Our bodies are under enormous detoxification demands from all sides, and it can
seem frustrating when we try to address them. And nowhere do our decisions seem
more important than in our own homes! On the one hand, we’re advised to keep
our kitchens clean and disinfected for fear of food-borne pathogens — but
on the other, the cleaning solutions we’re offered in the supermarket are
full of toxins. The good news is that you can have inexpensive, non-toxic
cleaners for your household if you’re willing to do a little “home chemistry”
using some simple ingredients. We’ve collected a bunch of useful tips on how
to do this for our readers who are looking for ways to keep a clean house without
polluting their environment or emptying their wallets.
Baking soda and baking powder — what’s the difference?
If you don’t bake, you might not be familiar with the difference between baking
soda and baking powder. The distinction may not seem obvious,
particularly since both are shelved near one another in the aisle that contains
baking ingredients like flour and sugar. Some traditional baking powders contain
baking soda, but baking powder is really only used for baking (not cleaning) and
contains other ingredients — and it’s considerably more expensive than
straight baking soda. Manufacturers usually package them differently too —
baking soda almost always comes in a rectangular box, whereas baking powder usually
comes in a round box or tin. When it comes to cleaning, baking soda rules!
Natural cleaning ingredients
There are a few basic supplies you’ll need to mix your own natural cleaning
solutions. Most can be bought and stored in quantity.
- Baking soda. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, or NaHCO3)
is a slightly alkaline compound that can neutralize acids, and with them certain
odors — but it’s nontoxic enough to be used for just about anything
(you can even deodorize your dog — just sprinkle on and brush!). As a paste,
it makes a gentle scrubbing agent for sinks, counters, refrigerators, and other
surfaces. It’s also great for removing odors from plastic containers, like
milk jugs. In combination with other ingredients, it can be used to remove laundry
stains, polish furniture, kill mold and mildew, and even remove tarnish from silver!
- Washing soda. Baking soda should not be confused with
washing soda. Although the two are chemically similar and their chemical
names sound and look a lot alike — washing soda is sodium carbonate (Na2CO3)
— washing soda is a highly alkaline substance and can be somewhat caustic.
It’s an inexpensive way to treat greasy stains and soften hard water. Adding
½–1 cup to your wash will allow you to use less detergent to get clothes clean.
Unlike baking soda, washing soda is harmful if swallowed, so be careful not to store
the two near one another if you use them both. Keep washing soda out of the reach
of children, and wear gloves while handling it.
- Distilled white vinegar. Baking soda can clean and deodorize,
but it’s vinegar that lends real disinfectant power to many home cleaning
recipes. Multiple studies have shown that a simple 5% solution of distilled white
vinegar — the kind you find in large jugs in the supermarket for next to nothing
— can kill 99% of bacteria, 82% of mold, and 80% of viruses. It cuts grease
and can even remove scale on coffee makers. And though some people dislike the odor
that comes with vinegar, it dissipates more rapidly than the fumes that come with
chemicals — and white vinegar’s odor, unlike chemical fumes, isn’t
- Lemon juice. Like vinegar, lemon juice is acidic, which
helps it to cut through dirt. Unlike vinegar, it has a pleasant scent. Lemon juice
doesn’t have the same antibacterial properties as vinegar, but if killing
microbes isn’t your main concern (for example, if you’re polishing furniture
or cleaning brass or copper), you can use lemon juice instead of vinegar.
- Natural liquid soap (not detergent). Most of the liquid
soaps you’ll find in the supermarket are actually detergents. True soaps,
such as the ones you’ll find in natural foods stores, are made with natural
minerals and fats. In combination with other ingredients, you can essentially create
your own grease-cutting detergents, without the toxins and expense of mainstream
- Borax. Also know as sodium borate, this mineral occurs
naturally and is environmentally safe. But it can be an eye and skin irritant, and
should be kept away from children. It’s a strong disinfectant and deodorant,
and can often work when gentler substances aren’t enough. You’ll find
this ingredient in the laundry detergent section.
