Environmentally Friendly Carpet Cleaning for Home Health

For good looks and good health

You once loved your carpet, but now it’s not looking its best–and maybe it’s even making you sneeze and sniffle. Don’t despair. With the right cleaning practices and products, you can clear the air without filling your house with toxic chemicals. And your old carpet might just win its way back into your heart.

Nontoxic Carpet Cleaning

The first step in sustainable carpet care is all about maintenance–keeping dirt outside, vacuuming regularly, and cleaning up stains quickly. But no matter how stellar your housekeeping habits, your floor will need a deep cleaning occasionally. For DIYers, the most common method is hot water extraction. It’s also called steam cleaning (even though no steam is produced). You can also dry clean your floor, which involves sprinkling it with a powder saturated in solvents and/or detergents. You work the powder into the pile by hand or with a machine, then vacuum it up with dirt attached. Since the floor never gets wet, it’s ready for action sooner than a steam-cleaned carpet. Another option is hiring a cleaning company. Traditionally, the pros have used either hot water extraction or dry cleaning. But these days some companies use a system that bubbles up the dirt with carbonated water. They say it reduces the use of both water and cleaning chemicals.

Top Tips

At home

  • Use doormats. As much as two thirds of the dust and dirt in our homes is tracked in on our feet. Make sure you have doormats inside and outside your doors, ideally long enough to come in contact with your shoes for several footsteps. Vacuum the mats frequently.
  • Shoes off, please! Taking your shoes off as you enter your home is even more effective than doormats at keeping dirt out. Make shoe removal convenient by putting a bench or chair near the door.
  • Cover it up. Small mats or rugs on top of the floor in heavily trafficked areas reduce wear and tear, extending the life of the material.
  • Clean up spills immediately. To prevent ground in dirt and stains, vacuum dry spills right away and blot (don’t rub) wet spills with an absorbent cloth.
  • Vacuum frequently. Frequent vacuuming, especially in high-traffic areas, keeps surface dirt from working its way deeper into the fibers, where it can be harder to remove. Always vacuum before a deep cleaning for maximum effectiveness.
  • Try simple solutions. To deodorize floors, instead of buying a “freshener” that may be laden with synthetic fragrances and other chemicals, sprinkle baking soda over the floor, let it stand for half an hour, and then vacuum it up.
  • Ask the manufacturer. When you’re ready for a deep cleaning, check with the manufacturer for cleaning recommendations.

When shopping, look for

  • Healthy ingredients. Good floor shampoos are available at green home stores and online, but you can also use whatever detergent you wash your dishes in. Although most chemicals used with hot water extraction systems are mild, read the warning labels before you buy or use any of these products. Steer clear of the ones labeled “danger” or “poison.” Dry floor cleaners usually contain solvents. Look for ones that offer citrus (not petrochemical) solvents and stay away from scents.
  • Green attitudes. If you decide to have your floors professionally cleaned, choose a company that talks about its commitment to the environment. But don’t take the company’s word for it: question its staff about cleaning methods and ask for the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for any cleaning products they’ll use in your home.

Other Considerations

  • When buying carpet cleaners, stay away from acid rinses such as hydroxyacetic acid and solvents such as glycol ethers. Also avoid tributyl tin, formaldehyde, and other chemicals designed to kill microorganisms because these chemicals are toxic to humans too.
  • Before you buy a carpet shampoo or powder, you can look it up in the Household Products Database, a service of the National Institutes of Health. It includes information about the chemical ingredients in over 7,000 consumer brands. You can also find some ingredient information on the product label and the MSDS, but unfortunately there’s no law requiring makers of household cleaners to reveal everything that’s in their products.


…to your health, your wallet, and the Earth
Regular vacuuming and occasional cleaning of your carpets with safe products will make your indoor air cleaner. It will also make your carpet last years longer, keeping it out of the waste stream and saving you money.

Common Mistakes

  • Toxic spot-cleaners. Avoid spot cleaners with glycol ether solvents such as butoxyethanol, which can be absorbed through your skin, can poison your blood, kidneys and liver, and has been linked to reproductive harm.
  • Too much detergent. Using more detergent than recommended doesn’t get the carpet any cleaner and can leave a sticky residue that attracts even more dirt. Don’t use a stronger solution than the manufacturer recommends; in fact, you may even want to dilute the detergent more than recommended. Some people don’t use any detergent at all. They┬árely on the hot water to clean the carpet.
  • Too much water. If the carpet gets too wet, the carpet and subfloor may be damaged and mold may flourish. Steam cleaning machines are designed to extract moisture so that the carpet dries within 6 to 12 hours. If your carpet stays wet longer than that, speed up the drying with fans, a dehumidifier, or by turning on the heating or air conditioning system.

Getting Started

If you clean your carpet frequently, you may want to buy a steam cleaner. Look for a model that’s got the Carpet and Rug Institute’s endorsement. Or you can rent a machine from home improvement stores, tool rental shops, and even supermarkets.

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