Homemade Green Cleaners

Cleaning your home quickly and easily is a priority for most people. A walk down the cleaning aisle of a supermarket offers a dazzling array of products all designed to get the job done quicker in a new and improved way. But at what cost to our health and our environment?

The list of ingredients would make a chemist's head whirl, never mind what it does to us, the harried shopper. Cleaning products rank high on a per-dollar basis in terms of air and water pollution impacts. Their use also contributes to unhealthy indoor air in homes, offices, and schools. We then send these products out our drains and into the waterways. I know there were times where I cleaned my bathroom sparkling bright only to be plagued with a headache and a desire to nap the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, cleaning products are not required by law to disclose all of their ingredients. Many of the undisclosed "inert" ingredients are toxic. Cleaning products are the most frequent type of chemical poisonings reported to poison control centers and cleaning products are involved in 11% of poisoning exposure in children under age 6. Luckily for our health and our children, safe and inexpensive alternatives do exist.

The Air We Breathe

Studies have shown that cleaning chemicals can be a significant source of indoor air pollution. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that airborne chemical levels in homes were as much as 70 times higher inside than outside. According to the American Lung Association, childhood asthma has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. Some researchers believe that cleaners may trigger asthma attacks. Allergic reactions to "sick buildings" account for more than 10 million workdays by missed by employees in the U.S. each year. 10, 000 American children are out of school each day due to allergic reactions to "sick" indoor environments.

A UCLA study indicates that "adverse health effects have been identified regarding common chemical ingredients found in 222 cleaning products." Medical studies are showing that conventional cleaning chemicals are neurotoxins which may impair a child's developmental and learning abilities.

Since the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot require companies to do safety testing on their personal care products before they are sold to the public you need to protect yourself. When you decide that you no longer want to use toxic chemicals for cleaning, safely store your products until your town sponsors a hazardous waste collection day. Do not dispose of these products with your household trash.

Where to start? Check the labels of the products you are currently using for the following terms:

CAUTION – An ounce to a pint may be fatal or harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin by an adult 180-pound man.

WARNING – A teaspoon to an ounce may be fatal or harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin by an adult 180-pound man.

DANGER – A taste to a teaspoon is fatal if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin by an adult 180-pound man.

In small store-bought quantities, these ingredients have been deemed "relatively safe" by the regulatory agencies of government. This is why these products can be sold in your grocery store next to the dairy, produce and meat aisles. But under your sink the contents of each container are out gassing and mixing together with each other to create toxic fumes whose potential harm is far greater than the individual products alone. How many hours of your day do you, your spouse or children spend standing at the sink or bathroom cabinet breathing in those deadly fumes each and every day?

While many manufacturers do their best to avoid identifying ingredients, the following is a list of some common ingredients to avoid:

Ammonia: Fatal when swallowed

Ammonium Hydroxide: Corrosive, irritant

Bleach: Potentially fatal if ingested

Chlorine: Number one cause of poisonings in children

Formaldehyde: Highly toxic; known carcinogen

Hydrochloric acid: Corrosive, eye and skin irritant

Hydrochloric bleach: Eye, skin and respiratory tract irritant

Lye: Severe damage to stomach and esophagus if ingested

Naphtha: Depresses the central nervous system

Nitrobenzene: Causes skin discoloration, shallow breathing, vomiting, and death

Perchlorethylene: Damages liver, kidney, nervous system

Petroleum Distillates: Highly flammable; suspected carcinogen

Phenol: Extremely dangerous; suspected carcinogen; fatal taken internally

Propylene Glycol: Immunogen; main ingredient in antifreeze

Sodium hypochlorite: Potentially fatal

Sodium laurel sulfate: Carcinogen, toxin, genetic mutagen

Sodium tripolyphosphate: Irritant

Trichloroethane: Damages liver and kidneys

Children are often more at risk for exposure because they are playing on floors where the residue from formaldehyde, cleaning products and pesticides can be found. Small children have a respiration rate three times higher than adults, so naturally they are breathing more of these toxins in. Since children's detoxification systems are not fully developed and cannot filter these toxins out they accumulate more rapidly than in adults. Have you noticed how many children are on inhalers lately? The older you are, the more years of accumulation of these toxins you will have in your system.

