Natural Home Cleaning with Simple Ingredients from Your Pantry
Maybe you can relate to this: I love a clean home but I hate cleaning house. Okay, it’s not that I hate the act of cleaning; the process of cleaning can be almost meditative. What I really hate are the cleaners with their overpowering chemical scents and terrifying warning labels. And given the choice, I’d rather have a dirty house than a toxic one.
Luckily, we don’t have to make that choice. Using a few ingredients you already have in your pantry you can make your own household cleaners that are much safer than commercial products and just as effective, if not better!
How Did Cleaners Get to Be So Toxic?
More than likely the earliest cleaner was simply water. And water does a pretty good job as a cleaner. It’s not called the “universal solvent” for nothing, as most compounds can be dissolved in water. And cleaning is, simply, knocking dirt particles off of an object that is dirty. Water can knock dirt particles off lots of items. Think of rinsing food off a plate, pre-soaking your laundry, or splashing muddy shoes/feet through a puddle.
Surfactants make water more effective. They are compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid and they make it such that water can get into smaller spaces and get dirty items cleaner than simply water alone. The most popular surfactant in human history is soap. And interestingly enough, the discovery of soap may have been a complete accident.
A Quick and Dirty History of Soap
Basic soaps are made by the combination of a fat (either animal or vegetable) combined with ash in a process called saponification. The third ingredient is water.
How humans got these three ingredients together for the first time we’ll probably never know, but it might have gone some thing like this: ancient humans rinsed the ash and fat from their cooking in the water, and they noticed that loinsclothes washed downstream were getting cleaner than loinclothes washed upstream.
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine an ancient human living by a river, eating meat cooked over a fire. And in this scenario all three elements of basic soap-making are present; water, animal fat, and ash.
The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A clay tablet was discovered that contained a formula for soap consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil. And an Egyptian scroll called the Ebers Papyrus dated at 1550 BC indicates that ancient Egyptians bathed in a combination of animal and vegetable oils mixed with alkaline salts, which would have created a soap-like substance.
Soap vs Detergent
Unfortunately, many cleaning agents today are technically not soaps, but detergents, which are less expensive and easier to manufacture. The distinction between the two is that detergents are made from petroleum products and soaps are made from natural ingredients.
So what’s wrong with a detergent? Well, many of the ingredients are toxic in large quantities, they have a way of sticking around in the human body, and their production leaves toxic byproducts that find their way into the environment and stick around there too. Yuck.
In the late 1940s there were new developments in synthetic surfactants, and at the end of WWII companies that had produced aviation fuel were looking for another use for their primary product, tetrapropylene. Tetrapropylene has sufactant qualities and the production plants that once made jet fuel began to make industrial cleaners. These cleaners were so inexpensive to make that they were soon developed into household cleaners that made their way into households across America, replacing the tried and true cleaner recipes that had been passed down through families for quick and convenient cleaning.
Ironically, the first cleaning agents were rough copies of those natural formulas that had been perfected over time and passed down through generations.
How Do Natural Cleaning Agents Work?
There are many products you can use to make your own cleaners. In an effort to keep this simple I’m going to focus on three, with a few variations. These three are a good basis because 1) they’re cheap, 2) you probably already have them sitting around in your pantry, and 3) they are almost completely sourced in nature or at least they aren’t very processed.
So what are these three ingredients? They are salt, vinegar and baking soda.
Alkaline chemicals break down dirt such as grease and mud, and baking soda is an alkaline. Acids break down dirt such as lime scale, soap scum, and stains of mustard, coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages. Vinegar is an acid. Disinfectants stop the smells and stains caused by bacteria, by killing the bacteria. Vinegar, baking soda and salt are all gentle disinfectants.
