Common Ground’s Spring Cleaning Workshop during Earth Week did not end up filling, but as I had all the information for the class already prepared, I’ve decided to share it through a blog post. So happy learning and cleaning! The topics are -in order- Why Natural?, Common Dangerous Ingredients, General Safety, Natural Alternatives, Tools, Prevention, Recipes, Tips & Techniques, and Further Resources. Feel free to leave your own healthy cleaning tips and tricks in the comments.
Why should we be concerned with cleaning with natural products?
-Cleaning products of synthetic origin have been associated with various autoimmune disorders and, in the case of antibacterial products, the creation of resistant microorganisms. I don’t think any of us want chronic respiratory diseases or nuke-proof bacteria scuttling around our kitchens and bathrooms.
-Synthetic cleaning products add complexity – do you really want to spend time finding all the different products clever marketing has convinced you that you need? (Honestly – microwave wipes?)
-Synthetic cleaners often contain carcinogens, allergens, and irritants. Did you know air indoors is usually more polluted than air outside? You can thank cleaning products for some of that.
-Synthetic cleaners are often petroleum-based, and we know how good that is for the environment.
-Natural, homemade cleaning products are usually cheaper than their supermarket equivalents, and result in less waste. (No containers to throw away, and you can make only as much as you need at a time.)
Common Dangerous Ingredients
These are some common ingredients in synthetic cleansers that have some nasty side effects.
-Chlorine creates dioxins when it is flushed into waterways, is an irritant and can burn skin.
-Detergents (called any number of different things on labels) dry out skin.
-Fragrances can be irritants of the skin, mucous membranes, esophagus, lungs, etc.
-Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are omnipresent and unpleasant things. Ethanol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, propylene glycol, and glycol ethers all release VOCs. VOCs contribute to the creation of ozone (not the kind that will fill up the hole in the ozone layer – the kind that sits near the ground and burns up car tires and lungs), and long-term exposure can lead to breathing problems and nervous system damage. VOCs may even be carcinogenic.
I’m going to scare you in this section, but don’t be put off .
-Natural cleaning products are not necessarily digestible or safe (thought most are). For example, turpentine is a natural product, but it can still give you some nasty chemical burns. I’ll mention which natural cleaning product ingredients are “safe” in common use and which aren’t.
-DON’T MIX CLEANERS. Really, just don’t. Bleach and ammonia mixed together produce a toxic, carcinogenic gas. Mixing natural products on your own can also be risky – make sure you use a recipe, or are very familiar with the properties of whatever ingredients you are using. Reusing containers that harsh cleansers were stored in is also a bad idea, as chemical residue could remain.
-Label your homemade cleansers and list their ingredients. This helps you remember what you made, how you made it, and warns other people it’s not your hidden moonshine stash (or whatever).
-Wear gloves. Even natural products can dry out your hands – just wash your hands a number of times with pure castile soap and you’ll see what I mean.
-Baking soda. Baking soda is officially sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3. It is a mildly alkaline white powder. You can use it for deodorizing, scouring, polishing, stain removal, and to help dissolve dirt and grease in water. My favorite uses for baking soda are to freshen fridges and drains (put some in a bowl in the fridge or pour some down the drain); clean tough burnt-on or baked-on scum (as a scouring powder); freshen, soften, and remove stains in laundry (just pour some in with your laundry detergent); deodorize my rabbit’s litter box; freshen rugs (sprinkle on the rug, let sit for 15 minutes to 2 hours, and then sweep or vacuum up); clean stoves (more on this later); and bake cookies. Baking soda is quite non-toxic and can be used on most surfaces; do a test on an inconspicuous surface first if you’re concerned about scratching.
-Borax is a mineral compound, and another white powder. You can use it for deodorizing, antibacterial purposes, to inhibit mold and mildew growth, remove stains, as a laundry booster (it loosens grease and stains), and as a toilet and dish cleaner. I use it primarily as a laundry booster and to spray down the dark corners of my shower to prevent and treat mold. Borax is harmful if ingested -so don’t use it around food- and is a respiratory and skin irritant; use it for heavy-duty cleaning only, and occasionally at that.
