In an ideal world, dishes would magically wash themselves and toilets would sparkle with every flush. Unfortunately, our homes are not self-cleaning. Even more troubling? Many cleaning products do more harm than good. Household chemicals have been linked to asthma and developmental problems in children, in part because “the chemicals can linger in the air or settle into textiles, creating a quiet and continuous risk,” says Christopher Gavigan, CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World, a nonprofit education organization for parents.

No doubt you should use toxin-free cleaners. But exactly what should you look for on a label? Manufacturers are not required to disclose ingredients, notes Robin Kay Levine, founder of Eco-Me, which offers kits and recipes for make-it-yourself safe cleaners. Instead, companies use vague terms like “surfactant,” “washing soda,” or “brightener.” Therefore, it's better to look at what labels say they don't contain. You don't want bleach or phosphates (they cause harmful algal blooms in waterways and steal oxygen from aquatic life). Avoid dyes and perfumes, which can irritate skin and are often used to mask the smell of harmful chemicals. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, also hides in several products under different chemical names. And if the label says, “Do not use with chlorine bleach,” then the product probably contains ammonia, a gas that causes respiratory problems.

To help you sort through the jargon, we researched the ingredients of dozens of natural products using the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database. Then, three families put the most natural household cleaners to the test. These choices stood out as the safest and most effective.

Green cleaners that work
Laundry detergent Top Pick
Seventh Generation Free & Clear Natural Laundry 2X Concentrate
Made short work of dirt, grass, and food-based stains. All ingredients are disclosed and include plant-based cleaning agents, borax (a natural mineral compound that cleans and brightens), and enzymes, which act as natural solvents, breaking down and dissolving proteins.
  Runner Up
Mountain Green Free & Clear 3X concentrated
No toxic ingredients or petroleum and fully biodegradable; dissolved most common dirt and food stains in our test.
Stain remover Top Pick
BioKleen Bac-Out Stain & Odor Eliminator
This enzyme cleaner was the only product tested that effectively removed blueberry stains, blood, and ground-in dirt. Spray cloth diapers with Bac-Out before washing to eliminate odors.
  Runner Up
Earth Friendly Products OXO Bright
Add this sodium carbonate-hydrogen peroxide powder to your normal wash for extra brightening and stain removal, or dilute and apply directly to stains (directions on container). An overnight soak removed mud stains from a white towel.
Dishwasher detergent Top Pick
Earth Friendly Products Wave 2X-Ultra High Performance Auto Dishwasher Gel
The hands-down favorite; it rinsed clean and didn't emit any fumes during the drying cycle. One tester said she hardly noticed a difference in results when she switched from Cascade Ultra gel to this natural, chlorine-free alternative.
  Runner Up
Shaklee Dish Wash Automatic Concentrate
Just 2 teaspoons of this enzyme-activated powder was enough to wash a dinner party's worth of dishes in one load. It rinsed fairly clean and removed all but the toughest dried-on food.
Liquid dish soap Top Pick
Eco-Products Apple Orchard Natural Dishwashing Liquid
This product contains soap derived from coconut and palm-kernel oils, aloe, water-soluble degreaser, and apple extract. A dime-size squirt cleaned a sink full of dishes, yet it's gentle enough to use as hand soap, too.
  Runner Up
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day
This biodegradable, phosphate-free soap is effective on greasy dishes. Its fragrance is strong but derived from natural essential oils.
Toilet cleaner Top Pick
Ecover Toilet Bowl Cleaner
Like conventional toilet cleaners, it coats the bowl and dissolves gunk so you end up scrubbing less. Unlike conventional cleaners, its plant-based ingredients don't emit lingering fumes.
  Runner Up
Bon Ami Polishing Cleanser
This time-tested calcium carbonate powder polishes porcelain without leaving any fumes or residue. Some elbow grease required. To disinfect, pour undiluted vinegar around the inside rim.
All-purpose cleaner Top Pick
Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
This nontoxic, biodegradable cleaner and degreaser quickly dissolved countertop stains and didn't leave a residue. Some all-purpose cleaners' fragrance can be overpowering, but this one's natural sassafras scent was unobtrusive to most testers.
  Runner Up
Earth Friendly Products Orange Plus surface cleaner
Citrus is an effective degreaser and antibacterial agent. This product's natural orange fragrance is mild and pleasant.
Window cleaner Top Pick
Ecover Glass & Surface Cleaner
Testers were impressed by the streak-free qualities of this ammonia-free cleaner. At first it appears to leave a slight film, but it dries crystal clear.
  Runner Up
White vinegar and water
Vinegar kills mold and bacteria, absorbs odor, and scours without being abrasive. In tests, a solution of one part vinegar to two parts water performed as well as most conventional glass cleaners, though it requires a little more elbow grease.