My friend Rachel is pregnant with her second
child, like many pregnant women, she is distilling all of society’s
free-floating anxiety about exposure to toxic chemicals into nine months of
serious worrying. Rachel asked me to teach her how to do nontoxic cleaning, and
she was pleasantly surprised to find out how easy and effective it can be.
There are five
basics that I use for nontoxic cleaning: baking soda, vinegar, a good soap or
detergent, washing soda and tea tree oil. I believe you can clean everything in
the house with these items. Rachel liked the simplicity of having to learn about
only five ingredients. She also felt less vulnerable the more she took charge of
the number of chemicals coming into her house.
My rule of thumb
about nontoxic cleaning is this: use only ingredients that have been used
without harm for so many years that they are “generally regarded as safe”;
otherwise they would have long since been abandoned.
A commonly available
mineral full of many cleaning attributes, baking soda is made from soda ash and
is slightly alkaline (its pH is around 8.1; 7 is neutral). It neutralizes
acid-based odors in water and absorbs odors from the sir. Sprinkled on a damp
sponge or cloth, baking soda can be used as a gentle, nonabrasive cleanser for
kitchen countertops, sinks, bathtubs, ovens and fiberglass. It will eliminate
perspiration odors and even neutralize the smell of many chemicals if you add up
to a cup per load to the laundry. It is also a useful air freshener and a fine
A chemical neighbor
of baking soda, washing soda (sodium carbonate) is much more strongly alkaline,
with a pH around 11. It releases no harmful fumes and is far safer than a
commercial solvent formula, but you should wear gloves when using it because it
is caustic. Washing soda cuts grease, cleans petroleum oil, removes wax or
lipstick and neutralizes odors in the same way as baking soda. Don’t use it on
fiberglass, aluminum or waxed floors unless you intend to remove the wax.
Washing soda is found in the laundry section of most supermarkets.
Vinegar is a
mainstay of old folk recipes for cleaning and with good reason. The vim of the
vinegar is that it kills bacteria, mold and germs. It is also the opposite of
baking and washing soda; it is acidic and therefore neutralizes alkaline or
caustic substances. If your tap water is hard and you have trouble with mineral
buildup (which looks like a corroded dirty powder) soak a cloth in vinegar and
rest it on the problem area for a few hours. The acid will break down the
minerals and they can be wiped away. Acids dissolve gummy buildup and eat away
tarnish. I have also found vinegar particularly good for removing dirt from wood
spokesperson Michael Mullen references numerous studies to show that a straight
5 percent solution of vinegar kills 99 percent of bacteria, 82 percent of mold
and 80 percent of germs (viruses). Heinz’s packaging cannot claim that vinegar
is a disinfectant, since the company has not registered it as a pesticide with
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) however, it seems to be common
knowledge in the industry that vinegar is powerfully antibacterial. (The CBS
news show 48 Hours aired a special report on tests from the Good Housekeeping
Institute showing this.) Use white distilled vinegar, since apple cider vinegar
can leave stains.
Soap or Detergent
Many people are
confused about the difference between soaps and detergents. Both are surfactants
or surface agents, which basically means they are washing compounds that mix
with grease and water. But soaps are made of materials found in nature and
detergents are synthetic (although some of the ingredients are natural); they
were developed during World War II, when oils to make soap were scarce.
There is little
doubt that soap is better for your health and the environment than detergents.
Detergents are very toxic to fish and wildlife. Washing with soap has a big
drawback, however—the minerals in water react with those in soap, leaving an
insoluble film. This can turn clothes grayish and the film can leave a residue
(such as is found on shower stalls, for example). Detergents react less to
minerals in water and for all practical purposes, are the product of choice for
laundry, unless you have very soft water. Those of you with hard water, which
has a high mineral content, undoubtedly already know this. If you do use
detergent, you can ensure the least possible damage to the environment by
selecting the most biodegradable products. (See For More Information) Health
food stores carry brands of detergent made with renewable materials instead of
petroleum-based ingredients and with natural essential oil fragrance and no
dyes. They also sell liquid vegetable-oil soap called castile soap.
Tea Tree Oil
A friend once
offered me a very beautiful but musty bureau. I thought that setting the bureau
in the sun for a day or two might kill the mold, but that didn’t do the trick.
