Cleaning Without Chemicals: Recipes for a Toxic-Free Home

The following is an excerpt from Your Green Abode: A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Home by Tara Rae Miner (Skipstone, 2010).

It used to be that we kept our homes clean by using whatever was at hand. A little baking soda from the cupboard mixed with elbow grease took out caked-on crud. Soap was soap, and it served more than one purpose, whether that was to clean your hands or the dishes. Sugar ants were best prevented by putting the sugar away.

But then things were made easier for us. A swift spray of a sickly sweet-smelling substance would kill those ants in a flash. A thick squirt of whitish goo gave the table a lustrous shine in just minutes. Grainy antiseptic scouring powder cut through the scum in the tub with little effort. Thank goodness for chemicals. At least that's what folks were told and sold and eventually wholeheartedly believed.

The rapid growth of the chemical industry after World War II changed housekeeping forever and not necessarily for the better. Chemists whose previous employment was manufacturing weapons realized that similar concoctions could be used to fight agricultural pests and improve consumer products.

Since the fifties, some 75,000 chemicals have been introduced into our world. Three hundred of those can now be found within our bodies, even in the bodies of newborn babies who inherit synthetic chemicals from their mothers. All those cleaning products and pesticides in the cupboard are more than evidence of a wellkept home. They are a toxic testimony of the chemicals that we willingly bring into our lives in the name of cleanliness.

The average American uses about 25 gallons of hazardous chemical products in his or her home -- the majority coming from cleaning products. Every day, more than 32 million pounds of household cleaning products are poured down the drain in this country. Despite the best efforts of wastewater treatment plants, many of the toxic substances within these products find their way to our rivers.

The news on household chemicals is sobering, the stats are startling, and the studies scary. Even the fairly conservative Environmental Protection Agency encourages folks to use alternatives to conventional cleaning products such as glass, oven, drain, and toilet cleaners; furniture polish; rug deodorizers; and flea and tick products. Cleaners and pesticides with toxic, ignitable, corrosive, or reactive ingredients are classified as "household hazardous waste" by the agency -- alongside oils, batteries, and paints -- and special caution is urged for their disposal.

In the early eighties, a study by the EPA concluded that concentrations of twenty cancer-causing chemicals were up to fifty times higher indoors than out -- most appeared in an average bottle of all-purpose cleaner, toilet-bowl cleaner, or dish soap. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, 150 common household chemicals are linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer, and psychological abnormalities.

The health effects are indeed vast, and the effects of each and every one of these chemicals too numerous to detail. For illumination's sake, here's one potent example: Isobutene, a volatile organic compound, is a propellant you'll probably find in your bottle of conventional glass cleaner. Isobutene also accumulates in breast milk. Prolonged exposure can cause headaches, nausea, and, in very extreme cases, coma.

More than 1.4 million Americans exposed to household chemicals were referred to poison control centers in 2001-824,000 were children under the age of six. In 2009, while my friend was scrubbing her bathtub, her curious and precocious toddler picked up a bottle of all-purpose cleaner and sprayed himself in the face. His mom called poison control, but after reading the ingredients over the phone, she was told she didn't need to bring him in. It was a natural citrus-based cleaner.The remedy was to flush his eyes with lots of water. And the little boy suffered little more than tears.

So there is a better, safer way. We have the power to restore what's divine in the act of cleaning -- just get rid of the chemicals. This is both easy to say and easy to do because there are many options for substitutes. If your preference is to pick up a bottle of this or that while out shopping, you'll find a diverse array of green cleaners stocked on the shelves of even the most conventional grocery stores. If you're into saving money or using whatever is at hand, you'd be surprised at what just a few simple ingredients can do-some of which you might already have in your pantry.

Taking Names

First, spend a weekend going through all those old half-used bottles sitting under the kitchen sink. The purists among you will probably want to get rid of all them. Remember, many of these concoctions are classified as household hazardous waste. Be responsible and dispose of them properly (follow the disposal directions on the bottle and call your local environmental, health, or solid waste agency for information).

What if you want to keep some of your favorite, time-tested products? Or at least use that little bit up? By my reading almost all of the chemicals in conventional cleaners are pretty bad, though there also seem to be degrees of badness. Here are few products and/or ingredients you should try to stop using right now:

  • Ethylene-based glycol is often used as a water-soluble solvent in many cleaning agents. It's classified as an air pollutant by the EPA.
  • Synthetic terpenes (as opposed to the terpenes found in some essential oils) are a class of chemicals found in orange, lemon, and pine oils. They have the potential to become carcinogenic compounds when mixed with ground-level ozone.
  • Chlorine, often appearing in a list of ingredients as sodium hypochlorite or hypochlorite, is in too many household cleaners to count. Breathing it in is bad for your lungs and is especially risky if you already have heart or respiratory problems.
  • Crystalline silica is an eye and lung irritant and likely carcinogen, according to the Cancer Prevention Coalition.
  • Butyl cellosolve, also IDed by the Cancer Prevention Coalition as a possible carcinogen, has been tied to kidney, liver, and lymphatic problems; is an eye and skin irritant; and is toxic to newly forming and regenerating cells.
  • Diethylene glycol monobutyl ether can also injure your lungs, kidneys, and nervous system.
  • Ammonia, like many of the others in this list, is bad for the eyes, skin, and lungs. It might also burn you.
  • Finally, if you want to zero in on the three most dangerous products themselves, you'd do well to avoid drain, oven, and acid-based toilet bowl cleaners, according to Philip Dickey, former staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition.All are corrosive and can cause both external and internal (if swallowed) burns.

