Natural, homemade cleaning products. Old-fashioned? Maybe. Crunchy? Could be. Cost-saving as well as earth-, family-, and pet-friendly while producing results as effective as commercial cleaners? Absolutely. There exists a wealth of time-tested natural home cleaning recipes online and elsewhere, passed on from family to family, from friend to friend, because they are easy, economical, and they work. Most of them have in common very simple, affordable ingredients you may already have in your home.
As “being green” and concern for the environment and health increasingly influence the products we use, homemade cleaning formulas are a natural fit. While cleaning products marketed as “green” have become more widely available as consumers demand alternatives to conventional commercial cleaning products, they are often more expensive.
Also at issue are doubts of how “natural” or “green” some of them really are. This is sometimes referred to “greenwashing”––just because a product is labeled “green,” does not mean that it is necessarily environmentally-friendly.
Consumer Reports cautions, “In many cases, manufacturers can make claims that are neither independently verified nor regulated.” For instance, there is no standard definition to what “non-toxic” means, and, unless specified, there isn’t one organization verifying this claim. Manufacturers are also not required to list all of their ingredients, but they are required to carry a warning label if they contain known hazardous chemicals.
Consumer Reports says the best defense is to understand warning labels on cleaning products. The more serious the safety warning, the more serious the risks to your health and the environment. Products labeled “Warning” or “Caution,” for example, are less toxic than those labeled “Poison” or “Danger.”
Head spinning yet? The best defense against the chemical confusion and anxiety just might be natural, home-brewed cleaners, which keep things simple and put you at ease.
This is not to say there isn’t a bevy of products available that offer great alternatives to your standard household cleaner brands. Method, Shaklee, and Seventh Generation, to name a few, are among product lines I’ve used and been pleased with, and are worth a try. Tried-and-true favorites like Bar Keeper’s Friend cleanser and polish, and Bon Ami powder have been around for more than 100 years. I especially like Bon Ami for my porcelain sink in the kitchen––it gets all the stains out with minimal elbow grease and has never left a scratch.
Also worth a try are common household items you might already have or can buy for a fraction of the price of commercial cleaners. Some pack a powerful cleaning punch without the harsh chemicals. In the end, you might have a few favorite conventional cleaning products you just can’t do without. Breaking up with Mr. Clean or renouncing your pledge to Pledge might be out of the question. White vinegar
This incredible yet underrated item sits quietly in your pantry waiting to be noticed. Don’t let its sour-puss fool you––it has been a popular and versatile household cleanser for generations. From cutting grease and grime to removing mineral deposits in coffee makers, distilled white vinegar’s acidity makes it, among many of its hidden talents, an excellent bacteria and mold fighter as well as a deodorizer. I purchased a 16 fl. oz. bottle at my local grocery story for 85 cents. Some veteran vinegar fans recommend buying it by the gallon for greater cost savings.
Alison Haynes, author of “Clean House!” points out that ingredients in store-bought detergents, fabric softeners and soaps can cause allergic reactions and skin irritations. Some websites go even further, saying fabric softeners contain harmful substances, including one that is especially toxic when inhaled (who hasn’t inhaled the scent of fresh laundry?).
As an alternative to liquid fabric softener, I added a cup of white vinegar mixed with ½ cup of water (for even distribution), to the rinse cycle of a recent load of laundry, and I was impressed with the results. Don’t worry––I was hesitant about the possible smell at first too––after the rinse cycle alone the scent of vinegar was faint, and, after going through the dryer, any odor vanished completely.
I literally said “wow” after cleaning the mirror, sink, faucet and toilet in my bathroom with plain, undiluted white vinegar. Who knew? A spritz here and there and a quick wipe, and everything was sparkling. Acrid smell? Yes, but no worse than the ammonia smell of a regular glass cleaner, and it was gone within moments of wiping. No mystery blue or purple dyes. The vinegar also seemed to wipe off cleaner and more quickly than the two or three passes with a towel a regular cleaner might require. I employed a reuseable microfiber cleaning cloth in this case, but some swear by using newspaper for a streak-free shine.