Salt and baking soda are minerals. Table salt is generally considered neutral and baking soda is a base (alkaline). Table salt (sodium chloride) is an effective non-scratching abrasive cleaner that has bacteria inhibiting qualities. This is why Granny was correct in telling us to gargle with salt-water. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate or sodium hydrogen carbonate) is an odor absorbing, deodorizing, mild abrasive. That’s why you see it as an ingredient in commercial toothpaste.
White Vinegar (grain based) is a plant extract that cuts grease, dissolves gummy build-up, removes mildew odors, some stains and waxy build-up. Numerous studies show that a straight dose of 5% vinegar solution – the kind you buy at the supermarket – kills bacteria, mold, and viruses.
Recipes for Making Your Own Natural Cleaners with Vinegar
Plain vinegar has many uses as a cleaner. Don’t worry, your house won’t smell like pickles for long. The vinegar smell dissipates pretty quickly and you’ll find that vinegar will actually eliminate other odors. Here are a few ways to use straight vinegar.
– ¼ -1/2 cups vinegar to every load of laundry is the best fabric softener and static cling deterrent that money can buy. It also helps the clean clothes smell cleaner.
– Vinegar is also good to remove antiperspirant stains from clothes. Just rub the spot gently with a vinegar-soaked cloth, or soak it for a bad stain.
– You can use vinegar as a toilet bowl cleaner if you pour in 1 cup and leave it overnight, then scrub it in the morning.
– Straight vinegar can be used for polishing metal, cleaning mildew from tile, removing calcium deposits, and sanitizing the garbage disposal (or anything else that smells funky).
You can make a basic cleaner using vinegar, water and a spray bottle. Combine:
– 2 cups Water
– 2 tablespoons Vinegar (up to 4 tablespoons)
Mix these together in a spray bottle and use as a general surface cleaner. I especially like to use this on kitchen and bathroom counters. This can be used on any surface like windows, counters, refrigerator shelves and drawers, and table tops. I wouldn’t use a mixture with more than 2 tablespoons of vinegar on real wood.
Vinegar: The Versatile Cleaner
There are several other uses for this cleaner. Run this solution through your drip coffee maker to clean the coffee stains and calcium deposits. You can amp up the disinfecting power and scent of this basic cleaner with the addition of a few (about 10) drops of tea tree oil. My friend runs a home-based exercise studio and uses this mixture to clean the equipment after people work out. If you want to boost this cleaner’s surface cleaning power you can add ¼ to ½ teaspoons vegetable-oil-based liquid soap (like Dr. Bronner’s) to your spray bottle.
And finally, this cleaner is the basis of a very effective carpet and rug spot cleaner when you (very, very slowly and carefully) add 2 tablespoons baking soda to this mix. This cleaner works miracles on pet stains and odors! Make the cleaner and immediately spray the soiled area, let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then blot the moisture out of the rug.
Just be very careful when mixing baking soda and vinegar together, because vinegar is an acid and baking soda is a base they have an acid-base chemical reaction. Adding these two together too quickly will get you an explosion of water, carbon dioxide, and sodium acetate. Mix these together too quickly in your spray bottle and it will be like you shook your soda before opening it.
You can do fun variations on your vinegar too to give it a nice scent or extra cleaning power. I sometimes infuse my vinegar with orange peels by filling a 1 quart canning jar with orange peels then pouring vinegar over them. I seal the jar, and let it sit for about 3 weeks. The vinegar turns a light shade of orange and with the added orange oils it makes a slightly better cleaner for grease. It still smells like vinegar, with a slight orange scent.
Read About Making Homemade Vinegar from Cider, Wine, or Juice
Using Baking Soda as a Natural Cleaner
A paste of baking soda and water is a very effective and gentle scrub that can be used on most surfaces. I use it on my old, porcelain kitchen sink and cast iron tub and it gets them almost as white as new without scratching the surfaces. It’s so gentle you can use it on your teeth and even to exfoliate your skin. Because baking soda is alkaline it is good at breaking down dirt such as grease and mud. Baked on cooking residues are complicated mixtures of organic substances, but many of them are acids. When baking soda interacts with acids in the residues (remember the acid base chemical reaction?), bubbles of carbon dioxide form right in the surface contamination, which can help lift the residue. There are several ways to use plain baking soda as a cleaner.
