Cleaning Green: How to make your own Natural Cleaning Products

For the past month or so I have been on a crazy DIY bender, discovering and making my own cleaning products. This post is a weeks in the making: as I have been reading, mixing and cleaning, I have added more and more recipes and notes. My hope is to make a master list of of how you can replace store-bought, commercial and often toxic cleaning products by making your own green, truly clean cleaning products, using things you may already have in your pantry!

Here is a pic of the products I used to create all of the products below:

L to R: Borax, Salt, Baking Soda, Vinegar, Distilled Water, Alcohol, Almond Oil, Soap

L to R: Borax, Salt, Baking Soda, Vinegar, Distilled Water, Alcohol, Almond Oil, Soap

Essential oils. For cleaning purposes, the most important is tea tree oil.

Essential oils. For cleaning purposes, the most important is tea tree oil.

While some people are cleaning junkies, using specific products for specific tasks, others may like things a bit more… au naturel. I fall into the latter category. Either way, whenever we clean, we usually feel that we are making our environment and home safer by cleaning it. Although most people these days are aware of the dangers of toxic chemicals lurking in domestic cleaning products, it may be hard to give up certain products that seem relatively benign, like Windex or laundry detergent (even if it’s just because we have been around them all our lives). Perhaps we feel that some things can be excused because we don’t use them that often, like bleach. Still, I believe that almost everyone can appreciate saving their cash, and minimizing their impact on nature. I do think that most people, if presented with safe, ecological alternatives to industrial cleaning products, that won’t cost them an arm and a leg, they will choose it. We all drink the water, after all. So, with too much ado, here is a list of the most common household cleaning products and how you can whip them up at home. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below 😀

Air Fresheners:

Nothing gets my goat as much as Febreze and Lysol commercials: smiling Stepford wives spraying their entire, already clean homes (including their children’s rooms and clothes!) with pastel colored bottles of toxic gunk as if adding chemicals to the air will make it cleaner. When I first moved to North America I didn’t know what Febreze was, and the idea of spraying my things to clean them seemed oxymoronic. I can remember my boyfriend at the time explaining “you spray it on your shoes and stuff” and me holding a bottle thinking really? I also remember the first time I tried it, probably on some old hockey equipment or something, and how for the rest of the day I was short of breath and couldn’t stop coughing (and this was before I developed adult asthma).

I believe that if you take out your trash regularly, do your dishes, clean your laundry, flush your toilet and let air circulate through your home at least once a day, your home will smell fine. I also believe that the only way to freshen your air is to open your windows and air it out. But if you are looking to replace a commercial air freshener, or way to get rid of the smells from last night’s dinner party there are many easy ways to enhance the aromatics in your home that aren’t harmful to your lungs, your pets or your kids. Here are some of them:

1. Stove-top Air Fresheners: anyone who drinks a lot of tea knows that nothing smells as nice as a pot of chai simmering on the stove. There are endless combinations of herbs and spices you can put in a pot of water and simmer off: the smell will slowly spread through your home in a lovely way. This is particularly good in winter, when the air tends to be extra dry. My favourite melange is cinnamon sticks, cloves, and anise seeds, or cinnamon and ginger. You can also put a few drops of your favourite essential oils, or food-grade essences, like vanilla or almond.

2. Incense: There’s a lot of quality incense out there, better than the soapy josssticks you had as a teen, and subtler than the church/temple varieties that do smell nice, but tend to smoke up a room horribly. But if you are not into smoke you can always use

3. Candle Incense Burners: You can get them at most dollarstores, or department stores. Many gift shops and herbalists carry them as well. If you are unsure about the metals ones, get ceramic or glass. All you need is a tea candle and some oils, although you can buy (or heck, make them yourself!) aromatic wax pucks too.

All-purpose Cleaner:

An all-purpose cleaner can be a good thing to have for those random spills and light stains, when scouring powder is not appropriate and you don’t want to get a bucket of soap water out. But commercial all purpose cleaner, much window cleaner, usually contains ammonia as well as phosphates and other nasties. Here is a recipe for an all-natural all-purpose cleaner I got from Sophie Uliano’s book “Do It Gorgeously:” Make sure you have a clean empty spray bottle (this recipe make 14 oz), and distilled or purified water.

