There was a time when nearly every product in a janitor’s arsenal came equipped with a warning label. The products contained toxic ingredients that were potentially dangerous to the user and the environment. Widespread use and acceptance of those products, however, is dwindling.

Jan/san manufacturers continue to be creative, allowing their product lines to evolve and reflect users’ needs. Newer products that contain citrus, soy or oxygen are aimed at the demand for “environmentally preferable” and “green” cleaners. These natural ingredients make for safer products and are typically comparable in performance and price to older product lines.

Citrus has been used in cleaners for many years — starting in the 1980s — when regulations on the use of petroleum-based solvents began to tighten. These products have only recently gained mass-market appeal, however.

Hydrogen peroxide was used as an antiseptic and in laundry applications for many decades, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it was added to cleaning compounds, and came to be known as “oxygen” cleaners.

Although soybean oil has been around for many decades, its use as a raw material in industrial cleaning products is relatively new.

Within each of these product categories, there are often differences in composition and appropriate uses. There are varied concentrations, different formulations for specific uses, and products that mix citrus, oxygen and soy.

Old-School Solutions
Traditional cleaners utilize the harshest or cheapest raw materials for the intended application. This often leads to very effective products, but they are also potentially dangerous.

Typical components include sodium hypochlorite, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid and petroleum distillates. In addition, many traditional cleaners include non-ionic surfactants, which are not biodegradable.

Although these products are safe when used correctly, problems can arise when the end-user uses the product for something other than what it is intended for — or mixes it with other cleaners. Improper use of, or extended exposure to, these chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation, headaches, respiratory problems, organ damage, cancer and even death.

“It is interesting that everyone seems to know not to put diesel fuel in their gasoline car, but have no problem using an extremely corrosive acidic bowl cleaner on their porcelain sink,” says Steve Doyen, vice president of marketing and sales services for Amrep Inc., Marietta, Ga.

The New Cleaners
Bio-based products are generally less hazardous to worker health and better for the environment than traditional cleaners. The products are “safer because they significantly reduce

the exposure to toxic chemical ingredients that cleaning professionals experience,” says Patrick Stewart, president and CEO of EnvirOx, Danville, Ill.

Citrus products literally use fruit to clean. They are made with d-limonene, a neutral compound extracted from the rind of lemons, limes or oranges that can be used as a solvent or combined with a surfactant to be used as a rinseable cleaning solution.

“The movement to replace harsher solvents with orange oil has great benefits to society and the companies that are marketing them,” says John Vlahakis, president of Venus Laboratories, Woodale, Ill.

Oxygen cleaners are formulated with hydrogen peroxide and a solvent or degreasing surfactant. When the cleaner comes in contact with soil, the hydrogen peroxide releases oxygen, which intensifies the cleaning ability of the degreasing agent.

When hydrogen peroxide decomposes to its base components of water and oxygen, it no longer negatively affects the environment.

“Hydrogen peroxide cleaners work better because of their unique formulation, their delivery system of oxygen and surfactant to the dirt, and their ability to clean without leaving behind residue,” Stewart says.

Soy-based products feature methyl soyate, a petrochemical replacement derived from soybean oil. Soybeans are a naturally occurring renewable resource.

“Through years of research and product refinement, soy based products work — and work well — for many applications,” says Randy Frees, president and CEO of Soy Technologies, Nicholasville, Ky.

Safer But Not Perfect
One of the biggest environmental benefits of these new cleaners is how quickly they biodegrade. They break down — safely and quickly — by biological means into their natural components and safely incorporate into the environment. Many of these products can biodegrade completely in less than a month.

Using products derived from renewable resources also helps reduce consumption of scarce fossil fuel.

“By moving to plant-based products, you are helping the farmers of America and reducing our reliance on foreign oil,” says Vlahakis.

Many of these cleaners are also safer for the air, meaning they do not evaporate and cause air emission problems.

Air emissions are measured in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) levels — those cleaners with lower levels are safer for the air. Many oxygen, soy and citrus cleaners have low levels of VOCs.

These cleaners are also typically non-irritants to skin and respiratory systems, making them less risky to handle.

“Our people are happy because they aren’t gagging or coughing upon using these products, and when coming in contact with the skin they are not getting redness or rashes,” Vlahakis says.

These products may be safer than traditional chemical-based products, but they are not without faults.

“It is important to recognize that natural does not necessarily mean safe,” Doyen says. “Snake venom is quite natural, yet quite unsafe.”

Even if a cleaning agent is made of naturally occurring ingredients, it must contain some type of surfactant in its formulation. Most companies producing these products, for example, choose plant-based or low-toxicity petroleum-based surfactants.

It is important to remember that these cleaners are still potent and should not be used in high dosages in confined spaces. And they should not be dumped down a drain without approval from the local wastewater treatment facility.

“I would not refer to any affordable industrial cleaner as 100 percent organic,” Frees says. “In general, even the safest products on the market do have cautions and should not be referred to as 100 percent organic. ‘Safe for the user’ does not mean the user can totally disregard the directions and cautions.”

On The Horizon
Bio-based and oxygen cleaning products continue to evolve at a rapid clip. In an effort to be as natural as possible, some companies are now using essential oils instead of synthetic fragrances. Similar efforts are underway in the area of coloring agents. Even packaging is becoming more natural.

“There is stuff today that just didn’t exist a decade ago,” Vlahakis says. “There are now bottles made from corn. Those bottles can only hold water right now, but soon you’ll be able to use them for household cleaning products. There are also manufacturers who have stepped up and created corn-based surfactants.”

All of these innovations are means to an end. Companies producing and using bio-based and oxygen products are all working toward the same goal: to make cleaning products safer for users and the environment.

“We are trying to make these products more benign for individual use,” Vlahakis explains.

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to SM.

Confronting Criticism Of Citrus, Soy And Oxygen Cleaners
An oft-cited criticism of citrus, soy and oxygen cleaners is that the chemicals don’t work as well as traditional products. Concerns about efficacy of modern “natural” products are unfounded, according to manufacturers of these bio-based and oxygen cleaners.

In the past, however, there was some truth to the notion that these products didn’t work well. In the early days, some companies rushed ineffective products to market or simply mislabeled ordinary cleaners as containing oxygen, citrus and soy.

“It wasn’t a misconception — it was reality that the products didn’t work,” John Vlahakis, president of Venus Laboratories, Woodale, Ill., says. “Over the years we’ve struggled to get people’s perceptions to change.”

Although these products have improved since their inception, many people still believe they don’t work. This may be because of a previous bad experience with a product — whether the cleaner they used was poorly made or because they used it incorrectly.

Sometimes, natural cleaners have to be applied differently than traditional cleaners. For example, a soy-based stainless steel cleaner works differently than a water-based butyl cleaner. A little of the soy product goes a long way and it leaves a fine film or residue by design to last longer and be fingerprint resistant.

“If the user does not know that, and applies it too thick, they may not be pleased with the greasy film it leaves,” says Randy Frees, president and CEO of Soy Technologies, Nicholasville, Ky.

The intended use of these cleaners must also be considered before use. “Though [bio-based and oxygen] products have their niche, they are not a panacea solution for all cleaning issues,” Steve Doyen, vice president of marketing and sales services for Amrep Inc., Marietta, Ga., says. “End-users must use discretion in selecting appropriate chemistries for the task at hand.”

Some consumers may be reluctant to give up their long-standing prejudices against bio-based and oxygen products. The best way to change their minds is through product demonstration.

“We have witnessed, time and time again, that seeing is believing," says Patrick Stewart, president and CEO is EnvirOx, Danville, Ill.

— B.M.