-Club soda is water and carbon dioxide, and is good for removing rust and stains. It’s safe enough to drink (as you’ll notice if you buy it – it’s sold as a beverage), and plants like the minerals it provides.
-Essential oils are liquid aroma compounds extracted from plants. Depending on what essential oil it is, they can be antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, have a lovely scent, and much more. Bottles of essential oil are fairly expensive, but mine have lasted me for years. I use essential oils for scenting and adding to the efficacy of cleaning products – for example, I frequently use tea tree oil for its antibacterial and antiseptic purposes, lavender primarily for its scent, lemon for its antiseptic properties and scent, and eucalyptus for its antiseptic properties. Essential oils are also wonderful for homemade body and beauty care products. A few drops of essential oil are safe, but they can be toxic in larger quantities. Lavender and tea tree oils are usually safe for direct, undiluted use upon the skin, but most other essential oils can be irritants and should be diluted.
-Lemons. Lemons are great for cutting grease, sanitizing, and removing stains and limescale. They also have some nice uses in furniture polishes. I mostly use lemons for lemonade, but I do use the juice in a spray I’ll mention later, and to help remove stains and limescale. Lemons are pretty darn safe; it made me laugh a little when one home cleaning book seriously warned that lemon juice will sting mucous membranes and open wounds – the horror.
-Liquid castile soap. This olive oil-based soap can be used in cream cleansers, as a dishwashing liquid, and to add a little more oomph to mopping water. I use castile soap mostly for handwashing, and occasionally for manual dish-washing. It’s pretty safe, but I wouldn’t drink it.
-Olive oil. Olive oil can be used for polishing and protecting wood. You can use the cheap stuff – it’s just as effective. I personally don’t use olive oil like this, as it can go rancid (I’ve never had it happen when I did use it, but the thought makes me shudder) – so when I want to “feed” my cutting boards (more on this later), I’ll use mineral oil. Linseed oil also works great, but you’ll want to make sure it’s food-grade (i.e. not the kind you use for painting) if you’ll use it on cutting boards or wooden cooking utensils. Olive (and linseed) oil is totally safe, and is good for skin and nails, too.
-Salt. Sodium chloride, basic table salt, works well for stain removal and cleaning purposes. I usually find salt too abrasive for my purposes, but will use it for heavy-duty scouring jobs. Salt can sting broken skin, but is essentially harmless.
-White vinegar is composed of distilled acetic acid -produced from the fermentation of ethanol- and water. White vinegar is mildly acidic, and can be used for general cleaning, deodorizing, removing limescale, clearing blocked drains, and removing urea stains (sweat, urine). I use white vinegar to deodorize my rabbit’s litter box, as part of my general cleaning spray (recipe later on), to clean walls, clear drains, as a fabric softener (just pour it in like a regular fabric softener and dilute as your washing machine requires), and to remove limescale. Vinegar is one of my all-time favorite, multipurpose cleaning products. It is a mild acid, so it might sting, but it won’t injure.
-Broom and dust pan. Sometimes it’s just darn handy to clean up little spills on the spot. Also, big things -spilled croutons, cat food, etc.- aren’t easy or good to vacuum up.
-Brushes. You’d be surprised how handy paintbrushes of varying sizes can be to brush dust out of sneaky corners or into dustpans. Stiff, old-fashioned hand brushes are are great for getting deep, worked-in dust and mud out of rugs (so if you find any, let me know!).
-Cleaning cloths. There is a surprisingly large range of very strong opinions about what makes a good cleaning cloth. Old cut up T shirts, soft white cloths, napkins, paper towels, newspaper – as far as I’m concerned, if it’s clean and works, it’s a good cleaning cloth. I use lots of old cut-up clothing as cleaning cloths (I find socks make particularly good abrasive cleaning cloths). I also use purchased cleaning cloths.