This gem has found its way into many commercial products, from toothpaste to Arm & Hammer’s own laundry detergent and line of household cleaners, and for good reason. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, has a multitude of uses, from being a mild abrasive to an amazing deodorizer. My mother sprinkling cool baking soda on my back was a welcome remedy for sunburns as a child. I purchased one, 1 lb. box, in the well-known orange Arm & Hammer packaging, for 83 cents recently at the grocery store.
I can say I have successfully cleaned my oven at least a few times using a simple paste of water and baking soda, letting it sit overnight, and then scrubbing with a green scrubbing pad and a toothbrush, avoiding caustic oven cleaners plastered with warnings. Linda Mason Hunter and Mikki Halpin, authors of the book “Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home,” remind us that oven cleaners “are among the most dangerous household cleaning products.” They can contain harsh substances such as lye, sodium hydroxide, and some contain benzene, a carcinogen.
One site I came across, while looking for an alternative to cut through the soap scum in my bathtub, recommended using two wonder cleaners: baking soda and vinegar.
In the spirit of adventurous home cleaning, I went for it. I sprayed down the tub thoroughly with vinegar, then sprinkled a copious layer of baking soda on top of that. Fireworks? Not yet. The directions called for another layer of vinegar, which I sprayed cautiously. It wasn’t anything close to a volcanic eruption or chemistry experiment gone wrong. Just a little fizzing sound, much like hydrogen peroxide, or nature’s version of Scrubbing Bubbles. I left it on for 20 minutes to work its magic and then lightly scrubbed and rinsed the tub. All of the offending soap scum had disappeared and the porcelain was smooth and shiny. The absence of strong, lingering fumes was also a plus.
Washing soda and borax
Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is the stronger, non-edible cousin of baking soda, and is a main ingredient in many homemade laundry soap recipes that save money and are effective without any added chemicals. Washing soda removes stains, cuts grease and softens water. It can irritate hands and mucous membranes, so handle with care. I have come across a recipe or two that used baking soda in place of washing soda.
In most recipes, washing soda is used in tandem with borax, or sodium borate, a natural mineral compound that boosts the effectiveness of detergents and bleach, sanitizes and repels insects, softens water and deodorizes. It is also used as an alternative to colorsafe bleach. It is non-reactive, which means it can safely be mixed with chemicals like bleach or ammonia (never mix store-bought cleaners, and never mix bleach with ammonia).
Borax has no toxic fumes, is safe for the environment, and is a common household substance. While Borax is natural, it does not mean it carries no risks. Don’t use borax around food, and keep out of reach of young children and pets. While it is safely used in classroom science experiments, it should not be ingested. It can also irritate skin and eyes.
Making homemade laundry detergent intrigued me, so I decided to try it. TipNut.com offers several recipe variations, and I went with the following simple, three-ingredient powdered formula that’s safe to use in high-efficiency washing machines. This makes a smaller batch than some of the other recipes, (good for trying out if it’s your first foray into homemade laundry soap), and doesn’t require any heating or water added to make it.
I used a fresh-smelling bar of Fels Naptha soap in this recipe, which made more than two cups grated and was 99 cents in the laundry aisle at my local grocery store, but any of the other soaps listed below will work. One friend specifically recommended Dr. Bronner’s Castile bar soap for a more fragrant version.
Powdered Laundry Detergent
2 cups Fels Naptha Soap (finely grated – you could also try Dr. Bronner’s Castile bar soap, Ivory soap, Sunlight bar soap, Kirk’s Hardwater Castile, or Zote.)
1 cup Washing Soda
1 cup Borax
Mix well and store in an airtight plastic container.
Use 2 tablespoons per full load.
I used the finer side of a regular cheese grater on the Fels Naptha, which I mixed together using a wooden spoon in a bucket with the washing soda and borax, then stored covered in a plastic container. I used two tablespoons per load as directed, as well as a teaspoon of baking soda. My sheets, towels, and clothes all came out of the dryer fresh, soft and clean. The whole experience was easier and faster than I expected. I didn’t try any air-drying this time, and outdoor line-drying wasn’t an option––it was -5 degrees outside at the time––but this would be another way to cut electricity costs and further lower environmental impact.
