When Malcolm Berman was making a living cleaning homes in New York City, he came home every day with rashes on his hands -- the combined effect of chemical cleaners and wearing rubber gloves.
Berman felt so unhealthy after work that he started to think one of his clients was on to something.
"She insisted that we only use products she had on hand, which were nontoxic," Berman recalled. "I felt fine after cleaning her home. She became the inspiration for my business."
That was 10 years ago. These days Berman's company, Green Clean, is a thriving business that caters to people who prefer their homes scoured by all-natural cleaners. And Berman's business is hardly unique.
Perry Phillips, the executive director of the Association of Residential Cleaning Professionals, says the concept of green-cleaning is hot, particularly on the West and East coasts. He estimates that about half of all cleaning services on the West Coast feature cleaning with nontoxic products as a main business or as a premium service. On the East Coast, he says, the figure may be close to 40 percent. Meanwhile, eco-cleaning services have been cropping up in many major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and Dallas.
"It's definitely a trend in our industry," Phillips said. "More and more customers want their homes cleaned in a health-conscious way."
Amid this rush to use environmentally friendly cleaners, some are advising buyers beware.
Urvashi Rangan, an eco-product watchdog at the independent, nonprofit Consumer Policy Institute, points out that, unlike the organic food industry which has recently been partly regulated, so far the business of eco-cleaners is completely unregulated.
"Phrases like biodegradable, nontoxic, hypoallergenic and fragrant free -- all of those things technically don't have to mean anything," she said. "Manufacturers can use these claims and don't have to meet any standard, and they don't have to be verified."
Rangan adds that, unlike food companies, cleaning-product companies aren't required to list ingredients in their labeling. She advises that customers select natural cleaning products that voluntarily list all ingredients on their labels -- and choose eco-cleaning services that identify all their cleaning products as all-natural.
Seventh Generation and Ecover are a couple of companies that voluntarily list all ingredients on their labels while others, including the brand Simple Green, simply offer a phone number that consumers can call for a complete ingredient list.
"If any one thing can start to make these products more accountable it would be to have an ingredient list on the label," Rangan said.
Learning exactly what's in a cleaner -- and exactly what cleaners a cleaning service uses -- is important since the "eco" label almost always comes at a premium.
Green-cleaning services generally cost about $5 to $10 more per hour, according to Phillips. That coincides with the higher price of commercial eco-cleaners. Despite the extra cost, the Nutrition Business Journal estimated the sale of eco-cleaning products jumped from $140 million in 2000 to $290 million in 2004.
"It's not that it's never worth the extra money," Rangan said. "But in order for consumers to figure it out, you have to begin with an ingredient list."
For some people, there is no question that using all-natural cleaners is worth a premium. One of Berman's customers, Constance Pond, a New York resident and mother of two sons, said at first she hired green cleaners because they were convenient and reliable. Since then, one of her sons has been diagnosed with autism, and now she says she can never revert to using a regular cleaning service.
"It is extremely important to me to limit the chemicals in my house, because my son tends to be more sensitive to chemicals," she said. "It's not even a problem to be in the house when they're cleaning because there are no toxic fumes or anything like that."
A Little Vinegar Goes a Long Way
If people have the time, there are also inexpensive ways to "eco-clean" your own home. Rangan points out that combining basic household items, such as white vinegar, baking soda, olive oil, borax, water and lemon, can work just as well as any premium-priced product.
"There's a little bit of science behind it so you're not just using lemon on everything," she said. "But making your own formulations is pretty easy."
Below are a few natural cleaning tips from GreenerChoice.org, an independent, nonprofit group that collaborates with the Consumer Policy Institute. A more complete list of cleaning formulations is available here: http://www.eco-labels.org/greenconsumers/products.cfm?product=greencleaning&page=RightChoices
Ovens: Mix one cup of baking soda and 1/4 cup of washing soda, then add enough water to make a paste; apply the paste to oven surfaces and let soak overnight. The next morning, lift off soda mixture and grime.
Tub and tile: Mix 1 2/3 cup of baking soda, 1/2 cup of liquid soap, and 1/2 of cup water. As the last step, add two tablespoons of vinegar (if you add the vinegar too early it will react with the baking soda.) Immediately apply, wipe and scrub.
Toilet bowl: Pour one cup of borax into the toilet before going to bed. In the morning, scrub and flush. For an extra-strength cleaner, add 1/4 cup of vinegar to the borax.
Furniture: Mix olive oil and vinegar in a one-to-one ratio and polish with a soft cloth.
Windows: Put three tablespoons of vinegar per one quart water in a spray bottle. For extra-dirty windows, try 1/2 teaspoon of liquid soap, three tablespoons of vinegar, and two cups of water. Shake well.