- Empty spray bottles. If you mix your own cleaners, you’ll
need something to store them in. New, empty spray bottles are readily available
at most stores, and they can be labeled with the recipe for the cleaning fluid you
put in them so there’s no confusion. It’s generally not a good idea
to recycle empty bottles from store-bought cleaners because of the potential for
chemical reactions between the residue and some of the natural cleaning ingredients
we list here (for example, vinegar reacts with bleach to create toxic fumes —
so putting a vinegar-based cleaner into a bottle that contained a bleach-based cleaner
could cause a serious health hazard).
Recipes and tips for non-toxic green cleaners
Here are some non-toxic green household cleaning recipes and tips we’ve compiled
over the years from our friends and a variety of other sources. You can explore
further on your own by clicking on the links on our
Deodorizing rugs, garbage cans, and refrigerators: Sprinkle
rugs with baking soda, rub it into the rug with a broom, then vacuum up the residue.
For deodorizing a trash can or fridge, dissolve a cup of baking soda in two cups
of hot water, wash with a sponge, and wipe down with a wet cloth. And yes, it’s
true—if you put an opened box or a bowl of baking soda into the fridge and freezer,
the baking soda will absorb the food odors, although it helps if you stir the baking
soda from time to time and replace the box or bowl every two months.
For particularly nasty stains or odors in garbage cans or refrigerators, white vinegar
will clean and disinfect. Use it straight or cut with equal amounts of warm water.
If carpets are stained, mix 1 teaspoon of liquid soap with 1 one teaspoon of white
vinegar in a pint of lukewarm water, apply with a soft brush or towel, rub gently,
and blot dry. Repeat until the stain is gone. Don’t use straight vinegar on
carpets or upholstery without testing for color fastness first.
Garbage disposal cleaner: Mix 1 cup white vinegar with
enough water to fill an ice tray, then freeze the mixture. Run the vinegar cubes
through the garbage disposal, then flush with cold water. A freshly sliced lemon
(or leftover lemon rind) offers an effective, fragrant alternative.
Coffee-maker cleaner: Fill the coffee maker’s water
reservoir with white vinegar and run the brewing cycle. The vinegar will remove
mineral deposits and scale in the coffee maker. Rinse thoroughly when the cycle
Kitchen surfaces and cutting boards: Keep a spray bottle
filled with straight white vinegar in the kitchen, and use this for cleaning surfaces
that are used for food preparation — just spray and wipe with a clean cloth.
For cutting boards, spray the board just before going to bed and let the vinegar
evaporate overnight. If ants are a problem in your kitchen, use the vinegar spray
on the cabinets and floors as well to deter them.
Fruit and veggie wash: And don’t forget to wash
the fruits and vegetables you buy, too — if you put ¼-cup vinegar and 2 tablespoons
of salt into a sink or tub and let your vegetables and fruits soak for 15 minutes,
it eliminates much of the dirt, pesticide residue, and waxes used by many produce
suppliers (and there’s no effect on the flavor). You can add baking soda to
scrub fruits as well. Be sure to rinse your produce thoroughly after soaking to
be sure all the residue is removed.
Oven cleaner: Sprinkle or spray warm water over the grime
on the bottom of the oven, cover with enough baking soda that the surface is completely
white, and sprinkle more water on top. Be generous with both water and baking soda
— it can take a fair amount to break up oven grime. Let this mixture set overnight
to loosen the grease. Simply wiping with a cloth should get the worst of it off,
and you can remove the rest by washing with a little bit of liquid soap on a sponge.
Soft scrubber for bathroom sinks and tubs: Combine ½-cup
of baking soda with liquid soap to make a paste. Use a sponge to apply the mixture
to a bathroom sink or tub surface. It rinses easily and doesn’t scratch. For
toilets, straight vinegar can be used for every day cleaning and deodorizing. Stubborn
rings in the toilet can be removed by pouring 1 cup of vinegar onto the stain, letting
it soak for 5 minutes, then sprinkling baking soda on the stain before scrubbing.
