When it comes to green cleaning, your home is most likely already a treasure trove of low cost, eco-friendly supplies.
Combining a few simple, effective household ingredients is a great way to ensure you know exactly what goes into cleaning your home.
But are homemade products as effective as store-bought options? With a few basic safety and chemistry tips, many DIY cleaners can pull their own weight around the house without the harsh chemicals found in store-bought products.
Though, knowing what to look for on the label at the store can allow you to bring in some extra help while minimizing harm to the environment and your health.
Why Go Green When You Clean?
Cleaning products are usually not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the culprits behind air pollution.
But many everyday products emit “volatile organic compounds,” (VOCs), which are gases that can contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and headaches
According to the American Lung Association, cleaning supplies and household products containing VOCs and other toxic substances can include, but are not limited to:
- Aerosol spray
- Air fresheners
- Chlorine bleach
- Detergent and dishwashing liquid
- Dry cleaning chemicals
- Rug and upholstery cleaners
- Furniture and floor polish
- Oven cleaners
VOCS also have a significant impact on the environment. A study on Los Angeles air quality found that the VOCs the researchers measured came as much from petroleum-based industrial and household products as from car exhaust.
Once in the atmosphere, VOCs can create harmful ozone or microscopic particulate matter (PM), both of which, when inhaled, are linked to breathing problems and health complications from heart and lung disease.
Although manufacturers are not obligated by U.S. law to list all ingredients in consumer products, check labels for VOCs to help reduce your exposure.
Additionally, many harm-free DIY cleaning choices await inside your cabinets.
How to make you own cleaning products
A good place to start making your own cleaning products is becoming familiar with a few simple ingredients and how they work:
1. Baking soda
Baking soda, aka sodium bicarbonate, is the backbone to many self-made cleaning products.
The secret to baking soda’s cleaning magic lies behind a quick understanding of the pH scale.
Baking soda is basic, which is the opposite of acidic things like lemon juice and vinegar. Because most odors are acidic, baking soda is actually more effective than air fresheners at eliminating odors because it reacts with the acids in the air to neutralize them.
And because baking soda is slightly abrasive, it can work better than just soap in some cases when it comes to scrubing. The extra grit makes it easier dislodge particles and remove stains from a number of surfaces.
Baking soda also causes dirt and grease to dissolve in water, making it an effective kitchen cleaner for grimier spots like countertops, refrigerators, and stovetops.
2. Distilled White Vinegar
White vinegar is the other all-star of the homemade cleaning product realm.
In terms of pH, vinegar is acidic (the opposite of basic baking soda), making it a powerful cleaning tool. Vinegar’s acidity makes it natural disinfectant for some common germs, though it is not approved for this purpose by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Also, many stains are slightly acidic, which means they can be dissolved with addition of another acid, like vinegar.
On the downside, vinegar can be too tough on delicate fabrics and natural stone like granite or marble. Vinegar can also eventually dull the finish of hardwood floors and can harm waxed finishes on wooden furniture.
It’s also important to note: when it comes to baking soda and vinegar, mixing two stellar ingredients does not create an even better cleaning product.
This is because mixing an acid (vinegar) and a base (baking soda) creates a chemical reaction, which in this case leaves you with just water and salt. This means using vinegar and baking soda together neutralizes both ingredients’ cleaning powers.
Instead, use them one after the other. For example, use baking soda for its abrasive quality to help scrub out tough grime and follow with a vinegar rinse. Or soak and dissolve carpet stains with vinegar before sprinkling with baking soda to neutralize the odor.
3. Castile Soap
Castile soap is another household regular for cleaners who make their own products.
Named after the olive oil-based soaps that originated in Castile, Spain, these soaps are made from a variety of vegetable oils. Castile soap is biodegradable and nontoxic, so it’s safe to use for kids and pets.
However, like most soaps and baking soda, castile soap is basic on the pH scale. This means that mixing it with vinegar will neutralize both their cleaning effects. As with vinegar and baking soda, castile soap and vinegar should be used one at a time to make sure they are performing at their best.
The lip puckering acidity of lemons makes it a natural, mild disinfectant. And while the smell of vinegar may not have many fans, lemons add a nice citrus scent that can bring a hit of freshness to your home.
5. Essential Oils
Essential oils can do more than add a pleasant smell to your homemade cleaning products.
These oils are named as such because they are made from concentrated essence (extract) of a plant. There are several varieties available, each with their own benefits, that can be used to add a boost to homemade cleaning products.
Once again, a little bit of chemistry can help you decide the best option for your needs. For example, essential oils high in phenol (phenolic acid) are known for their powerful antimicrobial qualities. This includes essential oils like oregano and thyme. As a word of caution, phenols can irritate the skin, so use with care.
