Try these safe and effective DIY recipes for overall home cleaning.
Common commercial cleaners are loaded with toxic and polluting substances designed to make domestic life easier. The cost of these chemical-based products can be high: long-term health concerns for the family and environmental pollution caused by their manufacture and disposal.
In the US, for example, one in three people suffer from allergies, asthma, sinusitis, or bronchitis (US National Center for Health Statistics). Some cleaning chemicals are allergy and asthma triggers, so treatment for these conditions should include reducing synthetic chemicals in the home environment.
Yet the federal government doesn’t require cleaning product manufacturers to list ingredients on their products. This makes choosing healthier products difficult for consumers
What’s in your cleaning products?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) examined the safety data of over 1000 ingredients used in commercial household cleaning products. They found that more than half of those products contained ingredients harmful to the lungs. One in five had ingredients that can trigger asthma, even in healthy individuals.
Below are some of the most dangerous chemicals currently used in home cleaning products:
This ingredient is suspected carcinogen found in many common detergents.
Quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats”
Quats are known asthma triggers often found in spray cleaners and fabric softeners.
Bleach fumes can contain chlorine and chloroform, which have been linked to respiratory and neurological effects and cancer. In addition, bleach is highly reactive and can form other dangerous gases when it comes in contact with ammonia or acids such as vinegar.
Used as a preservative, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.
Found in spot removers, home dry cleaning products, and upholstery cleaners, PERC is a probable carcinogen and neurotoxin.
Ammonia is a respiratory and skin irritant.
Though the FDA banned triclosan and 18 other anti-bacterial compounds from hand and body soaps in 2016, these may still be found in cleaners. These banned substances have been linked to endocrine disruption and antibiotic resistance. Unfortunately safety data on many of the antibacterials used as alternatives is scant.
2-Butoxyethanol (also 2-BE, BCEE, or Butyl cellosolve)
Found in laundry stain removers, oven cleaners, and degreasers, 2-BE is a skin and eye irritant that made the list of toxic substances in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Diethylene glycol monomethyl Ether (also DEGME or methoxydiglycol)
This ingredient is a solvent used in some degreasers and heavy-duty cleaners. Banned for use in cleaners in the EU, this compound has been linked to reproductive health effects.
The common ingredient known simply as “fragrance” may contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, including phthalates, an endocrine disruptor. Fragrances may also trigger asthma and allergies.
In addition to the above effects, many common cleaning products will burn or irritate skin and eyes, and many are fatal if swallowed. Thankfully, none of these ingredients are necessary for cleaning your home. It’s easy to make your own safe cleaning products using the formulas listed below.
A growing number of commercial, non-toxic home cleaning products are also available as healthier and environmentally responsible alternatives. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own, using these products helps promote the growth of green businesses that are contributing to a more sustainable economy.
Safe ingredients for homemade substitutions
Here is a list of common, environmentally safe ingredients that you can use alone or in combination for a wealth of household applications. The vast majority of cleaning projects can be tackled with nothing more than vinegar, baking soda, soap, and water, but other ingredients are useful for specific jobs.
Trusted for over a century, baking soda cleans, deodorizes, softens water, and scours.
Unscented soap in liquid form (along with soap flakes, powders, or bars) is biodegradable and will clean just about anything. Castile soap is one example of an excellent, versatile cleaning ingredient. Avoid using soaps that contain petroleum distillates.
One of the strongest food acids, lemon juice is effective against most household bacteria.
Use white vinegar to cut grease; remove mildew, odors, and some stains; and to prevent or remove wax build-up.
Washing soda or SAL Soda is sodium carbonate decahydrate, a mineral. It cuts grease; removes stains; softens water; and cleans walls, tiles, sinks and tubs. Use with care, since washing soda can irritate mucous membranes. Do not use on aluminum.
Vegetable or olive oil
Use in homemade wood polishes.
Alcohol is an excellent disinfectant. However, some safety concerns with isopropyl alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol) make other forms of alcohol the more cautious choice. Vodka is a potent odor remover, and other forms of ethanol (grain alcohol) can be used for cleaners and disinfectants.
Use cornstarch to clean windows, polish furniture, and shampoo carpets and rugs.
Citrus solvent cleans paintbrushes, oil and grease, and some stains. But beware: citrus solvent may cause skin, lung or eye irritations for people with multiple chemical sensitivities.
Oxygen-based bleach (usually made from sodium carbonate and/or peroxide) gently removes stains, whitens fabric, and has a number of applications in household stain removal. Many common brands of oxygen bleaches have a number of additional (and less benign) chemicals, so it’s best to look up the brand in the Environmental Working Group’s cleaners database before using.
