Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Greener Cleaners: Jumping Off The Chemical Wagon

There used to be a time where the smell of Clorox Bleach meant clean to me. It wasn't a nice smell, but I knew that A) My whites were whiter, B) it killed things that made bad smells, and C) It left dishes sterilized (I worked in a commercial kitchen, and standard practice was dipping each dish in bleach water after washing and rinsing. Yum.) And window cleaner? Well, the blue stuff featured often in my house during cleaning skirmishes. Mm, all that ammonia, and streak free windows. Oh, and those cleaning wipes you used for surfaces, those were fun. And those Glade infuser room scenter things? Those were brilliant. So was the smell of laundry detergent that stuck around for days on your clean laundry, giving you the clean laundry smell for far longer than you needed it.

It wasn't until I had an encounter with some lemon aerosol furniture polish that left my throat and eyes irritated for hours that I realized maybe all this use of chemical cleaners wasn't a very good thing. I started to realize that I really didn't like my clothes smelling so strongly of detergent, and that rooms could smell clean without the use of artificial scents. (Somewhere in there I read about those room infusers actually coating your nostrils with the scent so you couldn't actually smell anything and got grossed out.)

That was about, oh...2009 or so. (Yeah yeah, shoot me. I was late to the green party.) It was simple. I worked in a store that had a range of interesting looking "natural" products, and started with a laundry detergent that had little scent and was nontoxic, and a room spray scented with lemon balm and mint, and a all purpose cleaner that smelled like cucumber (that last one I didn't enjoy so much.)

Now that I'm interested in being self sufficient, and because I'm curious about all things DIY, I have decided to share with you what greener cleaners I've put together, from scratch, to keep my home fresh and clean, and what I've learned along the way.

Household Cleaners

One of the first things you think about when spring cleaning is "Look at the state of the kitchen benches!" (Was for me anyway...what?)

What you need is a nice all purpose cleaner for surfaces that's easy to put together, smells pretty good, and does the job. I came up with a water and vinegar spray that smells good because I add multi-purpose eucalyptus oil to it.

All Purpose Cleaner

1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
1 tsp multipurpose eucalyptus oil
Other essential oils optional

Mix together in a spray bottle, and shake well before each use. Spray on a surface, let sit a moment, and wipe off.

It's smells vinegary for a bit, but goes away, leaving the smell of the essential oils, and your counters very clean. It also works well for mold and mildew that can occur on windows, window frames, and in bathrooms (I cleaned the ceiling in my bathroom and it did a wonderful job). I also use it to freshen the toilet, and it seems to cut the grease on the stove top quite well. I also use it to clean out the kitchen bin.

My reasoning behind this mixture: The acid in the vinegar makes surfaces a little hostile to molds and mildew because they want a more neutral pH, and the eucalyptus oil acts as an anti microbial, which good for kitchens, toilets and bathrooms. You can even craft the essential oils to your needs based on their properties.

Essential oils are useful if you know their properties.
Shower Cleaner

I both love and hate tiled surfaces. They look pretty, but you have to clean the grout, which usually involved a toothbrush and elbow grease. Now that I'm older and more mature (ha ha) I have come to realize that a little hard work doesn't hurt if you want a good result (I'm pretty sure people who know me are now looking for pods).

Normally I'd use vinegar for everything thanks to it's acidity, but grout poses a unique problem: it's usually calcium based. Calcium is readily dissolved by acidic substances. You can see why it'd be a problem if I used my vinegar spray, right? Yup.

So, instead of vinegar, you can use hydrogen peroxide. It offers some bleaching and disinfecting properties, and kills mildew (which is what you are fighting with most in showers and bathrooms), and won't dissolve your grout. If you add essential oils, you get their properties as well.

1 part water
1 part hydrogen peroxide (3%)
Essential oils optional

Mix in a spray bottle. Shake with every use (especially if oils are added). Spray on your shower tiles, leave for an hour, and wash off.

If the problem areas are especially stubborn, there's good old elbow grease: use some baking soda and an old toothbrush, and start scrubbing.

Drain Cleaner

I used to work in a commercial kitchen environment. One of our daily tasks was cleaning the floor drains. But because it was also a retail bakery, with underpaid, disgruntled employees, some of these things got left for a while, and the drains was one of them. And, oh, the result was not nice. I can remember standing in front of the espresso machine making a coffee for a guy chatting to me over the top of the machine, and it was everything I could do to keep from turning my head in disgust, because I thought he had the worst halitosis in the history of the universe.

I maligned the poor guy, unfortunately. Turns out, the floor drain the espresso machine drained into was the culprit. It was so horrible, we refused to go near it for days more, but I finally said enough was enough, and I got down on my very valuable hands and knees scrubbed it hard with baking soda (it was gunked up, and I wanted the abrasive effect), poured hot water down it to rinse, and then finally hit it with bleach. Then I did this for every other drain in the bakery, just so we could prevent this from happening again in the near future.

If drains are blocked really badly, people tend to break out the big guns, like Draino (a component of which is caustic soda) or bleach (like me with the drains at work). But I propose a gentler method that's used more often in a maintenance regime.

