With spring peeking around the corner, it’s time for that annual ritual associated with the season: spring cleaning. Time to eliminate the fusty odors of winter and make our homes ready to welcome fresh air and sunshine. It’s an ancient tradition, accompanied these days by the most up-to-date cleaning solutions and deodorizers Western science can provide. But, as many of us are now discovering by reading the labels or simply noticing our bodies’ reactions, these products—the plug-ins, sprays, polishes and detergents—can be shockingly laden with sometimes very nasty chemicals. Happily, you don’t have to choose between your health and your home’s cleanliness: A few simple ingredients can create cleaning products that are healthy, effective and smell absolutely great.
6 Homemade Cleaner Recipes
• Carnauba and Lavender Furniture Wax
• Eucalyptus, Lavender and Tea Tree Spray
• Lemon-Mint Window Wash
• Spritz-and-Spray Toilet Bowl Cleaner
• Eucalyptus-Mint All-Purpose Disinfecting Soap for Kitchen and Bath
• Grapefruit Abrasive Cleanser
Common Chemicals in Household Cleaners
Here are some of the bad reasons why I wrote this: ammonia, bleach, butylcellosolve, cresol, dye, ethanol, formaldehyde, glycol, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, napthalene, paradichlorobenzenes, perchloroethylene, petroleum distillates, phenol, phosphoric acid, propellants, sulfuric acid, and trichloroethylene.
I found these chemicals listed on the labels of popular cleaning formulas. Each is dangerous and most considered hazardous waste. Are they fun to use? No! Effective? You bet — but they cost plenty, both in dollars and risk to the environment.
The Best Natural Cleaning Ingredients
Here are the good reasons for this article, along with descriptions of the ways each benefits homekeeping.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a mild alkali useful in a variety of cleaning applications. (Don’t confuse this with washing soda, also called sal soda, which is not the same substance.)
White vinegar, a slightly acidic liquid, is useful in many cleaning formulas. (Heinz is one brand I often choose because I know it’s made from grains.)
Sodium lauryl sulfate powder (SLS) and sodium lauryl sulfoacetate are simple and effective detergents derived from coconut oil. (You can order by mail from suppliers listed in the Resources section later in this article.) There are concerns about using SLS on the skin, as it can be an irritant. It is nontoxic as a detergent; however, if you prefer, substitute bulk castile soap as a surfectant.
Unscented bulk castile soap, like SLS, serves as surfactant by helping to loosen and wash away dirt. It’s handy to have a several-pound bar that can be grated into formulas when needed. It’s available by mail order.
Lemon, lime and grapefruit juices, fresh or in concentrate, do more than smell great—they’re acidic and antibacterial and make a lively addition to any cleaning formula.
Borax (sodium bromate) is a mildly alkaline, water-soluble salt. It loosens dirt and stains while removing odors. Borax is usually available in supermarkets, but it’s available by mail, too.
Carnauba and olive oils are excellent additions to wood cleaners because they recondition and polish the surfaces.
Beeswax turns formulas into pastes for waxing and shining.
Lanolin, a natural oil extracted from wool, restores some of the fiber’s natural sheen and water repellence when added to wool-washing soaps.
Clay powder is a mild abrasive that absorbs essential oils and disperses them easily in powdered cleaning formulas.
Pumice is finely ground volcanic rock; add it as an abrasive to scrubbing compounds for big jobs.
The Benefits of Essential Oils
Essential oils offer important cleaning and disinfecting benefits for homekeeping. Distilled from plant roots, rinds, flowers, seeds and resins, essential oils are highly concentrated and intensely scented. Essential oils are not the same as the synthetic scent oils that you can find at crafts stores. Such chemically contrived oils don’t originate from plants, and they cannot offer the cleaning and therapeutic benefits of essential oils (pure essential oils can be ordered from SunFeather and other sources).
Essential oils are highly concentrated, and as a rule should not be applied directly to the skin or to household surfaces. Never ingest essential oils; should this happen by accident, do not induce vomiting—seek immediate medical help.
These are my favorite essential oils for cleaning. They are effective, easy to obtain and not too expensive. A little goes a long way, so be conservative.
Lavender is a disinfectant. Aromatherapists often use its calming scent to ease tension, anxiety and depression.
Lemon, orange and grapefruit are tough degreasers with refreshing, clean scents that can alleviate depression and fatigue.
Eucalyptus disinfects while helping relieve stuffy noses. It’s an excellent cleaning choice if you are fighting off a cold.
Tea tree is distilled from the Australian Melaleuca alternifolia tree, is effective against bacteria, fungus and some viruses; it’s terrific for cleaning when there’s illness in the home.
White cedar disinfects and provides an uplifting scent. It’s another good choice when illness is present.
Lime has a lighthearted citrus scent so delicious that it’s easy to forget how well it performs as a degreaser and general cleanser. Mix a few drops of this oil with a couple of tablespoons of baking soda for a slightly abrasive kitchen scrub.
Pine is a fine old standby for home keepers. This plentiful and inexpensive essential oil is a degreaser and a bit of a disinfectant. Its clean, outdoor scent stimulates alertness—sometime helpful during cleaning.
Equipment to Get You Started
To make your herbal cleaning formulas, you’ll need measuring cups and spoons, and wide-mouth and narrow funnels. Use large stainless steel or glass bowls rather than ceramic or plastic ones that might absorb essential oil scents.
Gather up an assortment of spray bottles, squirt bottles and shakers with flip tops (one of my favorites is a recycled Parmesan cheese container). Assorted jars or plastic storage tubs are handy, too. You can use all of these to store your products. For labeling the containers, you’ll need labels, markers and tape.
Hot Housekeeping Tips
• Place a drop of your favorite essential oil on a scrap of fabric or a handkerchief. Toss it into the dryer with your clothes or sheets.
• Use a drop or two of orange oil on a paper coffee filter to remove glue or masking tape residue from windows.
• Scent the filter bag of your vacuum cleaner with a drop or two of a fresh-smelling essential oil.
• For a great fragrance whenever you sit down, scatter dried lavender rose petals, rosemary or other favorite herbs under the cushions of the couch and upholstered chairs.
• Make sachets from fabric scraps or old handkerchiefs; embellish with lace or ribbon. If you don’t sew, try using muslin tea bags or even coin envelopes from an office supply store.
Natural Cleaning Products and Ingredients Resources
Full line of environmentally friendly cleaning products
Herb Cottage By the Sea
Herbal furniture oil
Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day
Aromatherapeutic and natural cleaners
Earth Friendly Products
Kitchen, laundry, general cleaning and pet care
Household cleaners, baby, bath and paper products
SunFeather Natural Soap Company
Soaps, essential oils and soap-making supplies
Sun & Earth
Kitchen, laundry, bath and all-purpose cleaners
Good Home Co.
Products for laundry and carpet; air fresheners
Pure ‘n’ Natural Systems, Inc.
Dusting cloths, micro-fiber terry cleaning towels
Kitchen, all-purpose and patio furniture cleaner
Liquid sunshine, floors, laundry, woodwork and walls
All-natural wood polish and cleaner
In this excerpt from Clean, Naturally: Recipes for Body, Home, and Spirit (Interweave Press) by Sandy Maine you’ll find recipes and background for enough of these natural cleaning aids to get you started. These gentle, herb-infused products might not make house-cleaning a joy, but they certainly will make the job more pleasing to the senses.
Sandy Maine, founder of SunFeather Handcrafted Herbal Soap Company, is the author of three books on soap-making and lives with her husband and four children on a spotlessly clean farm in the Adirondack Mountains.