A common disinfectant for wounds, hydrogen peroxide can also be used for disinfecting in the kitchen or bathroom. Its mild bleaching effect makes hydrogen peroxide an excellent stain remover for fabrics and grout. It may cause skin or respiratory irritation, so handle with care.
Is Borax safe?
Many people consider borax to be a mild skin irritant. The MSDS lists borax as a health hazard of 1, similar to salt and baking soda. However, recent research indicates that sodium borate and its derivatives have the potential to harm the reproductive system. While studies have not been done in humans, at least one study clearly shows endocrine disruption in animals, and the European Union now considers borax toxic to human reproductive systems. Most cosmetic manufacturers have removed borax and sodium borate from personal care products because they are easily absorbed by human skin. If you choose to use borax in home cleaning, use sparingly and protect yourself.
Homemade cleaning products
Combinations of the above basic products can provide less harmful substitutions for many commercial products. In most cases, they’re also less expensive. Here are some formulas for safe, alternative home care products.
Note: These formulas and substitutions are offered to help minimize the use of toxic substances in your home and reduce the environmental harm caused by the manufacture, use, and disposal of toxics. Results may vary and cannot be guaranteed to be 100% safe and effective. Before applying any cleaning formulations, test in small hidden areas if possible. Always use caution with any new product in your home.
Make sure to keep all homemade cleaning products well labeled and out of the reach of children.
Mix 1/2 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup baking soda into 1/2 gallon (2 liters) of water. Use for removal of water deposit stains on shower stall panels, bathroom chrome fixtures, windows, bathroom mirrors, etc. Or use a citrus-based natural all-purpose cleaner.
Another alternative is natural fiber cloths, which lift off dirt, grease, and dust without the need for cleaning chemicals because they are formulated to penetrate and trap dirt. There are a number of different brands. A good quality cloth can last for several years.
Commercial air fresheners mask smells and coat nasal passages to diminish the sense of smell. In contract, the formulas below absorb and remove odors for a healthier breath of fresh air.
- Baking soda or vinegar with lemon juice in small dishes absorbs odors around the house.
- Houseplants help reduce odors in the home. Some are also capable of removing toxins.
- Prevent cooking odors by simmering vinegar (1 tablespoon in 1 cup water) on the stove while cooking. To get such smells as fish and onion off utensils and cutting boards, wipe them with vinegar and wash in soapy water.
- Keep fresh coffee grounds on the counter.
- Grind up a slice of lemon to freshen the garbage disposal.
- Simmer water and cinnamon or other spices on stove.
- Place bowls of fragrant dried herbs and flowers in room.
Bathroom Mold Deterrent
Mold in bathroom tile grout is a common problem and can be a health concern. Mix one part hydrogen peroxide (3%) with two parts water in a spray bottle and spray on areas with mold. Wait at least one hour before rinsing or using the shower.
Combine 10-20 drops of your favorite essential oil with a cup of baking soda and sprinkle liberally on carpet. Allow to sit for a few hours before vacuuming.
Carpet stain remover
Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Spray directly on stain, let sit for several minutes, and clean with a brush or sponge using warm soapy water. For fresh grease spots, sprinkle cornstarch onto spot and wait 15 – 30 minutes before vacuuming. For a heavy-duty carpet cleaner, mix 1/4 cup each of salt, borax and vinegar. Rub paste into carpet and leave for a few hours. Vacuum.
Lemons are one ingredient to keep in your house
- Rub a slice of lemon over a chopping block to reduce bacteria
- Toss a halved lemon in your garbage disposal to keep it smelling fresh
- Use lemon juice in preparations to clean discolored utensils
- Remove scratches on furniture, or buff marble tabletops
Ceramic or glass stovetop cleaner
Day-to-day cleaning can be done with simple soap and water or vinegar spray. To remove stuck-on food, wet the area with hot soapy water and sprinkle with baking soda. Cover with a damp towel and allow to stand for half an hour, then wipe with a clean damp cloth. Use a silicone spatula to help loosen food. Be sure to remove all residue.
Chopping block cleaner
Rub a slice of lemon across a chopping block to disinfect the surface. For tougher stains, squeeze some of the lemon juice onto the spot and let sit for 10 minutes, then wipe. For cleaning bamboo or wooden cutting boards, Bamboo Goo conditioner is another excellent non-toxic option.