-Duster. Microfiber cloths are great for dusting (see below), but it often helps to have more reach for dusting. There are two basic options – feather and synthetic. Feather tends to work better at catching dust and brushing it off, whereas synthetic tends to hold dust better. As a person with feather and dust allergies, I use synthetic dusters – they catch the dust instead of making it airborne, so you can then beat your duster outside to release the dust, or over the floor and then vacuum the dust up. I use two dusters – one short-handled that I can wash (so if I use it on grimy surfaces, I can clean it), and one with an extendable handle for ceiling corners and fans. Don’t get your duster wet unless you can wash it – it will make dusting impossible, and might damage the dusting fibers (feather or synthetic).
-Microfiber cloths. Microfiber cloths are made from polyester, which we certainly don’t think of as natural. However, a properly treated microfiber cloth will last forever, and more than makes up for itself with cleaning power. Microfiber has the nifty property of holding significant quantities of dust and dirt within its fibers, meaning you use fewer cloths and get more mileage per swipe. I use my three or four microfiber cloths for general dusting and cleaning reflective surfaces like mirrors, computer screens, and glass. Be sure to not use fabric softener or conditioner when you wash your microfiber cloths, as this will break their fibers down and make them less effective (if you do wash them accidentally with fabric softener, run them through again using vinegar in place of the softener).
-Mop and bucket. I recommend getting a mop with a mop head that you can wash and buy replacements for, so you don’t have to buy an entirely new mop every couple of years.
-Old toothbrush. Perfect for scrubbing and brushing out awkward little spaces, like underneath sink handles or in grout. Make sure to clearly differentiate between your tooth and grout-scrubbing toothbrushes!
-Razor blade. I use a razor blade for cleaning. The first time this tool was recommended to me, I was extremely dubious about it. However, my razor blade has proved itself as a real time, sanity, and kitchen saver and is an important part of my cleaning tool kit. Nothing works quite as well on seriously baked on or long-term dried crud – just hold the razor blade at a 45 degree angle to the surface you want to get crud off of and gently push. Don’t saw into the crud, and make sure you’re pushing forward, underneath the crud, not down into your enameled stove surface or what have you. Used properly, this tool will significantly reduce your frustrated soaking and scrubbing time. Also, I’ve never scratched a surface with my razor blade during cleaning – as far as surface integrity goes, scrubbing pads have been far more detrimental. Important: NEVER use a razor blade for cleaning without a holder – make sure your razor blade is in a properly attached handle or holder.
-Scrubber/sponge/green pad. If you use cream cleansers or have a sticky or dried-on mess to clean up, it helps to have a sponge, scrubber, and/or green pad. You might want to test if scrubbers or green pads damage surfaces before you use them for cleaning – they can take the enamel off some old ceramic bath tubs.
-Spray bottles. It’s going to be hard to spray your cleaners without spray bottles! Glass ones are heavy, are hard to come by, and can break (and spill their contents all over everything), so it’s a good idea to get some sturdy plastic ones.
-Utility belt. Another surprise cleaning solution. This is recommended in one of the books in the resource section, and I thought it sounded really pointless. However, you’d be amazed what a difference it makes to have all your cleaning supplies literally at your fingertips as opposed to in a caddy a few yards away. I talk more about the specific use of the utility belt in the Tips & Techniques section.
-Vacuum. Vacuuming is much more efficient than sweeping, and for those of us with dust allergies it’s a huge life saver. I strongly recommend you consider investing in a vacuum – a nice one can last decades. For allergy sufferers, or those with indoor pets, I recommend purchasing a vacuum with a HEPA filter – this removes the vast majority of the particles that pass through the vacuum, so you don’t end up sending all the dust and dander on your floor airborne.
Why clean when you can prevent? These are my favorite dirty (clean?) little tricks to put off cleaning as long as I can – and they work pretty well.
