Green Cleaning

When I was a kid, we had “Mr. Yuk” stickers. Mr. Yuk was a sickly neon-green and black circle with a very distinctive frowny yuck face, and was, before emoticons and internationalized language-free signage, a recognizable symbol for children to say that this item was poisonous.


Why? Because every household had, under the kitchen and bathroom sinks, cabinets full of highly poisonous cleaning products. So every house had child-locks on these cabinet doors and Mr. Yuck stickers on bottles of bleach. We even had a bottle of turpentine under the sink, and any number of other noxious-smelling things.

I don’t think Mr. Yuk is still around, although cabinets full of toxic cleaners are. But consider this: these cleaners are a danger to children and pets who might get into the containers. They all have toxic fumes – when we were kids we used to joke about “killing braincells” when we did our chores, but it’s not actually a joke: many of the cleaners on the grocery store shelves are neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens. And once we’ve washed our homes clean, they disappear down the drain and back into the water system, but unfortunately, our treatment facilities do not treat for these kinds of chemicals, so many of them are returned to us in our water. Also, they leech out into the waterways and affect aquatic wildlife all the way to the ocean.

That’s a pretty grim picture, and probably most of you reading here already knew it. But what can we do instead? We can’t just stop cleaning! (Oh, if only…!)

The answer is simple – and much cheaper than you think!

Sure, you can head to the nearest Whole Foods and buy fancy green cleaning products. Be careful though – many products marketed as “green” are not actually so great. Read the labels carefully: if they don’t disclose all ingredients, then you know right off the bat they’re not what you’re looking for. Seventh Generation, Ecover, and Mrs. Meyers are all reputable brands, but they’re also pricey. You can make your own very effective cleaning products right at home for pennies on the dollar!

For cleaning all surfaces, I use a spray bottle filled with water to which I add 20 drops of rosemary essential oil, and 20 drops of lavender essential oil. (If you use a small spray bottle, 10 drops of each is sufficient.) This simple mixture smells fabulous, but don’t let its great smell fool you – it’s amazingly strong! In clinical studies, this mix was found not only to kill germs, and even in particular MRSA strains, on surfaces as well as their standard chemical hospital sanitizers, but it lasts longer! Because the active agent is the essential oil, which does not evaporate as quickly as the alcohol and bleach based cleaners, they found that surfaces remained germ-free longer when washed with this mixture! No chemicals, AND it works better – why use bleach?

I use this cleaner on kitchen counters, the dinner table, the bathroom counters, and for dusting. Not only that, but this same mix is better than Lysol – any time someone in the house is sick, spray it throughout the house several times a day to reduce the chance that germs will spread. And you can use it in place of air fresheners too! Air fresheners may cover odors, but they do so at a great cost – the fragrance is toxic, particularly to the brain and the nasal membranes. Many people are very allergic to air fresheners, but the simple rosemary-lavender spray bottle has yet to bother even the most chemically sensitive nose, in my experience. So go ahead – keep a small spray bottle in the bathroom or anywhere in the house!

The one place NOT to use this cleaner is glass, as it will streak. So for mirrors and windows, I use vinegar. Simple vinegar will do, but if you want to make it fancy, go ahead and add lavender or rosemary essential oil! For washing, you can just fill a spray bottle with 1/4 cup of vinegar and 2 cups of water, and 20 drops of each essential oil if desired. Spray and wipe! Vinegar also has germ-fighting action, so if you’re concerned about germs on the surface, don’t worry: you’re covered!
(If you find that this mix leaves streaks, it is because of the wax residues that are left as a finish from Windex and other glass cleaners. No problem – add a half a teaspoon of regular dish detergent to the mix, or use dish detergent on a sponge before cleaning with vinegar the first time, to remove the wax coating. Once that is gone, you’re ready to go!)

Vinegar will wash your toilet bowl too: just add 2 cups to the bowl and scrub! For the shower or tub, I like to sprinkle baking soda on the tub and then spray one of my spray bottles over the gritty baking soda. If it’s really dirty, pick the vinegar spray bottle, as it will dissolve oils and grime better. I grew up using Dow Scrubbing Bubbles, but this does the job just as well! Scrub it right up using a hot washcloth or a green scrubbing sponge, and rinse with warm water. If you have glass shower doors, use your vinegar bottle as an after shower spray to keep soap scum from clouding your doors.

Baking soda and vinegar are great for your stainless steel sink, too. Sprinkle the baking soda around, spray on some vinegar, scrub, and rinse: Shiny!

