Massachusetts Mom’s Green Cleaning Crusade Goes National

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
Leslie Reichert

Her mission has led to books, a weekly radio show, her own TV show, a magazine, podcasts, and numerous appearances on national media, such as The Dr. Oz Show and Martha Stewart Living Radio. Her fight against good intentions and bad chemicals began more than 20 years ago, a time when Reichert owned a large home cleaning service that used the toxic products she’s now urging people to abandon.

Pregnant with her second child and also cleaning homes, Reichert came down with a mid-winter case of poison ivy on her legs — and no idea how she got it. After her daughter was born, Reichert was diagnosed with pneumonia. She went to her doctor, who believed her immune system was compromised, noting that she could have had poison ivy in her system, but a healthy immune system would have been able to fight a breakout.

Reichert attributed the problem to the heavy-duty cleansers she was using in clients’ homes. They were powerful, and they worked, but at a price. “You could always feel it,” she says. “It was in your throat, in your eyes. We figured out that that broke down my immune system.”

That left Reichert to research alternative cleaning products. At the same time, she stumbled across some valuable family history: “I found the recipe to my great-grandmother’s laundry soap in her Bible.”

Families kept their most valuable records in the good book, and if a 100-year-old laundry soap recipe sounds out of place, remember the time period. In previous generations, clothes were handmade, expensive, and needed to last. When they were washed, they were extremely dirty because they were washed less frequently than today.

“I found the ingredients [soap flakes, baking soda, washing soda, and Borax] and made it. I used it, and it ended up working really, really well,” she says. “And I thought: If that works, I wonder if those other old-fashioned recipes work?

This discovery unexpectedly led Reichert, a native of Western Pennsylvania, back to familiar territory: chemistry. Though she graduated college with a degree in political science, she was a chemical engineering major for three of her four years in school.

“I set up a science project in my kitchen,” recalls the mother of three. “White vinegar is a natural acid, baking soda is a natural base, and salt is a natural scrub and a lifter. I started doing the research behind those old-fashioned recipes.”

And they worked. These retro recipes, using materials found in most kitchen pantries, cleaned and disinfected — toxin- and chemical-free — throughout the house, leading Reichert in the late 1990s to write a green cleaning “cookbook” featuring 101 DIY cleaning recipes,The Joy of Green Cleaning.

Spreading the word

By this time, Reichert had sold her cleaning business and was running a shop in Uxbridge selling vacuums and green cleaning products and tools she discovered through her research. Thanks to a burgeoning Internet that was giving small businesses big reach, she made contacts with other green cleaning businesses, mostly grassroots enthusiasts who were importing environmentally friendly products already well-known and used in Europe.

“That’s when I met the girls from Skoy,” Reichert says of the small, reusable cloth that’s the equivalent of 15 rolls of paper towels. “They were just two moms who came from Europe and wanted to bring what they used in Europe over here. e-cloth [a general purpose cleaning cloth that requires only water] came over from Sweden. All these little companies were trying to bring European products [into the U.S.]. They fought the fight to try and get people to stop using chemicals. Those guys were the pioneers.”

When running her shop, Reichert had an epiphany: “I’d spend all my days teaching people how to use things, not ‘Use this,’ but ‘Use this and this is how you do it.’ I ended up spending all this time teaching. I said, ‘I’m a coach,’” which gave way to her preferred title: Green Cleaning Coach.

“I found out there’s a whole generation of young people who don’t know how to clean; they were taught how to clean by TV commercials. It’s generational. My mom liked to clean, but she didn’t want anybody around when she did it. We were given chores, she would show us real quick, and it was, like, get it done and get out. My generation was the generation where we started hiring cleaning people. Nobody likes to clean, and part of the reason is they don’t know how.”

Reichert began giving public talks about green cleaning throughout Central Massachusetts at libraries and organizations. She gained the attention of Channel 5, who sent a crew out to do a story. Reichert still remembers one young mother who was interviewed, stating she didn’t know how to clean and confessed she was using Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner to clean her kitchen counters.

“When I saw her interview, I said, ‘That’s it. I can’t let people keep doing this; they’re going to end up like me and get sick.”

