Non-Toxic Cleaning for the Home


Why Green Cleaning?

We’ve been sold a pack of lies. Professional marketers have convinced us that a good housekeeper keeps a pantry full of specialized cleaning products for every item in the house. A toilet cannot be cleaned with the same stuff you use to clean a sink, or the floors, or the shower.  This lie is merely expensive and wasteful. Far worse is the lie that the chemicals in household cleaners can’t hurt us, that we need harsh mystery cleansers in cheerful bottles to make our houses into homes to keep our children safe and well and to hold up the family pride.

In fact, we were being sold cocktails of chemicals which were and are still ill regulated and little understood, thinking all the time that they were safe, because they were on store shelves.  In Europe, a manufacturer has to prove that a product is safe before it goes to market. In the U.S., the people have to prove a product is dangerous before it can be pulled from the market.

We know for a fact that many common cleaning products are harmful to human health. Some of the best consumer protection work in this field is being done by The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan group dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Their website, www.ewg.org, is a treasure trove of consumer information. They rate the safety of everything from tap water to cosmetics to cleaning supplies. We encourage you to reference them often, and support them if you can. We’ve used their information to shape this guide.

Please see their Guide to Healthy Cleaning (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners). Look up how they rate your favorite cleaning products, and also browse their top rated cleaning products in various categories.

To quote from the EWG’s website, they made the following findings in their survey of cleaning products:

  • Some 53 percent of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs. About 22 percent contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals.
  • Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is sometimes used as a preservative or may be released by other preservatives in cleaning products. It may form when terpenes, found in citrus and pine oil cleaners and in some essential oils used as scents, react with ozone in the air.
  • The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen, is a common contaminant of widely-used detergent chemicals.
  • Chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen, sometimes escapes in fumes released by products containing chlorine bleach.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) like benzalkonium chloride, found in antibacterial spray cleaners and fabric softeners, can cause asthma.
  • Sodium borate, also known as borax, and boric acid are added to many products as cleaning agents, enzyme stabilizers or for other functions. They can disrupt the hormone system.

To add to the problem, many cleaning products contribute to the pollution of our watersheds and oceans. Here in Los Angeles what you flush down the sewer ends up in the ocean, with some, but not complete treatment. Nobody really knows what will become of all of the chemicals mixing in the ocean as of now, how they will combine, or disperse, or create new chemicals.

Safe Disposal of Cleaning Products

If this information converts you to green cleaning, that’s fantastic! If you want to get rid of your old, toxic cleaners, do so carefully. You have two options. You can use up what you have. Using it bit by bit is far better than pouring it all down the drain at once or putting it in the garbage. It is safest and kindest to the planet and to sanitation workers to dispose of these powerful chemicals safely. Gather them up (along with old paint, pesticides, motor oil, etc.)  and take them to a Household Hazardous Waste Collection Center. These centers also collect electronic waste, so while you’re at it you can collect your dead electronics and batteries and take them in was well.

The county sponsors mobile hazardous waste collection events which might be closer to your home than the permanent collection centers. Google “household hazardous waste” and your city’s name or look at the LA County Sanitation Department’s website.

Our Green Cleaning Philosophy

Keep it simple!

When DIYing your own cleaning products, use the fewest chemicals you can, in the mildest formulation you can. Bring out the big guns only when necessary. As much as possible, use chemicals in their pure state, rather than mixed into multi-ingredient cocktails, so you know for sure what you are using.

Remember, it is more green to use a few simple things, and use those frugally, than to stock your cupboards with a huge inventory of expensive “green” specialty products.

Also, while it is fine to use well-rated commercial products for convenience, beware of “green washing”, i.e. products which call themselves “natural” or “green” but are actually not all that safe–there is no regulation of the use of these terms in labeling. (e.g. Simple Green is neither “green” nor simple!)

Check all cleaning products against the EWG database, and keep in mind that even within a single brand, some formulations will be well rated and others poorly rated. A good rule of thumb is to seek unscented products, because fragrances and perfumes carry toxins, and are often at the root of a poor EWG rating.

