Green Secrets for a Clean Boat

Green Secrets for a Clean Boat

By: Environmental

Written By: Tyson Bottenus, Sustainability Director, Sailors for the Sea

How you clean your boat makes an impact on the marine environment. So what should you look for in a boat soap? Are all boat soaps made equally? When they come with the label “nontoxic,” what does that really mean?

We asked boat cleaning experts how they clean their boats and their advice might surprise you. Overall, each person has his own opinion how to best clean a boat, but when it comes to accomplishing the job without creating a Superfund site , here are a few universal truths.

Truth: Use Less, Clean More

A trip to your local nautical supplies store will make you aware of the multitude of different boat soaps available on the market. What’s the best? What’s the worst? How much should you use?

A few years ago, the BoatUS Foundation conducted a study of 20 so-called green boat soaps on the market to evaluate their effectiveness, and among the findings was that using more than the recommended amount of a product did not make a boat any cleaner.

If you’re cleaning your boat with lots of soap and not diluting it like you’re supposed to [a capful or two per bucket], and then rinsing it all off into the water,” says Susan Shingledecker of BoatUS, “it doesn’t matter if you’re using the greenest boat soap out there because you’ll have more of an impact than the person who’s working with a really toxic product but wiping it off with a rag.

Jeff Beane, a professional yacht broker and boat detailer from Maryland, adds that having a high-quality wax protectant is one of the most important aspects of keeping a boat clean.

After we wax a boat, we recommend not using any soap for the first two weeks to allow the protectant to bond to the surface,” says Beane, who has also created a full line of phosphate-free boat care products called Smoove. “Once you have a good wax protectant, you should have a very easy cleanup. And not using any soap will also prolong the life of the protectant.

Lie: If It’s Not Green, It Won’t Clean

The only thing ‘green’ about boating is the mildew!” jokes Natalie Sears from Deckhand Detailing in Seattle, Washington. Sears’s company in Lake Union has to be careful, she says, because of groups such as the Clean Marina organization, which place restrictions on which soaps can be used in in certain harbors.

If a boat is already fairly clean, meaning the owner has kept it up, or they hired a detailing company to keep it up on a regular basis every week or two, you could effectively use vinegar, baking soda, stuff like that to keep the boat clean,” Sears says. “Unfortunately most boat owners don’t keep up with their boats.

Susan Shingledecker reminds boaters to beware of products that carry instructions such as “wear gloves when handling,” as it goes without saying that any substance hazardous to your health is also hazardous to creatures that live under your hull.

If the product says to use gloves, the company is required to put that information on the label,” she says. “The dilution of these products does reduce the impact it has on the environment as well. If the product isn’t correctly diluted, you can really foul your waterway.

Green Secrets for a Clean Boat

Lie: Biodegradable Products Are all the Same

Technically speaking, boat soap isn’t soap at all. At first, soap was made from natural products like animal fat and wood ash. But today, what we call soap is actually detergent. Instead of natural ingredients, detergents contain a mixture of synthetic chemicals, including a special type known as surfactants.

Surfactants, in a nutshell, make things wetter. They help water spread over surfaces and seep into places where dirt and grime exist. They also help water grab hold of dirt and grease, break it up, and wash it away.

But the surfactants that make boat soaps so effective also impact fish by attaching to the natural oils in their mucus membranes while also preventing their gills from functioning properly. Most boat soaps are labeled as biodegradable, but this term is suspect when it comes to marine-grade products.

To be considered biodegradable, a product must have the ability to break down and return to nature within a “reasonably short period of time,” according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guide. What does this really mean?

What we found when we analyzed these terms,” says Shingledecker of BoatUS, “was that it assumed these soaps would be washed down the drain and go through standard wastewater treatment. Your standard wastewater treatment would break these chemicals down. But as we know with boat soaps, this just isn’t going to happen.”

So buyer beware: If you happen to wash your boat in the bath tub, your biodegradable boat soap might break down. But if your boat is in a marina, with a marine ecosystem under your hull, the timeline for when your product is going to break down into its natural elements might be longer than you think.

In BoatUS’s report on green cleaners, test results showed that some boat soaps labeled biodegradable hardly degraded at all after four weeks.

Truth: Design for the Environment

One bright spot the BoatUS Foundation did note was the appearance of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment logo on many boat soaps. Makers of boat soaps, or any other product that one wishes to carry this eco-label, must meet standards and criteria set forth by the EPA.

I think that the EPA’s Design for the Environment program is trying to make a step in the right direction,” says Shingledecker. Instead of vetting individual products over another, Design for the Environment looks at the chemicals each product contains to make sure that they are the least harmful of that type on the market. In this way, Design for the Environment is changing the standards by which companies choose chemicals for their products. For instance, a company that chooses a surfactant that kills oysters in its boat soap won’t qualify for a Design for the Environment logo because cleaner, safer alternatives already exist.

However, Shingledecker noted, not every product has the marketing power to apply for an eco-logo from the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s not as if the EPA is proactively going after these boat soaps,” says Shingledecker. “One of our top soaps we tested was one of the least toxic and most effective products, but they were a small brand and hard to find. So the EPA logo helps, and it’s based on some science, but it’s not complete. The results still ranged with products that did have the label.

At the end of the day, Shingledecker says, “product labeling is still very murky and unfortunately you can’t trust what you read on the label. All you can do is try and read labels to make as educated a decision as best as you can.

Cleaning Tips

  • Keeping your boat rinsed regularly will prevent the need to use boat soap, saving the environment and saving you time and money.
  • Using a protective boat wax will decrease the chances of dirt and grease becoming stuck to your boat. Less harsh ingredients (such as baking soda and vinegar) will prolong the life of your boat wax.
  • More toxic cleaning sprays are better for the environment if you perform spot checks with them and minimize runoff by using a towel or rag.
  • Follow all dilution instructions. More soap does not mean more clean.
  • When possible, remove the boat from the water and clean where debris can be captured and properly disposed of.
  • Look for the EPA Design for the Environment logo to see how the ingredients in your boat soap stack up.

Green Secrets for a Clean Boat

Alternatives to Toxic Products

Products Options
general cleaner Mix baking soda and vinegar, or combine lemon juice with borax to make a paste.
bleach hydrogen peroxide
scouring powder baking soda or salt
floor cleaner Mix one cup white vinegar in two gallons water.
window cleaner Pour one cup white vinegar in one quart warm water; rinse and squeegee.
varnish cleaner Wipe with ½ cup vinegar and ½ cup water solution.
head cleaner Pour in baking soda and scrub with a brush.
shower cleaner Wet surface, sprinkle baking soda, rub with scouring cloth.
aluminum cleaner Dissolve two tablespoons cream of tartar in one quart hot water.
chrome cleaner/polish Use apple cider vinegar to clean; baby oil to polish.
fiberglass stain remover Clean with baking soda paste.
drain opener Disassemble and replace; do not use toxic substances.
mildew remover Mix a paste using equal parts of lemon juice and salt.
wood polish Mix three parts olive oil with 1 part white vinegar.

Take Action

  • Learn more on the many different ways to protect the ocean while boating with the Sailors for the Sea Clean Boating Guide at
  • Read the ingredients listings. Reading labels of products will help you understand their toxicity. Beware of labels that state “all natural” and scrutinize.
  • Make you own cleaning products; they work well, cut costs and protect the environment.

This article first appeared in the 2015 spring issue of Power Cruising.