Visit any store's cleaning aisle and you'll see an array of Green-this and Eco-that bottles. But beware. There are no regulations on what "green" or "eco" means; the terms can be slapped on any label. And, as important, not every environmentally friendly product is a great cleaner.
So how do you find truly green cleaning products that really work?
Ask those who do it for a living.
Two Bettys Green Cleaning Service has tried plenty of cleaners in its search for products that don't harm the environment and do the job well.
"We've winnowed it down to a few of the best," said Anna Tsantir, owner of the Minneapolis company. Their favorite? Seventh Generation cleaners. Not only does she find that these products work well, but its company explains the contents of the products on its website, even though manufacturers aren't required to do so.
Tsantir also recommends the Restore product line. Its advantage is that the company operates several retail refilling stations for its bottles, which minimizes trash.
Besides being kinder to the environment, both products are safe for those cleaning the house, as well as those living in it.
"Most people don't know that the toxic cleaners really hang around," Tsantir said. "They stay in the air for hours, on surfaces for days."
Indeed, clean homes can have some of the dirtiest air around; indoor air can be even more polluted than outdoor air. The Environmental Protection Agency says that cleaning agents, in large part, are what's behind the taint in household air.
And many products can build up on surfaces over time, Tsantir said. When she switches over to green products for a new client, she tells them to expect more smears and dullness at first, but once the good products take over, things begin to shine.Use your nose and eyes
There are other safe and effective cleaners on the market, such as the longtime products by Mrs. Meyers and Method, as well as newcomers such as Simply Safe.
You can use your nose to help find a safe cleaner, Tsantir said. The stronger-smelling ones typically aren't healthy for you or the planet. Many are synthetic fragrances, and even if flower essences are used, you don't know if the company is bulldozing rainforests to get them.
And pay attention to labels. If the label contains the words "Danger" or "Warning," you might want to skip them, health and pollution experts say. Another warning label, "Caution," is a concern, too, especially if first-aid directions accompany it.
Avoid products with labels that carry unsubstantiated or vague claims such as "ecologically friendly" or "nontoxic, " according to the Green Guide Institute, now part of National Geographic. The term "biodegradable" also is meaningless. (The Guide compares cleaners at www.thegreenguide.com. Click on "Buying Guides.")
You might look for the Green Seal certification on labels. The independent, nonprofit organization certifies products that meet a range of environmental and health standards. (More information is at www.greenseal.org.)
Another resource is "Squeaky Green," by Method products co-founders Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry (Chronicle Books, $16.95), It's a guide for cleaning and living green room by room.The Two Bettys Way
Or you could just clean the Two Bettys way. Their buckets include:
• Seventh Generation Free and Clear Surface Cleaner (for every surface except floors) and Restore All Purpose Cleaner (for floors).
• Seventh Generation Scum and Mildew Cleaner.
• Wood Care Polish by the Block Brothers (available at co-ops).
• Weiman Wipes for stainless steel (used occasionally). Stainless steel appliances -- the bane of cleaners green or not -- tend to streak unless specialized cleaners are used. Most are expensive and if they're aerosols, not exactly green, Tsantir said. Neither are the wipes, she added, but they are better than aerosols.
• Micro-fiber cloths. They are superior cleaning cloths, working faster and better than paper towels and many ordinary rags. These soft but rugged little swatches suck up dust while dry; wipe and clean when wet, and launder easily for repeated reuse. Tip: These are available at grocery, hardware and discount stores, but check the automotive section first, where they are sold for less. Two micro-fiber cloths cost $4 in Target's kitchen aisle, but a 12-pack is $8 in the automotive section.
• The Real Simple Micro Fiber Squeeze Mop has a micro-fiber cover on its head. A mini-hand scrubber pulls out of the handle for stubborn dirt and scuff marks. The cover can be removed, washed and reused (about $15).
• A micro-fiber dust mop with swivel head with washable cover (about $15).
• A scrub brush such as the OXO scrubber with handle (about $5).
• Squeegee for glass and mirror cleaning. Dry with newspaper or diaper cloths.
If you switch to green products, remember to clear out the under-sink cabinet and cleaning closet. Anything that says "Caution, Warning, Danger or Poison" is hazardous waste. Do not toss in the garbage or pour down drains or outdoors. Send them to your county household hazardous waste site. And recycle bottles whenever possible.