How to kill germs without killing the planet
By Julie Holt Lucia
Studio owners and dance teachers far and wide know them well. They reside in the little sticky handprints—reaching no taller than two or three feet—that seem to cover our studios entirely: floors, mirrors, props, chairs, doors, windows.
They’re there when the ’tweens and teens in the middle of rond de jambes instinctively grab the barres after a hearty sneeze or nose swipe. Still more multiply as dirty dance shoes and bare feet pound out jazz walks and prances across our dance floors, and sweaty arms and legs stretch out on the floor at the end of class. They lurk in the lobby seats and on the floors, where a day’s worth of antsy parents and siblings leave traces of coughs or spills.
And we teachers aren’t exempt: Office spaces are notorious germ-breeding grounds, from the computer keyboard and phone to the mini-fridge and microwave.
With a Lysol spray bottle in one hand and a Clorox wipe in the other, we diligently clean our studios to keep these germs at bay. But are we going about it the right way? Is there a way to disinfect without worrying about the next child who licks the doorknob ingesting trace amounts of dimethyl benzyl ammonium saccharinate? Is there a way to achieve a sparkling mirror without casting a spray of diluted ammonia in the air for all to inhale? Is there perhaps a more effective, more Earth-conscious—dare we say, more economical—way to keep things clean and safe? According to “green” cleaning enthusiasts, the answer is a calming, lavender-scented yes.
While we’re not required to hug trees or go vegan, proponents of the green cleaning movement cite the planet as a top concern for changing the way we clean. Keeping our bodies healthy is another. And saving money is just the tip of the fast-melting iceberg. Did you know, for example, that some of the best green cleaners are some of the most basic, least expensive kitchen staples—vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice? Others are more affordable in bulk, such as tea tree oil (a natural antibacterial and disinfecting agent) and castile soap (a non-detergent, plant-based soap). Cleaning green not only helps the environment, your health, and your pocketbook, it’s actually simple.
Vanessa Tanner, founder and president of Welcome Home Maids, a green cleaning service in Atlanta, Georgia, says that the easiest way to transition your cleaning is to first transition your thinking.
Cleaning green not only helps the environment, your health, and your pocketbook, it’s actually simple.
“Green cleaning, by definition, means that we’re trying to protect our health and the Earth by using eco-friendly products,” says Tanner. “Although the EPA and FDA provide guidelines to limit our exposure to hazardous chemicals through consumer products and foods, it’s really up to us to make sound decisions—based on facts, cost, and experience—that will keep us healthy. When you really think about it, you have to flip the question around and ask yourself, ‘Why wouldn’t I clean green?’ ”
Hazards of commercial cleaners
Tanner explains the slippery slope of using synthetic chemical-based cleaners, such as Lysol, Clorox, and Windex brands—and typically any product with a label that reads Warning, Caution, Poison, or Danger.
“Most products like these have fumes that can aggravate asthma and allergies in children and adults and can cause further skin or mucous membrane irritation upon contact. Think about when you use a harsh chemical like chlorine bleach and it makes your eyes water, or it stings your nose. These are the same types of chemicals that are toxic if ingested, and possibly toxic when they are rinsed into our local water supply.
“Long-term toxicity with repeated use is also a concern—including hormonal disruption in children,” continues Tanner. “Most of us use these cleaners because we don’t want to take risks with germs, but ultimately we may be taking more of a risk than we would if we used naturally based cleaning products.”
Natural is safer
It’s important to note that cleaning green doesn’t necessarily mean the products are meant to be ingested, inhaled, or otherwise used beyond their intended purpose. What it does mean is that the products are safer, more tolerable cleaning choices for humans and animals, and they leave smaller carbon footprints on the environment.
Borax, for example, is a popular mineral-based cleaning agent that can be included in a wide variety of homemade cleaners, including clothes-washing detergents, deodorizers, and mildew removers. Still, its directions indicate use in small doses. Eco-friendly brands of cleaners also usually state that their products are only to be used “as directed,” even given their ingredients’ history of safety. Borax, vinegar, baking soda, and plant-based soaps are much greener, healthier choices than many other products, but like all cleaners they should be handled with care.
How to get started
So what are the best ways to proceed with green cleaning at your studio? Start with inexpensive homemade formulas or eco-friendly store-bought products, such as Mrs. Meyer’s or Seventh Generation brands. To be extra green, you can use cotton cloths or mopheads on surfaces and avoid overusing paper towels. Sturdy microfiber cloths are another good choice, since they can be washed and reused and are gentle on surfaces. Natural cellulose sponges are also effective on spots that need a bit more elbow grease.
