There’s no way to know all the chemicals you are bringing into your home when you use commercial cleaning products. Thanks to loopholes in ingredient-disclosure laws, cleaning-product makers are not required to supply a complete list. But independent testing shows that many cleaners contain harsh or even toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, asthma, and skin and lung irritation. That includes some cleaners labeled with reassuring words such as “green,” “nontoxic” and “biodegradable.”
Example: The product Simple Green Concentrated All-Purpose Cleaner says “nontoxic” and “biodegradable” on its label, but testing by the Environmental Working Group, an organization of independent scientists, found that it contains a solvent known to damage red blood cells.
If you make your own cleaning products, you can better control what comes into your home. The following eight do-it-yourself cleaners are safe, effective, inexpensive and easy to make…
Two-step disinfectant that kills germs better than chlorine bleach
1. Combine white distilled vinegar and water in a spray bottle in a 1:1 ratio. Spray this on surfaces as you would bleach.
2. Thoroughly wipe away the vinegar with a cloth or sponge.
3. In a separate bottle, add hydrogen peroxide and spray on the surface. Wipe off.
A researcher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that this system kills germs better than chlorine-based bleach. It’s safer, too. Chlorine-based bleach (and commercial cleaners that contain it) can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems including asthma attacks, among other health concerns. Hydrogen peroxide is a type of bleach but is safer.
Important: Do not skip the wipe-down step. When vinegar and hydrogen peroxide combine, they produce peracetic acid, which has respiratory health risks similar to those of chlorine bleach.
Sweet-smelling sink scrub
1. Mix one cup of baking soda…one tablespoon of ground cinnamon…and five drops of sweet orange essential oil in an airtight container. (Essential oils are available online and in pharmacies, health-food stores and at big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart. Prices vary but start at about $3 per ounce.)
2. Sprinkle a small amount of this mixture on a wet sink, and scrub with a cloth.
Baking soda is a wonderful mild abrasive—it removes grease, grime and soap scum without scratching surfaces.
Safe liquid hand soap
1. Combine three tablespoons of liquid castile soap with one cup of water. (Liquid castile soap can be purchased online and in pharmacies, health-food stores and at big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart, typically for 50 cents to $1 an ounce.)
2. Add up to 10 drops of your favorite essential oil. (This step is optional. Essential oil makes the soap slightly more antibacterial, but mainly it adds scent.)
3. Stir until the soap dissolves.
4. Pour the mixture into a liquid soap dispenser.
Traditional detergent soaps contain harsh chemicals derived from petroleum. Castile soaps are instead made from plant oils and are extremely safe to use in our homes and on our skin.
Helpful: Unlike some all-natural hand soaps, this one foams. Foaming does not improve soap’s cleaning power, but it could save you money—when soap does not foam, people tend to use more than necessary.
Floor cleaner with that familiar lemony scent
1. Fill a bucket with hot water.
2. Mix in two tablespoons (or two large squirts) of liquid castile soap and 20 drops of lemon essential oil.
3. Allow your mop to soak in this mixture until it’s saturated, then mop as normal.
This simple mixture cleans hard-surface floors including wood, tile and linoleum without harsh chemicals. It leaves behind a lemon smell that those of us raised in the era of Lemon Pledge associate with cleanliness.
Tip: If you’re bored with lemon-scented cleaners, feel free to substitute another essential oil, such as lime, orange or grapefruit.
Glass cleaner that won’t streak
1. Combine one-half cup of white distilled vinegar with three-quarters cup of water in a spray bottle, and shake until mixed.
2. Spray on windows and mirrors.
3. Dry with a lint-free cloth or crumpled newspaper. (Newspaper is slightly more abrasive than paper towels, so it does a better job of removing dirt and debris…and newspaper does not leave behind bits of lint.)
Commercial glass cleaners often contain detergents that can leave streaks of residue. This simple vinegar-based detergent-free cleaner will not streak. (You might see streaks the first time or two you use it—that’s the lingering residue from a previously used commercial cleaner.)
Tip: If you dislike the smell of vinegar, soak lemon peels, lime peels and/or orange peels in one-half cup of vinegar for at least one week. Strain out the peels, then use the now citrus-scented vinegar in place of the standard vinegar in the recipe above.
Effective all-natural dish soap
This soap is meant for washing dishes by hand…
1. Add one-quarter cup of tightly packed, grated bar soap (castile soap is available in bar form) to one-and-a-quarter cups of boiling water, and stir until dissolved.
2. Add one tablespoon of washing soda (washing soda can cause skin irritation, so be careful handling it) and one-quarter cup of liquid castile soap, stir again, then remove the mixture from the heat. (Washing soda can be found in the laundry aisle of many supermarkets.)
3. Allow the mixture to cool, then add 20 to 30 drops of the essential oil of your choice.
4. Store in a glass jar or a soap dispenser.
Effective natural dishwasher soap
To make a natural dishwasher soap, combine one cup of borax…one cup of washing soda…one-half cup of kosher salt…and one-half cup of citric acid. Store in an airtight container. Use one tablespoon per dishwasher load.
Safe air freshener
1. Mix one cup of baking soda with 20 to 30 drops of your favorite essential oil. (Citrus oils, such as grapefruit, lemon, lime or orange, are good options.)
2. Sprinkle the mixture on surfaces that require deodorization, such as carpets or upholstery. Leave on for 20 minutes or more, then vacuum up. Or place an open container of the mixture near the source of the odor.
Some commercial air fresheners actually spread neurotoxins throughout the home. Rather than remove or cover the odor, many work by deadening your sense of smell.