Use baking soda as a carpet and room deodorizer; sprinkle baking soda on rugs and carpets, wait at least 15 minutes (the longer the better) and then vacuum up the powder. For a room deodorizer, put ½ cup of baking soda in a decorative container and leave it out. Just like it does in your refrigerator, the baking soda will absorb odors from the air. To make both of these cleaners even more sensual, add a few drops of your favorite essential oils. I use a 1 quart canning jar, add my baking soda (usually 1 cup), add a few drops of the essential oil (about 20 drops total), then put the lid of the jar and shake to mix. You can also use baking soda, either with or without essential oils, as an addition to your laundry; add 1 cup to your laundry and your clothes will be cleaner and brighter.
Shake a generous amount of baking soda on baked-on residue on your pots and pans, add a little hot water (and a small dollop of dish soap, if you’d like) and let this sit for 15 minutes. You will find that the baking soda does a brilliant job of getting the baked-on residue off the pot. I’ve used this on an enamel-coated cast iron pot to remove stains that wouldn’t come off no matter how much elbow grease I put in to them.
A little baking soda in your warm mop water will brighten a dull floor finish. Dissolve ½ cup baking soda in a bucket of warm water and mop with the solution, then rinse.
Baking Soda and Orange Oil Cleaner Recipe
My favorite variation of the the baking soda scrub is this recipe:
Put ½ cup of baking soda in a container that has a lid. Slowly mix in orange oil. Yes, it’s an expensive commercial product. I like the Medina brand, which is usually under $20 for a 32oz bottle and it lasts forever. Mix in enough oil to make a paste. The paste will keep in the lidded container for several months. This scrub has cleaned every gunky mess I’ve tasked to it, and it leaves the room smelling like a freshly peeled orange. I use this paste to clean the metal stove top, which can get covered in grease splatters from all the bacon we eat around here. I love this cleaner for cleaning the porcelain kitchen sink, which absorbs stains as if it were designed to do so. This cleaner also works on the soap scum on shower tiles, bathroom sinks and counter tops. Our counter tops get gross surprisingly fast, probably from all the dirt we bring in from the garden on our hands. Anyway I love, love, love this combination for its effective yet gentle scouring and its uplifting orange scent.
I’m currently experimenting with infusing baking soda with orange oils from orange peels that would otherwise go to the compost. So far it has worked out well. The baking soda has taken on a nice orange scent. And the consistency of the baking soda is becoming clumpy, obviously absorbing the oil in the peel.
Read More: Everyday Kitchen Chemistry – How Baking Soda and Powder Work
Using Table Salt to Clean Your House
Salt is particularly good at absorbing grease and oils. You can use it on your cast iron pans, but be careful because salt can scratch some surfaces. Here are a few ways to use plain table salt as a cleaner:
Like baking soda, salt will help remove burned food from pans. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons of salt as soon as possible and let it soak with some hot water, then scrub away the mess. Equal parts salt and water and some light rubbing will remove those pesky tea and coffee stains from your older mugs. You can remove or reduce white marks left from sweaty beverages or hot dishes on wood if you gently rub a thin paste of salt and vegetable oil on the stains. Pour a salt and hot water toddy down the kitchen sink regularly to deodorize and keep grease from building up. If you add a little salt in the final laundry rinse your outdoor, line-dried clothes won’t freeze in cold weather. Have some fresh cut flowers from the garden? A dash of salt added to the water in the vase will keep your flowers fresher, longer. You can clean rust with a paste made of salt and cream of tartar or lemon juice. Apply your paste to the rust, let it dry, then brush and buff the rusted spot. After blotting up a wine stain, sprinkle salt on the area to absorb the color, then wash as usual. A paste of vinegar and salt will remove lime build-up on and around faucets.