The rise of chemicals in the kitchen

Prior to World War II, Reichert says women were using inexpensive, non-toxic ingredients, such as baking soda, vinegar, water, and salt, to clean their homes. Yet when the U.S. entered the war, and in light of a water shortage in Europe, the government asked chemical companies to make cleaners to ship overseas to efficiently mass clean and disinfect guns, ships, and tanks. As the war ended, so did demand for chemical cleaners. Until, Reichert said, the companies decided to market their products, via radio and the exciting new medium of television, to American housewives, creating a lucrative new market that continues to thrive today.

“We teach children not to go under the sink because that’s where cleaning products are held. If they’re dangerous, why are we letting them near food?” Reichert asks.

And, in fact, if you use today’s products, the chemicals are everywhere you clean: floors, clothes, cabinets, coffee tables, countertops, sinks, showers, toilets, and more.

“Cleaning products affect us; you’re washing your clothes with it and you’re wearing it all day. If there’s something in there that’s leeching through your skin and your body doesn’t like it, that can create skin allergies and skin issues,” she notes.

Reichert argues that vigilance about the use of chemical cleaners — and, more importantly, what’s in them — should equal the rise in consumer consciousness regarding food and pesticides, and ideally mirror the growing popularity of organic food.

“You don’t know what’s in your cleaning products. They don’t have to tell you what’s in there. It’s not mandated like the food industry. [Chemical companies] have what’s called a proprietary item. If I tell you what’s in my cleaning product, you’ll just go out and copy me.” Companies, she says, state their ingredients are proprietary, so they don’t have to disclose them.

For example, she cautions people to be careful of the word “fragrance” found on the label of a cleaning product: “You can have something that says, ‘vinegar, baking soda, essential oils, and fragrance’, and that can hide all the other things that are in the product.”

Does green cleaning work?

Over the past 15 years, the rise of superbugs, viruses, and worried parents have led to canisters of disposable bleach-soaked wipes and ubiquitous hand sanitizer in most homes. Yet Reichert says inexpensive, everyday ingredients work just as well — and are far less dangerous to children, adults, and pets in the home.

She points to the recipe for her DIY all-purpose “Happy Hour Cleaner,” which was tested on The Dr. Oz Show in front of Oz and three other experts, including Shark Tank’s Lori Greiner. Reichert mixed vinegar, lemon juice, vodka, essential oil, and castile soap in a spray bottle and cleaned a dirty surface on national TV. Oz’s staff determined the surface had a germ level of 201 before cleaning. After being sprayed with Happy Hour Cleaner, the germ score dropped to 9. (You can watch the appearance and get the DIY recipe at here.

With the right ingredients and materials, Reichert says you can make windows crystal clear with just water, mop your floor without a bucket, and clean and sanitize your bathroom without harmful, toxic chemicals.

“The message is getting out there,” she adds, noting that Pinterest’s #1 category isn’t cooking or crafting, but DIY cleaning recipes.

And Reichert is doing a lot to help spread the gospel of clean, healthy homes. She’s closed her brick and mortar shop, essentially moving it online, spreading her expertise and enthusiasm far beyond that small store in Uxbridge. Now she shares news, how-tos, new product and cleaning discoveries, and more via her website; books (The Joy of Green Cleaning and The Joy of Green Cleaning for New Parents – a free ebook); a podcast and weekly radio show (Clean Green Talk); and an online magazine, Clean Green Living, in addition to an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Her TV show, Clean Green Living, can be found online, or in more than 130 public access markets across the country.

“I took it from local to state to national, just doing the same thing,” she says. “No one is telling anybody this. I never used to like talking in front of people. When you have a passion, you have a mission, and you have to get the word out, your fears go in the backseat. When I find good things, I want to share. When I find people doing good things, I want to share it.”

Which begs the question: Why not produce and market her own line of green cleaners?

“There’s not one cleaner that works for everybody,” she notes. “Some people have different sensitivities, different smells, different things they like — that’s why there’s hundreds of choices. I just want to help people find their right choice, not the one I would make money on.”

Instead, Reichert says she prefers to simply coach — part cheerleader, part teacher, part researcher: “That’s what I’m trying to do, to get someone to have that ah-ha moment: ‘The stuff that I’m using isn’t good for my kids? What can I do instead?’"

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