A recent discussion hosted by Katie at Kitchen Stewardship’s blog was on this topic: The Thinking Person’s Get Natural. I left a couple of long comments over there and realized I needed to write about this topic too.
In recent years, the popularity of homemade natural cleaners has reached a fever pitch. There are dozens of ebooks on the topic, a legion of blog posts and Pinterest pins. But making your own cleaning products may be a huge waste of time. Here are the dirty little secrets about homemade cleaners:
1) They may not work
Sorry, but that complicated vinegar and baking soda mixture renders itself into little more than… carbon dioxide. I have to snicker when I see recipes for homemade cleaning products that, even with my very limited chemistry education, I know couldn’t possibly work. (Baking soda followed by vinegar does make a decent drain cleaner, but it works far better for maintenance, not when the drain is actually clogged.)
Have you ever spilled lemon juice on your countertops, say, when juicing lemons for a recipe? I have, and it’s a hot mess to clean up. Therefore I would never mix up a recipe that called for sticky lemon juice that would only clog up my spray bottles and draw gnats (who seem to love anything juicy). One does not intentionally apply a sticky-sweet solution to areas one intends to clean up.
The truth is that many of these recipes aren’t really cleaning anything. It’s the action of water and elbow grease that does the cleaning. In order to clean, you need a surfactant that lifts the dirt and suspends it in water so that the water can do its job of washing it away.
2) They may not be frugal
Sometimes we justify the time spent researching, buying ingredients, and mixing up homebrew concoctions with the supposed savings. But are we really saving money? I’ve seen recipes for homemade cleaners that were ridiculously long on ingredients, with an accompanying price tag. (Organic lemons? Really? Those are $5 a bag, and I’m going to eat them, not spray them on my toilets. My toilets don’t vote with their fork or their dollars, and pee splatters don’t deserve organic-y goodness, nor do they justify a line item on the budget.)
When making homemade you have to buy your own spray bottles, which has to be figured into the price. And essential oils? Those are pricey. I do use lavender on a daily or weekly basis in my home, but other than that, I find that my essential oils begin to smell “off” before I can use them up. Another thing about essential oils: they will eventually cling to your cleaning rags and become impossible to remove without multiple stripping washes. What good are towels that repel water?
I can buy effective, non-toxic spray cleaner for around $2-$3 a bottle, with free shipping, or Amazon or Soap.com. Even less, if I do sales and coupons and buy from stores. And they come with their own spray bottles and essential oils!
To be fair, some homemade cleaning products are without a doubt very cheap. One of my favorites is simply mixing 1/2 teaspoon Dr. Bronner’s castille soap in a spray bottle of water. Costs pennies, and works well on most surfaces.
Baking soda is also cheap, but then again it’s often used incorrectly. Baking soda is a mild abrasive making it good for scrubbing. But if you mix it with water, the abrasive quality disappears. So sprinkle it in places that stink (your refrigerator, bottoms of trash cans) and leave for a few minutes, then wipe away with water. Or sprinkle it on your carpets, leave for awhile, and vacuum up.
Borax is cheap. I keep it in a parmesan shaker filled with it on the back of my toilet. I sprinkle it inside the bowl and scrub. Works great. Also good for scrubbing bathtubs and sinks.
And what is my time worth? If I spend an hour researching recipes, buying ingredients, and mixing stuff up, what could I have done with that hour that I spend to save a buck? (More thoughts on practical sustainable frugality here.) Time calculations must also include the time spent on failed recipes. The homemade oxy-clean I tried was an utter failure. The homemade laundry detergent that stopped working when I moved to a new city.
3) They may be dangerous
Go ahead and strip me of my natural mom card, but I don’t use vinegar for cleaning. I thought I was the only crunchy mama on the planet who doesn’t want to put a ring on vinegar’s finger, until I read this post by (no-nonsense mom of 11) Dyno-Mom. To quote her:
“I am so over all the stupid posts on the internet about the things you can clean with vinegar. Your house will smell strangely pee-like, everything will be smeary, there will still be grime and a massive number of fingerprints all over the stainless steel.Vinegar is not a surfactant, it leaves the dirt there.”
See what I mean by no-nonsense? I couldn’t have put it better myself. The Wikipedia page for vinegar mentions some of the specific cleaning uses for vinegar that actually work here. (Shining stainless steel, de-scaling coffee pots, removing mineral spots from glass, shining rusty cast iron pots, and a few others.)
Another reason I won’t clean with vinegar is because gnats love the stuff. In fact, you can make a very effective gnat trap by putting a little vinegar in the bottom of a jar, covering with plastic wrap, and making tiny holes with a toothpick (the gnats get in, and can’t fly back out). Why would I cover my countertops with something that gnats and ants are eager to eat up? Makes no sense. I might as well pour Trader Joe’s two buck chuck all over my kitchen. After all, it’s cheaper than most cleaning products.