Sometimes, when I need a little extra scrubbing power I add about ¼ cup of salt to my favorite baking soda and orange oil scrub.
Getting Up on My Soap Box About Toxic Cleaners
The average American uses about 25 gallons of toxic and/or hazardous chemical products per year in their home, according to Joel S. Hirschorn and Kirsten V. Oldenburg, authors of Prosperity Without Pollution. The majority of these are household cleaners. And consider this: it is reported that in America more than 32 million pounds of household cleaning products are poured down the drain each day. Many of these products contain toxic substances that cannot be adequately filtered by sewage treatment plants or septic systems, and therefore end up in our ground and surface water.
On the other hand, making your own cleaning products is cheap, fun and relatively safe. It’s just good clean fun, ha ha! This article contains a very small sampling of the ingredients you can use, the combinations you can make, and the creative variations you can do. Some other ingredients you can add to your cleaning toolbox include: borax, washing soda, orange oil, tea tree oil, and rubbing alcohol. You can also add other essential oils for their scents and aromatherapy qualities.
If this information interests you, I would encourage you to explore the other ingredients you can use, and to start experimenting with your own formulas. There’s nothing like playing mad scientist in the kitchen, especially when it benefits you, your family, and our world. So pick up your scrub brush and have some fun!
Did you like this article? You might enjoy this one too: Hand Washing vs the Dishwasher – Which is Better?
Just a word of serious caution for those who might start experimenting with their own formulas. I am married to an organic chemist and he cautioned me early in our marriage to NEVER mix ammonia and Clorox as this will create chlorine gas which is very toxic. I know you never mentioned either of these two but many people use one or both of these around their homes. I have friends that will swear by chlorine bleach and use it everywhere and have refused to change. So just a word of warning.
I know that. I will be very careful. I don’t like Clorox.
Great and thorough info. Love the idea of the mad scientist in the kitchen. That alone might motivate kids to learn the best ways to do things and why.
I use all of these ingredients and they work well. The only time they don’t is when there’s enough hard water buildup on the edge of the water in toilets, especially old ones. If none of the other stuff works, I lightly sand the ring off with 600 grit black superfine sandpaper. The finer the grit, the better. Keep the porcelain wet and the hard water buildup comes right off. No need to rub hard.
For mineral buildup from hard water, a light rub from a pumice stick removes the ring. Using pumice regularly (as soon as you see the mineral buildup) keeps everything looking smooth and clean. 🙂
I appreciate this so much but I must tell you that according to Lisa Bronner’s video cleaning tips, Dr. Bronner’s soap should not be mixed with vinegar. She said it will cause their soap to break down into the oils it was made from and you’ll have a smeary mess. They recommend their Sal Suds instead. I’m not sure if that is considered a “natural” cleaner but a light spritz of that (one tablespoon of Sal Suds per quart of water in a spray bottle) will really make a difference if you’re trying to clean mirrors with vinegar/water.
This was a fascinating article. Thank you. And using these generic cleaners will undoubtedly save money too – and effort because the containers you buy the expensive chemical concoctions in are heavy. I’ve started to steam clean my floors using an appliance that cost me about $120 (in the UK) and have been surprised what simple water can do. If you leave soapy residue, it tends to attract the dirt.
I’ve been wanting to try baking soda and vinegar. This is the most complete, yet simple, information that I’ve seen. I will bookmark and use this page. Thank you for saving me research time!
I am curious what you use for laundry soap.
One more note – household vinegar is likely sourced from petroleum products. http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/ComplianceManuals/CompliancePolicyGuidanceManual/ucm074550.htm
The carpet cleaning formula worked well for me.
Unbelievable – the things we are unaware of. Thank you for the info. I use soap nuts for my laundry.
