Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cleaning Your Home with Natural Ingredients By Katie Machek

You may have noticed in recent years that more and more people are turning away from store-bought household cleaners and opting for cheaper and more natural cleaning methods to clean their homes. They are tossing out their Windex, 409, and Pledge and replacing them with vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils. Although this method may seem “new,” it’s actually the way that people have been cleaning their homes and living spaces for centuries. So why the trend toward these natural products, and why have store-bought cleaning products become so popular? The answer, of course, is money.
These companies use fear-based tactics to swindle homeowners into believing that the household environment is inherently unsafe. They air commercials that depict hoards of evil, nasty germs covering each and every square inch of the home, and then bring in the “hero”, a concoction of chemicals and toxins that will kill viruses and bacteria and restore sterile order to the living space. It is true that viruses and bacteria are all over your home. It is also true that most of these products do a great job of sterilizing and cleaning surfaces, and I certainly think that these products should be used in hospitals and patient care facilities. But it begs the question: do our homes really need to be as sterile as a hospital? A study conducted by the Department of Child Health at the University of Bristol observed that increased hygiene was associated with increased wheezing and atopic eczema in 30 to 42-month-olds. The scientists note that “the creation of a sterile environment through excessive cleanliness may potentially be harmful to the immune system (1).” By creating this unnaturally sterile environment, our bodies are not able to build up a natural defense to pathogens. Over the years this would mean that the body’s natural ability to defend itself from viruses and bacteria is diminished. But it’s not just the body’s unchallenged immune system that is the problem. Another European study found that an increased use of household cleaners was associated with a persistent wheeze in their child subjects (2).
You may wonder what these cleaning products contain. Reading the labels might not help, because most of the ingredients listed are scientific names for the chemicals. Furthermore, some of the ingredients in these cleaners are not even listed on the bottle. Case in point, check out the hidden (literally hidden, meaning unlabeled!) harmful and toxic chemicals found in household cleaners in an independent study commissioned by the Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) via the link below. Carcinogens such as chloroform and hormone disrupters such as dibutyl phthalate (DBP) were found in some of these products, and these ingredients were not even listed on the bottle. The real shocker for me was that they detected 1,4-dioxane, a cancer-causing agent, in Simple Green Naturals Multi-Surface Care Lemon Verbena. Doesn’t sound so green and natural, does it?
The plot thickens, too, as one study I came across in Environmental Science & Technology found that some household cleaning products and air fresheners, when combined with ozone, formed secondary pollutants like formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. When you put all the pieces together, you start to see that these cleaners are probably doing more harm than good in our home. Now, I don’t mean to get all doom and gloom on you, I just want to share my findings with you. As an environmental advocate and concerned parent, I want to know that I’m keeping the earth clean and my child safe. So what are we to do, you ask? Why, natural cleaning, of course! We’d like to share with you some alternative cleaning recipes you can make in your kitchen- using affordable and available ingredients found in your home. We’ve switched to this method of cleaning two years ago, and never looked back. Here are our top 5 natural cleaning ingredients, along with recipes, helpful websites, and links to the scientific studies we’ve mentioned here. So, without further adieu, let me introduce to you…

Ah, vinegar. That lovely, pungent, fermented salad dresser we know and love. But did you know that it is also one of the safest and most effective household cleaners out there? In a study that compared the cleaning effectiveness of six different alternative household cleaners, vinegar was found to be an effective anti-microbial cleaner in the kitchen as well as the bathroom (4). Vinegar has all the great cleaning properties of the leading brands of “green” cleaners, without the nasty chemicals. In our home, we use a diluted vinegar solution to clean our counter tops and floors. Diluting the vinegar is the key to avoiding that “salad dressing” smell from permeating your home…although I admit I’ve come to associate that smell with a feeling of being clean. Which has in effect changed my feelings towards vinaigrette…but I digress. Just mix a one-to-one ratio of water to vinegar and put into a spray bottle. Use around the home as you would a multi-purpose cleaner on all your hard surfaces. For an added cleaning kick, as well as a nice fragrant smell, add a couple drops of rosemary or lavender essential oil into the mix. Not only will this make your house smell nice, but oils like rosemary and lavender also have anti-microbial properties. Win, win! It is also an excellent window cleaner. Spray the same one-to-one vinegar water solution (minus the essential oils) onto your windows, television screens, glass table tops, etc. and wipe dry with a terry cloth for a streak-free finish.

