As cleaning has followed the trends toward environmentally preferable (or green) products and cleaning for health, the use of natural ingredients in cleaning products has grown exponentially. These biobased cleaners include a myriad of plant-based ingredients such as soy, corn, coconut, orange and other citrus fruits, and even herbs such as lavender.

Biobased products, by definition, are biodegradable and made partially or wholly from plant sources, whether agricultural or forestry derived. The percentage of plant-based ingredients is usually marked on the packaging, and the higher the percentage, the more attractive a product is to those implementing green cleaning programs.

“That’s the thing I love about the trend within our business, with janitorial operating procedures,” says Gary Walker, president of Magic Touch Cleaning in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “I think people are driving these chemical companies to come out with stuff that is biobased and a lot less toxic.”


Among some of the more popular biobased products used by building service contractors are citrus-based products such as degreasers and crop-based cleaners that contain corn, soy, coconut, as well as a mix of those.

Many biobased cleaners also take advantage of the pleasant smell of citrus for fragrance, even if they don’t use citrus oil in the actual cleaning formulation. Orange oil is commonly used in a variety of products, from solvents to polishes and toilet scrub to glass cleaners.

“Citrus is a great degreaser,” Walker says.

Many BSCs use cleaners and degreasers with citrus-derived d-Limonene, which is a component of oil extracted from citrus rinds.

“We use that for situations like stainless steel where we have a lot of stainless steel and high traffic volume touching on that stainless steel,” says Marc Collings, director of strategic management for Varsity Contractors in Boise, Idaho.

Some restroom cleaners contain citric acid, which is an extremely effective cleanser in such an application. Another product commonly used by BSCs are soy- and corn-based graffiti removers.

Not all green products are biobased, nor are all biobased products considered green, but there is quite a bit of overlap between the two camps. One market in which biobased cleaners are in high demand is education. Green cleaning programs are continually being mandated by state governments as well as individual school districts, as part of a push toward healthy indoor environments for children. Knoxville, Tenn.-based GCA Services uses a number of biobased products in its educational division’s cleaning programs to adhere to green mandates.

“The company stance is to use green products and really the company is moving in that direction for every account,” not just those in education, says GCA Senior Regional Manager Steve Gritzuk. “The main thing, though, is having products that work.”

Biobased products have come a long way and are now comparable if not better than the harsher traditional products, BSCs say. Preston Sizemore, president of Sizemore Inc. in Augusta, Ga., implemented biobased products as part of a green program. Much of the impetus behind going green was to protect front-line workers from harsh chemicals. So he admits he was surprised to find that the biobased cleaners work so well in addition to being safer to handle.

“When we use these products, we find them to be equal to the products that we would buy traditionally — that would be your traditional glass cleaners versus the biobased glass cleaners,” Sizemore says. “We’re finding that performance-wise, they’re equal.”

Sometimes, implementing a product or procedural change in a cleaning program is difficult for cleaners to grasp, as they can be very set in their ways.

For example, to many janitors, bleach odor means clean and blue color means glass cleaner.

“When we first switched and started going with a lot of products that didn’t have dyes and fragrances, at first, it was the associates that were like, ‘It’s not going to work because it isn’t blue,’” Walker says. “That was a very difficult first step to get them to embrace that and say, ‘This works just as well and it’s safer for me.’”

Once they’ve been trained and have begun using the products, however, employees gain confidence in the product and in their own ability to use it.

“It’s more or less introducing the cleaners to a different process and a different product, but as long as the product works, the cleaners normally don’t push back,” Gritzuk says. “They’re actually excited to use different products and try new things. They’re a part of it.”

With the green movement receiving so much good press in recent years, customers are more and more willing to jump on board with green cleaning programs, and trust their BSC at the helm. The prevalence of scientific measurement of cleaning product capabilities, as well as increased public awareness about the health risks of traditional chemicals, has helped convince customers of the effectiveness of biobased products, Collings says.

Don’t ignore safety

Cleaning products, whether they are considered green or biobased or environmentally preferable, should be looked at with the same discernment toward worker and occupant safety as more traditional cleaning chemicals.

Stewart Wurm, director of the commercial division for Mr. Clean Maintenance Systems in Colton, Calif., spent months researching products for the company’s recently implemented green cleaning program and says biobased products at high dilutions can be dangerous but for the most part are safer than traditional butyl-based chemicals.

Even though biobased products are considered non-toxic, like any cleaning chemical, if improperly diluted or used, they can be harmful to the health of workers. Not all biobased products are 100 percent biobased, and the surfactants in some products are being chemically manufactured.

“What I want to see biobased go towards is more 100 percent of the product in it,” Walker says. “Some are as much as 70 to 90 percent but I always worry about the ‘other’ — truth in labeling: I really want to know what’s in that product. Because if it says 80 percent natural, 20 percent other, what’s that 20 percent? Is it something I can’t pronounce? Typically my rule of thumb is, if I can’t pronounce it I probably shouldn’t be cleaning with it.”

Versatile Oxygen-based Cleaners In High Demand Cleaners Thumbs-Up

Science and technology have accelerated the advancement of chemical alternatives altogether, introducing powerful cleaners that utilize one of the most commonly occurring elements: oxygen. Oxygen-based cleaners, particularly hydrogen peroxide cleaners, have muscles that flex in a number of applications to perform tasks that replace a handful of traditional products.

The popularity of oxygen-based cleaners, specifically hydrogen peroxide, has exploded in recent years, and can be attributed not only to the green movement but also to the element’s own versatility. BSCs are discovering the many applications in which the product can be used.

Hydrogen peroxide cleaners work by releasing oxygen on contact with soils to boost the cleaning power of surfactants in the product, leaving no by-products or residue.

“It’s a neat process — what happens is the oxygen goes in to the bacteria and explodes it and kills it,” says Stewart Wurm, director of the commercial division for Mr. Clean Maintenance Systems. “Very simple process, and it works.”

Effective disinfectant alternative

Hydrogen peroxide has been used in hospitals for many years as a high-level disinfectant and is now considered by many to be a good alternative to chlorine bleach and phenols that can be damaging to the skin or if inhaled.

Depending on the dilution, hydrogen peroxide cleaners work well in a number of applications, and have the power to not only clean but to disinfect and sanitize as well.

“At our office we installed a solution control system that only has peroxide cleaner in it and we’re diluting it to four different dilutions: one is for window cleaning, one is for general purpose cleaning, one is for disinfecting and one is for heavy duty cleaning,” says Wurm. “One of the sweet things about this is that one product does everything. You only have to put it in a solution dispenser and you get everything you need from one product so we’re trying to do something where we can market that, use that.”

Also, one product now allows for more thorough cleaning and disinfecting of areas that perhaps were not getting the same treatment with general cleaners. Varsity Contractors now uses a hydrogen peroxide cleaner for about 90 percent of its cleaning, including restrooms, tile, stainless steel and windows, says Marc Collings, director of strategic management.

“The real advantage that [hydrogen peroxide] gives us is, before, we would use an all purpose cleaner — for instance, out in general office areas — which has no disinfecting or sanitizing properties to it,” Collings says. “What it’s allowed us to do is use the same chemical in both restrooms and the general office areas, which also gives us sanitizing capabilities out in the office areas. So it really expands our cleaning for health.”

Mr. Clean is using hydrogen peroxide cleaners in two schools to clean desks, and Wurm says using disinfectants on desks and other surfaces requires the extra step of rinsing if food is going to be processed or eaten there.

“So by using a hydrogen peroxide based cleaners you get the disinfectant qualities without having to do the rinsing,” he says.