Or, for really bad stains, a paste of borax and lemon juice can be applied to the
bowl (flush it first so it’s wet when you rub the paste on). Let the paste
sit two hours, scrub, and flush it away.
Silver polish: Line a sink or glass baking dish with aluminum
foil, and fill it with hot water. Add two tablespoons each of salt and baking soda.
Drop the silver pieces into the container, making sure they’re touching the
foil and each other. The tarnish will disappear as the baking soda initiates a chemical
reaction with the aluminum that draws the oxidation off the silver (heavily tarnished
items might need as long as five minutes). Remove the silver when it looks clean,
rinse and dry it to remove the baking soda residue, and buff it with a soft towel.
A container of activated charcoal or a piece of chalk stored with the silver will
minimize future tarnish.
Brass, pewter, or copper polish: Dissolve 1 teaspoon of
salt in 1 cup of white vinegar and add white flour until a paste forms. Rub the
paste onto the metal and let it stand about 15 minutes, then rinse in warm water
and polish until dry.
Window cleaner: Mix white vinegar and water in a spray
bottle — half water and half vinegar works for very dirty windows, but you
can also get away with less vinegar if your windows just need a touch-up. If this
mixture leaves streaks, there may be wax build-up from chemical cleaners on the
glass, which can be removed with rubbing alcohol before cleaning with the vinegar
and water. If you’re pressed for time, combine ½-teaspoon of liquid soap with
3 tablespoons of vinegar in 2 cups of warm water and remove wax while you clean
— the windows aren’t quite as crystal-clear as you’ll get with
just vinegar and water, but the soap will remove the residue.
Here’s a useful tip for colder climates: A solution of 3 parts vinegar to
1 part water can be used to “coat” the windows of your car to keep them
from freezing in the winter.
Wood cleaner and polish: Wood furniture can be cleaned
with the same vinegar and water mix you make for windows. Once the cleaning fluid
evaporates, you can polish the wood with a mixture of an oil plus an acid, such
as lemon juice or vinegar. Mineral oil is most commonly used in commercial polish
and works well for home-made versions, too, but if you have young children you might
prefer to use an edible oil, such as olive or corn oil, so there’s no concern
about toxicity should your child happen to drink your furniture polish! Just be
aware that polish made with edible oils needs to be refrigerated. One part lemon
juice mixed with two parts oil makes a lemon-scented polish, or use vinegar in place
of the lemon juice (white vinegar for light woods, cider vinegar for dark). If there
are stubborn rings from wet cups or glasses in the wood, use equal parts vinegar
and olive oil and rub with the grain of the wood to remove the stain. For wood floors,
you can clean with the vinegar/water solution and then rub a polish made of equal
parts white vinegar and vegetable oil into the wood to keep them shiny.
Heaven knows we have enough toxins
in our environment — why not eliminate a few around the house? These
tips are great for getting started! Use your creativity to choose aromatic essential
oils to include in your recipes, or the ratios that work best for your own home
needs. More helpful cleaning tips and recipes can be found using the resources in
our References section. It’s such a great feeling to dwell in a space that’s
clean and green — and getting there can be an inexpensive and health-enhancing
General tips for nontoxic living
Yaron, R. 1998. Super Baby Food. Peckville, PA: F. J. Roberts Publishing
Co. (Contains an appendix with nontoxic, baby-safe cleaning tips.)
- Care 2 make a difference — How to make a nontoxic cleaning
- 3 homemade natural cleaning products
On baking soda
Lansky, V. 2003. Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun, and Frugal Uses You’ve Probably
Never Thought Of. Minnetonka, MN: The Book Peddlers.
- Sixty-one uses for baking soda
- 30 baking soda tips
- 15 uses for baking soda
- Use of baking soda as a fungicide
- How to make silver polishing dip
Lansky, V. 2003. Vinegar: Over 400 Various, Versatile, and Very Good Uses You’ve
Probably Never Thought Of. Minnetonka, MN: The Book Peddlers.
- 5 Easy, smart ways to use vinegar in the home
- 1001 Uses… for distilled white vinegar!
- The Vinegar Institute