A 55-ounce box of Arm & Hammer’s Super Washing Soda sold for $3.17 and the 20 Mule Team Borax, at 4 lbs., 12 oz. (76 oz.) went for $4.68, also both in the laundry aisle at my local grocery store. At only two tablespoons per laundry load, even this small batch made enough to last me awhile, and it barely made a dent in the boxes of washing soda and borax. At around $8 for a bottle of my regular laundry detergent good for 44 loads, the cost savings of homemade laundry soap over time would be significant.
Table salt and lemon juice
Two more simple and unassuming friends that are versatile around the house are table salt and lemon juice. At my local grocery store, I recently bought a 1 lb. (26 oz.) cylinder of Morton salt for 66 cents, and a few lemons at two for a dollar.
I made a quick, easy paste with the two, and used it to scrub the metal of faucets and drains in my kitchen and bathroom with a sponge. You can also sprinkle salt onto a lemon wedge and use the wedge itself to clean. I enjoyed the refreshing scent as it efficiently removed the dirt and grime in the crevices, and, after a rinse, left the metal shining.
To clean coffee residue from a glass coffee carafe, add ice cubes, a tablespoon or two of salt, and an optional squeeze of lemon juice. Swirl them around in the carafe for a minute or two, pour out and rinse. I learned this easy fix as a teen working at a fast-food restaurant, and I’ve never forgotten it. It works!
For dislodging food smells from cutting boards, rub a fresh lemon wedge across it or use a squirt of lemon juice from the container. This trick also works for getting rid of tough food smells on hands. For extra pesky, lingering smells, let the lemon juice sit for 10 minutes, then rinse. Vinegar can also be used to deodorize cutting boards.
For laundry, a half cup of strained lemon juice added to the rinse cycle can brighten whites and lighten stains.
Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap
This mild, vegetable-based soap (available in liquid and bar) has garnered rave reviews for its versatility and eco-friendliness. It is admittedly one of my more expensive home remedies, but if you’re looking for a soap that cleans pretty much everything and is ethical in pretty much every way you can imagine, this is it. Some people even use a few drops as a toothpaste, as it lacks the harsh abrasives found in toothpastes that sometimes bother those with sensitive teeth. I bought an 8 oz. bottle for around $6 at my local organic grocery.
Even the packaging has its own iconic charm, boasting it to be certified fair-trade, organic, vegan and free from animal testing. It is biodegradable, and does not contain detergents or foaming agents, which promote algae growths that use up oxygen in waterways. It comes in unscented (baby mild) and several scents including citrus, lavender, peppermint and almond, all derived from essential oils, which are natural oils derived from plants and flowers. (Essential oils are what quality perfumes are made with as well.)
I did dishes on a recent evening with Castile Soap to see how it fared against the Palmolive Pure & Clear we currently have in our kitchen. We typically keep Castile Soap in our camping kit––this wonder works as dish soap, shampoo, body wash, laundry soap and more, all in one.
The Castile Soap gave the dishwater a milky hue; the scent bright, fresh, and natural, yet not overly herbal. It didn’t get as sudsy as Palmolive, and didn’t seem as concentrated, but I reminded myself that subtle suds don’t necessarily mean subtle cleaning.
I tried at first to use as little as possible, but it just didn’t cut the grease unless I kept adding more. For a full sink of dishes, I felt I had to reload my washcloth more than I would have with the Palmolive. The Castile Soap did its job and rinsed very clean, but with more washing time per plate than regular dish soap. Perhaps part of it is an adjustment. Spoiled by Palmolive, I would need to build up some patience for the more delicate Castile.
The ideas here are by no means a comprehensive list of natural or homemade cleaning products. To cover them all would be impossible. But it all starts with just a few key items like these. You may discover new ways they can be used, or they might jog your memory of natural cleaning tips from your mother, grandmother or your neat-freak Aunt Evelyn.
Getting back to the basics can save you money, and in our world of synthetic chemicals and pollutants, possibly save the health of you and your family, and the environment, for generations to come.
Writer Heidi Tetzman lives in Fargo.
Solutions for cleaning needs around the house
• Microwaves – Heat 2 cups water in a glass measuring cup for 4-5 minutes, letting it steam up the inside of the microwave, softening any dried-on gunk and grime. Wipe with a baking soda and water paste, or a soapy washcloth.