-Get good doormats and leave your shoes at the door. This is the #1 way to prevent dirt, grass, mud, sludge, pesticides, and more from ending up in your house. It’s amazing how much crud we track in on our shoes (this is particularly evident to me right now, as I’ve just had guests in shoes in my living room – grass clippings and maple seeds everywhere).
-Dust and vacuum. Yes, this is cleaning, but it’s also prevention. Dust-covered surfaces just attract more dust, so a quick cleaning every now and then really helps your house stay tidy. Make sure to take the top-down approach: gravity works really well, so if you vacuum and then dust, it’s going to look like you’ve accomplished nothing.
-Wipe surfaces. Particularly horizontal ones – dust doesn’t gather as fast on vertical surfaces. Once again, this is cleaning and prevention – it’s amazing how gnarly even an unused table can be after a few weeks of negligence.
-Keep surfaces dry. Mold and bacteria really don’t do so well without moisture. If you take away the moisture, you’ve won half the battle. Wipe up spills as you make them, run a vent or open a window in your bathroom during and after hot showers or baths, squeegee the walls of your shower and dry the corners of your tub – these quick, half-a-minute actions will make the difference between five minutes and two hours of kitchen or bathroom cleaning.
-Clean frequently touched surfaces. Let’s face it – we’re dirty critters. We carry a lot of nasty things on our hand – from the office, the bus, restrooms, the park, the kids, pets, and more. Doorknobs, faucets, and shelves often become breeding places for scum from frequent contact with our hands. You keep these things clean (and don’t touch your face with your hands), and you’ll be less likely to get sick (or get Fido’s slobber germs in your nose).
-Air freshening. Prevent odors first (take out garbage and compost regularly, clean up spills and messes, clean regularly), then try these options:
- Essential oils in a spray bottle: 8 drops per 4/5 cup water, plus 2 tsp vodka (vodka helps the oils disperse and settle)
- Boil 4 1/5 cups water, 6 cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 apple peels, and an unpeeled sliced orange
- In winter, put 2 drops of essential oil on a cotton ball behind the radiator
- Try herbal sachets and potpourri
-All Purpose Cream Cleaner. I’m not a huge fan of cream cleaners, but here’s a recipe you can try out for sinks, bathtubs and tiles:
- Mix 2/5 cup (3 oz) baking soda, 1/2 cup liquid castile soap, and 6 drops essential oil. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
-All Purpose Spray Cleaner. This is my favorite and most frequently used home cleaning product – I use it on my counter, in my sinks, on my floors, in my rabbit’s litter box (and wherever the hopper leaves his mark), on frequently touched surfaces, and wherever general tidying is needed. I don’t stick with fixed proportions, but this is the general recipe I use:
- Put 1 tablespoon of baking soda in the bottle and add vinegar slowly until it stops fizzing (I usually fill 1/4 of the spray bottle with vinegar). Add water to fill and 5-10 drops of essential oil (I usually do tea tree oil and/or lemon oil or lemon juice) and shake well.
-Dish-washing Machine Soap. I personally find naturally-formulated store-bought soap to be benign and work well, but you can also make your own (make sure your dishes are rinsed very well, because borax is not food-safe).
- Mix equal parts baking soda and borax, and use 2-4 tablespoons per load.
- I use vinegar in the rinse aid compartment – it helps cut water spots on glasses.
-Glass Cleaner. Plain old water and/or vinegar work well to clean reflective surfaces, particularly when used in conjunction with clean microfiber cloths. Some people swear by newspaper for cleaning reflective surfaces, but I’ve found you have to put a little more muscle into it with that approach. Make sure to work the cloth or newspaper across the surface until it is totally dry – if the surface is still moist when you “finish,” you will get streaks.
-Scouring Powder. I use baking soda or Bon Ami for most of my scouring jobs (because I’m too lazy to mix my own powder, and you can’t get much simpler than straight baking soda), but this mix does a good job too, particularly for gunky messes:
- Mix equal quantities of borax, salt, and baking soda and store in an airtight jar. Test for scratching or discoloration on an inconspicuous surface first, then scrub with a small amount of the powder.