Green Cleaning Toolkit

Remember, water is the universal solvent. The majority of cleaning is actually accomplished by water and friction! The rest of this is just icing on the cake.

All you need in your cupboard to clean everything in your house are the big four:

SOAP
BAKING SODA
VINEGAR
WASHING SODA

And this second string of players, which are very helpful in specific situations:

HYDROGEN PEROXIDE
RUBBING ALCOHOL
SALT
LEMONS
ESSENTIAL OILS

The Players Described

It’s important to understand what you are using to clean your house and why it works, so that you can be empowered to experiment safely and effectively.  What follows is a list of the qualities of the cleaners listed above. If you are looking to solve a specific problem, or clean a specific item, you can skip this–a little further on is a list of recipes or recommendations regarding how to use these products in specific cleaning situations.

Soap/Detergent

Recommended:

Dr. Bronner’s Pure Liquid Castile Soap (various scents) (EWG A rated)
or
Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Liquid Cleaner (EWG A rated)
or
The mildest, “greenest dish” liquid you can find

What do they do? Soaps and detergents are both surfactants, meaning they help water lift grease and dirt so it can be washed away.

A couple of spoonfuls of soap in spray bottle full of water is a mild, effective all purpose cleaner. For more difficult jobs, mix up a basin of hot soapy water and grab the scrub brush.

Cleaning does not have to be more complex than this.

Note: Bronner’s products, both the soap and Sal Suds, are very concentrated. The label famously says “Dilute! Dilute!” and they aren’t kidding. So while a bottle of Bronner’s might seem pricey, one bottle will last a long time if used properly. Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap is widely distributed, and can be found at Target and Trader Joe’s and some regular grocery stores as well as health food stores. Sal Suds is more likely to be found only at health food stores.

Detergent vs. Soap: An Explainer

Soap is a very old human technology while detergents are recent inventions created in labs, often using petrochemicals. They have become popular since their invention in the 20th century because they rinse away more cleanly than soap, so that dishes and shiny surfaces don’t become spotty, and laundry doesn’t develop yellowish build-up. Because of this, nowadays detergents instead of soaps are used for almost all laundry, dishwashing and cleaning products, and sometimes in personal care products as well. The problem with detergents is that they are much more toxic than soap, having, depending on their formulation, bad effects both on humans and the environment, especially on water quality.

A good compromise between safety and effectiveness is Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds which is a detergent but which has an A rating from EWG. It can be used for almost any cleaning purpose, from floor cleaning to dishes to laundry. Not to be biased — we are not sponsored by Sal Suds! – but this is a very versatile cleaning tool. A minimalist could do most of their cleaning, including their laundry, with little more than a bottle of Sal Suds and a box of baking soda. Sal Suds can be found at most health food stores, or ordered online.

Sal Suds cannot be used on the body, however. Dr. Bronner’s soap is useful in the shower and for hand cleaning, and to be clear, their soap is just fine for general household cleaning as well, especially where spots or streaks (e.g. glass and shiny surfaces) are not an issue.

An alternative to these two products would be to use an eco friendly liquid dishwashing liquid (aka detergent) for general purpose cleaning. Use the EWG database to find one. Be aware that popular brands of dish liquid, like Dawn, tend to rate D’s and F’s.

Baking Soda aka Sodium Bicarbonate (EWG A rated)

What does it do? It has several useful functions. It can be used as a scrub on anything, from bathtub ring to pots and pans. It deodorizes. It softens water, so soap can clean better, especially in the laundry. It is also highly absorbent, so it can be used to clean up grease spills and other messes. It also puts out kitchen fires.

White Distilled Vinegar (EWG A rated)

White distilled vinegar can be purchased inexpensively in gallon bottles in any grocery store.

What does it do? Vinegar is a fairly strong acid.  It can be used in a spray bottle diluted with up to 50% water as a general purpose cleaner (you will figure out how strong you like to use it.) It excels at removing mineral build up and killing mold. It also helps remove soap scum and soap build up.

