Photographs by Nicholas Efran.
It’s time for New Year’s resolutions! There are many ways you could change your habits to reduce your environmental impact. One change you could make is replacing cleansers that harm the environment with cleaning products or cleaning methods that are safer for your family as well as the wider world.
UPDATE IN 2021: I’ve been trying some new cleaners that have less plastic packaging! My friends in Pittsburghers Against Single-Use Plastic have been trying some, too, and Pam wrote these helpful reviews.
What’s wrong with conventional cleaning products?
- Some of them contain chemicals that, after they are rinsed down the drain, cannot be removed by sewage-treatment processes and contaminate the water supply, poisoning wildlife or causing over-growth of water plants so that waterways become clogged with dead plants.
- Some contain chemicals that contaminate household air, causing or worsening lung problems.
- Some cause cancer or disrupt our bodies’ hormones, leading to infertility, birth defects, and premature puberty.
- Some are neurotoxins that can cause headaches or damage children’s brain development.
These health risks don’t affect only people who are in direct contact with the cleanser; many cleansers leave a residue on the surface or in the air that can be absorbed through our skin and/or lungs, and some of these chemicals are bioaccumulative–our bodies can’t get rid of them, so over time our repeated exposures can build up to toxic levels.
Here’s our complete guide to cleaning a typical Earth dwelling. We’ve tried many environmentally-friendly products over the past 20 years and have found more good ones than duds. Here, we recommend some brand-name products that work especially well and some inexpensive basic materials that are great for various cleaning projects. Yes, it is possible to make more homemade cleaning products than we do. We’ve struck a balance between purchased and homemade products that works well with our cleaning habits and the amount of spare time we have. If you use an awesome homemade cleanser, feel free to share details or a link in the comments!
For basic home cleaning, you will need:
- dish detergent
- laundry detergent
- white vinegar
- baking soda
- hydrogen peroxide
- toilet bowl cleaner
- all-purpose cleaner
Other items we use regularly that you may or may not need, depending on your home furnishings and cleaning standards, are:
- dishwasher detergent
- hardwood floor cleaner
- furniture polish
- antibacterial spray
- rubbing alcohol
Look for these items in your local stores where you shop regularly. If you can’t find them there, encourage your stores to make them available; meanwhile, order online. Many of the brand-name products are available from Grove Collaborative–click here for a $10 discount on your first order! Here is more information about Grove (formerly known as ePantry).
Here are the details on how to use each type of cleanser.
Dish Detergent and Dishwasher Detergent
There are many excellent detergents for hand-washing dishes that are made from plant-based ingredients. Most of them are highly concentrated, so a quick squirt will clean a whole sinkful of dishes. They work just as well as the petrochemical detergents on everything except heavy meat/fish grease, and even there, the brands we recommend do a great job when applied full-strength to the tough spots.
Here you see two of our favorite brands, Seventh Generation and Ecover. Others that work especially well are Biokleen and Ecos. Seventh Generation seems to be most widely available.
In the dishwasher, we use Biokleen powder, because Kitchen Stewardship recommended it and it’s always worked quite well for us. Our church has had great results with Seventh Generation powdered dishwasher detergent in both the regular-sized dishwasher and the big industrial one.
Note that the hazards of detergent “pods” have more to do with the detergent itself than the pod material. Young children may think pods look like snacks, and even eco-friendly dishwasher detergent is not safe to eat at full strength! Also, many brands of pods have at least as much plastic packaging per load of detergent as liquid or powder detergents.
Dish detergent (the kind used for hand-washing) also has other handy household uses. Mix a paste of dish detergent and baking soda to create a creamy cleanser for scrubbing the bathtub or removing difficult stuff from dishes–it’s especially good on tea stains. This paste is so easy to use, you don’t even have to pre-mix the two ingredients! Just sprinkle the baking soda and squirt the detergent and then mix them as you scrub, if you prefer.
Dish detergent works well on most “hand wash only” clothing, in either warm or cold water.