-Tough Stuff Cleaner. This is for big jobs – I use it mostly for inhibiting mold and mildew growth in my shower grout. Use it sparingly and not around food, as borax can be toxic.
- Mix 1 tablespoon borax and enough warm water to fill the spray bottle. You can spray this on tub grout and nasty, empty fridges.
Tips & Techniques
Don’t know where to start? Want some random tips? You’re in the right spot.
-Clearing drains. I’m really good at blocking sink drains for some cryptic reason, so I’ve had plenty of experience trying to unclog them. There are lots of different approaches:
- Pour a cup of vinegar with some essential oil down the drain; leave to soak overnight, then rinse.
- Pour a cup of baking soda down the drain, leave to soak for an hour, then pour a few cups of boiling water down it.
- Plunge the drain, sometimes in conjunction with another method.
- None of these worked for me (though they apparently work on less-clogged drains), so when I ran across the following recipe when researching new techniques for the class – and it WORKED – I think I actually jumped up and down a bit. Pour 1 cup of baking soda, then 1/2 cup of salt, and then 1 cup of vinegar down the drain (some of it is going to sit on top of the drain – don’t worry about it). Leave this for 15 minutes, and then pour several cups of boiling water to wash it down. I think I split this recipe between my sink and shower drain and it did the job like nothing else I’ve seen.
-Cutting boards. Have separate cutting boards for meat and produce to prevent contamination (I use a glass board for meat, as wooden boards are porous). “Season” or “feed” your wooden cutting boards to prevent splitting, pitting and general wear. Wooden boards dry out with repeated use, particularly if you let them air dry after washing. Feeding them with oils helps them stay hydrated and maintain their structure and strength. (I’ve noticed this is the case with my bamboo boards and utensils, too.) I’ll usually feed my wooden utensils and boards every other month, or when I notice they feel dry or rough. Plastic boards actually harbor more bacteria than wooden boards, as plastic splinters faster and harbors bacteria in the crevices (wood’s structure gives it some antimicrobial properties). Glass boards will blunt knives. Regardless of what kind of board you use, be sure to wash it with hot, soapy water after use.
-Fridge maintenance. A happy fridge is a clean and cool fridge. In the interest of keeping your fridge happy, here are some tips:
- Keep the coils clear – this will help your fridge run efficiently and at the appropriate temperature. A fridge that is cool and clean will not smell.
- Check for food freshness – if you remove old food, the fridge won’t smell.
- Keep raw meat on a lower shelf so it doesn’t drip onto other food.
- Keep “smelly” or liquid foods away from the cooling unit in the fridge – it will distribute the odors.
-Grimy, hard-to-clean problems and solutions.
- Spray frustrating, frequently-grimed surfaces (insides of the oven and microwave, shower walls and grout, fridge, etc.) with All-Purpose Spray Cleaner or an equal mixture of water and vinegar (if your stuff gets really grimy) after cleaning. The crud will wipe off easier next time.
- You can also put a cup of vinegar in the oven or microwave and heat it to help loosen tough crud on walls.
-Grout nastiness. You can make a paste with borax and water, apply it to moldy shower grout, leave it to dry for an hour or a few days, and then rinse it off. I’ve found this works really well, but if your grout is old or peeling, the borax might disintegrate it.
-Mug stains. Tea, coffee, and other beverages can leave stains in ceramics. You can soak the inside of the mug with vinegar or rub it with a vinegar and salt paste; either way will loosen the stain enough to rinse out.
-Utility belt. It sounds kind of gimmicky, but this is a really great method to keep your cleaning supplies at your fingertips. I’m not going to go into too much detail on this, as it wasn’t my original idea at all (see the reference section for the original innovators and more info), but here are the basics:
- Put as many cleaning cloths as you’ll need for a room in a utility belt pocket.
- Line a pocket with a bag for used cleaning cloths and trash (or a separate pocket for trash).