Clothing stain remover
Different types of stains respond better to different types of stain removers. Straight vinegar can be used for many food stains, as well as sweat and set-in stains. Just spray the stain thoroughly prior to washing. A 1:1 solution of water and hydrogen peroxide can be used to soak out grass, underarm, and many food stains.
Coffee and tea stains
Remove stains in cups by applying vinegar to a sponge and wiping. To clean a teakettle or coffee maker, add 2 cups water and 1/4 cup vinegar; bring to a boil. Let cool, wipe with a clean cloth and rinse thoroughly with water.
For surfaces other than granite or marble, an all-purpose vinegar solution is a good choice, and undiluted vinegar works for disinfection when necessary. Stick with soap and water for granite and marble, which can get etched by acids like vinegar. Use hydrogen peroxide if you need to disinfect.
Plastic food storage containers: Soak overnight in warm water and baking soda
In-sink garbage disposal units: Grind up lemon or orange peel in the unit
Carpets: Sprinkle baking soda several hours before vacuuming
Garage, basements: Set a sliced onion on a plate in center of room for 12 – 24 hours.
Soaking soiled diapers in water with a ½ cup of baking soda for a few hours before washing can help with odors and stains, though longer soaks are not recommended. Avoid conventional detergents and fabric softeners, since additives may build up and make the diapers less absorbent in addition to exposing little ones to potentially hazardous chemicals.
Mix equal parts washing soda, baking soda, and kosher salt. Increase the washing soda slightly if your water is hard. If you prefer to buy a commercial dishwashing soap, try Nellie’s All-Natural dishwasher powder, which contains no bleach or phosphates.
Commercial low-phosphate detergents are not themselves harmful, but phosphates nourish algae, which uses up oxygen in waterways. A detergent substitution is to use liquid soap. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of vinegar to the warm, soapy water for tough jobs. Or use a citrus-based, natural dish soap.
Mix 2 teaspoons borax, 4 tablespoons vinegar, and 3 cups hot water. For stronger cleaning power, add 1/4 teaspoon liquid castile soap. Wipe on with dampened cloth or use non-aerosol spray bottle. (This is not an antibacterial formula. The average kitchen or bathroom does not require antibacterial cleaners.) To disinfect kitchen sponges, put them in the dishwasher when running a load.
For light drain cleaning, mix 1/2 cup salt in 1 gallon water, heat (but not to a boil) and pour down the drain. For stronger cleaning, pour about 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain, then 1/2 cup vinegar. The resulting chemical reaction can break fatty acids down into soap and glycerine, allowing the clog to wash down the drain. After 15 minutes, pour in boiling water to clear residue. Caution: Only use this method with metal plumbing. Plastic pipes can melt if excess boiling water is used. Also, do not use this method after trying a commercial drain opener–the vinegar can react with the drain opener to create dangerous fumes.
A commercial alternative is CitraDrain Build-Up Remover, which uses natural enzymes to safely eliminate grease, oil, soap residue, and more to keep pipes flowing properly.
To reduce static cling, dampen your hands and shake out your clothes as you remove them from the dryer. Line-drying clothing or using dryer balls to reduce energy consumption are some other alternatives.
To create an effective sanitizer, heat distilled white vinegar (5%) to 130 F (55 C) and spray onto chosen surfaces. Let sit for one minute before wiping clean.
Floor cleaner and polish
- Vinyl and linoleum: Mix 1 cup vinegar and a few drops of olive oil in 1 gallon warm water. Use sparingly on linoleum.
- Wood: For routine cleaning, a solution of 1/4 cup vinegar to a half gallon of warm water can effectively degrime wood floors. Be sure you know what finish was used on your wood before using water, and test a small area first. Use a barely damp mop to avoid harming finish. For polishing, apply a thin coat of 1:1 vegetable oil and vinegar and rub in well. For damp-mopping wood floors, mix equal amounts of white distilled vinegar and water. Add 15 drops of pure peppermint oil; shake to mix.
- Painted wood: Mix 1 teaspoon of washing soda into 1 gallon (4L) hot water.
- Brick and stone tiles: Mix 1 cup white vinegar in 1 gallon (4L) water; rinse with clear water. Most floor surfaces can be easily cleaned using a solution of vinegar and water.
- Furniture polish: For varnished wood, add a few drops of lemon essential oil into a 1/2 cup warm water. Mix well and spray onto a soft cotton cloth. Cloth should only be slightly damp. Wipe furniture with the cloth, and finish by wiping once more using a dry soft cotton cloth.
For unvarnished wood, mix 2 teaspoons each of olive oil and lemon juice and apply a small amount to a soft cotton cloth. Wring the cloth to spread the mixture further into the material and apply to the furniture using wide strokes. This helps distribute the oil evenly.
