What are they?
Big manufacturers are constantly bringing out new ‘improved’ products, which are basically petroleum-based detergents whose ingredients are often toxic, non-renewable, and take a long time to biodegrade. You don’t need such a range of products; you can buy green brands based on vegetable oils, or you can make your own cleaners from a few basic ingredients:
Baking soda: dissolves dirt and grease in water; abrasive, so good for surfaces; neutralises acids and removes odours too.
Washing soda: can only just be called non-toxic because of its high pH; use for very very stubborn stains (eg engine oil).
White (distilled) vinegar and lemon juice: nature’s acidic grease cutters.
Hydrogen peroxide: (3% conc. from chemists) a natural disinfectant produced by the human body and by the action of sunlight on water.
Borax: mineral (sodium, boron, oxygen and water), formed when salt lakes evaporate. very low toxicity, yet an effecitive fungicide and anti-bacterial cleaning and bleaching agent.
Cream of tartar: a natural leftover when grape juice is fermented into wine.
What are the benefits?
Look out for companies that provide washing-up liquid in refillable drums, from which you can re-fill bottles, so that you don’t have to keep buying new ones. Making your own is even better (avoids the transport of all the water found in commercial products).
But the bottom line is that natural cleaners don’t cause the health and environmental problems associated with synthetic chemicals when they end up in our bodies or down the drain. Over 70,000 synthetic chemicals are manufactured, and only 600 have been adequately tested (US Office of Environmental Affairs).
The human body has not evolved to cope with exposure to so many chemicals; asthma and cancers are on the up, and sperm counts are falling. The cocktails of chemicals we use in our homes can’t help. Here is just a tiny selection:
Phosphates: (washing-up liquid, washing powders); too much for sewage system, leads to algal blooms in rivers.
Paradichlorobenzine: (toilet blocks; deodorisers) possible carcinogen.
Chlorine: (bleaches) irritant, corrosive, can produce toxic gases when mixed with other cleaning fluids.
Petrochemicals: (furniture polish, high-strength cleaners) eye, skin and respiratory irritant; can contain the carcinogen benzene.
Sodium hypochlorite: (bleaches) corrosive, kills bacteria in sewage farms, eye, skin, respiratory irritant.
Artificial musks: (air fresheners) liver toxin.
Formaldehyde: suspected carcinogen.
Perchloroethylene: (dry cleaning) toxic air pollutant, probable carcinogen, a tiny amount will contaminate groundwater for many years.
What can I do?
Avoid products with these words on the container: chlorine, ethylene/ethyl, butyl/alkyl, benzene, phenol and formaldehyde. Buy green products or make your own:
All-purpose cleaner: soap and water; or two tablespoons of baking soda in a litre of water.
Stain remover (surfaces): sprinkle with salt and lemon juice, leave for a while (a few hours for really bad stains) and wipe clean.
Stubborn stains: as a paste, baking soda and a little water removes stubborn stains from coffe cups, doors, appliances etc.
Carpet freshener: sprinkle baking soda before vacuuming.
Eliminating odours: cat litter trays – baking soda; fridge – baking soda/water paste.
Removing grease: vinegar (white) with salt.
Disinfectant: (kitchen chopping boards, bathrooms and toilets) spray with white vinegar, then spray with hydrogen peroxide solution; wipe clean.
Oven cleaner: make a paste with equal parts salt, baking soda and water, paste onto oven walls, leave for a while (overnight is good), then wipe off.
Metal polish: vinegar or lemon juice (don’t use baking soda on aluminium as it will attack it).
Furniture polish: ½ cup lemon juice with a teaspoon of olive oil, apply with a soft rag.
Window cleaner: 1 litre water, ¼ cup vinegar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, shake, keep in spray bottle and use like ordinary window cleaner.
Drain cleaner: ½ cup baking soda, then ½ cup vinegar, leave for 15 minutes, then pour down a kettle of boiling water.
Washing dishes: buy green washing-up liquid (seelinks) – phosphate free.
Air freshener: open the window; cut lemons or baking soda in a dish; in the kitchen, simmer cinnamon and cloves.
Toilet cleaner: spray with vinegar and water mix around rim, pour cup of vinegar and couple of spoons baking soda into a bowl, leave for 15 mins, brush and flush.
Rust remover: scour with cream of tartar.
Mould remover: spray with equal parts vinegar and water, leave for 5 minutes and wipe clean.
Laundry liquid: green products (see links).
Stain remover (clothes): equal parts vinegar and water; for grease, mix borax and water, rub in and wipe off.
Laundry bleach: don’t use chlorine-based bleaches; ½ cup washing soda in wash cycle; ½ cup lemon juice in rinse cycle; hang washing out – sunlight is a natural bleach.
Dry cleaning: don’t do it – wash woollens with mild soap and cold water.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
Martin & Monica Neicho of Gently Handcrafted have been making natural soaps since 2010 and are currently producing and testing effective natural home cleaning and laundry products. Martin has been involved with the environment and the organics industry since 1991 and is a qualified horticulturist. Monica is a self-taught artist and illustrates GH soap labels.
We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.