Spic and Span: Easy Homemade Cleaners

Make your home sparkle with easy homemade cleaners, and kick hazardous chemical cleaners to the curb.
May/June 2013
Freshen your home for spring with natural, homemade cleaners.

Photo By Thomas Gibson

You have plenty of excellent reasons to ditch commercial cleaners. Most cleaners contain a wide range of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are released into the air inside our homes at room temperature—part of the reason why nearly all indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air. Numerous studies confirm that, after cleaning with conventional products, a room’s VOC levels increase significantly, often reaching levels higher than the acceptable values established by the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute and high enough to lead to progressive eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as increased risk of asthma.

The toxic chemicals in conventional cleaners also make them hazardous in homes with children or pets, where accidental ingestion can lead to poisoning and death. This is why many cleaners’ labels contain words like “Danger,” “Warning,” “Caution,” “Toxic” or “Poison.” Contrast this with a home cleaning arsenal made up of vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and lemon juice: If consumed in large quantities, these ingredients may lead to an upset tummy, but they are not poisonous.

The manufacture of conventional cleaning products is also concerning. Manufacturers often release chlorine bleach, for example, into local water bodies, where it can create persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins, which linger in water and soil and take years to disappear. Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 90 percent of human exposure is through food—mostly meat, dairy products, fish and shellfish. Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and can also cause cancer, according to the WHO.

Finally, you will save money creating your own household cleaners. Vinegar, baking soda, washing soda and castile soap are cheap and they go a long way. Essential oils are a bit more expensive, but most household cleaning recipes call for only a few drops. Buy essential oils packaged in dark brown or blue glass and store them out of sunlight and they will last for at least a year.

We often hear from readers who are content to use vinegar and baking soda for all-purpose cleaning but are tempted to turn to chemical cleaners for “tough jobs.” To create a truly all-purpose nontoxic cleaning arsenal, check out the following pages for some basic at-home mixing instructions, then find specific, effective recipes for hitting your home’s toughest cleaning jobs.

Natural Cleaning Basics

When it comes to everyday cleaning—countertops, sinks, furniture, floors, toilets—you can use the same basic, powerhouse ingredients with a few easy-to-find additions and clean any area of your home. Our guide will give you the tools to create your own effective, custom cleaning blends.

Vinegar: Disinfecting, Antibacterial

Made by fermenting any material that contains sugar, vinegar is created when yeast and the microorganism acetobacter turn sugar into acid. Vinegar has dozens of uses such as deodorizing and degreasing, but its most important attributes are its ability to kill harmful bacteria and viruses.

In a University of Florida study, vinegar reduced viral and bacterial pathogens from inoculated strawberries by 95 and 90 percent respectively. When buying vinegar, check the label to make sure it’s made from natural ingredients. If the label says “grain alcohol,” “neutral grain spirits” or “wine,” it’s made from natural ingredients such as corn, apples or grapes. If it says “synthetic alcohol,” it is likely petroleum-based.

Most Basic Vinegar All-Purpose Cleaner

1 cup vinegar   
4 cups water

Pour into a spray bottle and use as a light disinfectant.

+ Add Lemon
If you don’t like the scent of vinegar, you can neutralize its odor with lemon juice. Add a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice to any vinegar cleaning blend.

+ Add Essential Oils
Add essential oils to your all-purpose cleaner to give it a lovely scent and to increase its cleaning power. Many essential oils have strong antibacterial and antifungal properties—chemical cleaners that mimic the scent of lemon and pine hearken back to the days of plant-based cleaning power. Some essential oils that smell wonderful but will also bring disinfectant properties to your cleaners include peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree, lemon, lavender, orange, thyme and pine.

+ Add Olive Oil
Olive oil nourishes wood surfaces and helps them shine. To polish any wood surface in your home, combine ¼ cup olive oil, 4 tablespoons vinegar and 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Store in a spray bottle in the fridge and shake before using.

Serious Disinfecting with Vinegar

Vinegar is an effective cleaning agent for most purposes. But if you’re looking to kill food-borne pathogens, it’s important to use natural cleaners correctly. In studies testing the effectiveness of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar at killing Escherichia coli (E. coli), Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella, researchers at Ohio State University Extension found:

■ Undiluted hydrogen peroxide and undiluted white vinegar were both effective against all three pathogens after one minute, but only when warmed to 150 degrees and used while at 130 degrees or above (heat vinegar in saucepan or the microwave).

■ At room temperature, hydrogen peroxide was effective against E. coli and Salmonella if left on surfaces for 10 minutes. It did not kill Listeria monocytogenes.

■ At room temperature, white distilled vinegar was effective against Salmonella if left on surfaces for 10 minutes, but not against the other two pathogens.

■ Other studies have found vinegar and hydrogen peroxide together to be a powerful disinfectant, but never mix the two. To disinfect surfaces, first clean with soap and water. Then fill one spray bottle with vinegar and one with undiluted 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. Spray surfaces with one bottle, then the other (it doesn’t matter which is first). When hydrogen peroxide has stopped fizzing, its work is done; no need to rinse. If you’re storing hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle, make sure it is dark colored, as light damages its structure.

Vinegar Tricks

Vinegar is a whiz at cutting through grease and grime. Try these easy cleaning tricks:

■ To remove mildew, apply pure vinegar, let sit for 30 minutes or more, and scrub if necessary.

■ To get a sparkling toilet, pour 1 cup vinegar in and let sit for several hours. Scrub rings away with a toilet brush.

■ To remove baked-on grease in the microwave, bring ½ cup vinegar and ½ cup water to a rolling boil in the microwave. Baked-on food will loosen to be wiped away easily.

■ Greasy, baked-on gunk on your stovetop? Set a vinegar-soaked sponge on the area for up to an hour. Wipe away easily.

Baking soda: Scrubbing, Deodorizing

A natural mineral, baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate) is an effective degreaser that can help remove odors and acts as a scrubbing agent. Along with helping baked goods rise, baking soda can help relieve indigestion, whiten teeth, exfoliate skin, relieve sunburn and more. For household purposes, baking soda’s scouring abilities help it remove stains and grime and dissolve grease. (For many more household uses for baking soda, check out the article 13 Ways to Use Baking Soda Around the House.)

Most Basic Baking Soda Scrub

1 cup baking soda
Enough water to make a paste

Use to scour greasy pots, scrub the bathtub or sink, or treat grease stains on clothing. Store remainder in a lidded jar.

+ Add Liquid Soap
Add liquid soap for suds and extra cleaning power. We recommend an olive oil-based soap, also known as castile soap. Some common brands include Dr. Bronner’s and Kirk’s Natural.

+ Add Coarse Salt
Add coarse salt for extra scrubbing power. Salt acts as an abrasive, letting you use a little less elbow grease. A paste of baking soda, coarse salt and water is particularly effective at cleaning the bathtub or white sinks.

In the Kitchen

Fume-Free Oven Cleaner 

Lavender Automatic Dishwasher Powder

Dishwashing Blend

Granite Countertop Cleaner

In the Living Room

Wood Floor Cleaner

Carpets and Upholstery

In the Laundry room

Simple Washing Powder

Pre-Wash Stain Spray

Bleach and Brightener Substitute