  • Bring 2 cups of distilled water to a boil. Take off stove. Then in a bowl or measuring cup mix:
  • 2 Tbsp Vinegar
  • 1 Tsp Borax
  • 1/2 Tsp Washing Soda (I used baking soda)
  • 1/2 Tsp Liquid Castile Soap (I melted a hard bar of Dr. Bronners in distilled water…)

Watch it fizz:SAM_9761

Pour in the hot, but not boiling water. Mix. Let cool, and then add 20 drops of tea tree oil (this is what the recipe says, but I had tea tree castile soap, so that was too much for me. I put in probably 5 drops of tea tree). Pour the cooled mixture into your bottle. A funnel helps.

To be honest, when I looked at the bottle it looked so tame, I never thought it would work. But wow does it ever! Even my dirty kitchen linoleum wiped clean! But I am not showing you those, so here here is a wall with fingermarks and dust.

Wall before

Wall before

Wall after all purpose cleaner!

Wall after all purpose cleaner!

Drain Cleaners:

Most of us have used drain cleaners, or de-cloggers at least once in our life. If you have you will know how toxic they, and the fumes they product, are. The best way to keep your drains unclogged is prevention. Make sure you brush your hair before showers, and don’t pour mop water down your shower drain but rather into the toilet. Get a hair trap – you can get them at the Dollarstore or any hardware store. The next thing you should get is a plunger. Most clogs can be dealt with by pouring really hot water into your drain and then giving in a few plunges (for a kitchen sink, just make sure you don’t have PVC pipes, because boiling water can damage the joints and the PVC. Also don’t pour boiling water on porcelain because it can crack) If your drains are badly clogged, borax is an amazing de-greaser and natural solvent: just pour 250 ml of borax into your drain, let sit for ten minutes, and then follow that with a pot of boiling, or really, hot water.

Dryer Sheets:

Dryer sheets seems to be a uniquely North American laundry must. As a kid, when we visited Canada on vacation, my mother would purchase boxes of them to bring back with us to Europe and there she used them in various ways, placing them in drawers and closets. I never got into the habit of using them myself, but I know that a lot of people do use them for their anti static properties. Just this month I discovered the Wool Dryer Ball, which you use like you would a dryer sheet, but rather than using them for their smell and anti static qualities, the Wool Dryer Ball cuts the drying time, some say in half. This is a big claim, but somehow I don’t doubt it (I have yet to try them myself). Wool Balls apparently also soften your clothes, and remove static, so they would also be a great replacement for fabric softener. You can buy them in boxes like tennis balls, or you can make your own! Here is another great post on how to make your own Wool Dryer Balls, from Crunchy Betty.

Laundry Detergent:

Not long ago a did a post on how to make your own laundry detergent. There are a lot of good blogs posts on this subject, most of them follow a recipe of: 1 part borax, 1 part washing soda, 1/2 part soap flakes.SAM_9540

SAM_9446

L to R: Borax, Salt, Baking Soda, Vinegar, Distilled Water, Alcohol, Almond Oil, Soap

SAM_9455

L to R: Borax, Salt, Baking Soda, Vinegar, Distilled Water, Alcohol, Almond Oil, Soap

 

Here in quick form is the recipe for the detergent I use at home: 2 cups borax, 2 cups washing soda**, 2 cups soap flakes and 30-40 drops of lemon essential oil. It is amazing and I am never buying detergent ever again 😀

UPDATE! About 3 months later, I DID buy laundry detergent. In one word, what happened was buildup. Everything just started feeling greasy, and even smelling greasy and I had a baby coming and needed to start stripping cloth diapers and cleaning baby clothes. At first, when using this laundry soap, your clothes have no buildup because they get stripped by detergents at every wash. Your clothes really aren’t that dirty, and warm water and soap will take care of most minor stains and smells. The borax, washingsoda and EOs help deodorize and freshen your clothes from most airborn odors. BUT, after a few months, grease builds up in the fibers of your sheets and clothes, especially if you use as much body butter as I do lol 😉 And that is what made me go back to store bought detergents. A green,scentless, eco detergent mind you, but a detergent nonetheless. I think part of the problem might be that the laundry soap is in powder form and not liquid and in the short, shake and spin cycles in most top loaders, the soap flakes may not get dissolved fast enough to mix with the rest of the ingredients, but I didn’t think to try mixing it with water at the time. A year later, I still use BioVert. I DO use my homemade laundry soap as a booster however, so it’s not a complete waste. I think next time I make laundry detergent, it will be from scratch: using lye and oils.