The Alternatives

For safe, effective, germ-killing and sanitizing disinfectants start your search in your kitchen cabinets. You can use vinegar, lemon juice and even plain vodka. Vinegar can also replace bleach in your white laundry. Remember, people are living organisms too and any chemical that is detrimental to undesired bacteria may also be detrimental to us.

Laundry detergents contain phosphorus, ammonia, naphthalene, phenol and sodium nitilotriacetate, creating a veritable chemical soup. These chemicals can cause rashes, itches, allergies, sinus problems and more. The residue left on your clothes, bed sheets, etc., is absorbed through your skin, as is everything else you touch. Don't fall prey to the bombardment of advertisements suggesting that you absolutely must have these products to have a clean home. You don't, but their profit margins do.

Air fresheners interfere with your ability to smell by releasing nerve-deadening agents or coating nasal passages with an oil film, usually methoxychlor, a pesticide-type that accumulates in fat cells and over stimulates the central nervous system. Laundry dryer sheets fall into this category. They are extremely toxic. Avoid them. (The only reason you require fabric softeners is because the chemicals in laundry soap create the static. It may take several washings with chemical free detergents to eliminate the chemical residue static. Your patience will be well rewarded.) Some other common toxic air freshening ingredients include: P-dichlorobenzene, naphthalene and formaldehyde. Conversely, fresh, organic citrus juices, vinegar, spices and essential oils will do a better job, risk free.

Oven cleaners are one of the most toxic products people use. They contain lye and ammonia which eat the skin, and the fumes linger and affect the respiratory system. Then there is the residue that's intensified the next time you turn your oven on. Use sea salt and baking soda instead. Try to deal with spills as they happen and not let them become baked on. A little diligence is required but your reward will be the cleaner air you and your family will breathe. There are now commercial alternatives available in natural food stores and more and more are being found in the supermarkets everyday.

You can also create your own cleaners. The following items can be combined to clean everything in your home without the troubling effects of commercial cleaners. Your basic green clean supplies should include:

  • Baking soda
  • Scouring pad
  • White vinegar
  • Liquid castile soap or other non-toxic household liquid soap
  • Salt
  • Cotton washcloth or a sponge
  • Cotton rag without much lint
  • 16 oz. spray bottle

Tub and sink cleaner: Baking soda, liquid soap Sprinkle baking soda on the porcelain fixtures and rub with wet rag. Add a little of the liquid soap to the rag for more cleaning power. Rinse well to avoid leaving a hazy film.

Window and mirror cleaner: White vinegar, water Put 1/4 cup of white vinegar in the spray bottle and fill to the top with water. Spray on the surface. Rub with a lint-free rag. For outdoor windows, use a sponge and wash with warm water with a few drops of liquid soap in it. Rinse well and squeegee dry.

Linoleum floor cleaner: White vinegar, water Mop with a mixture of 1/2 cup vinegar in a bucket of warm water. The vinegar odor will go away shortly after the floor dries.

Toilet bowl cleaner: Baking soda, liquid soap Sprinkle baking soda inside the bowl as you would any scouring powder. Add a couple drops of soap in also. Scrub with a toilet bowl brush and finish outside surfaces with a rag sprinkled with baking soda.

All purpose cleaner for spots on woodwork, tile and linoleum: Liquid soap Add a few drops of liquid soap to a wet washcloth and rub surface briskly.

Drain cleaner: Baking soda, white vinegar, boiling water This recipe will free minor clogs and helps to prevent future clogs. Pour 1/2 cup of baking soda down the drain first, then 1/2 cup vinegar. Let it fizz for a few minutes. Then pour down a teakettle full of boiling water. Repeat if needed. If the clog is stubborn, use a plunger. If very stubborn, use a mechanical snake.

Copper cleaner: White vinegar, water, salt Mix equal parts of vinegar and salt (a tablespoon of each will do) and apply to the surface with a rag. Be sure to rinse thoroughly with water afterwards, otherwise it will corrode. Don't use this cleaner on lacquered finishes.

Everything that goes down your drain eventually ends up in your drinking water supply. This is multiplied by what your neighbors and every other person and industry put down their drains. In many city and towns whatever goes down the sewers on the streets goes directly into the rivers. Whatever goes into the rivers comes back to us in our drinking water! What we do to the planet, we do to ourselves. So come clean when you clean!

Mary Farrell is a writer, environmentalist, herbalist and teaches self empowerment tools. Mary can be reached at farrpmar@hotmail.com.