Cleaning the Sink with Baking Soda and Lemons

Our sink, freshly cleaned and so darn photogenic!
This is because you can’t see all the clutter just out of view.

A little green cleaning review here. It is possible to keep a sink white and shiny without bleach or other toxic cleansers. I took pictures this week while I was cleaning to prove it.

Below is our grungy sink. A photo can’t quite capture that particularly scuzzy quality a dirty sink has, that gunky bacterial record of all the dishes and greasy pans that have sat in it over the week. In the lower right corner you can see my homemade scrubby–just a few of those red plastic net bags that fruits and veg are sometimes sold in, wadded up and tied into a yellow one.

The more usual state of our sink. That is, minus the piles of dishes.

Step one: baking soda scrub

A few quick things about baking soda:

  • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is an inexpensive, non-toxic, mild abrasive. You can use it safely on enamel, stainless and fiberglass sinks. 
  • While you can find baking soda in the baking aisle of most stores, search it out in bulk, both for savings and because you’ll go through quite a lot of it. We buy it in huge boxes or bags at our local restaurant supply chain. I expect it would also come in bulk at grocery warehouse stores.
  • Make a shaker for it out of a jar with holes punched in the lid,  repurpose some other shaker, or buy a sugar shaker from a restuarant supply place. I’d used an old jar for several years before seeing a metal sugar shaker at an Asian market for all of $1.99 and decided to splurge. You can see it in the windowsill of the top picture. You know, it was totally worth the $1.99.

Using baking soda:

  • The trick to using it effectively is to not use it in a very wet environment. Baking soda dissolves quickly in water, unlike some scouring cleansers. Don’t try to use it in standing water, or even with a very wet sponge.  For it to work well, it has to be on the dry side. If my sink is wet, I’ll run a towel over it to get most of the water out before scrubbing.
  • Use a generous amount of baking soda. 
  • See the lumps and clumps forming in front of my scrubby in the picture below? You can actually see the line between dirty and clean, and the lumps of barely damp baking soda that are picking up the dirt. In my experience, if you’re not producing these sort of lumps, deep cleaning isn’t going to happen. Look for these lumps. They only happen when a) you use enough baking soda, and b) when the cleaning surface is just damp. Not too wet, not bone dry.
These are the magic clumps. I like to imagine myself a snowplow.

Step two: bleaching

Baking soda is an abrasive–it has no bleaching properties. If your white sink remains yellowed or stained after the scrub, you can bleach it with lemon juice. I always set aside unused lemon halves or withered lemons from the back of the fridge for this purpose.

  •  Dry the sink. Again, the less water the better.
  • Cut the lemon into wedges. I find a half lemon will usually do the job on my single sink, but lemons vary.
  • Scrub the sink with the wedges, using both sides. Smear the insides around to spread pulp and juice evenly all over the sink. Use the skin sides to scrub problem areas. I find the wedges do a good job of cleaning around the edges of the drain. I also rub lemon all around the border of the sink and counter, in the tile grout there. It never fails to loosen hidden dirt.
  • By the way, lemon juice is very effective at removing rust stains. For serious stains, combine it with salt to make a paste.
  • Leave the lemon juice to do its work. Leave it sit until dry, at least a half hour. Overnight is fine.
The sink coated with lemon juice and pulp, the drain edge scrubbed.

When you come back to rinse I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how bright the sink is. As a bonus, the lemon rinds can go down the disposal to freshen it:

Look Ma! No toxins!

Yes, this requires a little elbow grease, and a little attention to detail, but the scrubbing with baking soda doesn’t take any longer than scrubbing with a toxic scouring powder, and you’re spared from breathing that junk in, getting it on your hands, and adding it to our water supply–not to mention the danger of having it around the house. The lemon bleaching is an extra step, but one I always enjoy. Maybe it’s the scent, or maybe because I like playing with my food.

Extra tough situations:

  • If the baking soda isn’t cutting it as a scrubber, try scrubbing with table salt or Borax, or a combo of baking soda and salt or Borax. 
  • Borax is a laundry additive, and sold in the laundry aisle. It isn’t as safe a baking soda. It will dry out your skin if you use it with bare hands, and you definitely don’t want to snort the stuff or feed it to your pets and babies, but it’s not bad for the water supply. I harshed on it a bit in our first book, but have softened my opinion about it of late. It has its uses. What’s interesting about Borax is that it releases hydrogen peroxide when mixed with warm water, so it not only is a sturdy scrubber, but also will have some bleaching properties if your sponge is moistened with warm to hot water. 
  • If I have a stain that lemon juice can’t address, I turn to the laundry room again. There I keep a little box of powdered oxygen bleach–Ecover’s, to give them a free plug. Others would work the same, I suspect. This is basically powdered hydrogen peroxide. I can either plug up the sink and soak it in a strong solution, or make a paste of the powder and leave it sit. 


I scrub our enamel clawfoot tub/shower with baking soda, too. The only difference is that tubs and showers accumulate soap scum, and I find you need soap to dissolve soap scum. So to clean the tub I’ll usually spritz it with diluted castile soap. (I keep a bottle of this around for general cleaning.) Then I’ll lay down the baking soda and scrub with a scrubby. The scum comes right off.

I think the persistence of soap scum has much to do with the kind of products you use in the shower. We use homemade soap, and very mild shampoo, and nothing else. These don’t form much scum, and it cuts easily with liquid castile soap and baking soda.