Dish detergent also makes great bubble bath–and this is our favorite use for Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day dish detergent, which comes in a variety of strong, flowery scents that smell weird for dishes but are pleasant in the bathtub. Although we weren’t thrilled with the dish-cleaning abilities of Mrs. Meyer’s, it’s just fine for bathtub cleaning as well as bubbling. (Note that bubble baths can dry out or irritate skin. Don’t overdo the detergent, rinse thoroughly, don’t do bubbles more than once a week, and quit using a particular detergent for this purpose if it gives you trouble. Personally, I’ve had problems with products marketed as bubble bath but never had any problem with eco-friendly dish detergent used as bubble bath!)
I prefer to have both liquid and powder laundry detergent on hand. I use powder for white clothes and cloth diapers, liquid for dark colors, because of a vague feeling that I get better results that way–I haven’t really tested this scientifically. Liquid detergent works very well as a stain remover–just rub it into the stain, full strength, and let it sit for a minute or two while you put the other laundry into the washing machine and add the normal amount of detergent, then drop in the stained item.
UPDATE IN 2020: Laundry strips or tablets make detergent more compact and lighter weight so that there’s less packaging!
Molly’s Suds is our favorite laundry powder. It’s ranked as super-safe for personal health and the environment by the Environmental Working Group, whose Guide to Healthy Cleaning is very stringent. Also, it works really well! Although I’ve tried Molly’s special cloth diaper detergent, the regular powder works just as well on my toddler’s diapers, getting them fresh and clean without any added fragrance. It’s highly concentrated, so the little pouch lasts a long time, and that’s not much packaging.
Biokleen is an excellent laundry liquid and a good value for the money. Green Shield also works very well, is highly ranked for safety, and is certified organic. Other effective brands are Seventh Generation and Ecos–but each of those comes in some scents we don’t like.
We use cold water for all laundry except diapers and dish towels. These detergents work well in both cold and warm water.
Make sure to consider the price per load, not per ounce, when choosing a laundry detergent! The concentration varies so much that containers of the same size may do very different amounts of laundry.
Save your almost-empty liquid laundry detergent bottle for cleaning basement and porch floors! Then, make sure you recycle those big plastic bottles.
We use it in recipes and for washing my hair, as well as the following household cleaning tasks.
Clear a slow drain by dropping a handful of baking soda into it (if the drain-stopper is difficult to remove, push the baking soda firmly under it all the way around) and then pouring vinegar on it. This creates that science-experiment volcano effect, bubbling gunk off the sides of your drainpipe such that it either bubbles up out of the drain or travels on down the pipe. Keep adding vinegar until you hear no more bubbling. Follow it with a quart of boiling water for best results. If this doesn’t clear the clog, there’s probably a solid object in the drain; use a wet-dry vacuum cleaner or a “snake” to remove it, or call a plumber.
Remove mineral deposits from bathroom surfaces by wiping with a cloth or sponge soaked in vinegar.
Vinegar kills most types of mold and mildew on both hard surfaces and fabrics. Spray it on or soak a cloth with it and apply, and then let it evaporate. Fabric items that can go in the washing machine can be soaked in a mixture of vinegar and hot water, then laundered as usual. This is a great way to save a swimsuit that stayed wet too long!
Vinegar dissolves some types of adhesives, so it’s helpful in removing stubborn labels from glass jars you want to reuse.
Some unpleasant odors, especially smoke and musty-moldy smells, can be removed from the air by leaving a shallow dish of vinegar sitting in the area.
Put vinegar in the “rinse aid” dispenser in the dishwasher. It helps the dishes dry faster so that they don’t get water spots, even when we skip the “heated dry” cycle. Because vinegar is safe to drink, there’s no concern about using this tiny amount on our dishes. Although we’ve heard that vinegar might damage the rubber seals of the dishwasher, we’ve had no problems after using it for six years.