Either spray bottle is great for floors – forget that cumbersome bucket! Just grab a few towels and one of your spray bottles, and spray and wipe! It’s great to have a green scrubbing sponge handy for dried-on spills.

So there you go – you’ve replaced almost everything under your sink with two spray bottles and a box of baking soda! I like Eden brand raw apple cider vinegar, but any apple cider or white vinegar will do. Essential oils are usually found in the Health and Beauty section. Rosemary and Lavender are quite common, so although essential oils can be pricey, these are usually $7-$10 dollars. They’ll last you a good long time, since you’re only using 20 drops per spray bottle!

And don’t forget your towels! Sure, you can buy recycled unbleached paper towels, but there’s a better option: old fashioned cloth! In our house we have a strict zero paper products policy, for almost ten years now. I picked up some grubby kitchen towels at garage sales to use for rags, and that’s how I wash everything: floors, sinks, messy spills, the greasy stove top, you name it. If you come up short at garage sales, just head to IKEA or a kitchen store and buy a supply of towels – ten should do it. Sure, it will cost a few bucks up front, but you’ll never buy paper towels again! Savings! I find that different types of towels are good for different jobs – waffle towels are great for cleaning my cast iron (I cut them into quarters, because a whole towel was too big for the job), fluffy terry cloth for drying wet things and washing glass and mirrors, and thinner flour sack towels for dusting and scrubbing.
Those flour sack towels are also great as a green reusable “Swiffer” system: at the hardware store, pick up a long handled scrubbing brush – the old fashioned wooden scrubbing brushes on a long broom handle. Using hot water, soak a flour sack towel and wring it out well – then wrap it around the mop so that the towel covers the scrubbing bristles. “Swiff” away! When the towel gets dirty, rinse it in hot water and wring it out again. The damp towel picks up dust just as well as the Swiffer, plus, it also loosens dirt and picks up dried-on spills too!

We use cloth napkins (I keep an every-day set and a set for company. The every day set doesn’t really need to be washed every day, unless there was BBQ for dinner!), and cloth handkerchiefs (you can buy pretty ones for the office, but when I’m sick, my favorite handkerchiefs are the ones we cut out of old t-shirts!). Handkerchiefs are nicer to your nose and completely reusable!

We put all of the towels, napkins, and handkerchiefs in a separate laundry pile so that any of the grease from the towels doesn’t get into the other laundry. Also, if you use fabric softener, you don’t want to put it on your towels, because they won’t absorb water as well. So make sure to wash all the towels in a load by themselves.

Besides towels, there are a few other very handy cleaning tools. First, natural sponges. For dishwashing, I just love TWIST brand natural, compostable sponges. My whole family loves them, actually, because they start out flat like paper, and the first time you use one, they “inflate” into a sponge. Chore-time entertainment! They come in four-packs, last a couple months, and feed the compost when they’re done. Note: don’t put them in your compost if you use toxic cleaners! You can find nice green dishsoap pretty cheap, I particularly like Earth Friendly Products’ Natural Pear. But most of the time, hot water is sufficient. A little vinegar on the sponge will take care of dissolving any leftover oils, as well as disinfecting germs on glasses, forks, etc.

A nice thin green “scrubby” is a handy addition as well. Natural Value makes a nylon version, and Scotch/3M does as well: they’re usually available even at mainstream grocers. They’re great for anything stuck-on, and they last a long time.
A nylon pan scraper is also very handy. They’ll scrape off just about any burned-on, caked-on muck you’ve got, and surprisingly easily!
Nylon isn’t biodegradable, but both of these products will last a long time. You can also get “scrubbies” made from biodegradable products – TWIST makes several, and Natural Value does as well.

While it’s true that natural cleansers and methods may require a bit more elbow grease than the harsher chemicals, my philosophy is, I’ve got these muscles for a reason, might as well use them! Skip the gym membership, and give your kitchen floor a good washing instead. Combine that with a nice walk in the morning or after dinner, and you’ve exercised for free!

The two cleaning products that I do buy regularly are laundry powder and concentrated orange oil. You can make your own laundry powder, or you can use soap nuts, but usually I just buy Ecover’s unscented laundry powder. It lasts a long time, particularly because I use about half the recommended amount. Everything still comes out nice and clean! If I’m washing something particularly dirty, like the kitchen towels or muddy playclothes, I toss a cap-full of orange oil into the wash, and voila! Clean!

So there you go. For very little cash and zero chemicals, get yourself some spray bottles, some vinegar, and essential oils, and go to town!

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  1. Pam Militello on 21 March, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    I have a machine which requires a liquid soap. Is there a highly recommended biodegradable, effective, and homemade laundry liquid?

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