Another important functional category for essential oils is the alcohol group (hydroxyl group). These natural alcohols kill bacteria by breaking down their membrane. Sandalwood is a prime example of an essential oil in this category.
A few good essential oils to try around the house include:
- Lemon (powerful cleaning agent found in disinfectants and degreasers)
- Tea tree (a potent disinfectant)
- Lavender (an excellent deodorizer)
- Thyme (an effective kitchen cleaner)
- Peppermint (a good option to get rid of pests)
The following tips are critical to ensure that your homemade solutions are both safe and effective:
- Test First. Make sure to do a quick spot check to see how your DIY formula works on the item you are trying to clean. This will help prevent accidentally ruining delicate materials.
- Don’t Experiment. Never experiment with untested combinations of cleaners, as some ingredients are toxic together. For example, never combine ammonia-based cleaners with chlorine bleach or products containing bleach, such as powdered dishwasher detergent. Before mixing anything, read the product labels first.
- Avoid Irritations. Always work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves, especially if you have sensitive skin.
- Label Everything. If you are mixing a solution that you won’t use up entirely, make sure to properly label all the ingredients that went into making the cleaner. It’s important to know what the mixture contains in case a child or pet gets into it.
- Store Properly. Always keep cleaning products in a safe area, out of the sun, where they aren’t accessible by kids or pets. Essential oils tend to oxidize in sunlight. Storing your homemade cleaners in a cool dark place, inside tinted glass bottles helps keep UV rays from degrading your cleaner.
Now that you have a background on the basics of DIY cleaning products, here are a few suggested homemade recipes to give a spin around the house:
All-purpose cleaner with vinegar
You can use this solution to remove hard water stains, clean trash cans, wipe away wall smudges, and much more.
- ½ cup distilled white vinegar
- ½ cup water
- 12 to 24 drops of essential oil (suggested: lavender, lemon, tea tree)
- Combine equal parts water and vinegar in a spray bottle, shake to mix.
- Add the essential oils of your choice directly to the spray bottle, shake to mix,
- To use, spray any areas that need to be cleaned, rinse well, and wipe dry.
- For tougher cleaning jobs, like grout, let the spray sit for several minutes and use a toothbrush or scrub brush.
All-purpose cleaner without vinegar
If you are not a fan of the smell of vinegar, this all purpose cleaner is a mild-scented alternative
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp liquid castile soap
- 1 1/2 cups water
- Measure baking soda into a clean spray bottle.
- Add 1 cup of water and shake until the baking soda dissolves, less than a minute.
- Add castile soap to the spray bottle and gently swish to combine (DO NOT shake vigorously or your soap might foam).
- Add the remaining 1/2 cup water and spray directly on the surface to be cleaned.
- The cleaner might separate over time, but just swish gently to re-mix the ingredients.
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup white or cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol 70% concentration
- 1 to 2 drops of essential oil for smell (optional)
- Combine ingredients in a spray bottle and shake to combine.
- Spray on to glass surface and wipe off with a microfiber towel.
Tip: Don’t clean windows on a hot, sunny day, because the solution will dry quickly and leave streaks. For mirrors, spray the solution on a cloth first before wiping.
Carpet Stain Cleaner
- White vinegar
- Warm water
- Baking soda
- Use a color-safe towel to blot up any liquid excess liquid on the carpet.
- In a spray bottle, combine equal parts white vinegar and warm water.
- Thoroughly spray the stained area with the vinegar and water blend.
- Blot the vinegar and water mixture, removing as much of the stain as possible.
- Sprinkle the area with baking soda.
- By the next day, the vinegar and water solution should be dry, leaving a chalky baking soda residue. Clean this with a vacuum cleaner, and if any residue remains, gently scrub with a clean cloth.
Note: Carpets made of natural fibers and wool, or silk are delicate and should not be cleaned with vinegar.
How to assess store bought green products
Sometimes it’s necessary to bring in a little extra store-bought help. Being mindful of a few tips can help you make the greenest choices when considering all-natural products.
Here are some criteria to evaluate whether a cleaning product is on the safer side:
- The product lists the ingredients it contains (even though they are not required to)
- The product uses plant-based ingredients (not petroleum-based)
- The ingredients are biodegradable (preferably USDA Certified Biobased Product)
- The product does not contain artificial colors or fragrances
- The products as an A or B rating in the Environmental Working Group’s cleaning product database
- Bonus if the products are ultraconcentrated or refillable to reduce landfill waste
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has a list of products that meet its Safer Choice requirements for the environment and health.