Drain Cleaner #1

1 cup baking soda
1 cup white vinegar
1 liter boiling water

Pour the baking soda down the drains in question. Pour the vinegar after, and then plug or cover the drain. Leave for an hour or so. Unplug the drains and pour the boiling water after.

Drain Cleaner #2

1 cup plain, live cultured yogurt

Pour the yogurt down the drain and leave for a while. It's said the bacteria latch onto the gunge in your drain and eat at it to break it down. I suppose this is a similar action to the enzymatic drain cleaners you can find on the store shelves. After you've given it some time to work, just rinse with water, or follow up with drain cleaner #1.

Last but not least, get a little brush and scrub the mouth of the drain with baking soda to clean up the stuff that builds up there. Rinse, and know that your drains will not be stinky for at least a little while. If you do this at least once a week, you might not have to worry about smelly drains ever.


Soap is a great subject, and one that I've gotten into recently with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. In fact, it's such a great subject, that I've already written to other posts about it, but I'll reiterate them here for you. You can also click the links and check out the original blogs.

Laundry Soap

Remember I said that I decided I didn't like the fragrance of laundry detergent? It's because it sucks, and it makes my nose itch and my throat feel funny. I'm not allergic to anything fragrance wise, it's just how cloying the scent is. My husband uses Cold Power, and it's nasty. It's also very vague about its ingredients. I decided that it'd be better to make my own and know what was in it than trust a big company to do it for me.

After reading a bunch of stuff about people who were making their own laundry soap, I decided to have a go. At first I just used the store bought laundry soap bars which, unfortunately had a scent (that was dumb, I know; but the scent was at least less powerful, and didn't stick around on the clothes afterward). This particular recipe is good for those who only wash clothes with cold water (though I imagine it works just fine with hot as well).

Mixing up a batch of laundry detergent
DIY Laundry Soap

For a single batch, you need:

1 cup washing soda

1 cup Borax
1 bar of soap, grated (approximately 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
Eucalyptus and Tea Tree oils (other oils can be used if you so desire)

Mix all the ingredients together, breaking up the lumps as needed. Add as much of the essential oils you feel the batch needs to smell the way you like. Mix in well to incorporate the scent throughout the dry mix. Store in an air tight container (in my case, a wonderfully re-purposed Moccona instant coffee jar). I keep it in the wash house, on the shelf above the washing machine with a Tablespoon measure scoop in it.

To use, use 1T for a lightly soiled load, and 2T for heavily soiled clothes.

Bar Soap

Now that you've got the laundry soap down, you might think about what bar soap you're using. You can easily buy Ivory, Fels-Naptha, Zote, or other brands of laundry bar soap, but if you want to have a go at making your own, I suggest this simple lard soap recipe for both laundry and other cleaning purposes.

Fresh cut lard soap.
Make Your Own Soap

Simple Lard Soap


450g of lard

171g water 
60g lye

1. Melt the lard in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

2. While the fat melts, weigh the water in a pitcher (make sure you zero the scale with the empty pitcher first!) Sprinkle in the lye, and gently swirl to dissolve. (Don't breathe the fumes.)

3. Allow the melted fat and lye water to cool for a while, until you can touch the sides of the containers without burning yourself.

4. Pour the lye water into the saucepan. Place an immersion blender in the pan until it touches the bottom. (This first batch of mine was actually mixed by hand, with a silicone dipped whisk. The stick blender is much better.) Turn on the blender on the lowest speed, and beware of splashing (do this in the sink or put down several layers of newspaper). Blend until you see a "trace," which means until it's thick enough that you can kind of see where you've been and drips stay visible on the surface for a second or two. Think of the consistency of cake batter, or perhaps pudding.

5. Pour into a mold of your choice (in my case, the plastic lunchbox with a lid).

6. Let it sit for at least 8 hours, or over night. Then you may carefully loosen the block of soap with a thin knife, and pop it out onto a cutting surface. Cut into bars, and store in a cool, dry place to cure for a couple weeks before use.

Now that you have made your simple lard soap, you have a basis for which to build your soap making experience. Why? Because commercial bar soap can be just as loaded with fragrances, detergents, chemical additives and who knows what else, that's going directly onto your skin (the largest, most absorbent organ of your whole body). I personally have come up with a blend of lard and coconut oil that makes for a very nice soap that lathers well, and a totally divine oatmeal and honey soap which is made with a blend of olive and coconut oils. Have fun coming up with new fat and oil combinations, additions, and scents when making your bar soaps. The sky is the limit (and maybe the bank account!)

If you want to learn more about soap making, head on over to SoapCalc and start today.

I hope this post helped you to think outside the can or bottle or box of chemicals that our every day lives seem to be so inundated with. My hope is that, if enough people can be shown how easy and cheap it is to make their own products at home, it would encourage the big companies to realize that their chemical laden toxic sludge is dangerous and that know one wants or needs it. Sadly, this is just a fantasy of mine, but hey, a woman can dream!

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