Hydrogen Peroxide
If the antimicrobial properties of vinegar are leaving you yearning for more of a cleaning punch, I would turn to that little brown bottle under your bathroom sink for an effective and safe sterilizing agent. Hydrogen peroxide is registered by the EPA as a sterilizer. Not only is it effective, but it is incredibly safe to use, as it breaks down into water and oxygen. It’s also incredibly available and affordable. What’s not to love? Most commercial hydrogen peroxide is sold at very low concentrations
(3% or 4%, in water) and thus is safe to use in the home around children and pets. Do be careful using it, however, as it has the potential to bleach certain surfaces and fabrics. For this reason, you should always spot test the area you are using it on. It also has the ability to remove the pigment in your skin if you use it for a sustained period of time without protection. If you think you’ll be using hydrogen peroxide for a large cleaning project, be advised that you may want to wear protective gloves to avoid this depigmentation. Because of its sterilizing properties, it is an excellent bathroom cleaner. During the cold and flu season, wipe-down the most frequently-used areas (like doorknobs, light switches, telephones etc.) to help cut down on the spread of infection. You can use it straight out of the bottle, or transfer it to a spray bottle. Be aware, though, that if you transfer it into a spray bottle that light can penetrate, the hydrogen peroxide will slowly decompose into water and oxygen. Which begs the question…could one simply attach a spray bottle head to a hydrogen peroxide bottle? Try it!

Baking Soda
Baking soda- or sodium bicarbonate if you’re nerdy- is truly a versatile and dynamic household ingredient. Who knew there were so many uses for baking soda? Just type into any search engine “uses for baking soda,” and you will find a plethora of applications and recipes. We use it in the home as an abrasive, a descaler, and a deodorizer. As an abrasive, just make a paste out of water and baking soda, and use a toothbrush to scrub the grout between kitchen and bathroom tiles. You could also use this paste on a terry cloth to clean brass and other metals. As a descaler, use the same paste in the bathroom to remove hard water stains. For really tough hard water stains, you can put a baking soda and vinegar mixture onto the stain and let it sit for 15 minutes or so. This combination of vinegar and baking soda makes an acidic solution (sodium acetate) that will effectively eat away at the scales. If the hard water stains are really built-up and set in, it may take a few applications and some hard scrubbing to remove all the scales. As for a deodorizer, we’ve learned first-hand that sprinkling a little baking soda onto vomit not only deodorizes the smell, but also makes it much easier to clean up. What’s your favorite baking soda recipe?

Soap Nuts
After receiving my first bag of soap nuts over a year ago, I was thrust into a world that had new meaning, a world whose lexicon included phrases like “wet nuts, nut sacks, and dry old nuts.” I’m talking, of course, about the amazing natural cleaning product known as “soap nuts,” a small drupaceous fruit that very much resembles a miniature coconut. This little fruit comes from shrubs in the Soapberry family (genus Sapindus) that grow in tropical and warm temperate climates. These little berries contain saponins, which provide the plant with a defense against predation by grazing animals, as well as protection from invasion by fungi or microbes. As it turns out, saponins are also a natural surfactant (“sapon-” in Latin means “soap”.) I have to say here that I’m using amazing restraint not to go into detail about how cool surfactant compounds really are. I won’t go into detail about surface tension, and I won’t draw diagrams explaining how micelles form, with their cute little hydrophilic heads and their productive little hydrophobic tail or any of that. I will just say that surfactants can act as detergents, removing oil and grease from clothing and household items. So, now that we’ve survived that science lesson, let me explain how we use soap nuts around the home. The best way that I’ve come across to harness the great cleaning power of soap nuts is to make the infamous soap nuts liquid (recipe below), which is so amazingly easy to do you won’t believe it. The household applications for this liquid are innumerable, but here are a few:

v     Replace the water in the all-purpose vinegar cleaner with this soap nuts liquid. You’d be amazed at how effective this cleaner can be at removing tough greasey build-up and caked-on food. Follow up with a water rinse on any surfaces you will be preparing food on or eating food off of.
v     Replace the water in the basic window and glass cleaner with soap nuts liquid to remove grease and oil from sliding glass doors and television screens
v     Replace the water in the baking soda abrasive cleaner to really scrub the heck out your kitchen and bathroom tiles/grout.

There are also many cosmetic and laundering applications for the soap nuts liquid, but I’m reserving those for future blogs. Don’t worry, I will divulge!