Garbage disposal cleaner
If you use a garbage disposal, you can clean it by running the empty half of a used lemon or a handful of citrus peels through it. Alternatively, put in a half cup of baking soda followed by a cup of white vinegar and let it fizz before flushing with water.
Stains from hard water or metal pipes can often be removed with a pumice stone, sanding sponge, or glass cleaning block. (Glass cleaning blocks are also excellent options for the kitchen and barbecue.) Spraying the area with vinegar or hydrogen peroxide and allowing to sit overnight before scrubbing with a mildly abrasive sponge, toothbrush, or natural fiber cloth may do the trick as well. You can also try soaking the area with lemon juice and covering with salt. Allow to sit overnight and rinse.
You can reduce lime deposits in your teakettle by putting in 1/2 cup (125ml) white vinegar and 2 cups water, and gently boiling for a few minutes. Rinse well with fresh water while kettle is still warm. To remove lime scale on bathroom fixtures, squeeze lemon juice onto affected areas and let sit for several minutes before wiping clean with a wet cloth.
Marks on walls and painted surfaces
Many ink spots, pencil, crayon, or marker spots can be cleaned from painted surfaces using baking soda applied to a damp sponge. Rub gently, then wipe and rinse.
Metal cleaners and polishes
- Aluminum: Using a soft cloth, clean with a solution of cream of tartar and water.
- Brass or bronze: Polish with a soft cloth dipped in lemon juice and baking-soda solution, or vinegar and salt solution. Another method is to apply a dab of ketchup on a soft cloth and rub over tarnished spots.
- Cast iron: Cast iron pans are usually seasoned before use. Since soap and water can strip the seasoning, avoid soap and prolonged contact with water. Immediately after use, clean cast iron with plain hot water and a sponge. Stuck on food can be removed with a paste made of coarse salt and water. Dry thoroughly with a clean towel and coat with a layer of oil.
- Chrome: Polish with lemon oil, vinegar, or aluminum foil with the shiny side out.
- Copper: Soak a cotton rag in a pot of boiling water with 1 tablespoon salt and 1 cup of white vinegar. Apply to copper while hot; let cool, then wipe clean. For tougher jobs, sprinkle baking soda or lemon juice on a soft cloth, then wipe. For copper cookware, sprinkle a lemon wedge with salt, then scrub. A simpler method is to apply a dab of ketchup on a soft cloth and rub over tarnished spots.
- Gold: Clean with toothpaste, or a paste of salt, vinegar, and flour.
- Silver: Line a pan with aluminum foil and fill with water; add a teaspoon each of baking soda and salt. Bring to a boil and immerse silver. Polish with soft cloth.
- Stainless steel: clean with a cloth dampened with undiluted white vinegar or olive oil. For stainless cookware, mix 4 tablespoons of baking soda in 1 quart of water and apply using a soft cloth. Wipe dry using a clean cloth. For stainless steel sinks, pour some baking soda on an absorbent cloth to clean, then rinse and wipe dry using a clean cloth.
Mold and mildew
Use white vinegar or lemon juice full strength. Apply with a sponge or scrubby.
Salt is another excellent home cleaning ingredient. Use salt to clean cast iron, as an ingredient in homemade dishwasher soap, or combined with lime to remove rust.
The common mothball is made of paradichlorobenzene, which is harmful to liver and kidneys. Cedar chips in a cheesecloth square, or cedar oil in an absorbent cloth will repel moths. The cedar should be ‘aromatic cedar’, also referred to as juniper in some areas. Cedar chips are available at many craft supply stores, or make your own using a plane and a block of cedar from the lumberyard.
Homemade moth-repelling sachets can also be made with lavender, rosemary, vetiver and rose petals. Dried lemon peel is also a natural moth deterrent. Simply toss into clothes chest, or tie in cheesecloth and hang in the closet. You an also try setting moth traps in select areas for monitoring infestations.
Oil and grease spots
For small spills on the garage floor, add baking soda and scrub with wet brush. Or use CitraSolv nontoxic degreaser.
Moisten oven surfaces with sponge and water. Use ¾ cup baking soda, ¼ cup salt and ¼ cup water to make a thick paste, and spread throughout oven interior. (Avoid bare metal and any openings.) Let sit overnight. Remove with spatula and wipe clean. Rub gently with fine steel wool for tough spots.