Like vinegar, baking soda has diverse uses. It’s important in baking, and I find it more effective than calcium antacids (like Tums) for calming stomach pain. We also use it for cleaning.
Baking soda is a great scouring powder! Make a cute shaker from reused materials to keep it handy when you’re washing dishes; just sprinkle it on tough stuck-on food and rub. Use it to scrub sinks and tubs, either by itself or in the creamy scrub made with dish detergent, mentioned above. Mix baking soda with Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap instead for a creamy scrub that removes dead skin and is almost as good for cleaning the bathroom fixtures as the dish-detergent version (it’s a bit less sudsy).
When a load of laundry is very dirty, generally dingy-looking, or sweaty-smelling, adding 1/2 cup to 1 cup of baking soda along with the detergent can really make a difference. It works better on cotton than on synthetic fibers.
As with vinegar and baking soda, you don’t need any special kind of peroxide for cleaning–just buy the standard stuff from the store. Quart bottles of peroxide often go on sale for $1, so this is an affordable cleanser. However, be aware that it can damage your skin, making the top layer white and peeling; work with it in a way that avoids lengthy skin contact, and wash your hands afterward. Also, try not to get it on your clothing, because it will bleach some types of dye.
Always store peroxide in an opaque, dark-colored bottle, because exposure to light causes it to break down and become less effective. When opening a bottle of peroxide that you intend to use for cleaning, cut a slit in the foil safety seal with a knife (rather than removing the seal) so that you’ll be pouring from a narrow opening and can more easily direct the stream.
Peroxide kills germs, so it’s great for any surface where you want to reduce bacteria, if that surface’s color will not be damaged by peroxide. Test an area first. UPDATE IN 2020: Check out Katie’s research on peroxide–it even kills coronavirus!
It’s safe on most hard surfaces, but I’ve noticed that the parts of our 60-year-old Formica countertops that are worn thin develop tiny white dots when soaked with peroxide, although the intact parts of the Formica are fine. Peroxide has taken some of the dye out of some of our dishcloths but not others.
My favorite thing about peroxide is the bubbling action! It gets into tight spaces that are difficult to clean and bubbles out all the gunk so that you can wipe it up. It’s great for cleaning around faucets and drains. Our house has a chrome strip around the edge of the kitchen countertop which quickly accumulates gunk, especially between the sink and the counter’s edge. Here you see Before, During, and After photos of that strip and the base of a sink faucet being cleaned with peroxide. Simply sprinkle it on, wait about 10 minutes until it stops bubbling, and then wipe it up with a cloth.
Peroxide also is great for removing yucky residue from the bottoms of receptacles like the utensil basket of the dish drainer or (blecchh) the toilet-brush holder. Place the utensil basket in a lid or shallow dish not much larger than the basket, and pour in just enough peroxide to cover the bottom. Place the toilet-brush holder in the utility sink or bathtub, and fill it with peroxide to cover the yucky part. Let stand about 10 minutes or until it stops bubbling. Use your fingers or a brush to loosen any remaining residue, pour it down the drain, rinse thoroughly with hot water, and then wash your hands.
If your toothbrush is relatively new but is contaminated by your recent illness, dried-up toothpaste, or whatever that pink stuff is that sometimes appears on toothbrushes in hot weather…place the toothbrush in a shot glass or other narrow container and pour peroxide onto the bristles until they are covered with foam. Let stand about 10 minutes. Rinse thoroughly with hot water.
Toilet Bowl Cleaner
Clorox Green Works is the best of many brands I’ve tried: It works well, smells clean, and has a nozzle that doesn’t clog. Simply use according to directions, with a reusable toilet brush. EWG says it is safe for the environment but can irritate lungs and skin, so keep out of reach of children, don’t get it on your skin, and consider turning on the vent fan while cleaning.
We recommend Earth Friendly Products’ Orange Plus or Seventh Generation all-purpose cleaner. Both are available as concentrates that you can use at various strengths for different jobs, which saves money and packaging compared to buying bottles of diluted cleaners that are ready to use.
