When Leah Troiano's young daughter was diagnosed first with a tumor and later with lung disease, the Havertown resident knew she had to make a change.
"I couldn't just stand by and do nothing. So I cleared my house of any toxic chemicals," said Troiano, 44, explaining it was an intuitive response rather than doctor's orders. "It was a coping mechanism, among other things."
She started with the items that had blatant warning labels, like paint and bug spray, but then decided the shampoo and deodorant also had to go. "Once I started clearing the house out, I cleared everything out." That included her laundry detergent, dish soap, and cleaning supplies.
Troiano began seeking nontoxic alternatives - but some were prohibitively expensive, and others didn't work. Eventually, she began making all her supplies herself.
Taking on the production of your own soap may sound like something for extreme-green cleaning types. But the approach is becoming more common among local residents more concerned with potential health impacts of household chemicals - like the asthma-causing compounds and bleach in many kitchen and bathroom cleaners or the formaldehyde in some laundry detergents.
Parents and pet owners in particular are enlisting new breeds of housecleaning companies that make their own products and ask clients to stock rags to eliminate paper waste. And they're banning fragrances and dyes from their homes as they rethink what "natural" and "nontoxic" really mean.
That's a significant change from a few years ago, when the green-cleaning-product industry was hit hard by the recession and by perceptions that "green" is really code for "overpriced."
Now, global spending on green cleaning supplies is projected to more than triple over five years, to $9.3 billion by 2017, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc. (That figure would still represent just 6 percent of the total market for household-cleaning products.)
Do-it-yourselfers like Troiano, who learned on YouTube how to make her own products, now have more resources: A new book, Homemade Cleaners: Quick and Easy, Toxic-Free Recipes (Ulysses Press), hits shelves in January. And those interested in going green have more, and more extreme, options than ever before.
Take, for example, My Holistic Home, a three-year-old Philadelphia cleaning service where an initial client visit includes not just a survey of areas to be cleaned, but also an interview about the clients' health conditions and overall wellness.
"The cleaning is just one part of the business," owner Ginger Kuczowicz said. "Do it holistically: That's our motto."
Kuczowicz, who also offers services such as steam disinfection and water-safety testing, makes all her cleaning supplies herself from base ingredients such as vinegar, water, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils.
At clients' request, she has developed more products, such as laundry detergent and dishwasher powder, and has begun packaging the items for sale. Her first retail location, called the Soap Box, in Queen Village, opens Friday, offering her handmade supplies, as well as her own car-detailing kits, lotions, and cosmetics.
The former nonprofit controller said she'd been making cleaning products for years before she decided to devote herself fully to spreading the all-natural gospel. "I realized that people often overdo cleaning, meaning they use chemicals that aren't necessary . . . People cleaned in the past, before chemical compounds. So I'm going back to basics."
Though making your own products isn't for everyone, consumers can check product labels for specific ingredients like formalin or quaternary ammonium compounds that bring special health concerns, said Johanna Congleton, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, which last year issued a "Guide to Healthy Cleaning."
Shoppers can also refer to that online guide for product ratings, or go to the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment website.
However, Congleton noted, plenty of information is still missing.
"There's no legal requirement for manufacturers to list the ingredients on the label," she said. "We're advocating for better disclosure. . . . A lot of products, you don't know what's in them, so you just can't assume that they're safe."
Given that uncertainty, Joshua Womer, who owns another Philly green-housecleaning service, Hygieia, came to the same conclusion as Kuczowicz: The only supplies his team needed were water, vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice - and lots of elbow grease.
Early on, Womer admitted, he thought technology might be the future of green cleaning.
"We found this machine that used a very small amount of water to scrub floors, and we thought, 'This is a much better alternative than using detergents, soaps, and buckets full of water.' " But a Honduran immigrant who works for Hygieia offered an even better innovation, passed down from her mother: a squeegee with a damp rag strapped onto it.
"We call it 'the rag on a stick,' " Womer said. "It is so much more effective than any mop and bucket, and it used no electricity and almost no water."
He admitted there's not an ideal green solution for every job: Stainless-steel cleaning and oven-cleaning options don't work as well as he'd like.
So, much like Troiano, he has found greening a never-ending task.
That impulse to go ever greener has not escaped the notice of natural-cleaning-supply companies like King of Prussia's 25-year-old Sun & Earth, according to director Andrew Clibanoff.
In recent years, he said, the company fielded an increasing number of requests for unscented, fragrance-free, and dye-free products - though it had never used artificial dyes or fragrances in the first place.
Nonetheless, it launched a line of unscented products two years ago and saw a bump in sales.
"People who are shopping in places like Whole Foods and co-ops, what they're expressing is a basic, across-the-board frustration with artificial fragrance, developments of multiple-sensitivity syndromes, skin disorders, asthma, and other complications," Clibanoff said. "It's at a different level now. People who feel, 'I need to be militant in my approach and I'm going to cut out all fragrances' - they're trying to take control of certain things."
In other words, though traumatic viewings of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth may have motivated green-cleaning customers of five or six years ago, today's shoppers may be more preoccupied with health concerns than environmentalist impulses, said Hassen Saker, owner of the seven-year-old Collingswood cleaning company Organic Home.
Saker said since the recession, her client demographic had shifted dramatically, away from avid environmentalists and toward affluent young families. (She charges $80 per hour for two cleaners, with discounts for regular customers.)
"The early adopters, they got it and understood the importance of voting with your dollars and using natural products and being environmentally friendly," said Saker, who, in addition to using natural products, advertises that she pays her cleaners a living wage, dispatches them on foot or by bike, and delivers fresh, organically grown flowers to all her clients.
"I don't think the next wave of people has been as concerned about that as they have about the health of their kids."
1 cup water
2 tablespoons white distilled vinegar
2 tablespoons castile soap
20 drops essential oil (mix and match thyme, tea tree, lemon, lavender,
1. Combine ingredients in an airtight container such as a canning jar.
2. Store in a cool, dark area
3. Shake well before use, and test in an inconspicuous area before using.
— From "Homemade Cleaners" by Dionna Ford and Mandy O'Brien
Courtesy: Ulysses Press