A Toxicologist Explains How Often You Really Need To Be Cleaning Your Home
There's no better feeling than deep-cleaning your home—and nothing more disappointing than watching it get dirty all over again one day later. It's one of the great tragedies of life that dust and grime pile up faster than you can say "all-natural air freshener," but thankfully we have Rhea Mehta, Ph.D., a toxicologist, to tell us where we can get the most bang for our proverbial cleaning buck.
According to Mehta, if you're looking to eliminate the most toxins from your home in the least amount of time, it matters less how you're cleaning and more where. I called up the molecular toxicologist and integrative health coach to snag her top cleaning tips, and this is the down and (not-so) dirty scoop.
There are some chemicals that you should be on the lookout for.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are the main category of chemicals that you want to avoid at home. The compounds—which have been associated with headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation1—are commonly found in products like paints, cleaning products, furniture, and textiles, which can "off-gas" or release irritants into the air over time.
While you probably won't feel the effect of said VOCs right away unless you have a chemical sensitivity, Mehta thinks the damage is more cumulative. "It's not right to say that inhaling one product is going to harm you—it's about the accumulation over time. It very much depends on your environment, your stress levels, and your genetics," she clarified. "There are many different factors at play, but certain chemicals could impact your hormonal pathway in the body—your sex hormones, sex hormone, sleep, metabolism—and contribute to fogginess and lack of clarity."
Benzene, ethylene, and xylene are a few common VOCs to look out for on cleaning labels and detergents. Avoid them by opting for these cleaners that score low in the Environmental Working Group's database for chemical toxicity, using eco-friendly detergent, and choosing low-VOC or VOC-free paint. Mehta also recommends air fresheners for clean-burning candles that aren't made using formaldehydes and giving up swapping chemical-laden fabric softeners and dryer sheets altogether.
Certain areas deserve a little extra elbow grease.
Once you've taken steps to tackle VOCs, it's time to scrub down the high-trafficked areas of your space. "Think through all the places you grab with your hands or touch with your feet," Mehta recommended. That means floors (especially if you allow shoes in your home!), countertops, and appliances, as well as less obvious spots like light switches, doorknobs, and fridge handles. You don't have to go crazy here—just take a cloth and some of those cleaners we mentioned (or make your own DIY version using essential oils and vinegar) and give these spots a quick wipe-down. You'll want to focus on areas that tend to accumulate dust too: the back of the fridge and stove, the screens of your electronics, etc. For dusting, Mehta recommends using a microfiber towel.
Oh, and always thoroughly dry certain areas in addition to washing them. "One thing people don't think about until it appears is mold. If you have potential flooding or water spilling anywhere in the home, that's where you really want to monitor." Mehta warned of places like sinks and washrooms.
So how often should you be cleaning your house?
So how many days (or weeks) can you get away with not cleaning? According to Mehta, it depends on your habits and sensitivities. "If you're practicing preventive measures every day: If you're ending your shower with a quick wipe or washing counters after every time you cook, you probably don't have to clean as much," she said. In that case, you can get away with one deep clean every three to four weeks. If you really don't do any upkeep daily, or you tend to be sensitive to dust or different allergens, you should probably aim for once every two weeks.
Dusting is a different story: "You'll want to dust on a weekly basis. Of course, if you live close to construction sites or highways, or you have a pet, you're probably bringing more pollution into your home, so you might want to think about dusting every three or four days."
Is there anywhere I can cut corners?
Good news—Mehta has a few tricks to help you get away with going longer between deep cleans. Namely, investing in an air-filtering plant for the rooms you spend the most time in (she loves bamboo, aloe, spider plants, and snake plants) and keeping your windows open a crack at night, even if you live in a city. This is an especially beneficial habit for the bedroom. "It's a good practice for cleaning the air," she explained. "It also helps the body sleep."
Another timesaver? Mix 15 to 20 drops of antimicrobial thieves' oil with water in a spray bottle and keep it by your bed. "Spray this on cloth areas like curtains, pillows, sheets, and mattress one or two times a week—but don't get the mattress too wet because that's a breeding ground for mold." This natural refresher will help you go longer between washings thanks to the antimicrobial properties of the oils.
So there you have it! You can't always anticipate what toxins you'll face in your day-to-day, but at least this expert-approved cleaning routine will help you breathe easier in the areas you can control.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.