Greener homemade cleaners

Looking for a more natural way to clean? Ditch the harsh chemicals and head to your cupboard instead.

It isn’t easy being green — and clean! Whether it’s everyday chores or tough cleaning job, there’s no shortage of products on store shelves eager to help us live a spotless, germ-free life. However, in recent years there’s a growing concern about how these products impact our health and the environment.

Today, there are more “green” and “natural” products on the market, but not all of them live up to their labels or their higher prices. If you’re willing to go back to basics, you can save some money and find healthier ways to clean right in your cupboards.

What can natural ingredients do?

Baking soda:
Not just for baking! Sodium bicarbonate deodorizes, scours, cleans surfaces, softens water, cuts grease, polishes silver and helps clean drains and garbage disposals. Try adding a half a cup to your laundry, or a couple of tablespoons when soaking greasy pots. To keep closets and drawers fresh, fill a clean sock with baking soda, tie a knot in the top and toss it in.

While you should be careful which surfaces you use it on, baking soda is generally safe for vinyl, plastic, carpeting, furniture, silver and stainless steel. (For a full list of uses, see Arm & Hammer’s Solutions Guide.)

Washing soda: Sodium carbonate has many of the same uses as its cousin, but has a higher pH and is more caustic. Experts say it’s safer than many store-bought products, but use with care and don’t consume it.

White vinegar: Diluted acetic acid can help remove mildew, stains and wax buildup as well as cut through grease. Not only can it clear scale from kettles and coffee makers, it’s also a mild surface disinfectant. Use it to clean glass and mirrors, or to remove stickers and labels. It’s also ideal for getting odours out of plastic containers and wiping down the inside of your fridge.

White vinegar is pretty strong, so many cleaning tips recommend diluting it rather than using it straight from the bottle. (VinegarTips.com has a full list of uses.) Don’t worry — the smell goes away when it dries.

Lemon juice: Another naturally occurring acid, lemon juice can whiten, disinfect and de-odorize too. Use a slice of lemon to disinfect a cutting board or half a lemon to scrub the inside of your microwave. It’s also a natural bleaching agent that can be used on counter tops and cloth, and adds a pleasant smell to other natural cleaners.

Salt: Use it for a good scrub or to fight mold and mildew. Salt water can also help remove tough stains like wine, sweat and blood, as well as freshen sponges and brooms. (For a full list, see the Salt Institute’s Consumer salt tips page.)

Cornstarch: Not just for stiff collars and doilies, cornstarch can help remove grease stains from walls, linens and driveways. (See Hodgson Mill’s Corn Starch Tricks for a full list.)

Cream of tartar:
Known as potassium bitartrate outside the kitchen, this powder can be mixed with lemon juice or vinegar to make a paste that cleans grout, tiles and metal (including copper, chrome and stainless steel).

Borax: Sodium borate is a naturally occurring mineral that is also used to remove stains, deodorize, soften water and disinfect. It’s also handy for spring cleaning as it can be used on wallpaper, painted walls and flooring.

There has been some controversy in recent years about how safe and “green” borax is (like this blog post from the Environmental Working Group). Also used as a pesticide and herbicide, the mineral can be dangerous to pets and humans too. Experts say to use it with caution — if you use it at all.

Soap: Available in liquid, granules, flakes or bars, plain soap can be used to wash almost anything and will cut grease and lift dirt. Use it on its own or add it to other ingredients like borax and washing soda to make other cleaning products. Experts suggest avoiding soaps that contain artificial fragrances or petroleum-based chemicals.

Castile soap: Traditionally made from oil olive, liquid and solid Castile soap is made from plant-based oils mixed with an alkali. It gets the nods from green experts because it’s biodegradable and free of harsh chemicals.

Olive oil: You might not think to clean with it, but olive oil can help lift dirt and is often used in homemade furniture polish. You can also mix 1 part olive oil with one part 1 lemon juice (a few drops of each is enough) to polish clean hardwood floors. (For more tips, see Cleaning with olive oil around the house.)

