Real Green Living
Ten Simple Ways to Clean Green
Make your own nontoxic cleaners, or find eco-friendly products from Green America's Green Business Network™ members.
There are many benefits to making your own green cleaners. You may already have most of the ingredients in your cupboards. You’ll save money by not buying an array of expensive products, each targeted to clean only one type of surface in your home. And, in most cases, green cleaners work just as well as their commercial counterparts.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to use green cleaners is to keep potent toxins out of your home. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that many household cleaners contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde and harsh acids.
Since indoor VOC levels are often two to five times greater than outdoor levels, humans can experience “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous systems” from indoor exposure to these chemicals, according to the EPA.
“Some [VOCs] can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans,” the agency says. Most modern chemical cleaners are, quite simply, overkill, notes the nonprofit Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC). “Atomic energy is not necessary to unclog a drain, nor are the Marines necessary to combat ants,” Jan Williams writes in the CHEC’s book Household Detective. “Most of the time, we can use milder, natural chemicals ... to do the same jobs.”
Sure, you say, but who has time to make their own cleaners?
You do—with our help. Just ten basic ingredients that are probably already in your home will tackle most cleaning jobs Your home will sparkle, germs will still run in fear from your sponges and rags, and your indoor air will be better than ever.
The Basic Ten
Stock your cupboards with these ten products, and you can clean just about anything:
1) White vinegar: An antifungal that also kills germs and bacteria.
2) Baking soda: Eliminates odors and works as a gentle scouring powder.
3) Borax: Borax, the common name for the natural mineral compound sodium borate, eliminates odors, removes dirt, and acts as an antifungal and possible disinfectant. Use with care around children and pets, as it can be toxic if swallowed.
4) Hydrogen peroxide (3% concentration): A great nontoxic bleach and stain remover, as well as a proven disinfectant.
5) Club soda (fresh): A stain remover and polisher.
6) Lemon juice: A pleasant-smelling nontoxic bleach, grease-cutter, and stain remover.
7) Liquid castile soap: An all-purpose cleaner, grease-cutter, and disinfectant. “Castile” means the soap is vegetable-based, not animal-fat-based.
8) Corn meal: Great at picking up carpet spills.
9) Olive oil: Makes a wonderful furniture polish.
10) Pure essential oils: Adding all-natural, organic essential oils to your cleaning concoctions can add wonderful scents to your housekeeping endeavors. Some—such as lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, lemongrass, and tea tree oils—also may have antibacterial, antifungal, or insect-repelling properties. To find pure, organic essential oils, visit your local health food store or consult the “Aromatherapy/ Essential Oils” category of our National Green Pages™. Remember to use care with essential oils, as they can cause harmful reactions when ingested or put directly on the skin. Some are considered dangerous for pregnant women (To be safe and simplify things, stick with eucalyptus, lemongrass, and tea tree oils for all recipes below if you’re pregnant).
If you want to try an oil we haven’t mentioned in this article, consult a reliable source on its proper usage, such as the aromatherapy education section of Frontier Natural Products Co-op’s Web site.
The Basic Ten at Work
Now that you know what products you need, grab a few clean, empty spray bottles; some rags and sponges; and a bucket of water, and you’re ready to clean your house the green way.
All-purpose cleaners: An all-purpose cleaner is just that—something you can use for just about every surface in your home, from kitchen counters and appliances to bathroom surfaces and walls. Clean House, Clean Planet author Karen Logan offers this recipe for the all-purpose “Alice’s Wonder Spray”: Put 2 Tbsp. white vinegar and 1 tsp. borax into a 16 oz. spray bottle. Fill the rest with very hot water and shake to blend until the borax is dissolved. Add 1/4 cup of liquid castile soap only after you’ve completed the above steps. If you want to scent your spray, also add 10–15 drops of an essential oil, such as lavender, lemongrass, thyme, eucalyptus, rosemary, rose, or clove. The spray will keep indefinitely. For an even simpler solution, try cleaning with two cups of club soda in a spray bottle.
Hard floor cleaner: Author and Care2.com healthy living editor Annie Bond (a.k.a. Annie Berthold-Bond) recommends this solution for all hard floors (except when directed by the manufacturer to avoid even mild detergents): Combine 1/4 liquid castile soap, up to 1/2 cup white vinegar or lemon juice, and 2 gallons of warm water in a large plastic bucket. Use with a mop or sponge.
