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It’s finally spring, and we all know what that means: Time to break out all the cleaners. The no-brainer approach is to spray, spritz or rub any number of common cleaning products onto a home’s walls, windows and floors, wipe them off and – poof – instant shine.

Unfortunately, dusting and degreasing a living space might not be so simple. According to a recent study from consumer advocacy group Choice, many of the most popular cleaning solutions, including options from Pledge and Ajax, performed no better than plain tap water.

It’s not that water is such a great disinfectant, it’s more that common cleaners don’t necessarily do a lot. Choice’s method was to cover ceramic tiles in grime, then use mechanical scrubbers to see which products removed the most detritus within 40 scrubs (which, let’s be honest, is probably more elbow work than most people put in). Water got 40 per cent of the filth off, the same as Pledge’s Clean It multisurface spray and more than the Ajax floor cleanser.

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The thought of spending money on pointless products is distressing enough. What’s worse: The sad fact that many of these cleaners are also filled with toxic chemicals, which are scary enough on their own (hence the skulls and cross bones on the packaging) but much worse when combined. For example, even small amounts of vinegar mixed with bleach will produce throat choking chlorine gas. According to the American Lung Association, fragrances in air fresheners can form carcinogenic formaldehyde when they common in contact with ozone.

Perhaps surprisingly, Choice does not endorse ecocleaners as an alternative. “Generally what we find with ecoproducts [is] they tend to be quite expensive and they tend not to work as well as the ones full of heavy chemicals,” Choice representative Ashley Iredale told the Guardian newspaper right after the study came out. “It pays to do your research because quite often you’re spending a lot of money for something that doesn’t actually do anything.”

Canadian sustainability advocate Candice Batista, the national eco expert for the Marilyn Denis Show, agrees that research is required to find effective, non-toxic alternatives. Apps such as Think Dirty, the GoodGuide and the EWG Database offer consumers information on specific brands, their ingredients and their claims, she says. “When shopping, it’s also important to learn to read labels. Most products that contain the word ‘fragrance’ are not green, so avoid them. If a product claims to be biodegradable, there must be an official biodegradability designation. It will look something like this: OECD 301 D.”

Batista also recommends a less is more approach. “We don’t need as many cleaners as we think do and we tend to overuse most of them,” she says. “We’ve become obsessed with killing germs and thinking that if the house smells like bleach it must be clean. This is not the case at all.”

For die-hard DIYers, she recommends making a good all-purpose cleaner from a simple solution of 2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 teaspoon liquid Castile soap and 11/2 cups water. “I use this on the stove and kitchen and bathroom sinks,” she says. “You can add some essential oils if you like, for a scent.”

For everyone else, here are Batista’s five favourite ecocleaners that actually do their job.

Disinfecting Spray Cleaner: Seventh Generation Disinfecting

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California-based Seventh Generation makes one of the few disinfectants that’s also food safe. Because the ingredients are all naturally derived, including coconut extract, lemongrass oil and a cornstarch-based water softener, it not only smells fresh, but isn’t toxic – reassuring for parents worried about leaving traces on a kitchen counters or tables. $4, seventhgeneration.com

Multisurface Cleaner: Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds

Sal Suds certified biodegradable multipurpose cleaner has a scent similar to many piney soaps. But the aroma comes from natural fir and spruce extracts, not synthetic fragrances. It’s also easy on the skin (if a bit drying if left on too long), while being useful for a number of cleaning jobs, including dishes, laundry, windows (no streaks), even make-up brushes (it’s certified cruelty-free by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics and shouldn’t hurt the eyes). $10, shop.drbronner.com

Scouring Powder: Bon Ami

For 134 years, Bon Ami has been making a scouring powder – an abrasive scrub that gets grime out of the cracks between tiles, off grubby tubs or off gross cookware. Their recipe is simple and includes only five all-natural ingredients such baking soda and crushed limestone. $3, bonami.com

Dishwashing tablets: Ecover Automatic

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Ecover’s plant-based, scent-and-phosphate-free, biodegradable cleaning tablets have been proven in independent testing to remove just about every kind of food remnant, including peanut butter, baked-on cheese and burnt soup remnants. Bonus: The packaging is recyclable, making it more sustainable than alternatives packed in single-use plastics. $7.80, well.ca.

Stain Remover: Nellie’s Wow Stick

For taking caring of spots on clothes and upholstery fabric, Nellie’s Wow Stick is an ecoalternative to other stain-removing sticks and pens. Instead of a list of ingredients that reads like a chemistry experiment, it’s composed of biodegradable, natural elements such as orange peel oil, glycerin and palm kernel extract. $11, nelliesclean.ca

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