I was mixing vinegar and alcohol together and it cleaned pretty well, but your cleaner sounds easier and cheaper. I read that vinegar kills fleas. My vinegar and alcohol cleaner kills flies dead on contact. But it also kills plants so I have used lemon juice (bottled) and oregano oil with water to spray the air to clear the air of pesky midget flies. They are in my plants and it is hard to get rid of them.
Neem. try it, it comes as an oil, dried leaves even a tea infusion. It is said if you have used a teabag as a beverage remove the soiled teabag and put it on to of the growing medium at the base of the plant. It is good to get rid of head lice too.
I would like to see a little more on cleaning (and treating or polishing) wood furniture surfaces (while we still have these to enjoy).
A suggestion to the question on laundry: We use about one-fifth the manufacturer’s recommended amount of Ecover with some 20 Mule Team Borax (the latter good with sugar and water on cotton to defeat ants). Unfortunately the manufacturer of Ecover added perfume to its products a couple of years ago and defended it with the misused word “natural.”
Must add this works well with the use of cold water only!
Hi Martin – I just built a “sidecar cosleeper” which is basically a bed-side crib. I used beeswax and mineral oil to finish and polish the wood, and I’ve been really happy with the results. I’ll take some pictures & do a little write up. Thanks – Michael
Hi again, Martin.
Well, the baby has grown out of the infant co-sleeper but the extra furniture polish lives on and it’s wonderful!
I use it to polish/clean our wood furniture and have also used it to polish/clean some gourds that Michael’s mom grew and we’re making into little birdhouses.
A dab of the polish goes a very long way, and in a mason jar it will keep for several months.
Here’s the recipe:
1 part bee’s wax*
3 parts castor oil (you can also use olive oil, but castor oil is *much* cheaper)
In a double-boiler melt the bee’s wax, turn off the heat, add the castor oil, and when the mixture is warm but not hot, pour it in to a mason jar and seal. Oh, and please be careful to not burn yourself or others with the hot mixture. As the mixture cools it hardens into a paste.
It’s super easy! And you could add a few drops of essential oil (like lemon) while the mixture is warm if you wanted a nice scent in your polish.
* you can usually get bee’s wax by the block/pound from natural food grocery stores. It can be expensive but a little goes a long way.
I recently got off fb. I enjoyed keeping up with former friends and students. Now I have more time to read your articles. I am a serious composer and have made my own cleaning products but this article really inspires me to go all out. Thanks
Thank you Heather for this very informative article. I use Soda Crystals for cleaning all surfaces – worktop, floor & fridge (inside and out) – in my home. For limescale build-up I use white vinegar. It works quickly and effectively. but I like the idea of scenting my home-made cleaning products with peels. Nice!!
I wonder if you can tell me how we came by Vinegar? Is it natural, as in, can it be found in the wild, somewhere?
Baking Soda also…where does this grow? I am deliberately asking these questions like a child because I often think, if the shops do not provide us with these products what would we be able to do, instead?
Love your simple, clear and effective way of communication. Are you (both) teachers? Perhaps you might consider training those who feel led to take up teaching!
I have done away with all store bought cleaners and detergents. I use baking soda in an old plastic salt cannister/shaker with essential oils added on the kitchen sink to scrub anything and everything. It also works on the fibreglas shower as well as cat litter box deodorizer. My essential oil collection is my pride and joy. There are some great ideas and recipes here in the comments as well. Glad to find this website!
Re vinegar for fleas: pennyroyal works really well. Dried herb on pet’s bedding, they pick up the slight aroma on their coats and fleas run a mile. It is safe for dogs and cats. Tea tree works too but some pets do not like the smell.
I have been using a mixture of vinegar and bicarbonate of soda to wash my dishes. If the water is good and hot this works very well. The bicarb does foam when you put the hot water and vinegar in but this does not seem to affect the cleaning ability of the mixture.
thank you for your interesting article
Is the baking soda and orange oil scrub safe for Granite countertops?
Is the baking soda and orange oil scrub safe for Granite countertops? Iam repeating this as I did not check the notification box the first time.