It’s easy bein’ green when it comes to cleaning house. Alternatives to chemical cleaners are just as effective, and not hazardous to your health or the environment.
Next time you head to the store, add a few items to your shopping list: fresh lemons, baking soda and vinegar. Then scratch off glass cleaner, scouring powder, furniture polish and multipurpose cleaners. You won’t need those anymore.
At least that’s what I learned, when my recent chemical-ousting kick made it to the cabinet below my kitchen sink. For years, that’s where I’ve stashed a colorful, probably toxic bouquet of spray bottles and cans.
I was motivated to wean myself off them by knowledge, fear and finances. Knowledge, because more and more research is revealing environmental and human-health risks from synthetic chemicals in cleaners; fear, because I have too many friends battling cancers, and research suggests that chemical exposure is partly to blame; and finances, because in previous baby steps to go greener, I’d increasingly spent more on store-bought natural cleaners.
I was skeptical when I started my weekly cleaning a couple of months ago, armed only with lemons, baking soda and vinegar. After all, the science and technology of cleaning have surely advanced in a hundred years, since these natural supplies were the staples of apron-wearing housewives, right?
Wrong, and I haven’t looked back.
When Life Hands You Lemons
I started with lemons. As it turns out, one lemon will suffice for an average cleaning effort—in my case, lightening coffee stains on a counter. Just rub a slice over the problem area, allow the juice to soak in and wipe it up after a few minutes. Be careful, though: Lemon works very well as a bleach, and its acidity is not safe for porous surfaces like unsealed concrete countertops. When in doubt, wipe early and always test a small portion of an area to be cleaned before applying a natural cleaner. For an easy, nontoxic furniture polish try olive oil and lemon juice in whatever ratio you prefer. I used a half-and-half ratio on both finished and unfinished wood, and the results exceeded my expectations (based on my experience with leading store brands), and the solution didn’t discolor the wood.
Other polish recipes suggest varying combinations of vinegar and oil (which I didn’t try), ranging from a few drops of oil in vinegar to a few drops of vinegar in oil. Oil options for polish include lemon oil, olive oil and jojoba (the latter is said to excel because it never goes rancid). If you squish lemon juice in your polish, run the peel through the garbage disposal to remove odors. If your solution is mostly oil, wash your hands afterward and enjoy the moisture, rather than cleaning’s usual punishment.
To clean upholstery, try a hand-held portable steam device. It can remove grease, stains and other grime to keep your sofa spotless.
Next up: baking soda. I needed to scour a greasy stove, spotted faucets, contact lens-solution residue and soap buildup. Baking soda is as effective at those tasks as Ajax or Bon Ami. Plus, it’s easy on hands and doesn’t cause guilt pangs when it washes down the drain.
According to green-cleaning recipes, mixing baking soda with liquid soap to cake-frosting consistency cleans bathroom tile in a jiffy. Moldy grout is banished by tea tree oil diluted with water and applied with a toothbrush. (Tea tree oil is pungent, but the smell dissipates.)
Of all these natural cleaners, white vinegar is perhaps the greatest gift. It’s perfect for disinfecting and deodorizing countertops and floors. Dilute it to half strength with warm water, fill a spray bottle, and have at it. Use it at that strength, or less diluted, to clean windows (newspapers make great rags for this), adding a couple of drops of liquid soap, especially the first time, to remove waxy residue from previous cleaners.
Combine half a cup of vinegar and a few spoonfuls of baking soda to unclog a drain. Run 1 cup of vinegar through your dishwasher to eliminate soap deposits. Let a vinegar-soaked cloth rest against hard-water stains before wiping them away. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup vinegar to shine brass, copper and pewter, and make a multipurpose cleaner by mixing two-parts vinegar and one-part baking soda in a half-gallon of water.
I was nervous about vinegar’s strong smell, but I’ve found it easily tolerable. And it disappears quickly as the vinegar dries, leaving a rewarding freshness in the air. If it still bothers you, simmer cinnamon sticks or other fragrant spices in a pan of water.
And don’t forget old-fashioned soap. In unscented liquids, bars, powders or flakes, soap cleans nearly everything, and it’s biodegradable. Choose soap free of petroleum distillates and start green cleaning today.
CHEMICALS TO AVOID
Switching to natural cleaners will help you skirt several chemicals identified as risks to people and the environment (not to mention ones that haven’t been studied yet). Nitrosamines, for example, are a group of chemicals classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as carcinogenic. They occur in some cosmetics and pesticides, and form when some shampoos, dishwashing detergents and laundry soaps react with chloramines used for disinfection at wastewater treatment plants. Nitrosamines may be inadvertently released into the environment, exposing wildlife. In some cities, treated wastewater goes back into the drinking water supply, potentially exposing people.
Other red-flag chemicals include phthalates (pronounced thalates) and parabens, both of which show up in some cleansers and cosmetics.
David Norris, a University of Colorado physiologist, has documented male fish feminization in Boulder Creek that appears to stem from phthalates and other chemicals. Norris did find that a recent upgrade of the Boulder Wastewater Treatment Facility northeast of town has dramatically slowed fish feminization.
Preliminary results by other researchers suggests that so-called “hormone disrupters,” a category that includes both phthalates and parabens, can affect children’s reproductive development when women are exposed during pregnancy.
A good way to avoid such chemicals is to read labels in the store; most parabens and phthalates are listed as such. Or skip the labels and use simple, effective cleaning solutions like vinegar, baking soda and lemons.
If you do switch to green cleaners, what do you do with all those chemical cleaners under the sink? Drop them off at Boulder County’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility at 5880 Butte Mill Road, south of Pearl Parkway between Valmont Road and 61st Street. The facility is open 8 a.m.-noon Fridays and Saturdays, and 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, except during extreme (hot, freezing or stormy) weather.
The service is free for most residents of Boulder and Broomfield counties, but $10 per visit is assessed on Louisville residents. Call 303-441-4800 to ask about accepted household cleaners and other chemicals, or visit the website at bouldercounty.org/recycling/hhw/hhwhome.htm and click on “Accepted Wastes” in the Resources box.