With all this talk about keeping a tidy house, it’s only fitting that I take a few moments to share with you the stuff I use to get the job done. Thanks to a few readers’ requests and encouragements, I present to you my green cleaning compendium in 3 segments: 1) why I switched from conventional products to “green” alternatives, 2) the “recipes” I use and how to use them, and 3) tips for getting started if you want to make the switch. Scroll to the section(s) that most interest(s) you, or read through the whole thing, but, you know, grab your popcorn.
Why I switched:
About the time that I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and became more cognizant of what I was putting in my body, I took a sudden interest in the “stuff” that was around my body–on surfaces and in the air, and in particular, the stuff under the bathroom sink that made me gag when I cleaned with it, or that was covered in warnings about toxicity and eye washing stations. I knew there had to be a better way.
In college I took a part-time job at a locally-owned shop whose specialty was eco-friendly home, baby, and garden products. VOCs, sulfates, parabens, the meanings behind the numbers on plastic containers, and indoor air quality became part of my daily vocabulary. I asked the owner a lot of questions, hosted informational seminars, and did a lot of research on my own. I used my employee discount to try the products – especially the cleaning ones.
Then I went through a paranoid phase where I was convinced that even these eco-friendly cleaners existed to make money. They were trying to sell me something to make me feel good about myself for getting away from the very materialistic/conventional lifestyle I was trying to circumvent! Down with the man! Just kidding. Anyway, I began to embrace the DIY bug, and explored ways to make my own cleaners so that I wasn’t “paying” so much for the marketing and packaging that went into wrapping up my earth friendly substances. I felt annoyed that despite the claims of eco-friendliness on the bottle (and indeed, the ingredients were much safer than conventional chemicals), the fact remained that at some point in its lifetime, that very bottle was transported (likely by a truck (burning gasoline) (which comes from oil) across the country to get to me. Say whaa?
So I did what any savvy child of the tech generation would do: I googled DIY cleaning products. And do you know what came up time after time? Vinegar (a mild acid, read: disinfectant). Baking soda (absorbs odors and the most gentle abrasive there is). Lemon juice (another mild acid and bearer of lemony freshness scent).
Ah ha! I thought. We can eat this stuff. And it cleans! These were the kind of safe, healthy, more-with-less cleaning products I was looking for. The kind of stuff that grandma would have cleaned with. I have enough things that I want to accomplish in my day that standing wide-eyed in a grocery store aisle choosing among hundreds of types of cleaners (that vary more in the color/size/shape of the bottles than they do in actual ingredients) should not be a decision I have to make! Let’s keep it simple here!
I also stumbled across a book, Making It by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (authors of the Root Simple blog), and I must give them credit for their sagacious recommendations from which I have adapted many of my cleaning techniques.
And though my short-lived hippie days are largely over, I have found peace in cleaning our home safely and effectively without harsh chemicals. Read on to find out how…
The “recipes,” from A-Z (or T, since I didn’t have anything that started with Z)
Air freshener – Scoop some baking soda into a small container. Add 40-80 drops of your favorite essential oil. (Stronger scented oils can get by with as little as 10-20 drops). Secure some woven fabric over the container opening and place in a central location. This should last you about a month; give it a good shake every week or so. As the scent fades, save the baking soda for cleaning. A 4-oz. jelly jar works great for homemade air freshener. Secure the fabric using the band for the jar.
All-purpose cleaner (AKA 50/50 spray)- Do NOT use on granite or marble countertops. Fill a clean spray bottle half way with white vinegar. Fill the remainder with water. Give it a shake and spray where you need it, wiping clean with a rag. (Great for counters except marble or granite, sinks, stovetops, toilets, mirrors and windows, general spills). The vinegar smell will go away as the cleaner dries, but if you prefer scented cleaning products, here are three options: 1) after you peel an orange (or lemon or lime), stuff the peels into a jar. Add white vinegar, and let steep for at least a week, giving it a good shake each time you walk by. Use this citrus vinegar to make your spray. 2) Steep some fresh herbs in your vinegar in a similar manner. Try especially parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (you know, like the song). If you care about looks, you can even leave the herbs in the spray bottle once you make the solution. 3) Don’t have fresh herbs? Use a few drops of your favorite essential oils. FYI, tea tree and rosemary have antiseptic properties. Again, NOT for use on granite or marble.
