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The Basic Toolbox for Nontoxic Housecleaning

As mentioned in our earlier post about sustainable food, two new books (from our contest earlier in the year) Chelsea Green Guide to Sustainable Food by Elise McDonough and the Chelsea Green Guide to Nontoxic Housecleaning by Amy Kolb Noyes are now available!

Here’s an excerpt from Nontoxic Housecleaning:

The Basic Toolbox for Nontoxic Housecleaning

Most of the basic ingredients you’ll need to make your own household cleaners can be found at your supermarket, although not all of them will be in the cleaning aisle. A few ingredients may require a special trip to a co-op or health food store, if your local supermarket does not have a sizable “natural foods” section. Many of these items may already be in your cupboard.

The Big Three:
• Baking soda (the little yellow box you keep in the refrigerator)
• White vinegar, 5 percent acidity (this is your normal, everyday plain vinegar)
• Soap (or detergent, if hard water is a concern)

Baking Soda
That little yellow box absorbing odors in your refrigerator and/or freezer is also a star of natural cleaners. Sodium bicarbonate, a.k.a. baking soda, is a mineral derived from soda ash. It is slightly alkaline and neutralizes acidic things, such as odors in liquids caused by acids, so it works on laundry, in drains and garbage disposals, and even on tough problems such as pet urine. Baking soda’s abrasive texture makes it ideal for scrubbing surfaces such as sinks, counters, appliances, and bathroom fixtures. If you adopt no other techniques in this book, you will still be making a big difference by swapping your toxic scouring powder for plain baking soda.

Vinegar
Distilled 5 percent white vinegar can be purchased economically in gallon jugs at many supermarkets. When a recipe in this book calls for vinegar, it always refers to distilled 5 percent white vinegar. Other vinegars, such as apple cider and red wine vinegar, can leave behind stains—not what you want in a household cleaner. Vinegar, for cleaning purposes, is the opposite of baking soda. It is acidic and thus neutralizes alkaline substances. Like all acids, vinegar corrodes and dissolves. For example, it will break down “hard-water” mineral buildup on sinks and tubs. It also dissolves tarnish from metals such as brass and copper.

Vinegar is a powerful sanitizer. Although it is not officially recognized by the EPA as a disinfectant, it is commonly known to kill bacteria, molds, and other microbes. While the smell of vinegar can be overwhelming, it dissipates after a couple of hours.

Liquid Soap or Detergent
Unless I specify otherwise, whenever I refer to soap in this guide I mean a liquid soap. Purists insist upon using castile soap, which has a vegetable- or nut-oil base. Other soaps use an animal product, such as beef tallow, as their necessary fat. (Soap is formed through a process called saponification, in which fats chemically react with a strong alkali, such as lye.) Detergents work like soaps, but are made from synthetic ingredients. Detergents were developed during World War II, when the oils used to make soap were scarce. They are generally made from petroleum products with added surfactants and foaming agents.

That said, there are some very good phosphate-free, biodegradable detergents on the market that are free of artificial dyes and perfumes, and are not tested on animals. (Phosphates are a problem because, as they build up, they pollute waterways and can cause fish kills and other ecological damage.) The major advantage of a detergent is that it does not react, as soap does, to minerals in hard water. The evidence of this reaction is commonly referred to as “soap scum” that can build up on shower walls and cause white laundry to dull and turn gray. Those with soft water need not worry much about such reactions.

I personally prefer to use a castile soap that has been scented with an essential oil such as peppermint, sweet orange, or lavender. This reduces the amount of essential oil I add to my homemade cleansers, thus keeping down the end cost. Dr. Bronner’s is a widely available brand that is made with organic oils, is certified fair trade, is not tested on animals, and is available already scented with essential oil. Vermont Soap Organics is another popular brand.


These three ingredients will take you far. When combined in a cleaner, a castile soap scented with an essential oil will mask some of the vinegar scent. Additional oils can be added to customize your cleaner and to boost certain cleaning properties. For example, just a few drops of tea tree oil will help combat bathroom mold and mildew.Note that vinegar’s scent will dissipate fairly quickly. While it may smell strong at first, it will not linger as the scents of some synthetic cleaners are meant to do. Therefore, it only takes a few drops of essential oil to scent a whole bottle of homemade spray cleaner. As the smell of vinegar fades it is the essential oil that will leave a lasting impression.


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