Vinegar has a strong scent, but once it dries, that scent goes, taking other scents with it, so it is an excellent deodorizer. Try wiping out the fridge with it. It is particularly good for deodorizing cat litter boxes. It can be used in the rinse cycle of the washing machine instead of fabric softener.

Do not use vinegar, especially at full strength, on fine stone or unsealed wood, because it is an acid, so iit can harm these surfaces.

Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda  (EWG Rated A )

What does it do?  This powerful cousin to baking soda is a degreaser. Most of the time you do not need it, but when you do, say for cleaning a greasy stove, it’s very useful, and an excellent alternative to harsh kitchen cleaners like Spic and Span or Simple Green. It’s also a laundry additive, boosting the cleaning power of your detergent to treat stains, odor and dirt without any of the fragrances and harmful chemicals found in other laundry products.

If you do not find it washing soda at your grocery store in the laundry section, check the hardware store.

Hydrogen Peroxide (EWG B rated—it’s complicated!—but it is safe)

Look for the brown bottles of 3% hydrogen peroxide sold in drug stores. This is the only kind found easily on store shelves. Leave it in the brown bottle because it is light sensitive. You can screw a spray nozzle on the brown bottle for ease of use.

What does it do? Hydrogen peroxide’s bubbling action helps lift and clean dirt out of tiny crevices. It is a disinfectant as well as a mild bleach but, unlike bleach, hydrogen peroxide is non-toxic and safe for food prep surfaces. Can be used as a general purpose spray cleaner—we like spraying it on our tile counters because it lifts gunk out of grout.

Can also be used to treat laundry stains. Because of the mild bleaching effect, be careful using it on delicate or dark colored fabrics.

Rubbing alcohol aka Isopropyl alcohol  (EWG B rated for slight risk of respiratory irritation)

Drugstore bottles of rubbing alcohol come in formulations of 70% and 91%. Either will work, and you can decide to dilute them with water or not, as you like. As with hydrogen peroxide, you can screw a spray nozzle directly onto the bottle for ease of use. You can also use cheap vodka in the same way. It comes pre-diluted — vodka is 40% alcohol and 60% water.

What does it do? Alcohol is best used to clean shiny surfaces like chrome, steel, mirrors and glass, as well as eye glasses and electronic screens. It dissolves inks —and also some kinds of paint, so be careful with using it on things like remote control buttons or glossy paint finishes.  It is also a strong disinfectant, so it’s particularly good for cleaning knobs and handles and thermometers, disinfecting earring posts and for de-germing cleaning tools.

Warning! Alcohol is flammable. Be very cautious using it around high heat and flame, and also use it in a ventilated area. Avoid prolonged skin exposure.

Salt

Salt is an excellent scrubber, harsher than baking soda. Bacteria is not at all  fond of salt. It’s excellent for scrubbing down cutting boards, especially in combination with a lemon rind.

Lemons

Save your lemon halves!

Try scrubbing your sink with lemon rinds, leaving pulp and juice behind. Let it sit for a little bit. The lemon juice will bleach away stains naturally, and if you have a garbage disposal, you can send the peels down to be chopped up, releasing a nice lemon scent.

Essential Oils

These are not necessary parts of a kit, but pleasant to have on hand for scenting cleaning products—just for fun. The most common (and inexpensive) oils for scenting cleaning products are lemon, peppermint and lavender, though you can use anything you like.

Lavender is probably the most useful essential oil, the one I’d choose if I could only have one on a desert island. Not only is the scent pleasant, it is actually proven to be relaxing to stressed people. It is also one of the few essential oils which can safely be placed directly on the skin without dilution. Because of this it can be used medicinally. It is excellent for itchy bug bites and also can be rubbed into the temples for tension headaches and sleeplessness. It is also nice in the bath.

