Non-toxic cleaning protects you and the environment. Most conventional cleaning products contain toxic chemicals. Household chemicals that get flushed and rinsed down the drain become toxic waste that ends up in the environment. Treatment facilities can remove many pollutants, but a wide range of human-caused compounds remain and are discharged into water bodies across North America. Adopt a commitment to clean with less toxic alternatives that you either make or buy.
Many of your household cleaning supplies contain hazardous substances. It is estimated that 12 billion pounds of household cleaning products are poured down the drain each year. Municipal wastewater treatment plants do their best to remove pollutants but what cannot be removed will end up in effluent and re-enter the environment. If you have a septic system, toxins poured down the drain will inhibit your system from working properly and will allow pollutants and chemicals to filter down into the ground where they can contaminate drinking water supplies.
Household cleaning products that contain hazardous ingredients fill the shelves of stores and support an intensely polluting industry. Using them poses a risk to you, your family and the environment. Avoiding hazardous products starts with avoiding products labeled as follows:
- POISON – highly toxic
- DANGER – extremely flammable, corrosive or toxic
- WARNING – moderately hazardous
- CAUTION – mildly hazardous
Storage Simply storing toxic cleaners poses a risk to your family. Fumes can escape even tightly sealed containers and migrate through the house. Among your cleaning products are other dangerous household products (i.e. waxes, paints, glues, solvents, etc.) that can leak irritating and polluting VOCs into your home environment. Remove these products to a cool, dry, well ventilated storage area outside your home as soon as possible.
If you decide to get rid of your current supply of conventional products, do so responsibly. Take them in their original container to the Hazardous Waste Treatment Facility for proper disposal.
In 1977, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the compounds that propelled aerosol products into the air and depleted the earth’s protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, were banned in nearly all consumer products. However, CFC substitutes are not without their problems. Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) propellants deplete stratospheric ozone, but to a much lesser extent than CFCs, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) propellants are non-ozone depleting, however they evaporate when the product is sprayed and contribute to air pollution. Avoid products in aerosol form.
Single Use Products
Products designed for just minutes, or seconds, of use not only create more garbage, but they also needlessly consume resources and aggravate pollution because single-use items must be produced in huge volume to keep up with the demand for perpetual replenishment. Rejecting disposable products can also leave money in the bank for other things, even when "splurging" on more expensive eco-friendly cleaning products.
A clean house is nice, but a sanitized house is neither good for you nor the environment. Apparently being too clean can contribute to more allergies and a weaker immune system. The rest of the world is not as clean as a scrubbed-spotless, disinfected home, so a less sterile home will better prepare our immune system for what it will come in contact with, "out there". Second, over cleaning, even when done with safe products, puts undue strain on resources required to manufacture and delivery more than we realistically need. Frequent dusting, sweeping and tidying-up is one thing, but don’t clean unnecessarily or super-clean with antibacterial and disinfecting cleaning agents.
Steam cleaning services don’t just use water and steam. Commercial outfits add chemical cleaning solutions and rent-your-own machines suggest the same. But steam cleans all by itself. Just try it next time you rent a steam cleaner. Your carpets may just come clean without adding smelly, irritating chemicals. If you still want to give the steam a boost, add some Oxy Clean which cleans with oxygen. Pure steam will work best on light soil and natural fiber carpet (such as wool). Tough stains and synthetic fibers are harder to clean and may require Oxy Clean or more. If necessary, try pre-treating stains and going over them with steam rather than adding a chemical solution to the machine.
The frequent use of antibacterial agents–either natural or synthetic–is generally not recommended by health experts. Antibacterials kill beneficial bacteria as well as potentially harmful bacteria. We need a certain amount of bacteria in our lives. Furthermore, the long-term use of residue-producing antibacterial products can lead to multi-resistant organisms (MROs). Products containing antibacterial agents should be avoided unless you have a medical reason for using them, inwhich case natural antibacterials can be substituted. Thyme, oregano, rosewood, cinnamon bark, tee trea, and clove bud oils are all effective antibacterial agents.
Antibacterial agents target only bacteria. In the bathroom, a disinfectant may be preferable. A disinfectant is an antimicrobial cleaner, meaning it inhibits or prevents the growth of microbes (bacteria, viruses, and molds). Natural ingredients with disinfecting properties include white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, borax, and washing soda.
Don’t buy those cheap supermarket sponges for cleaning around the house. They have to be replaced too often. Buy a durable ensemble of cleaning instruments such as cotton rags, a nylon or natural bristle brush, and a stainless steel scouring pad. These will last!
My set of cleaning rags is made up of washcloths I purchased from a thrift store. When I have them, I also cut up old T-shirts or towels to make rags.
Natural Cleaning You can clean safely with products purchased at natural products markets or through mail order. See Resource in the right margin to research some of the companies making safer cleaners.
You can also make your own natural cleaners with things right out of the pantry. Natural, homemade cleaners can biodegrade quickly and are gentle on the environment, but even the most natural cleaning recipes should be used with appropriate caution. While you won’t encounter any toxic fumes, ingesting too much of anything is never good. Even homemade cleaners should be labeled and kept where small children and pets cannot get to them.
- BAKING SODA: Mildly abrasive. Cleans, deodorizes, removes stains and softens fabrics.
- BORAX: A natural mineral that disinfects and inhibits mold growth, but it can harm children and pets so keep it safely put away when not in use.
