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Warning: These Substances Are Good for the Environment

While, yes, this is a photograph of a woman cleaning in curlers, thereby reifying all stereotypes–there’s something a little bit different. Just a little bit. One step closer to something great. What is it, you ask? Does she have free health care? Does she get paid vacations?

No. But she does use nontoxic cleaning supplies, to sweep up grime. And that really is a step towards something greater.

The following is an excerpt from Chelsea Green Guide to Nontoxic Housecleaning by Amy Kolb Noyes:

Why use nontoxic cleaners? To answer that question, let’s first look at why most of us don’t. Let me be perfectly clear: There is a reason why your local supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to household cleaners. Most people, myself included, view housecleaning as a dreaded but necessary chore. This is why making cleaning your home as quick, easy, and painless as possible is big business. After all, who wants to spend all day scrubbing bathtub mildew or making the toaster shine? A cleaner that allows us to spray, wipe, and move on to other things is highly valued in our society.

But think of the price we, our children, our pets, and our planet are paying for that level of convenience. Toxic cleaners pollute our water table. They can kill wildlife when not disposed of properly. Some even pose health risks to people and pets living in your own home, especially those who do the most cleaning and breathe in the most fumes. That price is too high. Perhaps the question should be: Why not use nontoxic cleaners? Convenience is no longer a good enough answer.

Toxic is a relative term, and common sense should be applied to the use of all cleaning products described in this guide. If something is toxic, that means it is poisonous. With a few exceptions, such as some applications of washing soda, the ingredients recommended in this guide are safe to touch with your bare skin. Caution should also be exercised when using concentrated ingredients such as essential oils, some of which can be caustic if undiluted. Most ingredients used in the guide are, in fact, edible. That said, none of the recipes are intended for ingestion. The term nontoxic is used in this guide to indicate that these recipes will not emit poisonous fumes in your home, and they will break down into harmless, organic substances rather than something that will poison the natural world.

After reading this guide and trying some of its techniques and recipes I hope you’ll discover, as I have, that natural homemade cleaners are inexpensive, fun to make, and satisfying to use. Many of these cleaners can be made in a large batch (one spray bottle full) and kept under the sink for future use, just like their commercial counterparts.

There is sometimes a tradeoff for giving up the toxic chemicals that make up so many commercial cleaners. In some cases, but by no means every case, your homemade cleaner might require a little extra effort to do the job. That effort might come in the form of time, heat, or muscle power. For example, it may take an hour of soaking in vinegar to remove a hard-water ring from around your bathroom drain. It may take a 200°F (93°C) oven to help clean the baked-on drips from the oven floor. And it might take a little extra elbow grease to make your good silver shine using just toothpaste—but you’ll never have second thoughts about whether it’s safe to put that shiny fork in your mouth!

While some dismiss homemade cleaning products as time consuming, I think you’ll discover much of that extra time involves letting something soak a bit and coming back to it later. If you are a multitasker like me, that shouldn’t be a problem. Like many changes, once you get used to the new routine, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Other books on the topic of nontoxic and environmentally safe housekeeping spend many pages convincing the reader that toxic cleaners are bad for the home and the environment. They list harmful ingredients found in commercial products and all the reasons why they should not be used. While this is certainly enlightening, I did not feel it necessary to repeat that information here. (I have included some of the more informative books on this subject in the resources list at the back of the book.) I am working on the premise that anyone reading this guide has already chosen to clean green, and need not be convinced. Instead, I will focus on the recommended ingredients, and how and why they work.

One of the reasons I started experimenting with homemade cleaners was witnessing the dramatic effect some commercial cleaners had on my mother. She had a severe reaction to ammonia-based cleaners and had to be extremely careful about what products she used at home. Even shopping in a store that mopped the floor with ammonia would cause her to become dizzy and disoriented.

Once I started making and using natural cleaners, I immediately noticed the absence of my own reactions to commercial cleaning products: no more stinging eyes, itchy skin, or runny nose when cleaning. I also noticed the effect on my wallet. Natural cleaning ingredients, even when pricey essential oils are used, are far less expensive than commercial cleaners. And by reusing spray bottles and other containers, I could feel good about saving money and reducing waste.

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