great base for an all-purpose cleaner.
- Baking soda – Great for scrubbing the stubborn areas. It is abrasive but just enough, it won’t damage most surfaces (always perform a test patch if in doubt). This makes a great base for a soft scrub. And is also beneficial to cleaning caked on baked on pots and pans; no need for the commercial scrubbing pads here.
- Castile soap – Is versatile and can be added to cleaning products. Add to baking soda to make a soft scrub. Also great to use as hand soap at home. Purchase the unscented variety and have fun creating aromatic blends for hand washing for every room of the house!
- Borax – A safe alternative to bleach in the wash to whiten clothes. Can be used as a base for a mold and mildew scrub in the bathroom.
- Distilled water – Does not contain any contaminates that may be in tap water. Great to mix with vinegar in all-purpose cleaning sprays. Excellent to use in room sprays and in aromatic diffusers.
- Vegetable glycerin – Use as an additive to keep powdered base scrubs from going hard.
Chemical Properties of Essential Oils for Cleaning
Phenols: These are excellent to use in cleaning as they possess strong antibacterial and germicidal properties. Essential oil choices from this group include Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Eugenia caryophyllus, Ocimum basilicum, Laurus nobilis, and Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol.
Monoterpene Alcohols: Strong antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Essential oil choices from this group include: Citrus aurantium, Thymus vulgaris ct. linalol and geraniol, Pelargonium graveolens, Cymbopogon martini, Eucalyptus radiata, Melaleuca alternifolia, Ravensara aromatica, Mentha x piperita, Lavandula angustifolia, and Mentha spicata.
Aldehydes: Have antimicrobial, antiviral properties. Essential oil choices include: Cymbopogon winterianus, Eucalyptus citriodora, Cymbopogon citratus, Melissa officinalis, and Litsea cubeba.
This is not an exhaustive list, be creative blending your oils and making your cleaning products. Monoterpene hydrocarbons are found in all essential oils to a greater or lesser degree therefore they all contain antiseptic and antiviral properties; some a little more than others (Battaglia, Salvatore, 2003).
Some Recipes to Get Started
This truly is one of my favorite cleaning products. I use ½ cup baking soda and add Castile soap to it until it has the texture of frosting. Then add 6 drops Citrus limon and 6 drops Melaleuca alternifolia, and add a squeeze of vegetable glycerin then mix all ingredients together until blended. Use a little of the scrub on a sponge or rag. It is great to use in the bathroom to clean the sink, toilet and shower.
All Purpose Spray Cleaner
You can adjust this recipe to however large you need it. I make mine in 8oz batches because I like to change up the essential oils frequently. This is a great cleaner to use on kitchen counter tops and bathroom surfaces.
- 4oz Distilled Water
- 4oz White Distilled Vinegar
- 56 drops Lemon (Citrus limon) – antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiseptic
- 48 drops Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) – antibacterial, antimicrobial, antifungal
- 16 drops Thyme (Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol) – antibacterial, antiseptic
*Add Essential oils first then add the water and vinegar. Shake to mix well and spray on surfaces and wipe clean. Shake before each use.
Not only smells good but is a good odor neutralizer for the carpet and gets rid of bacteria. It keeps bacteria at bay in your vacuum cleaner bag or canister. It is also great to use to clean the kitchen sink and disposal and can be used as a scrub for those hard to clean pots and pans.
- 1 cup baking soda
- 1 cup corn starch
- 10 drops Juniper berry (Juniperus communis) – antiseptic
- 10 drops Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) – antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal
*Mix all ingredients in a bowl, combine the EO’s well. Pour mixture into jar. Sprinkle onto carpet, let sit for 10-15 minutes then vacuum as usual. (For best results let mix sit a day before use so EO’s can disburse more in the mix.)
This is a great way to refresh the air and also to disinfect.
- 4oz Distilled water
- 20 drops Lemon EO (Citrus limon) – anti-microbial, antiseptic, anti-bacterial
- 25 drops Lavender EO (Lavandula angustifolia) – antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal
*Shake before each use. Spray room.