Tackling areas such as the bathrooms, lobby, and office is fairly straightforward: A baking-soda–based paste is one of the best ways to scrub away pesky stains in sinks, toilets, bathroom fixtures, and other nonporous surfaces, while a vinegar-based all-purpose solution makes an excellent disinfectant for nearly all surfaces.
If using vinegar everywhere seems a bit—let’s say this nicely—pungent, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to the mix. (Orange, eucalyptus, and lavender are popular choices and available at most natural food stores.) Effective window and mirror cleaners can also be made using a solution of water, vinegar, and plant-based soap.
Most of these products can be mixed ahead of time and stored just like their synthetic chemical counterparts; however it’s also easy to keep the ingredients in a plastic tub with a cheat sheet and mix what you need as you go along.
Handle with care
Apart from the usual cleaning zones, a few areas in dance studios need special consideration. One of them is our dance floors, since most of us aren’t willing to take chances with such an expensive investment. Floor manufacturers, such as Harlequin and Stagestep, typically recommend using floor cleaners with a neutral pH, especially with vinyl marley-type floors. A neutral pH means the cleaner is in the mid-range between acidic and alkaline, and fortunately for our green cleaning efforts, a neutral pH usually means a gentler product with less sudsing and little-to-no residue. (One eco-friendly product is Zep Green Link Neutral Floor Cleaner.) If you have particular concerns about your floor, contact the manufacturer directly about the products they recommend and ask about green alternatives.
Another cleaning challenge can be classroom ballet barres, probably the fixtures with the highest microbe potential, especially given our tendency to forget about them as a prime source for germs.
Barres that are steel, aluminum, or wood finished with a glossy seal can typically withstand a rubdown from a washcloth soaked with an all-purpose cleaner. Alternatively, you could use a surface wipe from one of the eco-friendly brands mentioned previously. Unfinished barres require more caution but can generally be cleaned with a barely damp washcloth, using water and a little vinegar (similar to how you might clean unfinished wood floors). While cleaning your ballet barres, you should be careful not to drip what you’re using onto the dance floors; if you do, wipe up spills immediately to avoid damage.
Everyday healthy practices
One of the easiest ways to keep your studio’s environment healthy is to do a quick, end-of-the-day clean sweep of everything—or at least as much as you can. It not only prevents the grimy buildup that can occur over a (short) time, it gives a fresh impression the next day. A washcloth dampened with an all-purpose cleaner or a surface wipe is perfect for swabbing door handles, light switches, faucets, and other frequently touched fixtures. (Also, if customers catch you in the act, they’ll be impressed!)
Encourage frequent handwashing, or at a minimum, hand sanitizing among your employees and dancers. Seek out hand soaps and sanitizers with plant-based ingredients, and avoid triclosan, an unnecessary antibacterial agent that may kill good bacteria (the kind that keeps us healthy) as well as bad. Be a good example to your customers and your employees by washing up between classes, coughing into your elbow instead of your hands, not touching your face, and keeping hand sanitizer available in the busiest parts of your studio.
Whether or not they notice, your customers will benefit from your attention to the green cleanliness of your studio and your consideration of their families’ overall health. To those who inquire (and let’s face it, some always do), you can assure them that not only are your eco-friendly cleaning standards sufficient for your studio and for their children, you are also doing your part to protect the planet. And that’s quite the global statement.
Green Cleaning Recipes
These are a few of the many variations of inexpensive, eco-friendly products you can make yourself. Recipes can vary slightly among green cleaning groups and proponents; the products here are used and recommended by Welcome Home Maids.
1 teaspoon borax
1 tablespoon castile soap
1/8 cup distilled white vinegar
2 cups hot water
5–10 drops of essential oil (optional)
Mix all the ingredients and pour into a spray bottle. Great for disinfecting most surfaces.
1/8 teaspoon liquid soap (such as castile or Ivory)
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 cups water
Mix all the ingredients and pour into a spray bottle. Shake it up a bit and use as you would a commercial brand. Safe for mirrors.
Creamy Soft Scrub
½ cup baking soda
Liquid soap (such as castile or Ivory)
Pour about 1/2 cup of baking soda into a bowl and add enough liquid soap to make a frosting-like texture. Scoop the mixture onto a sponge, or make more for bigger jobs. Good for bathroom fixtures, and it doesn’t leave grit behind.
Note: Add 1 teaspoon of vegetable glycerin to the mixture and store in a sealed glass jar, to keep the product moist. Otherwise just make as much as you need at a time.
Interested in learning more about cleaning green and living the green life? Here are some excellent books and websites to explore.
Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe & Healthy, Non-Toxic Cleaning
by Jeffrey Hollender, Geoff Davis, and Meika Hollender
Green Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck
Vinegar: Over 400 Various Versatile, & Very Good Uses You’ve Probably Never Thought Of by Vicky Lansky