Carpet stains – Admittedly, I’ve never cleaned a carpet stain the same way twice. Partly it depends on the type and severity of the stain. Partly it’s because I forget how I did it last time. If the stain is relatively fresh, clean it up with some vinegar. If it’s been in the carpet for a little while, try sprinkling generously with baking soda and scrubbing vigorously with a damp washcloth. If it’s really bad, follow the baking soda scrub with a paste made with baking soda, dish soap, and hydrogen peroxide. Pour onto the stain and scrub vigorously in all directions. Let dry, and vacuum up any residue. And if the stain is from your dog during potty-training or indoor territory-marking, douse generously with rubbing alcohol to prevent them from marking again.
Clothing stains – I use a mixture of 1 cup dish soap to 2 cups hydrogen peroxide. This is the perfect amount to pour back into those big brown hydrogen peroxide bottles (since hydrogen peroxide apparently doesn’t like exposure to light). Switch out the cap for a spray nozzle, and you’re set. Shake gently and spray directly on clothing/fabric stains before washing. Alex and I have a “dog blanket” on top of our duvet to protect it from muddy paws and use this stain remover to help lift out all the dirt; the blanket comes out clean every time.
Dishes – I have experimented with several eco-friendly dish soap options over the years. Even though lathering bubbles is not essential to clean dishes, I found that I liked having some bubbles so that I could tell when soap had disappeared from my sponge. That led me away from Earth Friendly Products’ Dish Soap (though it looks like they have some newer products now). Biokleen Dish Liquid was good and lasted a long time. I’ve also used Mrs. Meyer’s but found the bottle to be a little small for the price. These days I’ve been using Seventh Generation in Citrus Ginger scent, which I love. (But if you check the EWG report, even this eco-company’s product doesn’t score so hot. I’ll check in when we finish this bottle to let you know what we switch to).
Dishwasher – Okay, you caught me. Sorry to disappoint you here: I use Cascade detergent. The one in the 12-pound green box from the wholesale club. We run the dishwasher 1-2 times per week. The eco-friendly options only come in the small box around here, and I was getting new boxes faster than we ever finished Netflix-by-mail movies. So, I caved. This recipe for homemade detergent, however, looks promising, and I plan to give it a try once our box is empty.
Drain clogs – First, an anecdote. In another life, I was a swimmer. And when I was in high school, and still working on upping my “cool factor,” I wanted it to be my “trademark” to leave an appalling clump of my dark, long, curly hair on the walls of the shower where we vainly attempted to rid ourselves of the stink of chlorine. (In my defense, I only participated in this ritual in the facility that I hated – the one with the pool that was way too hot and whose poor ventilation meant you were sweating and crying as soon as you set foot in the building, the one with carpeting – CARPETING in the locker rooms which is just a terrible idea for a swim team). Suffice it to say, I sympathize with all you ladies with long, flowing locks. I know that you clean your hair out of the shower daily and still it seems to clog. Drain cleaner is probably the one conventional chemical cleaner that made me most uncomfortable, even in my pre-hippie days. Blame it on a cartoon on a Sesame Street episode about how much water is used when brushing your teeth – it had this poor fish whose pond was literally drying up while this kid left the water running brushing his teeth. (In fact, it was this one here!) All I saw when I poured Drain-clog-be-gone brand cleaner down the pipes was some poor fish choking to death. This is, of course,
environmentalist propaganda not quite realistic, but the effect it had on me led to the quest for alternatives. I tried earth-friendly enzyme-based cleaners whose microbial organisms promised to eat away at the things that were clogging the drain – friendly decomposers, if you will. They did work, to some effect. But the fact of the matter is, I knew what was blocking the pipes, and I knew it wasn’t way down deep in the plumbing system. It was my hair. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the most eco-friendly drain cleaner I know:
This is a wire hanger that I have disassembled such that it becomes one long piece of wire with a craggly hook at one end. I remove the drain cover in the bathtub (or sink, as sometimes hair mysteriously gathers there too) and gently poke the hanger into the drain to pull up clumps of hair in various states of moist decomposition. Okay I’ll leave the graphic details out of it, but if it does make you squeamish (and I won’t judge you if it does), you might want to wear gloves as you throw the hair clumps into the trashcan. With two people in our household, and my long, thick hair, I usually do this 2-3 times a year – whenever I notice that the drain isn’t draining smoothly. Now, I’m not a plumber, so I can’t tell you exactly what should or shouldn’t be down there, and (especially in older houses) you may have an actual plumbing predicament. So, prod gently with thy coat hanger, and if the problem persists, you might want to call in a professional. But remember Frank the Fish.
