From laundry stains to ants in the kitchen, these common household problems can be solved without resorting to harsh chemicals.
It can happen to even those of us with the best intentions: We want to clean up the mildew in our shower without using harsh chemicals, but after scrubbing with baking soda to no avail, we resort to dousing the grime with chlorine bleach. Mission accomplished—but at what cost? “So many of these ingredients—and cleaning products—are toxic,” says Becky Rapinchuk, founder of Clean Mama and author of The Organically Clean Home. “They can trigger allergies, asthma, headaches, breathing issues—and some are even potential carcinogens. Why bring something poisonous into your house? By making sure everything you put on surfaces in your home is safe, you won’t be doing any damage to the health of you or your family.”
We talked with top natural cleaning experts to get the scoop on their favorite remedies that really work for some of the most common, and frustrating, home problems. Here are their favorite solutions to keep you from turning to chemicals for those pesky, hard-to-solve problems we all face in our homes.
Shower mildew/grout stains: “Hydrogen peroxide bleaches mildew right off,” Rapinchuk says. She mixes hydrogen peroxide with water, tea tree and peppermint essential oils. “I spray this mix on and leave it on for a couple of hours before rinsing off,” she says.
For grout, Rapinchuk recommends combining cream of tartar and lemon juice. “Make a paste of this mixture, then use a scrub brush to work it into the grout. This cleans it right up.” The paste won’t bleach colored grout like hydrogen peroxide will, she says.
Annie Bond, author of Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living, is also a fan of tea tree oil. “It’s a natural fungicide and is especially good for mold,” she says. She recommends keeping a spray bottle with 1 cup of water and 1 teaspoon each tea tree and peppermint essential oils and spraying the mix on your shower daily to help prevent mildew from forming. “It also helps get rid of odors.”
Long-term solution: Once you’ve killed the mildew, seal the grout with a nontoxic product such as AFM Safecoat Grout Sealer, a clear, water-resistant sealant, says Maria Onesta Moran, owner of green living supply store Green Home Experts in Oak Park, Illinois. Then, make sure your bathroom is vented. “Mildew grows on moisture and warmth,” she says. “Turn on your ventilation fan during and after showers.”
Clogged drains: First, plunge the sink. Then pour Citra Drain into it. “It’s a mix of citrus oils and enzymes; just pour it down the drain and go to bed,” Moran says. After you wake up, rinse with hot water and repeat as necessary for more stubborn clogs. “The enzymes act like Pac-Man and digest soap scum and hair,” Moran says.
Long-term solution: Use a drain hair catcher, found at home stores, to help prevent drains from clogging.
Sweat stains: When it comes to underarm stains, Bond swears by sodium percarbonate—a dry, granulated form of hydrogen peroxide. Mix it with hot water and scrub onto the stain, then let sit for several hours. (Find sodium percarbonate in Earth Friendly Products’ Oxo Brite Non-Chlorine Bleach.)
Long-term solution: You can block sweat stains on expensive clothing by wearing an undershirt. Body Bark makes soft, thin, luxurious undergarments made from sustainably harvested beech wood. The undergarments are made in the U.S. and specifically designed to be invisible under clothing. Switching your antiperspirant out for a nonaluminum-based deodorant can also help prevent underarm stains because the aluminum reacts with perspiration and creates a chemical reaction that can stain clothing, Rapinchuk says. A good bet: Lavanila’s The Healthy Deodorant, which uses only natural and organic ingredients and is free of aluminum, petrochemicals and parabens.
Pet accidents on the rug: A mixture of equal parts vinegar and water helps remove urine odors while killing bacteria (and not bleaching your rug). But Moran’s favorite remedy is Biokleen Bac-Out, a mix of live enzyme cultures, citrus extracts and plant-based surfactants. “It gets out blood, vomit, poop, all the nasties,” Moran says. She recommends anyone with pets or kids keep this on hand. “It works wonders on cloth diapers.”
Long-term solution: Train your dog using PoochPads Washable Training Pads, absorbent, reusable odor-controlling training pads for puppies or older dogs. They’re guaranteed through 300 washes.
“Pour distilled white vinegar on the stain, followed by baking soda,” Rapinchuk says. “Then just leave it overnight and vacuum up. It gets out most stains—and there’s nothing in it that can ruin your carpet.” (If you’re worried about your rug’s color, do a patch test in an out-of-the-way location.)
Ants in the kitchen: An off-white talc-like powder, diatomaceous earth is nontoxic to humans, dogs and cats (just don’t get it in your eyes or nose, where this fine powder can cause irritation); it only harms insects with an exoskeleton (as opposed to an internal skeleton like we have) such as ants, bed bugs, fleas, ticks and cockroaches. How it works: It physically (rather than chemically) kills insects by sticking to them and drying them out. Sprinkle the powder around your home’s foundation and anywhere ants come in, and repeat every couple of weeks.
Long-term solution: Seal cracks in the foundation where ants can come in. Moran recommends AFM Safecoat’s Multi-Purpose Caulk; it’s nontoxic and environmentally safe.
Germs—in the kitchen, bathroom and all over the house: “Vodka, rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are all effective for killing germs,” Rapinchuk says. She creates her own disinfectant by combining lavender essential oil, lemon juice and vodka in a spray bottle. “I douse surfaces with this and let it sit,” she says. For cutting boards in the kitchen, she turns to one of the only methods scientifically shown to kill both Salmonella and E. coli: She sprays hydrogen peroxide on the board to kill germs (including those from raw meat) and then rinses and sprays with distilled white vinegar. “You’ve got to saturate it pretty well for it to be effective,” she says. “A good general rule of thumb is to keep the cutting board wet for 10 to 15 minutes.” Note: Never combine vinegar and hydrogen peroxide in the same spray bottle; the two can cause a dangerous reaction.
Long-term solution: Use common-sense germ-fighting strategies such as frequent hand washing—but opt for regular soap; antibacterial soaps are harmful to the environment and are no more effective at killing germs. Rapinchuk also switches out hand towels daily (bacteria feed on skin cells that slough off on towels). Other strategies: “I make sure bathrooms are cleaned as soon as someone gets sick,” she says. “And I hold toothbrushes over the sink and pour hydrogen peroxide over them or soak them in hydrogen peroxide. Then I replace them after everyone is done being sick.” Rapinchuk also makes sure to wash all the bedding after everyone gets well.
Fleas and ticks: Diatomaceous earth can be used to repel fleas and ticks (sprinkle it on pet beds or rugs to help keep fleas and ticks at bay). But Bond recommends Citra Solv, a natural citrus oil-based cleanser. “It kills all stages of fleas and ticks,” Bond says. The best way to use it: Mix one part Citra Solv with 15 to 20 parts water and spray it everywhere there could be fleas. You can even bathe dogs in this for a natural flea bath. (Don’t use Citra Solv around cats, though. “Cats are very sensitive to d-limonene, the active ingredient,” Bond says.)
Long-term solution: Natural products are best, Bond says. “Chemicals can create the equivalent of drug resistance in insects,” she says. So bathe your dog in diluted Citra Solv as necessary, spray it wherever you can in flea season—and when necessary, sprinkle some diatomaceous earth wherever fleas might be hiding.
Find expert-approved natural cleaning products in Eco-Cleaning: 5 Natural Products.
“There’s nothing you can’t do with a few simple ingredients,” says natural cleaning expert Annie Bond. Here are a few of her picks, as well as those of Becky Rapinchuk, founder of Clean Mama.
• Baking soda: “This works well to absorb odors,” Rapinchuk says. “It’s also a mild abrasive sink cleanser; just sprinkle in the sink with a little castile soap to clean it.”
• Castile soap: “This is an all-purpose cleaner that’s vegetable-based rather than petroleum-based,” Rapinchuk says. “You can use it as a hand soap, mix it with other ingredients to clean, or even use it to brush your teeth.”
• Distilled water: “If you’re making up a batch of your own cleaning solution, use this,” Rapinchuk says. “Unlike tap water, distilled water is bacteria-free and can sit in cleaning mixes for longer without going bad.”
• Distilled white vinegar: “Vinegar has a pretty high kill rate for mold and bacteria,” Bond says. It can be used to clean and disinfect pretty much anything. Plus, it makes a wonderful window cleaner. “Just mix vinegar and water with a dab of dish detergent,” she says.
• Lemon juice: “Lemons are a potent antibacterial,” Rapinchuk says. “You can mix the juice with distilled white vinegar and water and clean your whole house with it.” Another use: Cut a lemon in half, sprinkle it with kosher salt and use it to clean your cutting board. It also works to whiten white sinks: Fill the sink bottom with enough water to cover, add lots of lemon juice and let sit for several hours.
• Washing soda: “It’s a powerful cleaning tool—it’s strong enough to peel paint off,” Bond says. “But it must be diluted.” Although washing soda is caustic and shouldn’t be inhaled, it has no scent or fumes. Use it for everything from cleaning laundry to a homemade all-purpose cleaner; just be sure to wear gloves, as it can irritate skin.
Valerie Latona is a natural health and fitness writer.