RECIPES

All purpose cleaner, for general wipe down of surfaces

Soapy water is the best all purpose cleaner, safe for all surfaces. Mix a spoonful of liquid soap or Sal Suds in a spray bottle of water. Add essential oils for scent, if desired.

Vinegar is also a good all purpose cleaner, except on marble or wood. It is good for shiny surfaces like tile, enamel and porcelain, so is particularly useful in the bathroom and kitchen.  Try diluting it to 50% in a spray bottle with water. You may prefer the mix to be stronger or weaker—adjust to taste.

Scouring powder

Baking soda is the mildest scrubbing powder for dishes, sinks, bathtubs, etc. For ease of use, you can transfer it to a kitchen shaker or a jar with holes punched in the lid. Salt can be used if you want something more coarse. Baking soda will not scratch.

Bon Ami is a safe (A rated) store bought alternative— but only the original gold can Bon Ami, not any of its spin offs, though they are branded as “natural.”

Scouring Paste

Mix baking soda and liquid soap (e.g. Dr. Bronner’s or Sal Suds) in a small bowl until a paste forms. Use this to clean tubs, to scrub toilet bowls, or to attack greasy kitchen messes.

Bleaching Paste

For stains, such as stained grout in the bath, try mixing up a paste of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide and letting it sit a bit before rinsing.

Floor cleaner

There are many types of flooring available,  and you should follow the care guidelines offered by the manufacturer. But in general, 1/4 cup of vinegar diluted in a bucket of water cleans many surfaces. This is even safe for sealed wood floors, provided you damp mop and don’t leave any water standing. A few drops of Sal Suds in a bucket of water also works.

Stainless steel appliances

Clean first with a damp, lint free cloth and bit of dishwashing liquid or Sal Suds, then with another lint-free cloth, polish the steel with a few drops of mineral oil or baby oil. Rubbing alcohol also works well, but must be used in a ventilated area and away from flame.

Deep cleaning

For tough cleaning jobs, like a greasy stove, or just anything which is very smelly and dirty,  mix up about 1/2 cup of washing soda in 1/2 gallon of warm water. Use this to wipe down surfaces. Soak baked on grease in the same solution or sprinkle some soda on a sponge and scrub direct. Use gloves!

Electronics

Fill a small spray bottle with half distilled water and half rubbing alcohol. Spray this solution on a clean, lint free cloth and use it to wipe down computer  and phone screens, as well as to clean eyeglasses. Be cautious using it on keyboards, however, because it alcohol may dissolve the ink on the keys over time.

Dusting

This one is tricky. What are you dusting? A dry feather duster or sheepskin wand can knock off light dust, which then can be swept or vacuumed up. A soft cloth dampened with water or vinegar can clean smooth surfaces. A sock on the hand can dust around odd shapes like light fixtures and knick-knacks. You don’t really need dusting spray. And you don’t need to apply furniture oil unless you have fine wood furniture with an oil finish which needs renewing. Most modern furniture is sealed, and just needs wiping off.

Air freshener

Air fresheners are ironically quite toxic and irritating to the lungs. Rely on old fashioned means of freshening a room, like opening the windows and airing the furniture. Sprinkle baking soda on carpets and let it sit overnight, then vacuum the next day. Put baking soda in bowls or boxes in stuffy closets. Use cedar chips in closets also. They don’t really keep away moths but they do make the closet smell good. Simmer citrus rinds and whole spices on the stove—or more safely, in a Crock Pot. Burn incense and dried herbs. California is home to native aromatic sages and cedars which are envied the world over. Grow your own smudge sticks! If you really want to spray something around, mix vodka with a few drops of your choice of essential oil in a glass spray bottle. Shake every time you use it.

Window Cleaner

Homemade glass cleaner:  1/4 cup rubbing alcohol, 1/4 cup vinegar, 1 Tablespoon cornstarch, 2 cups of warm water. Shake well in a spray bottle.

