Are Your Cleaners Green or Mean?


By Robert Kravitz, The Ashkin Group

From Chemical Disclosure to No Chemicals at All

In the professional cleaning industry, Stephen Ashkin is well known as the “father of Green Cleaning.” He and his consulting organization, The Ashkin Group, began advocating the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products nearly 20 years ago, when most in the industry believed Green cleaning was, at best, a passing fancy.

However, Ashkin persisted, much for his own personal reasons. At the time, he had two young children at home and an elderly father. He knew that conventional cleaning products, although they have certainly served us well, may contain ingredients that can prove harmful to children and older adults, especially if used too frequently, improperly, or contrary to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Jump ahead 20 years, and Green Cleaning and the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products, tools, and equipment have essentially become the norm in the professional cleaning industry. Now Ashkin and others are suggesting that chemical manufacturers take this a step further and fully disclose all the ingredients in both Green and conventional chemical formulations.

Currently this is not required on the material safety data sheets that accompany all cleaning chemicals sold in the United States. Typically they catalog only those ingredients that may prove hazardous or cause injury, especially if handled or used improperly. Further, we are discovering that even if a chemical is Green certified or meets current Green standards, it may still contain ingredients that might trigger negative reactions or health concerns, especially for those with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, many of whom reside in long-term-living facilities.

“The goal is simply greater transparency,” Ashkin says. “[Ingredient disclosure] would help consumers and end customers make more thoughtful decisions when it comes to chemical selection.”

For the most part, full disclosure encompasses the following:

  • Identifying key ingredients in all cleaning chemicals*
  • Identifying ingredients that while environmentally preferable may still pose a health concern, especially for children and older individuals
  • Noting ingredients that while effective and Green may not be best suited for a school, medical center, or long-term-living facility

The concept is certainly not new. More than 700 years ago, English government officials, concerned that bakers were using a variety of undisclosed ingredients such as ground beans and peas to make bread, required that bakers list what was in the bread they made and sold. The regulation did not ban the use of alternative ingredients. In fact, it helped lower the cost of the bread, which many consumers appreciated.

“It simply let consumers know what was in the bread they were selecting for their families,” explains Ashkin. “Knowing what [was] in the bread helped them choose accordingly.” (See sidebar “Full Ingredient Disclosure and Manufacturers.”)

What about No Chemicals?

At the same time some in the professional cleaning industry are advocating full disclosure programs, others are thinking even bigger, asking whether surfaces can be cleaned without the use of any chemicals.

In many cases, depending on the type of cleaning task to be performed, the answer is yes. For instance, steam cleaning systems are proving to be effective at not only cleaning surfaces but in some cases sanitizing and deodorizing them as well. This can apply to the cleaning of walls, tile and grout in shower areas, restroom fixtures, counters, food service areas, bed frames, and hard-to-reach areas.  They also are designed for use when cleaning medical equipment  and other sensitive detail cleaning.

Just as with full disclosure, steam cleaning is certainly not new. Legend has it that several decades ago, an Italian bartender, having difficulty cleaning glasses smeared with lipstick stains, walked over to a cappuccino machine and tried to clean them with the steam generated by the machine. The process worked—and quite quickly. It is believed the cappuccino machine became the model for steam cleaning systems first introduced after World War II.

How They Work

According to Michael Schaffer, president of Tornado Industries, which manufactures steam cleaning machines along with other professional cleaning equipment these machines work by heating water to nearly 250 degrees (F).  The water forms a fine mist that is released under pressure. The heat and the mist can dislodge, and in some cases destroy or liquefy, soils and contaminants that can then be wiped away. (See sidebar “Using Steam Cleaning Systems Safely.”)

“Many of these systems use about a gallon of water per hour, which is about how much water the tanks hold,” says Schaffer. “Some even have reserve tanks for continuous operation that allow the machine to be refilled while [it] is in use, allowing for nonstop cleaning.”

As to killing bacteria on surfaces, studies indicate steam machines can be effective. Commercial-quality machines—equipment made for professional (commercial) use and purchased from a distributor rather than a big-box retailer—that generate high-heat steam may effectively kill bacteria, mold spores, and dust mites while reducing allergens and simultaneously reducing or eliminating the need for chemicals.**

Other studies have found that steam cleaning methods may remove biofilms, colonies of germs present on surfaces that form a layer protecting bacteria underneath. These biofilms are often resistant to many traditional cleaning methods and chemicals, including disinfectants. However, the use of steam, according to some studies, can penetrate the film, making it easier to kill and remove the biofilm and bacteria underneath.

In recent years, Schaffer says hotel properties have found another use for steam cleaning systems that may also prove beneficial in a long-term-living facility. The systems have been shown to help eliminate bed bugs and their eggs, minimizing the need for powerful chemicals and pesticides.

Future Trends

Although no one is predicting the demise of cleaning chemicals, many experts in the professional cleaning industry believe the future holds more transparency regarding what is in the chemicals we use every day. They also expect more no-chemical cleaning systems and strategies to be implemented. “This is actually happening already,” says Ashkin. “And just as with Green Cleaning when it was in its early stages, I expect many of these changes to be customer driven with the [cleaning] industry simply responding to the customers’ needs.”


*Some ingredients are used in the manufacturing process but are not in the finished product. These would not necessarily need to be listed.

**Cleaning Without Chemicals by Bill Switchenberg, June 2008 issue of Maintenance Supplies.

Sidebar: Full Ingredient Disclosure and Manufacturers

Some manufacturers are opposed to full disclosure because they believe the ingredients used in their products are their intellectual property. In many cases, years of research have gone into the development of a chemical. Disclosure of ingredients might allow competitors to copy the formula without investing all the time and money of the original developer. The Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA) is well aware of this concern and is attempting to develop a “checks-and-balances” system that allows for full disclosure while still protecting the rightfully earned intellectual property protection for the manufacturer.

Sidebar: Using Steam Cleaning Systems Safely

Steam cleaning systems should not be used on delicate fabrics such as silk, thin plastic, or heat-sensitive surfaces. While the systems are considered safe and eco-friendly, users must demonstrate common sense and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Select optional tools and accessories to meet specific needs such as cleaning floors or hard-to-reach areas. As with all cleaning, wearing gloves and goggles is recommended.

Article originally appeared in Long-Term Living Magazine, October 2011.