Carpet cleaner: To clean and disinfect your carpet, the CHEC recommends blending 1/2 cup baking soda, 1 cup borax, and 1 cup cornmeal. Sprinkle mixture over rug and rub with a cloth. Be sure to sprinkle, rather than dump, the mixture on your carpet. Large clumps of cornmeal could clog your vacuum. Let rest for several hours or overnight, then vacuum. To remove stains from your carpet, Logan advises mixing 1/4 cup liquid castile soap and 1/3 cup water in a blender until foamy. Spread the mixture on the carpet and let sit for a few minutes, then scrub the stain with a brush or clean rag. Also, club soda will remove many acidic stains, like coffee, wine, or juice. To deal with big carpet spills, pour cornmeal on the spill, wait 15 minutes, then vacuum.
Glass cleaner: To make your windows shine, you can simply use club soda in a spray bottle. Add 1 tsp. of lemon juice to increase your window cleaner’s degreasing power. Logan recommends using a terry-cloth cotton rag for best results.
Bathroom surface cleaners: You can use the all-purpose cleaners recommended above or, for even simpler bathroom cleaning, use baking soda or borax as a scouring powder. For a softer scrub, Bond says to combine 1/2 cup baking soda with enough liquid soap to achieve a frosting-like consistency. You may want to add 5-10 drops of an essential oil for fragrance. Club soda works wonders on plumbing fixtures.
Toilet cleaner: Sprinkle baking soda or borax, or pour white vinegar into the toilet, and let sit for a few minutes. Scrub with a good toilet brush. oven cleaner: Cover the oven floor with baking soda, spray with water until very damp, and let set overnight. Spray with water every few hours before you go to bed to keep damp. In the morning, clean out the baking soda, and the stuck-on gunk will be loosened and ready to scrub off.
Mold remover: Bond recommends combining 1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide or white vinegar with 1 cup water. Spray on mold and do not rinse. She also recommends treating mold with a spray mixture of 2 tsp. tea tree oil and 2 cups water.
Wood polish: To polish wood furniture, dab olive oil onto a soft cloth and rub.
Germs and Other Concerns
You may be worried about do-it-yourself green cleaners not being able to kill germs effectively. Researchers at Tufts New England Medical Center, on the other hand, worry that we’re killing too many microorganisms, saying that disinfectants found in household cleaners may contribute to drug resistant bacteria. The CHEC says that ordinary soap and water do the job well enough to keep our families safe, barring someone with a seriously compromised immune system.
For most of us, the best way to prevent the spread of harmful microorganisms is to wash our hands frequently. Also, disinfect any sponges you’re using weekly by boiling them in water for three minutes and then microwaving them for a minute or two. Launder dish rags every week.
If you prefer over-the-counter products, look for green cleaners made with natural ingredients. Check your local health food store, or consult the box below for screened green cleaning product companies listed in our National Green Pages™.
—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy
Updated April 2015 - Originally published July/Aug 2006
Green Cleaning Products:
• Aberdeen Enterprises/BioGreen—321/639-3324.
• American Formulating & Manufacturing (AFM)—800/239-0321.
• Bi-O-Kleen Industries—800/477-0188.
• Citra-Solv, LLC—800/343-6588.
• Descale-It Products Co.—520/294-5676.
• Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soaps—760/743-2211.
• Global Balance Co.—617/527-5639.
• Green Planet Products LLC—678/521-0036.
• Helyn’s Clean Solutions—860/871-1808.
• LifeKind Products Inc.—800/284-4983.
• Mia Rose Products—800/292-6339.
• Natural Choices Home Safe Products—866/699-2667.
• Naturally Home—888/696-8113.
• Naturally Yours—888/801-7347.
• Rochester Midland Corp.—800/836-162.
• Seaside Naturals LLC—800/870-1697.
• Seventh Generation—802/658-3773.
• Sun & Earth—800/596-7233, x11.
• Vermont Soap Organics—802/388-4302.
• Annie B. Bond—Her books Better Basics for the Home (Three Rivers Press, 1999) and Home Enlightenment (Rodale, 2005) offer plenty of recipes and advice for green
cleaning and living.
• Care2.com—Find recipes and advice for green cleaning and living on this site’s “Healthy Living” channel, edited by Annie B. Bond.
• The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition—310/820-2030. A nonprofit dedicated to educating people about preventable children’s health and developmental problems caused by toxins in their environments.
• Karen Logan’s Clean House, Clean Planet—(Pocket Books, 1997).
• Washington Toxics Coalition—206/632-1545. A nonprofit working to protect public health and the environment by eliminating toxic pollutants.
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