Dusting – Water. That’s all I use. Just a little bit. Just to be fancy, I add a couple drops of essential oil to enhance the dusting experience, but other than that, it’s just water. I squirt just enough onto a soft cloth to dampen it slightly, and then go to town. I do use a wool duster for things like fan blades, lampshades, blinds, and other nooks and crannies, but in general, that damp soft cloth will eat dust with the best of ’em.
Laundry – I started making my own laundry soap about a year ago. There are several variations of this that are popular on the internet, but my formula is 1 cup borax, 1 cup washing soda, 1 bar shredded castille soap (we like Dr. Bronner’s in lavender or eucalyptus). Mix it all up, and add 1-2 tablespoons per load. Doesn’t seem like much, but it works. (And, FYI, our house is not yet equipped with an HE washer and this is still all I need). I almost always use cold water to wash, but I will let the warm water run just when I add the soap so that it will get all dissolved quickly. For synthetics, I do use a conventionally made eco-soap. I have found that manmade fabrics do better with manmade cleaners, but maybe that’s just me.
Kitchen sink – I don’t know about you, but I found it unsettling to use the dish sponge to clean the kitchen sink. I mean, I see all the stuff that washes off my dirty dishes that inevitably leaves residues in the sink, and now I’m going to scrub them all into the sponge and wipe them around the surface of the sink? There might not be anything wrong with that, but I wanted a cleaning tactic with a bit more…heft to it. When the sink is wet, sprinkle it all over with baking soda – don’t be shy. Use a rag to scrub the baking soda all around, you’ll see some of those weird residues starting to come off. Rinse clean with warm water. Need to bleach it clean? Take a cut, used lemon and rub it all over the sink. Leave to sit for at least 30 minutes, then rinse clean with warm water. Toss the used lemon half into the garbage disposal, run it, and ahhh, lemony goodness. Plus a clean sink to boot!
Mopping – Our mop was decapitated in an unfortunate and accidental fit of rage a couple weeks ago, so it looks a little funny now and was camera shy. But this is the mop we use. It comes with a microfiber dusting cloth attachment, and a terrycloth wet mop attachment, both of which are machine washable. With the wet mop, we use a pre-mixed hardwood cleaning spray, which we spray directly onto the hardwood and scrub vigorously using the mop head. In the bathroom (which is tile), I use Biokleen’s Bac-Out Bathroom Cleaner, employing the same technique. I haven’t run out of either cleaning product yet, so I haven’t yet had the opportunity to experiment with homemade cleaners, though there are dozens of DIY alternatives out there.
Stovetop – I reviewed my stovetop cleaning technique in this post, but again, you’ll need baking soda and liquid castille soap. Sprinkle some of both directly on the surface, rub together to make a paste and scrub-a-dub. Rinse clean with a soft cloth and warm water.
Toilet bowl – Straight up white vinegar (not the diluted 50/50 spray). Pour into the bowl and scrub the edges and the bowl with a sturdy toilet brush. Take that, Mr. Clean!