Much to my surprise, the solution I finally discovered was easy, used all
natural materials and removed 100 percent of the musty smell.
I have found three
natural ingredients that kill mold: tea tree oil
(an essential oil found in most health food stores) grapefruit seed
extract and vinegar. Each has its pros and cons. Vinegar is far the cheapest.
Tea tree oil is expensive, but it is a broad-spectrum fungicide and seems to
kill all the mold families it contacts; the problem is that it has a very strong
smell, but that dissipates in a few days. Grapefruit seed extract is also
expensive but has no smell.
Mold can be
dangerous to your health, even if you aren’t allergic. Many people react to
mold by getting tired and even depressed. Try to stay on top of moisture and
mold as soon as either arises. Dry out anything that is damp, such as basements
(use a dehumidifier) and carpets. Fix leaks in plumbing and roofs. Wipe up
spills. Make sure water doesn’t escape from shower curtains. Vigilance will
My Seven Favorite
Creamy Soft Scrubber
½ cup baking soda, liquid detergent
Pour the baking soda
into a bowl and add enough liquid detergent to give the mixture the texture of
frosting. Scoop it onto a sponge to wash surfaces. This is the perfect recipe
for cleaning the bathtub, because it rinses easily and doesn’t leave grit.
¼ to ½ teaspoons
liquid detergent, 3 tablespoons
vinegar, 2 cups water
Put all the
ingredients in a spray bottle, shake it, and use as you would a commercial
brand. The detergent in this recipe is important—it cuts the wax residue left
by products you might have used in the past.
1 cup or more baking
soda, water, squirt or two of
generously over the bottom of the oven, then cover the grime with enough baking
soda that the surface is totally white. Sprinkle more water over the top. Let
the mixture set overnight. You can easily wipe up the grease the next morning
because the grime will have loosened. When you have cleaned up the worst of the
mess, dab a bit of liquid detergent or soap on a sponge and wash the remaining
residue from the oven. Note: If this recipe doesn’t work, you probably
didn’t use enough baking soda and/or water.
All-Purpose Spray cleaner
½ teaspoon washing
soda, dab of liquid soap, 2 cups hot tap water
ingredients in a spray bottle and shake until the washing soda has dissolved.
Apply and wipe off with a sponge or rag.
½ teaspoon oil,
such as olive (or jojoba, a liquid wax), ¼ cup vinegar or
fresh lemon juice
Mix the ingredients
in a glass jar. Dab a soft rag into the solution and wipe wood surfaces. Cover
the glass jar and store indefinitely.
Keep clean spray bottles filled with straight 5
percent vinegar in your kitchen near your cutting board and in your bathroom and
use them for cleaning. I often apply the vinegar to my cutting board before
going to bed and let it set overnight. The smell of vinegar goes away within a
few hours. Straight vinegar is also great for cleaning the toilet rim. Just
spray it on and wipe off.
Mold Killer1: Tea Tree Treasure
2 teaspoons tea tree
oil, 2 cups water
works as well as this spray for mold and mildew. I’ve used it successfully on
a moldy ceiling and shower curtain and a musty bureau and rug. Tea tree oil is
expensive, but a little goes a very long way. It also has a very strong odor,
but that dissipates in a few days. Combine tea tree oil and water in a spray
bottle, shake to blend and apply to problem areas. Do not rinse. Leave in the
bottle-it has a long shelf life.
Mold Killer2: Citrus Seed Extract
20 drops citrus seed
extract, 2 cups water
The advantage of
using citrus seed extract instead of tea tree oil for killing mold is that it is
odorless. Combine the citrus seed extract and water in a spray bottle, shake to
blend and apply to problem areas. Do not rinse. Leave in bottle it also has a
long shelf life.
Mold Killer 3: Vinegar Spray
Straight vinegar reportedly kills 82 percent of
mold. Pour some white distilled vinegar into a spray bottle and apply to moldy
areas. Let set without rinsing, if you can put up with the smell, which will
subside in a few hours.
Berthold-Bond is the Healthy Living content producer for Care2.com and the
author of a number of books, including Better Basics for the Home and Clean