The cornstarch (called corn flour in some places) is optional. It works as a very fine scrubbing powder, removing any buildup on the window, and thus creating more sparkle and shine. You can skip it if you don’t have any. Similarly, in a pinch you can clean windows with only alcohol or vinegar in water, instead of both.

Using a squeegee is helpful, as is using a lint free rag. That is why crumbled newspaper is a classic window cleaning tool—no lint! And remember the key to clean windows is drying them thoroughly.

Very dirty/greasy windows (particularly outside windows which have collected layers of dust and diesel particulate) might benefit from a quick preliminary rinse with plain soapy water to cut the grease and make it easier to polish them up.

Dishes

Handwashing: Dishwashing liquids are specially formulated to cut grease and leave dishes spot free and shiny. This ease of use comes with some cost, as most of them are rather toxic to both humans and our waterways. Check EWG listings and buy the best brand you can find. For instance, Ecos Dishmate is sold at local Whole Foods and is A rated.

Sal Suds can be used for dishes and is A rated. You can also use Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap to wash, but if you do, you must also use a rinse tub of warm water with vinegar added in order to reduce with spotting and clouding. Very greasy pots and pans and racks can also be scrubbed with Washing Soda (Use gloves!)

Dishwasher Detergent  There is no very good homemade version of dishwasher powder. However, well rated products are listed by the EWG. For instance Seventh Generation Dishwasher Detergent Packs (Free and Clear and also Lemon) and Whole Food’s 365 Dishwasher Packs (Unscented only) are A rated, and we have found they work as well as Cascade in our dishwasher.

Bathroom Cleaning

Toilet Cleaner

You don’t need specialized toilet cleaners. Wipe surfaces with whatever all purpose cleaner you have, though vinegar, because of its deodorizing and mild antibacterial action, is a good choice. Backflush the toilet to expose the sides of the bowl, then scrub with a brush and more all purpose cleaner, be it vinegar or soapy water, or if more scrubbing power is needed, scrub with baking soda or Bon Ami. Soak mineral stains with pure vinegar.

Tub and Shower Cleaner

Depends on what kind of tub and shower you have! In general, soap and baking soda used together, either combined as a scrubbing paste (as described above) or as a simple spritz of all purpose cleaner followed by a shake of baking soda, remove soap scum and clean nicely. Vinegar is also good for a quick wipe down of ceramic tile, enamel or plastic surfaces, but if you have a stone tub/shower check manufacturer’s recommendations. Glass shower doors can be squeegeed with vinegar after showering to prevent spotting and build up. Otherwise shower doors can be cleaned like windows. Straight vinegar attacks mold on shower curtains. Scrub moldy curtains with soap, then spray with vinegar and let it sit. Mold stains on cloth curtains can be laundered out after a long soak in oxygen bleach

Drain Cleaner

These are some of the most toxic, dangerous chemicals you can buy. Just don’t do it. Clogged sinks and baths can be most effectively cleared the same way a plumber would do it: with a plumbing snake. It is very simple to do: you just fish a line down the drain and then rotate it to clear the blockage. It takes a matter of minutes to clear the drain and uses no chemicals at all. Every house should have a small snake for the sinks and a larger one just for the toilet. It is worth the small investment to save much larger plumber bills.

Laundry

Laundry Detergent

Store Bought: While using commercial products is the easiest option, few, even among those from eco-friendly brands, rate well with the EWG. One of the few well rated ones that I have seen in stores—health food stores—is the Ecover brand detergent. They make a few variants, but they all rate A or B. Look up your own detergent on EWG and see where it stands, and if you recognize any brands which might be better.

Homemade: Some people make their own laundry detergent by mixing grated soap with washing soda and borax. There are many recipes, all very similar, on the Internet if you are interested in trying this. Soap and washing soda are A rated by the EWG, but borax rates an F. You will want to research borax and make your own decisions on whether it is is safe to use, and how.