- CASTILE and VEGETABLE OIL BASED SOAPS: Cleans.
- CLUB SODA: Removes fabric stains.
- CORNSTARCH: Absorbs oil and grease.
- ESSENTIAL OILS: Adds fragrance. (Pine oil has disinfectant properties, citrus oils have cleaning and solvent properties.)
- GLYCERIN: An emollient.
- LEMON JUICE: Cuts through grease.
- SALT: A mild abrasive.
- SODIUM PERCARBONATE: An oxidative bleaching agent (available from chemistrystore.com). Sodium percarbonate is harmful if swallowed or inhaled and can cause irritation to the eyes and skin. But, it breaks down into water, oxygen, and soda ash, it is not a carcinogen, and it doesn’t persist in the environment, so is far preferable to chlorine bleach.
- SUN/ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT: Bleaches.
- VINEGAR: Dissolves dirt, grease, soap scum, and hard water deposits. Removes stains. Eliminates odors (its own vinegar aroma disappears when dry.)
- WASHING SODA: Cleans, softens water, cuts grease and disinfects. Increases the cleaning power of soap. Slightly caustic wear gloves and always rinse thoroughly.
Putting it all together: These recipes are very effective for common cleaning chores. For more recipes that tackle all sorts of specific stains and jobs, I also recommend the book Clean & Green (Ceres Press).
Note: You can add a few drops of essential oil to your cleaners to give them the desired odour!
- Liquid dish soap: Grate ¼ c. pure soap into flakes and dissolve them in 2 c. of hot water. Add ¼ c. glycerin (optional) and ½ t. lemon essential oil. If soap flakes haven’t melted by the time the water is cool, reheat on the stovetop.
- Automatic dishwasher soap: Mix 2 c. of borax with 2 c. of washing soda. This may leave spots on your dishes, so if you have a rinse compartment, fill it with white vinegar.
- General surface cleaner: Mix ½ c. white vinegar or real lemon juice with 2 c. water. No rinsing required. For added strength, add ½ t. washing soda, 1 t. of borax and ½ t. of liquid soap if you’re willing to rinse. Store in a spray bottle or mix a larger batch in a pail for cleaning floors.
- Grease cutter: Combine ½ t. washing soda, ½ t. vegetable oil-based liquid soap, 3 T. vinegar, and 2 c. hot water. Shake until soda is dissolved. Rinsing required.
- Toilet bowl: Baking soda. Sprinkle baking soda around the rim and scrub with a toilet brush.
- Stubborn toilet bowl stains: 1 c. borax, ½ c. white vinegar. Use a plunger to force water out of the bowl . Sprinkle the borax around the toilet bowl, then spray with vinegar. Leave for several hours or overnight before scrubbing with a toilet brush.
- Tough soap scum buildup: White vinegar. Spray undiluted vinegar on shower or tub walls and let stand several minutes. Next, use baking soda as you would scouring powder. Rinse thoroughly.
- Mildew: Combine ½ c. vinegar, ½ c. borax, 1 qt. warm water. Spray or wipe on, let stand 15 minutes, then scrub with a nylon brush and rinse.
- Mineral deposits: ½ c. white vinegar. Place vinegar in a plastic food storage bag and secure the bag to the shower head with a rubber band. Let stand for 2 hours or overnight, then scrub clean with a soft toothbrush.
- Slow drain: ½ c. of baking soda, ½ c. of white vinegar, 2 qt. boiling water. Pour baking soda down the drain and follow it with the white vinegar. You’ll see a foaming reaction immediately; when it subsides, cover the drain. Let sit for 20 minutes to half an hour then pour a tea kettle full of boiling water down the drain (about two quarts).
- Windows, mirrors, chrome fixtures: Combine 1 c. white vinegar, 1 c. water. Spray on and wipe then polish with crumbled newspapers. Your hands will get black from the newsprint, but your windows will sparkle. Recycle newspaper as usual.
- Furniture polish: Combine 1 c. olive oil, ½ c. lemon juice. Shake and spray lightly then dust as usual with a soft, reusable cloth.
- Scouring paste: Mix ¼ c. baking soda, ¼ c. borax, 1 t. liquid soap (optional). Add a little water as needed to make a paste. Scrub area and rinse thoroughly.
- Carpet stain remover: Club soda or Combine 1 t. sodium percarbonate and ½ c. warm water. Apply to stain, blotting lightly to penetrate the stain. Wait five minutes and blot stain repeatedly with clear water and a clean non-color-transferable cloth until stain is gone.
- Laundry powder: Combine 16 c. baking soda, 12 c. borax, 8 c. grated castile or glycerin soap flakes, 3 T. lavendar, lemon or grapefruit essential oil. Use 1 to 2 T. per load depending on the load.
- Fabric softeners: Mix ½ c. glycerin, ½ gal. water. Add ½ cup of mixture to wash or rinse cycle.
- Stain treatment: Club soda or Combine 1 t. sodium percarbonate and ½ c. warm water. Apply to stain, blotting lightly to penetrate the stain. Wait five minutes before washing.
- Fabric Whitener/Brightener*:
- Vinegar. Add a ¼ c. to wash cycle.
- Sodium Percarbonate. Add 2 T. to warm wash cycle. Not recommended for silk or wool.
- Sun. Hang whites on a clothesline in full sun.
* Bleaching of any kind will gradually deteriorate fibers, so choose to whiten fabrics with the knowledge that the tradeoff is a hastened degradation of fibers.