Dilute it with water in a spray bottle for everyday cleaning of tables, counters, baby’s highchair, etc.
For light cleaning of tile, linoleum, or vinyl flooring, spray the floor lightly with all-purpose cleaner spray, and clean with a mop or rag or sponge. For more thorough cleaning, make a stronger sudsy mixture of all-purpose cleaner and hot water in a bucket, clean with a mop or rag or sponge, and then rinse with plain water.
Use all-purpose cleaner at full strength, with steel wool, to remove burnt food from inside the oven or stovetop. Rinse well! But if you don’t get it rinsed off, it’s just going to smell like burning orange peels–it can’t kill you like conventional oven cleaner. (Our journey toward greener cleaning began shortly after I hallucinated and fainted from oven-cleaner fumes!!)
Hardwood Floor Cleaner
Our house has hardwood floors in four rooms. We use Earth Friendly Products’ Floor Cleaner–just spray and mop!
We like Earth Friendly Products’ Furniture Polish for our wood furniture. Spray it on, wipe it off with a rag, rub a little for extra shine.
In general, we try not to kill all the germs in our home, because some exposure to germs helps our immune systems develop and function properly. However, I’ve become a big fan of method antibac because it’s so effective at controlling odors and mildew, and it’s so easy to use! Its active ingredient is citric acid. I use it in places where I really do want some reduction in germs.
Spray antibac on the outside of the toilet, lid, and seat, and let it stand while you clean the toilet bowl with toilet bowl cleaner. Then wipe off the antibac–I do this with toilet paper, which I then flush along with the toilet bowl cleaner. This does not take the paint off our wooden toilet seat (as vinegar was doing) or damage the chrome hinges. It makes visible yucky spots easy to wipe off along with all the dust that somehow accumulates in the bathroom (is it towel lint??), and it smells clean and pleasant.
Spray antibac on the inside of the garbage can or diaper pail after removing the contents. Prop the lid open and let it dry before you put in the new bag. It reduces odors.
Spray antibac on the shower curtain to control mildew. It’s the best stuff I’ve ever found for fighting the orange type of mildew! It’s not as good on the gray/black mildew, but it helps.
Spray antibac on frequently-handled hard objects like doorknobs and light switches when someone in the household has been sick and the others don’t want to catch it!
After cleaning up a potty-training accident, spray antibac on the area–even if it’s not strictly necessary, it’ll help you feel better about the “contamination,” as well as deodorizing. I also use it after I’ve set a dirty diaper on the floor temporarily to can clean up the baby first. This spray is intended for hard surfaces only, but it’s worth noting that I’ve used it on our changing mat (which is a fuzzy memory-foam mat) and it was really fabulous at removing poop from that, without damaging the color and without my having to wash and dry the whole mat.
Interestingly, antibac works just as well as “tub & tile cleaner” spray to clean soap scum off the shower walls and the bathtub, so I’m thinking we may not need that separate product.
I use rubbing alcohol to clean the bathroom mirror. Lots of people swear by vinegar as a glass cleaner, but for me it always leaves a residue. We have eco-friendly glass cleaner, but we wash windows so infrequently that I don’t feel we have enough information to recommend a brand…and we keep that downstairs, so I don’t want to go get it just to de-smudge the upstairs bathroom mirror! Rubbing alcohol on a cloth (not a paper towel) works very well on glass because it evaporates quickly with no streaks.
Rubbing alcohol also is excellent for removing accumulated oil spatters from the back of the stove and nearby areas. But it’s flammable, so be careful that the stove is turned off when you’re cleaning it and you don’t drip any alcohol into the burners!
Rubbing alcohol is a key ingredient in the homemade air freshener spray I explained in my Kitchen Stewardship article, 3 Easy Ways to Freshen Your Home Using Essential Oils.
Do you have any Earth-friendly cleaning tips, or any cleaning questions I haven’t covered? If so, please leave a comment.
Happy new year!