• Drain clogs – Drain cleaners are among the most dangerous cleaning products found in the home. Try this as an alternative. Pour ½ cup baking soda down the drain, then ½ cup vinegar. The chemical reaction breaks down fatty acids, allowing the clog to wash down the drain. Wait 15 minutes and pour boiling water down the drain to clear it. Caution – only use this method on metal plumbing, and never after using a commercial drain cleaner.
• Toilets – Toilet bowl cleaners are another of the most hazardous household cleaners. Pour a cup of borax into the toilet bowl and let sit overnight instead. In the morning, scrub and flush. For more cleaning power, add ¼ cup vinegar to the borax. OR Add 2 tsp. tea tree oil and two cups water to a spray bottle. Shake and spritz onto inside of rim. Let sit for 30 minutes, scrub and flush.
• Automatic dishwasher detergent – Mix equal parts borax and washing soda. Increase washing soda if you have hard water.
• Alternative to bleach – use hydrogen peroxide instead of bleach.
• Alternative to dry-cleaning – some delicate “dry clean only” items can be hand-washed with cool water and mild liquid soap.
• Air fresheners – Children in your home have sensitive young lungs that will benefit from chucking synthetic air fresheners and petroleum-based candles, says Jeffrey Hollender, co-author of “Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe & Healthy, Non-toxic Cleaning.” Instead, Set out small bowls of baking soda or vinegar with lemon juice to absorb odors around the house. A few drops of your favorite essential oil inside a toilet paper roll will release scent every time it is used. Houseplants reduce odors, as well as opening windows frequently for good, old-fashioned fresh air, even periodically in the wintertime.
• Garbage disposal smells – grind up ice cubes, or slices of lemon or oranges.
• Dusting – use a damp cloth – dry dusting just stirs dust into the air and it settles again.
• All-purpose bathroom cleaner – ½ cup vinegar and ¼ cup baking soda (or 2 teaspoons borax) into ½ gallon (2 liters) of water.
• Windows and mirrors – Spritz with a solution of half water, half distilled, white vinegar and wipe with a soft cloth or newspaper. OR, Add 10 drops lavender or lemongrass oil to 2 oz. of water and wipe.
• Vinyl and linoleum floors – Try ¼ cup of liquid Castile soap diluted in 2 gallons warm water. Add ¼ cup distilled vinegar for greasy floors. OR, Add two gallons of water to ½ cup borax.
• Hardwood floors – For damp-mopping wood floors, mix equal parts vinegar and water. Add 15 drops peppermint oil, shake to mix.
• Brick and stone tiles – Mix 1 cup vinegar in 1 gallon water; rinse with clear water.
• Varnished wood furniture – Add a few drops of lemon oil to ½ cup warm water. Mix well and spray onto a soft cloth, only getting it slightly damp. After wiping furniture, wipe again with a soft, dry cloth. OR, Mix 1:1 olive oil and vinegar. Polish with a soft cloth.
• Unvarnished wood furniture – Mix two tsp. olive oil and two tsp. lemon juice and apply a small amount to a soft cloth. Using wide strokes, apply to furniture.
• Leather upholstery – Add two drops liquid Castile soap to 1 qt. warm water. Apply to leather with a sponge that is just barely moist.
• Car – Add ¼ cup liquid Castile soap to a bucket of hot water and wash and rinse as usual with a large sponge.
• Sterling silver – Use a dab of standard white toothpaste on a soft cloth, rubbing onto the tarnish, and dry with a clean cloth. OR, place a layer of aluminum foil in a glass or plastic bowl. Sprinkle foil with salt and baking soda, and fill bowl with warm water. Soak your silver in the bowl, and tarnish will migrate to the foil. Rinse, dry and buff silver with a soft cloth.
Consumer Reports – http://www.greenerchoices.org/
Eartheasy: Solutions for Sustainable Living eartheasy.com/live_nontoxic_solutions.htm
“Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home” by Linda Mason Hunter and Mikki Halpin
“Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe & Healthy, Non-Toxic Cleaning” by Jeffrey Hollender, Geoff Davis, Meika Hollender and Reed Doyle
“Clean House!” by Alison Haynes
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