Don’t forget to label your products!
Essential Oil Choices for Cleaning
*This list is not exhaustive, there are others out there to use, and this chart however provides a good “jumping off” point.
The Effectiveness of Essential Oils in Germ Killing
Numerous studies have been conducted to show that essential oils really do have an effect on the reduction of bacteria and viruses. Studies such as the following:
- 1955 study by Keller and Kober found the effectiveness of 21 different essential oils and their ability to diminish or eliminate bacteria in the air within the room.
- The 1973 Klosterfrau Melissengeist study found that essential oils inhibit the growth of bacteria.
- Paul Belaiche is known for the Aromatogram study published in 1979. This was a test that looked at antimicrobial qualities in forty essential oils. He came up with three groups each containing different essential oils with different results.
- Group one was found to be the broadest spectrum against microorganisms. These include oils such as Eugenia caryophyllata, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Melaleuca alternifolia and Thymus vulgaris.
- Group two was found to be effective only against certain classes of bacteria. This group includes oils such as Pinus sylvestris, Eucalyptus globulus, Lavandula angustifolia, Pelargonium graveolens and Citrus aurantium.
- Group three found that a direct influence on bacteria was observed seldom or only irregularly. He concluded that this group affected the immune response, which in turn makes it impossible for the bacteria to spread (Schnaubelt, 1995).
In 1987 German researchers Lembke and Deininger published ground breaking study about antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties of essential oils and their components (Schnaubelt, 2011).
These studies and many others demonstrate that scientific research has been conducted and that essential oils really do help combat and prevent germs thus making them a good choice to use in the cleaning of our homes.
Scientific studies have provided information that essential oils do in fact contain germ killing properties. These studies document the effectiveness of essential oils for the elimination of microorganisms in our environment. Our bodies act as a filter; everything that touches our skin, which is inhaled into our respiratory system, is being processed and filtered by our bodies. Some chemicals are not completely processed and become stored in the tissues of our bodies. Over time this accumulation builds up which then has the potential to lead to health issues. By using essential oils and other common non- toxic ingredients you have the ability to control your environment and put your health first.
When cleaning with natural products your home will have a fresh smell rather than a chemical one. Your body is a filter for everything; let your home be an environment that is easy on the body and all of its wonderful systems and let it be one that gives you a mental boost to boot with the therapeutic properties of the essential oils! Wishing everyone an aromatically clean home!
About Nikki Loscocco-VanZandt B.A., LMT
Nikki earned her massage degree from Anne Arundel Community College and also holds a bachelors degree in Psychology from St. Mary’s College. Additionally she has studied Aromatherapy at The School for Aromatic Studies. Nikki is a nationally certified massage therapist as well as a Maryland state licensed massage therapist (LMT). She is a member of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB), Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (ABMP) and she is a member of National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA).
Nikki designs and conducts aromatherapy and wellness workshops as well as writes blogs related to massage and aromatherapy. Nikki is always looking to learn new ways to help people with massage, therapeutic touch and aromatherapy as a result she is continuously educating herself. She believes in the connections between the body, mind and spirit and the importance of the healing and therapeutic power of touch. Nikki believes that by combining her passion for helping others with her massage and aromatherapy skills she will provide clients with a therapeutic and uplifting experience.
“Aromatherapy has had a huge impact on my life; I love the healing power of plants!”
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Schnaubelt, Kurt. (1995). Advanced Aromatherapy: the Science of Essential Oil Therapy. Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
Schnaubelt, Kurt. (2011). The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils. Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
Steinman, David & Epstein, Samuel. (1995). The Safe Shoppers Bible. New York: Macmillan.
The Dirt on Cleaning Product Companies. (2008). Retrieved March 28, 2012 from Women’s Voices for the Earth website: http://www.womensvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/2008-Report-Card.pdf
University of Washington. (2010). Scented Products Emit Toxic Chemicals. Healthy House Institute. Retrieved on March 7, 2012 from http://www.healthyhouseinstitute.com/a_1131-Scented_Products_Emit_Toxic_Chemicals