Clean Green: Natural Cleaning Products
Get your home sparkling clean and toxin-free with the help of six natural household ingredients.
Photography: Kana Okada
Source: Body+Soul, 2007
When it comes to cleaning house, it's tempting to enlist off-the-shelf products with ingredients like bleach and ammonia. They get the job done-but not without also doing a number on your eyes, airways, and, with enough exposure, your nervous system. Ironically, these cleaners also pollute: Disinfectants and other chemicals washing down drains now contaminate more than two-thirds of U.S. streams. Largely because of these same products, our indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside. But you don't have to sacrifice health for a clean home. Nontoxic DIY cleaners deliver considerable power at minimal cost. "Making your own is easy," says Annie Bond, author of "Better Basics for the Home." "All you need is a little trust in yourself and six ingredients." We worked with Bond to gather these easy, essential recipes, so you can start green cleaning today.
What You'll Need
- Baking soda (aka sodium bicarbonate)
- A deodorizer and gentle scrub; softens hard water, removes acidic stains, and polishes shiny surfaces like stainless steel without scratching.
- Distilled white vinegar A deodorizer, disinfectant, mild acid, and preservÂative; breaks up dirt, grease, mineral deposits, mold, and soap scum.
- Essential oils Aromatic plant oils; some, including eucalyptus, lavender, and tea tree, are natural disinfecÂtants and antifungals. Pure essential oils can irritate eyes and skin upon contact, so handle carefully. Pregnant women should consult a health-care practitioner before using. Available from mountainroseherbs.com and natural foods stores.
- Lemon A deodorizer, stain remover, and grease cutter; acts as a mild bleach when exposed to sunlight.
- Olive oil A natural oil that helps to nourish and polish wood.
- Plant-based liquid soap Gentle soap made with oils such as olive ("Castile soap"), palm, and coconut, rather than petroleum derivatives or animal fat. Available from natural foods stores and drbronner.com.
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- Plant-based liquid soap
- 1/2 of a lemon
Pour baking soda into a bowl. Add just enough liquid soap to make a creamy paste. Spread mixture on the flat side of lemon and scrub. The lemon acts as a sponge and leaves a natural citrus scent. Use a damp rag or sponge to wipe away any residue. You'll find the paste will stay moist for a few hours.
Helpful Hint: To save leftover scrub, add in a few drops of vegetable glycerin (a thick, clear syrup derived from plant oils, available from mountainroseherbs.com) and seal in a glass jar.
- 1/2 teaspoon Castile or plant-based liquid soap
- 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
- 2 cups water
Pour all ingredients into a spray bottle and shake. Spray onto window and wipe clean with newspaper or a 100 percent cotton cloth.
Helpful Hint: The liquid soap included in this recipe helps remove any streak-causing wax left on the window from commercial cleaners used in the past. You can eliminate the soap after a few washings. Safety note: Always be careful to label containers of homemade cleaners intended for storage and keep them well out of the reach of children.
- 1/8 cup plant-based liquid soap
- 1/8 cup distilled white vinegar
- 1 gallon water
- 10 drops essential oil (scent of your choice)
Mix all ingredients in a bucket and mop as usual.
Helpful Hint: For ceramic and stone floors, eliminate soap (which leaves a film) and use 1/4 cup of vinegar with 1 gallon of water. Don't use water on unsealed wood floors. Instead, combine 2 cups of vinegar with 1 tablespoon of olive or jojoba oil in a bucket. Spread a thin coat over the floor with a mop or soft cloth. Let it soak in for 20 minutes; dry mop to absorb excess liquid. Open windows to air out the vinegar smell.
Mold + Mildew Spray
- 2 cups distilled white vinegar
Pour vinegar into a spray bottle and spray on infected area. The smell will dissipate in a few hours (open a window to speed up the process).
Helpful Hint: For areas with persistent mold problems, use tea tree oil instead of vinegar, combining 2 drops of tea tree oil with 1 cup of water in a spray bottle. A natural antiseptic and fungicide, tea tree oil costs more than vinegar but will kill most types of mold and help prevent new growth. kristen pakonis is a freelance writer with a master's degree in environmental education. She lives in San Francisco.
Text by Kristen Pakonis
Careful: Curb your instinct to reach for the most powerful cleaning product; for example, don't use a bleach-laden wipe on the kitchen countertop if a clean, soapy sponge will do. When working with any cleaning product, use only what you must to get the job done, and not a drop more. Don't drown that spot in stain-removing solution. Don't saturate the sponge with dishwashing liquid, either. If you find yourself going through bottle after bottle of cleaner, consider cleaning less frequently. You don't need to overclean to maintain your family's health. In fact, you might keep everyone healthier by cleaning weekly and spot-cleaning dirtier areas as needed. If you have a task that requires you to use a particularly toxic product, wear protective clothing (rubber gloves and a mask), and ventilate the area well. When you're finished, follow the manufacturers disposal guidelines, or keep the product in the basement or garage until your community's hazardous waste disposal day.
More Careful: Commit to using less-toxic cleaners, which you'll find at health-food stores, many grocery stores, or online. Unfortunately, there is no government equivalent of "organic" in the world of cleaning products. Read labels to be sure of what you're buying (especially if you're prone to allergies). Look for manufacturers that spell out everything clearly on the label. A long list of ingredients in small print is often an indicator that the manufacturer is using more chemicals you're better off avoiding. Experiment with different brands to see which ones work for you. Even less-toxic cleaners can be unsafe and aggravate allergies and chemical sensitivities. Downplay these risks by opening a window (or, at the very least, running a fan) while you're working with cleaning products.
Most Careful: Use homemade cleaners whenever possible. Water is often effective on its own. Cold water is all you need to rinse off bowls used for flour when baking, or to wipe up many spills. Likewise, warm water is adequate for cleaning most floors, and hot water works for a sink or a toilet seat. When more cleaning power is needed, look in the kitchen. Baking soda and salt are mild abrasives. Distilled white vinegar and lemon juice are acidic, so they can neutralize alkaline substances such as soap scum; they are also gentle bleaches. Add a few very basic ingredients like liquid soap and borax, a naturally occurring mineral, to your cleaning cupboard, and you can tackle every room in the house. Keep in mind that while modern cleaning products are designed so you don't have to do anything but wipe, a little scrubbing is preferable to breathing in a lot of nasty fumes.