If you use more detergent based products, body washes and advanced hair products, and big brand drugstore soap, which has a very different formulation than homemade, you might have trouble dissolving the scum. I’d advise you cut around the problem by using simpler body products. But in the meanwhile, you might find Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, their detergent alternative, with cut through that scum better than castile soap.

Leave a comment


  1. Would like to hear what you know about vineger as a cleaner. We use it all the time for laundry, veggies, general cleaning.

  2. So, are you saying that 20 Mule Team Borax works best as a bleach in hot water? If so, then what about using it in the washer–Do I need to use hot water for clothing to get the best bleaching effect? I always use cold water for the washing machine and use borax.

  3. The only thing you’d want to be careful with using lemon is to keep it away from rubber and latex- not sure if it degrades silicone but it does the other two. So things like caulking and o-rings (which are in your faucet stems, unless you have washerless stems) can get ruined by the acid.

    What I’d like to know is what you use to clean the toilet- that’s my bane….

    • The toilets in my house are definitely a problem due to our very hard water. Getting a water softener will solve this issue, but we absolutely love our water just the way it is. I have, however, come up with some solutions. Always flush. Saving water through letting it sit unless you must (yellow mellow brown down), just does not work for us. If water conservation is essential, pour a healthy amount of vinegar into the bottom of the bowl and flush another time. This should should help. To remove lime build up, pour a good amount of white vinegar into the bowl, and let it sit as long as possible, the more time the better. When ready, physically remove the lime with the implement of your choice. Once that job is finished, take a pumice stone, and rub away. Your toilet should look as good as new. It works. I did not believe my friend who told me she used a pumice stone, but she insisted that her father was a plumber, it works, and does not hurt the bowl. I figured that chipping away at the lime was already traumatic, and tried it. It works. I do not use toilet bowl cleaners any longer. As an aside, the old Corning ware coffee pot that we use as a tea pot can be “attacked” by lime as well. A couple of times per year, I fill up the pot with white vinegar and let it sit for several days. I scrub with the pumice stone, rinse, and it is good as new.

    • I learned about using a pumice stone not so long ago. It’s true! It really works. Regarding mineral build-up in pots–have you tried using hot vinegar? I find that works well, and fast.

  4. @Parsimony: Borax isn’t a bleach as much as it has some whitening and brightening properties, along with boosting the cleaning power of soap. But yes, its brightening powers work best with warm or hot water.

    @Paula: I don’t think I lemon my sink often enough for it to be a problem, but dedicated neatniks should be wary. The toilet will have to be its own post, I think.

  5. It’s funny, but the older I get, the more I do things like Grandma did them. I have a stainless steel sink (would prefer nice white porcelain like yours), and I clean it with baking soda. Sometimes mixed with borax.

    Since someone else mentioned vinegar, I’m going to put in my two cents’ worth on it. I have a front loader washing machine that smelled. I would leave the door open for at least 24 hours, but the smell would be there again the next time I used the machine. Last week I read a tip that vinegar instead of liquid fabric softener would help with the smell (which is caused by a build up of detergent, liquid fabric softener, and all fabric bleach). I knew that it would also get all the detergent residue out of my laundry and since I use dryer balls, my laundry would come out soft enough. After the *first* use of vinegar, the smell was gone. And my towels looked better and are more absorbent. Good bye liquid fabric softener and/or dryer sheets!

  6. Love the sink! I use a recipe called “earth scrub” for all three of these cleaning chores. You can google it very easily. It’s basically water, baking soda, white distilled vinegar, castile soap and some elbow grease. My wife does like to use the lemon trick on the sink and it works wonders. Sadly the enamel on mine is anything but shiny…

  7. I’m interested to see you have relaxed your opinion somewhat on the toxicity of borax. After hearing about how you should keep it away from open cuts etc my mum told me that my grandmother used to swear by it as an eye wash! Not sure I’ll be replicating that one…

  8. @Miranda & Christian

    The old timey eye wash was made of boric acid (pharmaceutical grade)–not borax. They’re different.

    Folks used to keep a lot of pure chemicals–dangerous ones– around the house and mix them on their own to make everything from medicine to ink to furniture stain. Old how-to books are amazing in that way.

    It’s extra confusing because I believe lower grade boric acid is used to kill ants and roaches. Which doesn’t make it any more appealing as an eye wash! But there’s ongoing confusion between boric acid and borax.

  9. I just now tried this technique out on our white kitchen sink after reading your post over a month ago. It is simply amazing how much of a difference it made in only about 10 minutes. We have almost the exact same sink as yours, but you have way better tile!

    We have used baking soda in our bathtub for years and I don’t know why we never thought to extend it to our kitchen sink. Thanks for the great tip!

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  14. Cleaning vinegar mixed with some Dawn Dish Detergent will clean the grout around tile. Spray and let sit just a few minutes and wipe away. Results are very impressive!!

  15. This is a must try, I normally do this at home but I didn’t know that lemon can be a good cleaning ingredient as well. I like the effect after the clean. Will share this blog and try it at home.

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  17. Wow, I’ve been trying to get my scratched and stained kitchen sink shiny-clean for years! I didn’t think it was possible. Thank you for an effective, rewarding, non-toxic cleaning experience!

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