Back to the Basics

There are common-sense alternatives to cleaning without chemicals. You probably have most of what you need on hand and would use them if it weren't so easy to grab a bottle and spray or pour. But we've all been seduced by the quick and easy promise of chemicals. Now that we're beginning to realize that this promise isn't worth the toxic trade-off, it's time to get back to basics. It turns out those basics are green. They also cost a whole lot less than all those colorful containers lining the cleaning-product aisle.

First up, distilled white vinegar. It's the main ingredient in many homemade cleaning recipes, including cleaners for glass, tub and tile, toilet bowls, floors, windows, drains, and mildew. This is because of its deodorizing and sanitizing properties and acidic nature, which help it dispel bacteria, germs, and mold. Vinegar works well as a fabric softener too, dissolving detergent residue and helping to wash away smells, even those wrapped up in your partner's stinky white gym socks.

Next on the list, baking soda. The folks at Arm & Hammer don't lie when they boast of their product's many uses (visit their website for a lengthy list). Because it's abrasive, use it as a scouring powder to make sinks, counters, and tubs sparkle. It takes a little extra effort on your part, but since you'll be breathing easier you might not even notice the added labor. You may already know that baking soda will absorb carpet and fridge odors; thanks to the fact that it creates a good pH level in the wash, it'll deodorize your laundry, too, as well as make it brighter.

Third, liquid castile soap. It's the sudsy base for a lot of homemade cleaning recipes. Plus, you can use it to wash your hands. Castile soap is very mild. It used to be made exclusively from olive oil, but now you'll find it made from other vegetable oils too. Unlike in other liquid soaps, you won't find any petroleum products and their associated contaminants.

On to essential oils, or concentrated plant oils. These are derived from bark, flower petals, roots, or fruits. Talk about getting back to basics: essential oils have been used for centuries for cleaning. Today you can find them online or in small vials in your local health-food store. Some are antibacterial, including cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, lemongrass, rose, rosemary, tea tree, and thyme.

Try using lemon oil (not the commercial variety made from petroleum distillate) as furniture polish, eucalyptus to cut grease, thyme as a cleaning disinfectant. Do keep in mind that essential oils are potent and some may irritate your skin. And they are the one green-cleaning item that isn't cheap (we paid $11 each for our 1-ounce bottles), but they are concentrated -- one bottle will last you a year.

Last but not least, there's water. It's the universal solvent in many green-cleaning recipes and is much better for you than the petroleum-based solvents found in many conventional cleaners. You can't get any safer or simpler.

That's it. Distilled white vinegar, baking soda, liquid castile soap, essential oils, and water. Buy some spray bottles and other containers and mix away. Label those concoctions you can make in advance and store them for easy use. Books, websites, and magazines are good sources for a variety of these recipes. Some of my favorite go-to references include two of Annie Bond's books, Home Enlightenment and Better Basics for the Home, and Renée Loux's Easy Green Living, as well as the websites for Women's Voices for the Earth, Care2, and the Green Guide.

Each of these five raw ingredients has a role to play, and you might get creative and experiment with different mixing ratios for different purposes. Cleaning glass? Use more vinegar for cleanliness and essential oils for a fresh scent, less soap to prevent streaking. Cleaning tile? Use more baking soda for the scrubbing power. Cleaning your toilet bowl? Use more vinegar for its antibacterial qualities.

As you might expect, bleach is not on the list of fundamentals, nor is ammonia. Never mix the two, as this act releases chlorine gas and potentially other hazardous gases. In fact, it's a good idea to never mix commercial cleaning products. Stick with the green fundamentals for your homebrews.

The big five should get you through most cleaning situations, but some homemade green-cleaning recipes call for washing soda or borax. Both are alkaline. Washing soda can potentially scratch some surfaces, so rein in the creativity if you add it to the mix. Borax is a heavy hitter, most often brought in for tough scouring. It's not quite as benign as baking soda and carries the warning to keep out of reach of children. If you must take your cleaning to the borax level, stick to the uses recommended on the box.

Elbow grease and prevention also have their role to play. Keep the drain clog-free by using a trap or screen on your drain as prevention. If you do get a clog, pour boiling water, vinegar, or baking soda in various combinations down the drain. If the clog is immobile and you're desperate for a commercial, conventional solution, try enzyme-based cleaners. Keep your oven clean without getting chemically burned by lining the bottom with foil as good preventive medicine, or simply clean up spills as soon as they happen.


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