A compromise: One easy alternative would be to use Sal Suds, a simple detergent, plus a laundry booster for a little extra oomph. Use 1 tablespoon of Sal Suds in a front loader, and 2 Tablespoons in a top loader. To that you may add about a 1/4 cup washing soda for cleaning power, or oxygen bleach for brightening, or baking soda for deodorizing. All of these substances are A rated.

An unusual alternative: Soap nuts are the dried fruits of the Soap Nut Tree (Sapindus Mukorossi)— they look a bit like small dates or wrinkly hazelnuts. They contain natural soaps which are released in water. They can be used as a mild, all natural laundry detergent. While they may not clean the dirtiest laundry, they do actually work for normal loads and are particularly good for delicate clothing and for people with skin allergies, because they are so mild. The best way to use them, especially if you are washing in cold water, is to make a tea of them with hot water, and then pour the tea in the washer.

Some people actually find that soap nut tea serves all their cleaning needs, and use it for dish soap, hand soap, shampoo—everything. It is not perfect, but it is very mild, very good for folks with allergies and gentle enough on the land and water to be used in a greywater system.

You can buy them online or at some health food stores.

Laundry Bags

A new invention you may not have heard of are laundry bags created to collect fine plastic fibers shed by man-made fibers in washing. These teeny tiny bits of plastic fluff are called “plastic micro-waste” and they are becoming a big problem in our oceans. See guppyfriend.com for more information.

Laundry whitening

In terms of whitening, oxygen-based bleaches are safer for you and your lungs than chlorine based bleaches. They are also easier on your clothes. Big brands  use optical brighteners in addition to bleach in their formulations, which do not biodegrade. In fact, scientists are concerned about the long term, cumulative effects of optical brighteners in our water.  An alternative bleach called Oxiclean is easy to find in grocery stores. The unscented variety, which has a green lid, is B rated, while the pink lidded baby version is A rated. Just avoid the regular, yellow lidded version, which rates an F because of the toxic fragrance ingredients in its formulation. BioKleen Oxygen Bleach Plus has an A rating, but will probably only be found in a health food store.

Also try boosting your laundry with washing soda—you may find that whitens sufficiently without bleaches.

Stain removers

Don’t forget that water is your first defense against stains. Run fresh stains under lots of cool running water, and soak old stains for as long as you can. Soak all stains in cold water until you have a chance to wash them. Remember to never put stained clothing in the dryer, or treat with hot water, because heat sets stains.

Treating any remaining stain takes a little deduction, because the treatment depends on the substance. Greasy stains can be treated with soap or detergent. First, though, dab to remove as much grease as possible. If you are home, you can use cornstarch to soak up grease.

Highly pigmented stains, like wine, juice and mustard, can be treated with hydrogen peroxide or an oxygen bleach or with Oxiclean. These also work well on blood. Some stains, like chocolate, are a combination of things. Chocolate is greasy, as well as pigmented, so you would want to use both soap and and peroxide or oxygen bleach.

Alcohol lifts ink, as long as it is not indelible ink.

Note: if you deal with difficult stains frequently, you might want to invest in an enzyme based stain remover, which is specialized to deal with mud, blood and grass stains—i.e. the stains of athletics!

Fabric softener

Most of the big brand fabric softeners are full of chemicals which can irritate the skin, and perfumes which cause all sorts of problems. Use white vinegar in the rinse compartment instead of fabric softener. Your clothes will not smell of vinegar once they dry, but they will be deodorized and softened.

Dryer sheets

The perfumes in dryer sheets make them one of the most toxic products in the house. Wool dryer balls speed drying and cut static cling. They used to be a rare, specialty product but now they are sold at Trader Joes. Another way to reduce static is to remove clothes before they are overly dry, and to avoid artificial fibers. Natural fibers don’t suffer from static cling. If it is the scent you want from a dryer sheet, you can try putting a few drops of essential oil on a small, clean cloth and throwing that in with a dryer load, or you can line your drawers with good smelling things (candles, soaps, sachets, herbs) and let your clothes pick up scent that way.