Tub (abridged) – The best thing since sliced bread: cleaning the tub/shower while you’re already in it! Get one of those dishwashing sponges with the fillable tube handle. Fill it half way with white vinegar, half way with dish soap. Give the walls and floor (and the shower head, once in a while) a good wash down (and rinse any hair off the sponge when you’re done). Rinse the walls with a wet rag, or throw water on it, or don’t (the vinegar dilutes the soap so you shouldn’t get any weird streaks).
Tub (unabridged) – If you can’t remember the last time you cleaned your tub, you can’t cut straight to the abridged version. You’ve gotta get your deep-clean on. But just this one time, and then you’ll have smooth sailing, mmkay? Here’s what you do. 1) Wipe any hair out of the tub with a tissue or paper towel and discard. 2) Turn on the water and get the floor and walls wet. 3) Pour white vinegar into the tub and use your rag to wipe all the walls and floor. 4) Sprinkle baking soda generously over tub. Use a rag to scrub the baking soda into those weird stains, rings, molds, or whatever else you have in your tub. Your rag shouldn’t “stick” when you scrub it. If it does, keep scrubbing. 5) When you’re done, rinse down with warm water and breathe a sigh of relief. Bleach with a lemon half, if desired (see directions for kitchen sink, above). and 6) If your shower head has weird pink or green or white stuff around the holes where the water comes out, pour some white vinegar into a ziploc bag and use ribbon or string or anything to tie it around the shower head such that the discolored part is in direct contact with the vinegar. Leave to soak for at least 30 minutes.
Tips for switching over:
Now, unless you’re suddenly super freaked out and want to switch immediately, I suggest a gradual transition. After all, it won’t do much good to simply pour those conventional cleaners down the sink. So my first tip if you’d like to make the switch is to use up what you have first. As you do, then you can start making the replacements. If you aren’t sure where to start, make the 50/50 spray and add to your repertoire from there.
Second, when it comes to window/glass/mirror cleaning, the 50/50 spray will seem streaky at first, especially if 1) you have conventional cleaner residue on the surface or 2) you use fabric softener and your rag happens to have fabric softener residues on it.
Third, and this might be a matter of personal preference, but when you buy a spray bottle for your homemade cleaners, your life will be much easier if you make sure that the spray nozzle can “mist,” and not just spray in a piercing stream.
Save rags! If you have an old t-shirt that you don’t wear anymore, cut it up into washcloth-sized rags. If your washcloths are a bit ratty for the bathroom, retire them to the cleaning basket.
Re-purpose interesting containers to aid your cleaning endeavors. For example, I keep some vinegar in a plastic condiment squeeze bottle for easy, direct squirting into the toilet bowl or for targeting carpet stains. I keep one of those stainless steel cinnamon or cocoa or powdered sugar shakers filled with baking soda by the sink for easy access.
Finally, educate yourself about whether conventional cleaners are good enough to earn a place in your household. The Environmental Working Group has a very comprehensive list ranking cleaning products that can help you make smarter purchasing decisions if DIY cleaners aren’t in the cards for you. (Or read their list of the worst offenders here). Thanks to the miracle that is marketing, just because something calls itself “green,” doesn’t mean it is. But I also don’t think it’s healthy to drive yourself insane memorizing the list of chemicals the EWG condemns – let the experts do their jobs and use it to inform your decisions, not to control your life.
So there you have it. It is not my intention here to decry one method of cleaning over another. There are enough of an awful lot of products out there with incredible advertising budgets to confuse you about what is “right,” as it is. But if you dream of a home where you don’t have to be afraid that Fido or Junior will get into whatever is under the kitchen sink, and where cleaning day shouldn’t make the air quality in your home worse, or where you don’t have to think twice about whether you need to have an eyewash station installed, then maybe getting back to the basics and exploring simple, homemade cleaning solutions is worth the effort. It doesn’t hurt to give it a shot, right? At the very least, you’ll have an extra clean home. And if you are going to give it a try, I hope you find this a useful place to start.
What have I missed? What questions do you have? What green cleaning strategies will you adopt? Do tell.
And check out other useful homekeeping tips from this mini-series: