The labels on most household products read like the periodic table violently collided with a bowl of alphabet soup. What are those ingredients, and what might they do to our homes, our pets and our loved ones? A foolproof way to know what’s in your cleaning products is to make them yourself. It’s easy and economical, with the added benefit of reducing your household’s carbon footprint by creating less packaging waste and less pollution from manufacturing and shipping.
Feel free to improvise with proportions; none of these recipes are set in stone. When it comes to making soft scrubs, I find myself mixing until the right texture is achieved. It’s like cooking a favorite recipe—rely on instinct and use trial and error to refine. The fun part is trying out essential oils to find your preferred fragrance. DIY cleaning will soon become second nature, and your home will look, feel and smell naturally fresh.
With these 15 items, you can clean just about anything.
■ Baking Soda: scrubbing, whitening
■ Beeswax: polishing wood
■ Borax (sodium borate): removing stains/disinfecting
■ Club Soda (or any unflavored fizzy water): lifting stains
■ Cornstarch: absorbing stains
■ Hydrogen Peroxide: disinfecting, removing stains
■ Lemon: removing stains and odors
■ Liquid Dish Soap: sudsing power
■ Olive Oil: polishing wood
■ Pine Oil: cleaning soft wood floors
■ Plant Essential Oils: chemical-free fragrance (do a sniff test before buying to make sure you’re not sensitive to the fumes)
■ Salt: scrubbing
■ Toothpaste: polishing metal
■ Washing Soda (sodium carbonate): scrubbing, removing stains and cutting grease
■ White Vinegar: disinfecting, removing stains
Un-Dirty Dozen: 12 Easy Cleaners
Remember, even all-natural cleaning ingredients can be irritating. Open windows to ventilate rooms while you clean, and wear gloves. Store homemade cleaners in sealed containers in a cool, dry place.
Carpets and Drapes
Attack fresh stains and spills right away by covering them with absorbent baking soda or cornstarch. Leave for 10 to 15 minutes, then sprinkle with club soda (the fizz helps lift stains), and vacuum and/or blot. Do not rub fresh stains, which can spread them, or use hot water, which can set them.
To clean carpets and drapes, get rid of surface dirt by vacuuming, hanging, shaking out and, if necessary, beating with a broom handle. Next, presoak stains with the solutions below, depending on the type of fabric, for 30 minutes, taking care to spot-test fabric for colorfastness first.
■ For wool or silk, use equal parts cold water and white vinegar or lemon juice.
■ For cotton, linen or synthetic fabrics, use equal parts cold water mixed with hydrogen peroxide, baking or washing soda, or borax.
Following spot removal, wash drapes or area rugs in cold water with liquid soap, old soap bar slivers or natural laundry soap. Because agitation and heat can damage delicate fabrics, wash wool, silk and rayon by hand in a sink or on the gentle cycle of your washer, then hang dry. If you have wall-to-wall carpet, vacuum, then steam-clean using water with a few drops of liquid soap, or simply wipe the entire surface with hot soapy water on a wrung-out rag, sponge or mop, taking care not to let water soak in. A wet carpet can easily grow mildew and mold.
Scrub with 1/2 cup of borax to brighten and disinfect. For daily maintenance, brush the bowl with baking soda and let it sit for a bit before flushing. Add white vinegar for a little extra stain-lifting fizz.
Use on any non-wood surface.
1/2 cup borax
1 gallon hot water
Mix until borax is dissolved; mop or spray and wipe surfaces.
Floor and Wall Cleaner
Use this on any floor, including wood, and on walls.
1 cup white vinegar
1 gallon hot water
1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup liquid soap (optional)
1 to 2 tablepoons pine or lemon oil (optional)
For extra cleaning power, add liquid soap. Add pine or lemon oil (essential oil of lavender or rosemary are less-intense alternatives) to condition unlaminated wood floors. Mix all ingredients and clean floor or walls with mop or damp rag. Follow with a clean-water mop if you use soap.
Shine on without toxic ammonia-based products.
1/4 cup white vinegar or
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups water
3 to 4 drops liquid soap (optional)
Mix and spray or wipe on; for the best shine, use old newspapers!
Encrusted Gunk Buster
Avoid chlorine-based scrubs by making your own scrubbing bubbles.
Baking soda, washing soda or salt
Wipe surface with hot water; sprinkle on soda or salt. Let sit for a few minutes, then scrub with a rag, sponge or brush.
Fume-Free Oven Cleaner
Avoid caustic lye-based products and still make your oven sparkle.
1 cup baking soda
1/4 to 1/2 cup washing soda
1 tablespoon liquid soap
Few drops white vinegar
Make sure oven is off and totally cool. No need to disconnect power. Wipe off surface soot and any fresh spills. Combine dry ingredients and gradually add hot water until you have a thick but malleable paste. For greasy ovens, add an additional 1/4 cup washing soda. Add vinegar (watch it fizz!). Coat all oven surfaces and leave overnight. Wipe off with warm water.
Use this non-scratching, chlorine-free paste on enamel or porcelain.
1 cup baking soda or borax
2 to 3 drops liquid soap
Combine baking soda or borax with enough water to form a paste. Add liquid soap. Apply to surfaces, let sit at least 5 minutes, and scrub with a non-abrasive sponge. Rinse and wipe off residue.
Kill mildew and whiten grout without chlorine.
White vinegar or hydrogen peroxide
Combine ingredients to make a paste. Let stand 30 minutes or more, then scrub.
Lye-Free Drain Cleaner
For a clogged drain, use a plumber’s snake or an untwisted coat hanger to pull out as much gunk as possible. Pour 1/2 cup baking or washing soda down the drain; gradually add 1/2 cup white vinegar. Let fizz and dissolve. Carefully pour in boiling water from a tea kettle. Wait half an hour. Repeat as necessary. Before calling a plumber, let things cool off and snake again.
Avoid cleaners with chlorine bleach and toxic antibacterial agents such as triclosan and triclocarban. The American Medical Association advises against using antibacterial products because they may not be any more effective than regular soap, and they promote the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A wipe-down with white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide provides adequate disinfecting for kitchen and bathroom surfaces—and don’t forget door handles. Remember, the best way to get rid of germs is plain soap and hot water!
The Real Deal Air Freshener
Many commercial air fresheners contain hormone-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates. The healthiest alternative: fresh air! Open the windows. Place an odor-absorbing dish of baking soda or borax on kitchen and bathroom counters out of reach of children and pets. Make your own potpourri by drying flower petals and herbs; these absorb odors and replace them with their own natural scent.
Ditch the Toxins
Avoid these toxic ingredients when buying cleaning products:
■ Alkylphenol ethoxylates
■ Glycol ethers
■ Nonylphenol ethoxylate
■ Sodium laureth sulfate
■ Sodium lauryl sulfate
■ Synthetic fragrance
■ Triclosan and other antibacterial agents (phenols, formaldehyde, petroleum solvents, perchloroethylene, butyl cellosolve)
Mindy Pennybacker is the author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices. Get her green-cleaning tips and more at greenerpenny.com.