Natural cleaning breakdown

I spent way too much time trolling the Internet for natural cleaning recipes. There are SO many recipes, and absolutely no realistic way to test them all. I needed a way to organize the information. I started by breaking the recipes down by the functional role of their components and identifying the desired properties of cleaning agents for various household chores. Then, I tested the recipes. The results? With a small monetary investment and a little time, you can produce cleaners superior to ‘green’ cleaning agents that you find in stores. I’m never going back!

The ingredients used in most ‘green’ cleaners include: vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, baking soda, peroxide, castile soap, kosher salt, borax, lemon juice, and essential oils. Full disclosure, I did not test recipes containing perishable items (like lemons) or recipes containing borax. For me, I must be able to quickly make the cleaner and keep it around for several months. Why no borax? Really, I was just unfamiliar with borax (where do you even buy borax?) AND I haven’t encountered a mess that vinegar, alcohol, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils can't clean. If you understand the chemical properties of these common ingredients, you can tailor-make natural cleaners. So let’s talk chemistry for a moment.

Vinegar: Like lemon juice, vinegar is a mild acid. It reacts with bases, so don’t pre-mix with baking soda, but do use it to dissolve hard watermarks, caused by calcium carbonate build-up (basic). Because most bacteria survive on substrates with a neutral pH (~7), vinegar kills bacteria by lowering the pH of surface/substance on which bacteria is growing.

Isopropyl Alcohol: Alcohol mixes with water, but dissolves oils and fats (non-polar compounds), making it great for cleaning up greasy messes & for disinfecting surfaces. Alcohol is less soluble in salt solution; so don’t premix alcohol in saline solution. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, thus alcohol is ideal for cleaning surfaces that you want to dry quickly (e.g. glass to prevent streaking, wooden surfaces to prevent swelling).

Baking soda: Baking soda is basic, so it disinfects surfaces by increasing pH. It is abrasive for scouring, but fine enough to be washed down the drain.

Castile soap: Soaps are surfactants, chimera-like molecules. One end of a soap molecule is a fat-soluble triglyceride, while the other end is a water-soluble glycerol. The fat-soluble end of the molecule attaches to undesirable fat/grease. Because fats are hydrophobic (‘water-fearing’) and glycerol is hydrophilic (‘water-loving’), soap molecules form tiny spheres in water, like an M&M with a glycerol shell and a fat center. When you rinse away soap, the grease M&Ms are carried off down the drain. These properties make soap great for cleaning fats and grease, but most effective when you are able to rinse with lots of water.  

Kosher salt: Like baking soda, kosher salt is a good scouring agent because it is abrasive and dissolves in water. Because it changes the osmotic balance between bacteria and their environment, salt essentially kills bacteria by dehydrating them.

Essential oils: The use of essential oils transforms homemade cleaners by making them smell great. Some essential oils, like lavender, tea tree, and thieves’ oil (a blend especially for cleaning) have anti-microbial properties.

Now, let’s walk through some typical household ‘chores’.

A freshly cleaned surface.

A freshly cleaned surface.

Dusting & disinfecting wooden surfaces

Oil-based products are good for cleaning wooden surfaces, because the oil conditions the wood and keeps it from spitting. Recipes for oil-based cleaners are all approximately the same. This homemade ‘pledge’ recipe is fantastic – it leaves wooden surfaces clean, shiny, and nice smelling but not greasy or slimy.

“Pledge”

¾ cup olive oil

¼ cup vinegar

20 drops lemon essential oil

Cleaning wooden floors

The appropriate cleaning product depends on the finish of your wooden floor. For untreated floors (water does not bead up on the surface when applied), most people suggest using nothing but a broom/vacuum. For treated surfaces, you will either use an oil-based cleaner (like the pledge above) or mild alcohol and water solution (alcohol is great because it dries quickly). I suggest checking with the wooden floor manufacturer for cleaning recommendations before selecting a cleaning solution. Always add a few drops of essential oil for lovely smell.

Cleaning windows, glass, and other shiny surfaces

For these surfaces, the key is to prevent streaking. Therefore, the best recipes for glass cleaner include fast-drying alcohol. The Crunchy Betty blog performed a glass cleaner comparison. I’ve included the winning recipe and link to the site (below). I did not replicate the test, but I tried the recipe and it worked great. Note that she adds cornstarch. I think the cornstarch increases the viscosity of the solution, which seems to improve cleaning action.

Glass cleaner, recipe from Crunchy Betty

1/4 c. rubbing alcohol

1/4 c. white vinegar

1 Tbsp cornstarch

2 c. warm water

Few drops of essential oil (my addition)

Cleaning the bathroom and kitchen surfaces

We enter the realm of the all-purpose cleaner. How does an all-purpose cleaner differ from a glass cleaner? Streaking is less important, but we are likely to encounter tougher messes, like calcification caused by hard water or food spills that contain fats. Mild disinfection is a plus in kitchens and bathrooms. The floor cleaner that I wrote about a few weeks ago is a nice all-purpose cleaner (recipe below). I tested it against the glass cleaner recipe (above). Both products work well, so I suggest using the glass cleaner as an all-purpose cleaner, rather than make two comparable products.  

Castile soap-based all-purpose cleaner

1 cup vinegar

1/4 cup Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap

3 cups water

20 drops essential oil of your choosing

Is gunk adhered to a surface? Scour it away! I don’t think there is any point taking the time to make scouring paste. Just spray a surface with cleaner, sprinkle on baking soda, and scrub. There are several other options for scouring besides baking soda, like kosher salt and prefab products containing ingredients like soap & feldspar/calcium carbonate. Baking soda seems to work as well as anything. Nuff said.

Washing linoleum and tile floors: There are two ways to clean these surfaces: 1) mop and bucket style, and 2) Swiffer-style (the product stays on the floor). For mop and bucket style, add a few ounces of castile soap and vinegar to your warm water and mop away. For Swiffer style, see my earlier post for converting a sock into a Swiffer ‘pad’. In this previous post, I presented the Castile soap-based all-purpose cleaner (above). It works nicely and smells great, but the castile soap really works best if used with enough water to ‘wash’ the soap away. So, I recommend using the glass cleaner (above) – it dries quickly and leaves the floor quite shiny!

Conclusions? I think you can get away with creating just two basic cleaners: 1) ‘Pledge’ for cleaning wooden surfaces & 2) Glass cleaner for cleaning everything else. For scouring, pair glass cleaner with baking soda. It has been a while since I’ve use standard chemical cleaners, so I can’t compare the cleaning action of standard chemical cleaners with the cleaners presented here. However, I did test these recipes against an expensive ($7 a bottle), all-natural, store-bought cleaner. The homemade version worked better than the purchased product, and was way cheaper. My final suggestion? Buy some vinegar, alcohol, baking soda, and an essential oil or two and enjoy years of inexpensive, non-toxic cleaning!