Disinfectants

Unless you have a household suffering from a contagious illness or a family member who is immune compromised, it is not necessary to disinfect your home day to day— only to keep it healthily and reasonably clean. It is not good for our immune systems to live in overly clean environments, and harsh cleaners are usually air pollutants as well, which aggregates asthma and allergies.

Keep in mind the the American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control are very concerned about the proliferation of anti-bacterial products and ask that we do not use them, unless, again, we are caring for a very sick person. Not only do they warn about the effects mentioned above, but also the unintended side-effect of breeding superbugs. (1)

Keep in mind that it is also futile to try to eliminate all bacteria in heavily used zones, like toilets, because not matter how well you clean them, they will be contaminated at the very next use. Much of our fear of germs has been developed by persistent and effective advertising campaigns, and is not based in fact.

The real key to household safety lies not so much in wiping surfaces with antimicrobial agents, but rather about avoiding cross-contamination, and this plays out in two ways. The first is in using dedicated cutting boards, bowls and tools for handling raw meat and eggs. The second comes down to good old fashioned hand washing. Everyone needs to wash their hands thoroughly (with plain old soap, not antimicrobial soap) after visiting the bathroom, and before they start handling food, whether eating or cooking, and after they handle raw meat, or play with their pets. It’s really as simple as that.

If you feel an area needs a little more cleaning than soap and water offer, remember that salt, vinegar, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide and alcohol all have disinfecting qualities, alcohol being the strongest.

If you are cleaning for someone who has a contagious illness, or who is immune-compromised, then and only then would we recommend the use of chlorine bleach, simply because of its unquestioned efficacy at germ killing.

Nonetheless, bleach is a human health hazard and while the residue of bleach used in household cleaning is not a big threat to the environment it itself, the production of bleach itself creates dangerous bi-products which are serious environmental pollutants.

The proper use of bleach as a disinfectant:

For food preparation surfaces, ordinary bathroom cleaning, cleaning children’s toys and changing tables: Mix 1T of chlorine bleach in a gallon of warm water. Wipe down surfaces with this solution and air dry.

For the most extreme cleaning scenarios, such as cleaning up diarrhea or vomit produced by ill people in sick room situations, a stronger solution of ⅓ cup bleach to 1 gallon of water can be used It is dangerous and unnecessary to use bleach in stronger concentrations than this

Warning: Fumes from bleach, even diluted bleach, are a lung irritant and are particularly dangerous for people with asthma, allergies and compromised respiratory systems. Full strength bleach can burn skin and cause permanent eye damage, so wear gloves and protect skin and eyes when pouring it from the bottle.

Insecticide

The best source for information for safely handling a variety of household and garden pests, see UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management Guide: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/menu.homegarden.html

Bugs are usually a management problem. An ounce of prevention spares a pound of poison! Use window screens. Keep counters and floors clear of food, put away pet food after feeding time. Don’t let garbage sit. Insect sprays and bombs are toxic and unnecessary—literally overkill. If you are bothered by ants, for instance, no need to spray with a poison like Raid. A spritz of vinegar or rubbing alcohol will kill them quickly, as will hot soapy water.

Ants follow scent trails laid down by scouts. Wipe down their travel paths with vinegar or rubbing alcohol to erase their scent, making it hard for them to find their way back in. Block their points of entrance with strong smelling and powdery substances. Start with non-toxic stuff and work your way up to boric acid if you have to. Many people find lines of cinnamon very effective. Other have used lines of baby powder or even lavender buds.

If your fruit bowl went bad and now you are plagued by fruit flies, try squirting them midair with rubbing alcohol (your electronics spray will do just fine)

If you have an outbreak of pantry moths, throw away all suspect food or freeze it for several days to kill moth eggs. Wipe down all of your cabinet shelves with vinegar, making sure to get it in the cracks between the walls and the shelves.

And if you have rats or mice, classic snap traps are very efficient and kinder than slow poison. You also do not run the risk of accidentally poisoning other creatures who might encounter the poison or the poisoned rat: cats, dogs, hawks, owls.