Essential oils:
Essential oils like tea tree, lime, lemon, lemongrass, grapefruit and eucalyptus aren’t just added to homemade products for their scents. These oils have their own grease cutting, antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Microfiber cloths:
True, they aren’t ingredients, but these reusable clothes require very little cleaning product (if any) to get the job done. A good quality cloth should last a few years, and it’s less wasteful than disposable products like paper towels.

Green cleaners you can make at home

Not sure how to use some of these ingredients at home? There are many recipes to be found online – here are a few to get you started:

All-purpose cleaning spray

There are many variations on this recipes, but the most basic is 1 part water with 1 part vinegar in a spray bottle to use on sinks, counters, toilets and most surfaces.

Some recipes add borax and/or liquid castile soap to the mix (usually 1/2 cup of each per gallon of water), as well as up to 10 drops of essential oils for scent or disinfecting.

Scouring powder

Need to scrub? Try using baking soda straight on your sponge, or mix either salt or baking soda with some liquid soap. Use baking soda for a gentler scrub as salt is more abrasive.

Oven cleaner

Chemical oven cleaners are some of the harshest products we can use in the home. There are various solutions to tackle the job — including this technique from About.com which involves sprinkling your cool oven with baking soda and spraying it with water. Keep the mixture moist, scrape it out a few hours later and rinse.

Another option is to make a paste of 3 parts baking soda, 1 part salt and 1 part water and coat the inside of the oven (avoiding bare metal and any openings, of course). Let it sit overnight, then scrape out the mixture and wipe the oven clean with a cloth.

Furniture polish

When it comes to varnished wood, cleaner recipes vary in proportions but typically include warm water, an oil and vinegar or lemon juice mixed in a spray bottle. For instance, this combination from the David Suzuki Foundation:

2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp white vinegar or lemon juice
2 cups warm water

You’ll want to give the bottle a good shake to mix the contents. Some sources say to dampen a cloth with the mixture and then rub in on the wood, while other sources advise to spray directly on the wood and buff dry with a clean cloth. It may take a little experimentation to find a mixture and technique that works best for you.

Drain cleaner


1 cup baking soda
1 cup salt
1/2 white vinegar
1 kettle of boiling water

Pour the baking soda, salt and vinegar down the drain and leave for 15 minutes. Then pour the boiling water down.

Got a clog? If a plunger won’t do the trick, a plumber’s snake is your best option.

Carpet cleaner

Lightly sprinkle cornstarch or baking soda over the carpet and rub it in. Leave for one hour and then vacuum.

Glass and mirrors


Mix 1 part water and 1 part vinegar in a spray bottle (1/2 cup of each should get you started). Spray on surfaces and wipe clean. Some variations on this formula also include 1 part rubbing alcohol.

Stainless steel cleaner

Love the look of stainless steel appliances but not the smudges and stains? The David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green recommends dripping olive oil onto a clean cloth and wiping down the surface. Next, drip some vinegar on a clean cloth and wipe again. (The olive oil helps lift dirt and smudges and the vinegar cuts the grease.)

Looking for more recipes? Try:
David Suzuki Foundation: Green cleaning recipes
EarthEasy.com
Back to Basics Cleaning
Greenpeace: Basic Recipes for Green Cleaning

Before you try it

If you decide to give any of these formulas or ingredients a try, remember a few key tips:

- Test it first. Beware that natural acids and abrasives can damage some surfaces like grout, marble and tile. When in doubt, test them on an inconspicuous spot first.

- Take precautions. Even natural substances can take a toll on your skin and body. Take your usual precautions like wearing gloves.

- Label containers carefully. Whether you make it yourself or not, any substance in your home should be clearly labeled for safety reasons. Make sure to store them out of reach of children and pets.

- Avoid mixing and matching. Even natural substances don’t always play well with others — like bleach and acid (even if that acid is lemon juice). Dangerous mixes can lead to toxic fumes, chemical burns and violent reactions. Experts warn not to mix natural cleaning ingredients with store-bought cleaners. (About.com’s Common Household Chemicals – Dangerous Mixtures has more information.)

One final word of advice: don’t feel you have to go “all-in” right away. Remember, it’s all about exposure — try a natural alternative for a cleaner you use frequently or for harsh products like oven cleaner or air fresheners.

Additional sources: DIYNetwork.com, TheDailyGreen.com


Photo © S.Lamothe

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