Scouring Powder:

like Comet, contains bleach and “other” crap that they do not list. Go figure. If mixed with ammonia, or cleaning products containing ammonia, bleach can create toxic, noxious fumes. If you want a clue to how bad comet just listen to the kids. I found this children’s rhyme on wiki that goes like this: Comet, it makes your face turn green / Comet, it tastes like gasoline / Comet, it makes you vomit, / So get some Comet, and vomit today!  Haha, right? I have used baking soda as scouring powder for years, a lot of times just out of pure laziness and cheapness, but also because it works. I find a soapy sponge dipped in baking soda will get ride of most grime, and it doesn’t make me choke! If you need something more potent than plain baking soda, here is a simple recipe for homemade scouring powder: 1 cup borax, 1 cup baking soda, 1 cup salt, and if you want, add a teaspoon of some essential oils, like tea tree (which is anti-fungal and antiseptic) or citrus oils. I used a mix of wintergreen and peppermint 🙂

SAM_9661

Sink before

Sink before

Sink After

Sink After

Scouring Pads:

Steel wool scouring pads filled with soap, or bleach powder like Brillo pads can be very harsh on your skin, and your dishes. The worst thing about steel wool is how pieces of it break off and get lodged in your skin and under your nails. But they do tend to work, so we put up with them. Lucky for us, there are now things like the Euro Scrubby and coconut fiber pads that you can get at places like Maison EcoloNet or your local health-food store. I got myself a euro scrubby the other day and was amazed at how well it works. Here’s a pic:
The Euro Scrubby

The Euro Scrubby

The sales lady assured me that “I will be back for sure” because apparently all of her customers who’ve bought one, come back for more. I can believe that because its the best scrubber I’ve ever had. I paid 3$ for mine.

Window Cleaner:

Most window cleaners, like Windex, contain ammonia.** Here is a recipe from Crunchy Betty that works fantastically and is amazing simple and cheap. She calls it Alvin Corn because it contains: alcohol, vinegar and corn starch. You will need an old window cleaner bottle, or a spray bottle, and a funnel. You can get both at the dollar store. Boil some water (preferably de-mineralized/distilled water), and let cool just enough that it doesn’t melt your bottle. Recipe: pour 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch into your bottle, followed by 1 cup of the hot water. Shake. Then add 1/8 cup alcohol and 1/8 cup vinegar. Shake. Spray. Clean! Thank you Crunchy Betty! Here is her post and recipe. I was amazed when I tried this the first time, but I did notice that for the windows facing a busy street I had to spray and wipe a few times to get it clean. So I have adapted the recipe for city folks like myself, who are plagued by city grime and black windows, use 1/4 cup alcohol instead of 1/8 cup.

Wood Polish:

This is so easy it’s ridiculous. Choose a light scent-less carrier oil, like almond oil, grapeseed oil, or a non-virgin light olive oil, or even sesame-oil (un-roasted of course). Take a lemon and give it a light rinse in cold water. Since you will not be eating this there is no need to scrub the skin clean – in fact, you want the oils in the skin, so it’s important not to clean them off. Peel the skin off, using a carrot peeler or paring knife, but don’t include the white skin underneath. Place the skin of one lemon in a glass jar and pour your oil over the skin then place the jar in a hot-water bath (or double-boiler). Let the lemon skins steep in the oil like this for at least 3 hours. You can do the same thing by placing the sealed jar in a sunny/warm place, like a south facing window, for 3 weeks, giving a shake every day. After your time is up, strain away the skins, and keep you oil in a sealed jar in a dark place. To use: pour or spray a bit on a rag or directly on the wood, and rub away: the wood should be clean, shiny, and smell very lightly of citrus when you are done. Your wood will thank you. It will not stay greasy, but your wood will soak up the excess and the more you polish with this lemon oil, the better your wood will look.

Lemon maceration in almond oil, on table that was just polished

Lemon maceration in almond oil, on table that was just polished

Footnotes:

* To make your own washing soda bake a pan of baking soda for an hour at 400 degrees, stirring once, then you have washing soda. Washing soda is more alkaline than baking soda, and thus, most caustic and may be irritating to the skin.

**Ammonia is not something you want in your cleaning products: mixed with bleach or vinegar it creates an extremely toxic and harmful gas. Although ammonia occurs in nature, pure ammonia is corrosive and can cause permanent damage to skin and tissues and inhalation of ammonia fumes can cause lung damage.

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