Essential Oils
As the name implies, these oils are the true essence of the plant they are derived from. If you are not familiar with using essential oils, there are some basic guidelines to follow when using them. First, these oils are very concentrated, and for this reason they must be diluted or used in very miniscule amounts. Second, you should not ingest essential oils before doing thorough research to assure that the oil you intend to ingest is safe for human consumption. Tea tree oil, for example, can cause major health problems if ingested in large amounts by a child, which brings me to my last guideline. Third and last, please keep essential oils, as well as all your other cleaning products out of reach of children. Even benign things like vinegar, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide in the hands of a child can cause some serious damage to sensitive eye membranes, and soap nuts liquid can cause the eyes to sting and upset the stomach if ingested. Bottom line: just keep this stuff up and away from the kiddos.
Now, you may be wondering how effective essential oils are at cleaning around the home, and why they are listed as one of our top 5 natural cleaners. There are many scientific studies that have studies the antimicrobial properties of various essential oils. One such study published in Letters in Applied Microbiology found that essential oils such as thyme, cinnamon, and clove were effective at killing food born pathogens such as Staph, Salmonella, and Listeria, among others (5). Another study found that essential oils such as ylang-ylang, basil, lemon, lemongrass, and rosemary (among others) were effective at inhibiting the growth and/or spread of twenty-five different bacteria and one species of fungus, all categorized as either pathogens or food-spoilers (6). The capabilities of these essential oils are great, when you consider also that their aromatic qualities can have a profound effect on our mood (more on aromatherapy later). You may also be wondering about how cost effective these oils are. Although they may seem pricey (running anywhere from $2-$10 or more per ounce,) consider that we have had a 0.5oz bottle of tea tree oil in the house for over a year that we just ran out of last week. The cost-effectiveness of these oils comes with the fact that you are only using 2-3 drops of oil at a time. Considering that the “drops per mL standard” in the essential oil world is 20-25 drops of essential oil per mL, and a 0.5oz bottle contains 15mL of oil…that’s 300-375 drops per tiny 0.5oz bottle. That’s a lot of drops!
The application of these oils is pretty simple. Following the basic guidelines listed, add 2-3 drops of any of the oils listed above in the basic all-purpose vinegar cleaner for added antimicrobial power. This is a good solution to use on your counter tops and cooking surfaces, as well as high use areas that see a lot of hand traffic (door knobs, phones, light switches etc.) Be advised that if you plan on mixing these oils, they can have a synergistic effect- meaning that two oils put together can behave dramatically different than two oils used on their own. For this reason I would do thorough research into essential oil mixing. For now, try out one oil at a time in your cleaning solution. Some good examples are lemon, basil, thyme, rosemary, or clove. As with the soap nuts, be sure to follow up with a water rinse on any surface that you plan to prepare food on or eat food off of.


Basic All-Purpose Vinegar Cleaner
1 ½ cups Water
1 ½ cups White Vinegar
2-3 Drops Essensial Oil (optional)
Combine in a spray bottle to clean surfaces and floors

Basic Vinegar Window and Glass Cleaner
1 ½ cups Water
1 ½ cups White Vinegar
Combine in a spray bottle to clean windows and any other smooth surface.

Baking Soda Abrasive and Descaler:
¼ cup Baking Soda
~2-3 Tbsp Water or
~2-3 Tbsp White Vinegar for tough hard-water stains
Combine in a bowl and apply to tile and grout, and scrub with a toothbrush. Or apply directly to hard-water stains and let sit, then scrub with a toothbrush.

Multi-Purpose Soap Nuts Liquid
4 cups Water
8-10 Soap Nuts
Place water and soap nuts into a medium pot and cook over medium high heat, until the mixture reaches a rolling boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until the mixture has reduced by half. Let cool. Mash the soap nuts with a potato masher, and strain the liquid into a container. Store this solution in the refrigerator, as the liquid is perishable. You can see here that we are using a 2:1 soap nut to water ratio. Feel free to up the ante (i.e. 3:1 or 4:1) if you feel as though you’d like a more concentrated cleaning solution.


(1) Sherriff, A., and J. Golding. "Hygiene levels in a contemporary population cohort are associated with wheezing and atopic eczema in preschool infants." Archives of disease in childhood 87.1 (2002): 26-29.

(2) Sherriff A, Farrow A, Golding J, et al. Frequent use of chemical household products is associated with persistent wheezing in pre-school age children. Thorax 2005;60:45-49.

(3) Destaillats, Hugo, et al. "Indoor secondary pollutants from household product emissions in the presence of ozone: a bench-scale chamber study." Environmental Science & Technology 40.14 (2006): 4421-4428.

(4) Olson, Wanda, Marilyn Bode, and Polly Dubbel. “Hard Surface Cleaning Performance of Six Alternative Household Cleaners Under Laboratory Conditions”. (1994).

(5) Smith-Palmer, A., J. Stewart, and L. Fyfe. "Antimicrobial properties of plant essential oils and essences against five important food-borne pathogens." Letters in Applied Microbiology 26.2 (1998): 118-122.

(6) Baratta, M. Tiziana, et al. "Antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of some commercial essential oils." Flavour and Fragrance Journal 13.4 (1998): 235-244.


The independent study commissioned by the Women's Voice for the Earth (WVE):

Some other great natural cleaning recipes, as well as DIY natural cosmetic recipes, from WVE:

A great resource for ideas and recipes using soap nuts:

Natural cleaning using essential oils:

Some creative and surprising cleaning ingredients found around the home:

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