Whoever decided that household cleaning ads should almost exclusively feature women has never met my husband, Dave.

A self-professed neat freak, he stands as the perfect foil to antiquated gender norms and my own sloppiness. I cook dinner; he cleans the dishes. I convince him (and sometimes myself) to hit the gym; he does the laundry. As a partner, I really lucked out. Dave actually looks forward to “spring cleaning.” I think it’s a Hallmark holiday designed by the home goods industry to sell acrid-smelling cleaning products we don’t need.

But this year, as we’re slowly starting to thaw out from winter, I started thinking of ways my husband and I could combine our strengths for a better spring cleaning season (if there is such a thing).

Of course, he likes to do the actual cleaning. On the other hand, I like to find ways to make our home more sustainable. More importantly, I like using my husband as a human lab rat.

And so Operation: Green Clean was born. The mission: incorporate more eco-friendly products and practices into our cleaning routine, and by that I mean his cleaning routine.

In our first test, Dave and I swapped our usual cleaning products with “greener” store-bought alternatives. We wanted to find cleaners that got the job done with plant-based chemicals, and without breaking our existing budget. Dave said he had tried this before, but without much success.

Dave: At some point, maybe five years ago, I accidentally purchased a green product; it was a glass cleaner. I don’t remember what I paid for it, but I used it a few times and it was horrible. It just didn’t do the job. It left streaks everywhere; it didn’t seem to clean; it left film. I remember thinking from that, “OK, maybe it was safer for the environment. But if it doesn’t actually clean at the level most people expect, how is that helping the market at all?”

Me: I love you more than anything, but do you really think you clean at the level most people expect?

Dave: I don’t even think I’m at the top of that scale. I don’t think everything has to be spotless. There are a lot of people out there—like your mother—who want a certain level of cleanliness.

Me: Touché.

In the end, Dave and I settled on three products.

  • Homesolv’s CitraSuds Natural Laundry Detergent ($8.99): On the outside, the container is made with less plastic packaging. The detergent itself is made of plant-based soaps and has no phosphates, EDTA, NTA or chlorine bleach. It’s also not tested on animals and is “vegan,” although I’m still not sure how a cleaning product wouldn’t be vegan in the first place.
  • Seventh Generation’s Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner ($3.99 on sale): The bottle is recyclable and made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. Seventh Generation has teamed up with the CleanWell Company to create a patented, sustainable disinfecting agent made from thyme oil. Continuing the disturbing trend of making cleaning products sound like food, this bathroom cleaner is “gluten-free.” Was Dave cleaning the house with liquefied chicken nuggets prior to Operation: Green Clean? I’m concerned.
  • Bright Green’s Disinfecting All-Purpose Cleaner ($3.49): This dye-free cleaner contains biodegradable surfactants, or surface active agents, which break down quickly into by-products found in nature.
IMG_6392 Our 3 competitors | Photo: Stephanie Levy

In all, these products costs a dollar or two more than the cleaners Dave usually buys, and we’re admittedly privileged enough to be able to absorb that additional cost. But would they be worth the money?

Round 1: Kitchen Grime v. Bright Green Disinfecting All-Purpose Cleaner

Dave started in the kitchen with the Bright Green’s Disinfecting All-Purpose Cleaner, and almost immediately questioned that choice. To be blunt, it smelled funky. I never knew something could smell warm, but the “lemon” scent of the cleaner hit my nose like a vodka soda that had been left outside for hours on a hot summer day. Dave was more diplomatic, simply saying “it smells different than what I usually use,” and scrunching his nose.

Despite the scent, the cleaner did a great job of getting rid of the grime in the kitchen, most of which I caused while trying a new stir-fry recipe the night before (Side note: it was delicious). Dave used the cleaner on the stovetop, the granite counters and the floor; it didn’t leave streaks on any of these surfaces. If you’re willing to spray, wipe and run the hell away from the fumes for a few minutes, Bright Green’s Disinfecting All-Purpose Cleaner will leave you with a pretty clean space.

Round 2: Dirty Laundry v. Homesolv CitraSuds Natural Laundry Detergent

Next up: laundry. To my surprise, Dave said he liked the “Valencia orange” scent of Homesolv’s CitraSuds Natural Laundry Detergent. You see, Valencia oranges hail from California. Dave’s from Florida, and he has actually launched into speeches at the grocery store about why oranges from the Sunshine State are superior to those from California; apparently, they have more juice and less flesh. But for the purposes of Operation: Green Clean, I’m glad he made an exception.

It took a little less than half a cap-full of detergent to clean one large load of towels. By the time they had been washed and dried, the towels were fluffy as ever and had retained their cream color. Plus, the “Valencia orange” scent had almost completely dissipated, which I liked; while the smell of the detergent itself was pleasant enough, I’m personally not a huge fan of perfume-y smelling clothes and linens.

In fact, the CitraSuds Natural Laundry Detergent worked so well that I ended up doing a load of laundry by myself (gasp!) while Dave was out of town last weekend. You don’t get a much better endorsement than that.

Round 3: Bathroom Scum v. Seventh Generation Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner

Dave saved the toughest job for last. Even with his neat streak, our bathroom sometimes gets overlooked. Not anymore, thanks to Operation: Green Clean’s test of the Seventh Generation Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner. The cleaner smelled like vinegar, even though thyme oil is supposed to be the main cleaning agent. Still, the fumes weren’t nearly as intense as the ones from the bathroom cleaner Dave usually uses; even when he has a fan on, he still gets light-headed.

The smell of the bathroom cleaner wasn’t as intense, but according to Dave, neither was its effectiveness. Seventh Generation Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner did a good job of getting rid of all of the surface grime around the edges of the tub, but some of the water streaks on the floor wouldn’t come up, even after scrubbing with a sponge.

Dave: If it’s a really dirty tub or sink, it doesn’t look like [Seventh Generation]’s strong enough to do it.

Me: How much of it do you think is the fact that we* need to clean more often, and how much of it is the product itself?

Dave: How often we clean is irrelevant. If it’s a bathroom cleaner, it should be able to clean no matter what.

(*Let the record show that I am willing to make this a “we clean” project if it will truly get the job done, and if we can get the job done with a more environmentally-friendly product)

In the end, Dave says Operation: Green Clean has challenged his assumption that “green” household cleaners aren’t as effective as other products with harsher chemicals—at least, for the most part. And with some financial finesse (coupons and grocery store loyalty cards), it’s surprisingly easy to find sustainable cleaning products at sustainable price points. Of all the products tested, the laundry detergent was the pretty clear winner for the environment and our wallets. Maybe Dave is warming up to California oranges after all.

Stephanie Levy is a writer, editor, and web producer living in the D.C. area. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has covered everything from education policy to dumpster-diving for beer (seriously).