Monday, May 7, 2012

Natural Cleaners for the Home

When we clean the house, my family no longer uses brand name cleansers and the house has never felt or looked cleaner. Another big bonus is that it smells better, too! There is no chemical smell. Instead, the air in each room feels fresh. Windows have fewer streaks. Counter tops are disinfected. Floors shine. Tubs and sinks sparkle. And we save money in the process. It is not all about harder scrubbing and working ourselves to the bone, either.

What's the secret? Only common sense (and a little bit of research).

The Green Clean Book
Hydrogen Peroxide
Guide to Speedy Green Cleaning

Natural Cleaning Agents

Like most people, I used to clean with products purchased at the grocery or hardware store. In fact, I had spent some time as a youth working as a janitor at my father's office. Typically, the most toxic chemicals were chosen with the idea that they would get the job done most quickly and with the least amount of effort. That is how most people appear to approach the cleaning process, professionally or otherwise. Spray on something that will "scrub" the tiles so you don't have to. Squirt something to dissolve the stains so the brush (and physical contact) becomes unnecessary. Use disposable pads and avoid having to touch anything dirty or full of germs. These selling angles appear everywhere these days and seem to be convincing consumers that there is no better way. But there is a better way, a healthier way and a smarter way to clean.

The best part is, it is also cheaper to clean with natural ingredients. While there are terrific pre-made environmentally friendly alternatives on the market, like the Conserve brand, it is easy to mix up your own home concoction from simple ingredients you probably already have.

Image of white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, baking soda and a lemon

Ingredients for a better clean

Start by looking in the kitchen pantry and the bathroom medicine cabinet. These two places are commonly stocked with the basics. What is not already there can be easily retrieved from virtually any grocery or convenience store, usually at a cost of less than $1 per item. The best news: nothing toxic to worry about.
  • Alcohol
  • Vinegar
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Baking Soda
  • Lemon Juice
  • Water

How to clean naturally

It will seem simple and obvious in retrospect, but most people think they need to go bleach something or use a high-suds detergent in order to get things "clean." And it is true that bleach does kill a lot of germs. It can also get you a lot sicker than most of the germs will. (Remember the commercials with ordinary folks smelling their lemon-scented bleach? Breathing bleach fumes can kill you, and even with plenty of fresh air involved prolonged exposure is certain to cause headaches and worse. Don't follow that example.)

Germ Killers

Germs are killed naturally by alcohol, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide (a mild alternative to commercial bleach) and especially something called hot water. That's right: steam is not only one of the best surface disinfectants out there, it is also great at cutting grease, lifting dirt and even shining the windows when used properly.

Grease and Dirt Fighters

Lemon juice has long been known to cut through grease. In fact, any citrus oil can help with this. Just look at the labels on most commercial cleaning products for proof. But citrus oil by itself can be quite sticky to clean up, so I recommend using it more for its fresh scent or a spot cleaner as necessary. In general, I stick to three ingredients mixed in varying degrees with water, depending on what I am trying to clean.

For kitchen sink cleanup, nothing beats hot water and a natural sponge for most items. But baked on goop like bacon grease may need special help. This is when I break out the baking soda. After wiping out any excess grease, I will rinse what I can away with a stream of hot water and then sprinkle baking soda over what is left in the pan. This works exceptionally well with stainless steal pans and the result is a bright, scratch-free shine. Most of the time, I can get all the grease off simply by rubbing the baking soda in with my fingers and running a little water over it. The process may take a little practice, but it has the best results that I have seen so far with, that's right, the least amount of work.

Almost everything else in my home gets cleaned with a rag or sponge and a spray bottle that is a solution of filtered water and either vinegar or rubbing alcohol. I'm a big fan of the alcohol, because it seems to work well on virtually any surface, but I do worry about drying out wood from prolonged use. Otherwise, it has a smell that does not linger particularly long, evaporates quickly after cleanup and does not streak on most surfaces at all. The more that streaking would matter, the more alcohol I use in relation to the amount of water, but in general I cut a 50/50 solution and spray only as little as I need to clean any surface.

Where We Use Alcohol and Vinegar to Clean

  • Floors
  • Counter Tops
  • Mirrors
  • Windows
  • Baseboards
  • Tubs
  • Sinks
  • Toilets
  • Shelves (along with our dusting to reduce "fly away" dust)
  • Appliances
  • Pet Areas
In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a place that I don't use these two cleaners. The only reason to generally not be using one of them is if I have my steamer out.

Steam Clean

That's correct, I do use a steaming appliance. I am quite fond of it, but only bring it out some of the time. While it is not heavy or difficult to use, there is an extra time component and it is not necessary for most clean-up situations. I do enjoy the extra "shine" once in a while, however, and believe it is useful for giving an extra deep-clean to areas that really need it. Plus, it is very good at getting rid of persistent dirt or grease spots that seem to be cleaned up only to reappear after a short while.

Steam does a lot of the work for you, but not all of it. In spite of the hype from manufacturers, a little elbow-grease is always a solid component of a good steam cleaning. Certainly, the more powerful the steam, the less you have to scrub, but all the steam is going to do is loosen and lift the dirt or grease, not magically make it disappear. The up side is that a steam cleaned room will sparkle bright while leaving the air breathable and surfaces residue and germ-free (per the typical disclaimers). I recently used a nice microfiber cloth on a wand attachment to clean the walls in my kitchen and with only minimal pressure (think about the effort of cleaning the car windshield with a squeegee), it did the job better than when I had been rubbing with a rag and spray cleaner. No streaks, not running, no problem. That alone made me a fan. But it won't be used on the living room walls, because I'm concerned that the paint there would either peel or rub off. Always test your surfaces!

In the bathroom and kitchen, or on tile floors, the steamer does an amazing job. Windows are effortless and, dare I say, almost fun. Plus, if I'm in the mood, I can take the time to quickly de-wrinkle my clothes. Not the ones I am wearing, of course, because there is one downside to steam: it can burn if you are not careful.

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