Lastly, I convinced myself that the lung and throat irritation I often felt after prolonged exposure to vinegar as a cleaning product (for instance, while cleaning the bathtub) was all in my head.
Read this. A little digging with Dr. Google revealed multiple sources that said yes, indeedy, inhaling vinegar (which is an acid) fumes can irritate your lungs. And I am not even close to asthmatic.
I left a long comment on Katie’s post about Don Aslett, whose books I have recently re-read. I discovered Don ages ago as a teenager while hanging out at my married sister’s house. Don was an awesome dude. My comment read:
“Don was popular in the 80′s – he was really before his time because he focused on getting rid of clutter and spending as little time as possible cleaning. He ran a multi-million dollar cleaning business so he know the art and science of cleaning, and how to do it very efficiently, and he encouraged women to never mix up their own cleaners. He basically inferred that doing so was disempowering. The ingredients just weren’t as effective, and sometimes dangerous… not to mention time-consuming and pointless. Caroline Ingalls would probably have been thrilled to buy effective cleaning products for a couple of bucks at the store! I think we create these pseudo-tasks to try to feel creative and earthy, but really our time is probably better spent elsewhere.
Don Aslett also urged men to help their wives with housekeeping even if she stayed at home full-time, because everyone who lives in a space is responsible for cleaning that space. A breath of fresh air.”
Read more at http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2013/09/09/monday-mission-the-thinking-persons-get-natural
Yesterday I couldn’t get the image of Caroline Ingalls out of my mind. I recalled that Caroline and Charles were very much in favor of progress and technology. Anything that could help them save time and maximize their efforts was a win. Remember when Charles hired a man and a machine to help him process grain? (Or was it hay? Doesn’t really matter.) He waxed poetic to Caroline about progress and how some folks are ‘agin it – but not him. Let’s not forget that these two parents produced one of the world’s most beloved authors (Laura – and to be fair, Rose, who ghostwrote the books) and Laura produced Rose Wilder – considered the Godmother of the Libertarian movement. Not bad work really.
My suspicion is that the real reason making your own homemade cleaners is so popular is because women today long to have a creative outlet. I came across a fascinating series of posts on this topic: Why Caroline Ingalls Was Happier Than You.
(I know this post is getting long. Stay with me for a few minutes!)
The gist of the articles is this: women today, especially stay at home moms, spend most of their time in “maintenance” tasks, versus creating. This is a recipe for depression. Caroline Ingalls, on the other hand, spent more time creating things. Quilts, clothing, an attic full of sausage and headcheese. There is an important difference, psychologically speaking.
When we create something, we can point to it and say: “I did that.” Especially if it’s something truly meaningful (like a quilt that’s beautiful and that keeps your family warm and therefore alive during the winter), it increases your self-worth.
Please don’t think that because I’m saying all this that I don’t try my darndest to keep toxins out of my home, because I do. Several months ago I discovered a cleaning product (disclosure: they sent it to me to try), and did buy more on my own dime. It’s called Branch Basics, and it’s anti-microbial, totally non-toxic and works for a wide variety of cleaning tasks. It’s a highly concentrated, all-natural cleaning product that really works well.
Some of the ways I use Branch Basics around my house:
- Removing labels from glass food jars I want to reuse. (It just melts the stickers off.)
- Facial cleanser. It also melts eye makeup off. And my face feels soft, not tight and dry.
- Baby butt cleaner. Instead of disposable wipes and easier than homemade baby wipe solution, I keep a small spray bottle of diluted Branch Basics on the changing table. I spray baby’s butt after changes and wipe clean with cloth wipes. (Or I spray the cloth itself. Y’know, I like to mix things up. Just for fun.)
- Baby hand cleaner. I spray a little on baby’s hands, post meal time to clean them fast before I pick her up and she ruins my shirt.
- Getting burnt on pots and pans clean.
- Removing stickers from the hardwood floors. I applied it straight up, undiluted and let it sit. The stickers came up in seconds.
- Cleaning soap scum off the shower. Literally dissolves it with only wiping (you have to spray and let it sit for a minute).
- Laundry pretreater. (It did not work well as a laundry detergent, sadly. Also, it’s too pricey in my opinion to use undiluted.)
- Bug killer. It kills ants instantly. Free entertainment for the kids.
- Produce wash. I spray it on my fruits and veggies to remove lingering pesticides and germs.
Before and after pic of removing stickers from the floor:
This took all of 90 seconds, and no scrubbing. I sprayed it on, waited a couple of minutes, and wiped it up. Those stickers had been there longer than I care to admit..
I like concentrates because they’re more environmentally friendly. Branch Basics works out to be around $4 a spray bottle (less if you buy the gallon size concentrate) if you mix it up with the 1:5 ratio, which is the recommendation for most cleaning jobs. Still on the high side for me. But I do like it.
Here is a picture of the 4 products I use to clean every surface in my home:
Oops. Forget the baking soda.
What are your thoughts on making your own homemade natural cleaners? Waste of time or a real hootenanny?