- Put your razor blade BLADE DOWN in a small pocket.
- Stick your old toothbrush and paintbrush(es) in separate vertical pockets.
- Stick your scrubber/sponge/green pad in a pocket.
- Hang your All Purpose Spray Cleaner bottle by its handle on either your belt or a belt loop on the side you favor. (I’m right handed, so I hang the spray cleaner on my right side).
- Hang your Glass Cleaner bottle by its handle on either your belt or a belt loop on the other side. Make sure to tighten your spray bottle lids frequently – otherwise you may be left with the spray mechanisms attached to your belt and the bottles and contents all over the floor. (I’ve never had this happen, but it’s a real possibility.)
- Stick a hand duster or clean microfiber cloth in a pocket.
- You can put all other supplies in your cleaning caddy, but chances are that everything you’ll need for a basic clean up will now be at hand.
-Clean top to bottom. As mentioned before, gravity works well. Do your dusting first, literally from ceiling to floor, any spraying and wiping that is needed in between those, and then vacuum and mop as needed.
-Don’t let clutter build up. If you have to take care of a lot of clutter before you can even begin cleaning, I recommend you work on clutter control first – if you can’t see your floor or tables, it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder and take a heck of a lot longer to clean them.
-Have a path and a plan. I tend to go kitchen-living room-hallway-bathroom-bedroom, so I know almost exactly where I’m stepping next. Saved steps is saved time.
-If a surface is damp, sticky, or dirty as opposed to dusty, you should probably clean it with spray and a cloth instead of a duster. Lessons learned.
-Just do it. Cleaning is perhaps my favorite thing to procrastinate on – and let me tell you, it’s a whole lot easier to just do it. Make cleaning part of your daily or weekly routine – perhaps clean one room a day, or make Saturday mornings cleaning time. Also, start small – if your home is mess, don’t set out to clean the whole place top to bottom. There are times for deep cleaning, but it’s much easier to start just vacuuming and dusting regularly and build from there.
-Use only as much cleaner as you need. Extra spray, cream, or powder is ultimately just more stuff you’ll need to wipe, scrub, or wash up.
–Finally – just because I wrote it here doesn’t mean it’s the only solution, or even the best one. Experiment, explore, and learn!
-Basically anything in the 640s non fiction section of the library – there are dozens of books on green home cleaning here, so you’re probably going to find you like at least one of them.
–Clutter Control by Jeff Campbell and the Clean Team. If clutter is your problem, here is one of the many books that propose solutions. I like this one because I find the way it’s written straightforward and funny. If it doesn’t float your boat, there are plenty of other recommendations online and in the library – check them out!
–Environmental Working Group. If you wonder how safe your store-bought cleaning products really are, this is a very reputable source to check them out. Go to health/toxics in the left sidebar, and then the consumer products section. This website is a treasure trove of information, so I recommend you check the other sections out, too.
–A Guide to Green Housekeeping by Christina Strutt. Perhaps my favorite book on green cleaning, mainly because of the pictures and somewhat old-fashioned perspective. The book below is a better general resource guide, though.
–Household Cleaning: Self-Sufficiency. A very practical approach to green house cleaning, room by room. The info in this post about dangerous ingredients, some of the natural alternatives and tools, the drain-clearing and grout cleaning techniques, and the air-freshening, All Purpose Cream Cleaner, Dish-washing Machine Soap, and Scouring Powder recipes are all from this book. (All other information and recipes are an amalgamation of things I have read, seen, and practiced over time, so I’m only attributing sources where I can remember and find the original.)
–Speed Cleaning by Jeff Campbell and the Clean Team. My first book introduction to cleaning that is efficient, self-sufficient and thorough. They have a slightly more commercial outlook on cleaning products, but this book is chock-full of good tips for first-time cleaners and old pros looking to save time and money. The utility belt solution and a few other tips and techniques came from this book.
-If you have questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments or email me at education -at- commonground.coop, where “at” is @. Happy cleaning!