Internet Myths and Chemistry Errors

Over the last ten years or so, homemade cleaning supplies have really caught on. The Internet is full of recipes and recommendations, so many that it can be confusing. Also, as is often the case with Internet information, misinformation spreads easily, and not-so-good cleaning recipes are ubiquitous. Cleaning is chemistry, and unfortunately most of us are not chemists. You’ll find recipes asking you to mix substances which should not mix. Watch out for these recommendations:

  • Baking Soda + Vinegar

These are both excellent cleaners on their own, but when combined they foam spectacularly and do little else. One is an acid and the other is a base. Together, they neutralize one another, taking away one another’s cleaning power. The foam is not cleaning anything, except in so far as the bubbling action might dislodge dirt. What you are left with when the foaming is over is basically salty water. This combination does not unclog drains, as is often claimed, nor does it make your toilet any cleaner. Use them separately, and distrust the information of any site which recommends you combine them.

The same goes for any acid plus baking soda, such as lemon juice.

  • Vinegar + Hydrogen Peroxide

These should not be combined in a bottle. Together they form peracetic acid, which is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant. Peracetic acid is used for industrial cleaning, but at a different strength, and in particular situations. Skip it for home use.

  • Castile Soap + Vinegar

These two are also chemical opposites— an acid and a base. Vinegar causes liquid castile soap to curdle like spoiled milk and settle out of the mix. Many recipes, such as all purpose cleaner mixes, call for combining them, but keep them separate. Vinegar and soap are a team in that vinegar is an excellent rinse for anything washed in soap (e.g. hair, clothes, glassware) because it removes soapy residue and helps neutralize the chemistry.

  • Bleach + Ammonia—or anything else!

Bleach is not a green cleaner, but it is worth reiterating that it should used alone if you are going to use it. It does not play well with others.

  • The problem with mixing in general:

Commercial cleaning products are made with many unpronounceable ingredients. They are formulated by professionals with degrees to last a long time on the shelf, and to remain incorporated and homogenous. The problem when you play chemist when making your cleaning products, adding a little of this and a little of that, is not only that you might combine things which ought not to be combined, as above, but also that the combined items will tend to separate or degrade or evaporate or dry up. It is best to keep your materials in their pure form, and then if you’re going to mix, mix just enough to use that day.

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11 Comments

  1. Great information! Thanks. I have printed this out for reference. It should be part of your next book.

  2. Thanks for this very good information. I am very happy to see you posting again, Mrs. Homegrown. It’s been too long.

  3. This is going quadrupled starred in my bookmarks. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as my kid is about two seconds away from starting to crawl. My husband and i split household duties, his biggest one is the bathroom and he has a sort of scorched earth style of cleaning that i have been slowly convincing him to ditch. Better for him too, i cringe at the smell of the stuff he uses to get the calcification off our shower doors (super hard water), you can hear the brain cells frying.

    One thing i like to do is save orange and lemon rinds and soak them in white vinegar for a couple of weeks. A few sprigs of rosemary in there is nice too. Mixed with hot water it makes a great all purpose cleaner and smells nice.

  4. So glad you’re back!! and thanks for the info. I’ve been using vinegar, baking soda, dishsoap and peroxide but it wasn’t enough for tough dirt. I’m excited to try the washing soap,lemons and salt.

  5. Pingback: Non-Toxic Cleaning for the Home – 5/25/19 – Trusted News Feeds 2.0

  6. Hi again, I have a question about washing poison ivy from clothing. There’s a bunch growing in my backyard and I don’t want to use chemicals to remove it. That means I’ll be remove it by hand (gloved, of course). I read that all the clothing needs to be washed with a strong detergent. What’s considered strong enough in the diy cleaning product realm for that? Borax?

    I don’t know if you have any experience with this, but any information would be a great help. I’ve looked online and haven’t found much with this particular question. Thanks!

    • We don’t have any experience with this, unfortunately. You need something that cuts oil like super washing soda.

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