healthy holidays

Cleaning Tips for a Healthy Home (and Body!)

woman cleaningFor many of us, housecleaning is simply a necessary evil—a chore we delay as long as possible and then rush through quickly. (That's why the dirty socks get stuffed under the sofa cushions!)

It may be time to rethink that philosophy. Cleaning your living space has real benefits beyond making the place presentable. How you clean and what you choose to use when you clean can help you reduce some medical problems and even build your fitness.

Breathe easier

Heidi Waterfield was suffering. The San Francisco woman had severe, cold-like symptoms and frequent sinus infections that were interfering with her work and family life. When testing showed that she was highly allergic to dust, the treatment plan included changing the Waterfield household's approach to cleaning.

With much regret, three bookshelves filled with dust-attracting volumes were banished to the garage, along with toys and other items. Heidi and her husband pared down clutter in the bedrooms as well and started using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air-filtered) vacuum cleaner. Use of HEPA equipment has been shown to substantially remove allergens and contaminants from carpets and surfaces. Those cleaning changes, along with generic allergy medications, "have significantly improved my health," says Heidi.

Environmental scientist Carol Westinghouse explains why a properly sealed and filtered HEPA vacuum can make such a difference. "With a regular vacuum cleaner, you're sucking the dust in at one end and spewing it out at the other," she says. That process can irritate everyone's breathing, but is especially bad for those with asthma, allergies and other breathing or skin sensitivities.

Westinghouse, who is program manager of Cleaning for Health, a project of the nonprofit organization Informed Green Solutions, advises schools and institutions on how to change to "greener" cleaning choices. She promotes switching to mops and cloths made from polyester and nylon microfibers that draw dust through a magnetic charge. Microfiber items "do a superior job in capturing dirt and dust" and may be washed and reused for years. Due to their weave, microfiber cloths for window or mirror cleaning need no chemicals and the mops are much better than cotton at capturing bacteria, Westinghouse adds.

Consumers can find HEPA vacuum cleaners and microfiber products in many stores, including discount retailers and online.

Less-toxic cleaning

What you spray, wipe, scrub or slosh on surfaces when you clean affects the health of everyone in your household. And, as the ingredients in those cleaners release fumes into the air or rinse down the drain, they affect environmental health as well.

General household cleaners often contain certain chemicals such as bleach or phthalates that can irritate skin and lungs, interfere with liver function, affect the reproductive system or even cause some cancers.