Paint brush cleaner
Non-toxic, citrus oil based solvents are now available commercially under several brand names. CitraSolv is one brand that works well for cleaning brushes of oil-based paints. (See their advice on cleaning paintbrushes). Paintbrushes and rollers used for an on-going project can be saved overnight, or even up to a week, without cleaning at all. Simply wrap the brush or roller snugly in a plastic bag, such as a used bread or produce bag. Squeeze out air pockets and store away from light. The paint won’t dry because air can’t get to it. Simply unwrap the brush or roller the next day and continue with the job. Reduce fresh paint odors by placing a small dish of white vinegar in the room.
Use an all purpose spray of vinegar and water for cleaning the interior of refrigerators and the outside of refrigerators made of materials other than stainless steel. To clean the outside of a stainless steel refrigerator, use undiluted vinegar to avoid streaks.
Sprinkle a little salt on the rust then squeeze a lime over the salt until it is well soaked. Leave the mixture on for 2-3 hours. Use the leftover rind to scrub residue.
For your stovetop, refrigerator, and other surfaces that should not be scratched, apply baking soda directly with a damp sponge.
Olive oil with a few drops of lemon juice can be applied to shoes with a thick cotton or terry rag. Leave for a few minutes; wipe and buff with a clean, dry rag.
Stickers on walls
To remove sticker residue, sponge with vinegar several times. Wait 15 minutes, then rub off the stickers. This also works for price tags (stickers) on tools, etc.
Upholstery stain remover
Try to treat stains as soon as soon as they happen. Begin by blotting the stain with a cloth, avoiding rubbing. For oil stains, a little cornstarch can help absorb the oil. Let sit half an hour then vacuum. For other stains, check for a cleaning code on a label; if it’s marked with a ‘W,’ water may be used. ‘S’ means only use a solvent, and ‘X’ means only professional cleaning is recommended.
Using a small amount of soap and water or vinegar, blot the stain carefully with a barely-wet sponge. Rinse the sponge, and use plain water to blot again if water is allowed. Blot dry with towels.
Toilet bowl cleaner
Mix 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 cup vinegar, pour into basin and let it set for a few minutes. Scrub with brush and rinse. A mixture of borax (2 parts) and lemon juice (one part) will also work. For rust stains, spray with vinegar and leave overnight before brushing with baking soda. To purchase a non-toxic, commercial toilet bowl cleaner, try Nellie’s All Natural brand.
Tub and tile cleaner
For simple cleaning, rub in baking soda with a damp sponge and rinse with fresh water. For tougher jobs, wipe surfaces with vinegar first and follow with baking soda as a scouring powder. (Vinegar can break down tile grout, so use sparingly.)
Mix equal parts of white vinegar and hot water. Apply with sponge over the old wallpaper to soften the adhesive. Peel of the lifting paper and reapply the mixture to stubborn patches. Open the room windows or use a fan to dissipate the pungent vinegar smell.
Water rings on wood
Water rings on a wooden table or counter are the result of moisture that is trapped under the topcoat, but not the finish. Try applying toothpaste or mayonnaise to a damp cloth and rub into the ring. Be careful not to run too vigorously so as not to mar the finish. Once the ring is removed, buff the entire wood surface.
Mix 2 teaspoons of white vinegar with 1 quart of warm water. Use crumpled newspaper or a cotton cloth to clean. Only use the black and white newspapers, not the colored ones. Don’t clean windows if the sun is on them, or if they are warm, or streaks will show on drying. Be sure to follow the recipe, because using too strong a solution of vinegar will etch the glass and eventually cloud it. The All-Purpose Cleaner (above) also works well on windows.
Healthy home cleaning habits
Exchange indoor air
Many modern homes are so tight there’s little new air coming in. Open the windows from time to time or run any installed exhaust fans. In cold weather, the most efficient way to exchange room air is to open the room wide – windows and doors, and let fresh air in quickly for about five minutes. The furnishings in the room, and the walls, act as ‘heat sinks’, and by exchanging air quickly, this heat is retained.
Remove clutter that collects dust, such as old newspapers and magazines. Try to initiate a ‘no-shoes-indoors’ policy. If you’re building or remodelling a home, consider a central vacuum system; this eliminates the fine dust that portable vacuum cleaners recirculate.
If you or your children suffer from dust mite allergies, keeping humidity low and vacuuming regularly can help. Dust mites tend to accumulate in bedding, so washing bed linens regularly in hot water is a good practice. You can also buy special pillowcases and mattress covers to protect you from mites.
Use cellulose sponges
Most household sponges are made of polyester or plastic, which are slow to break down in landfills, and many are treated with triclosan, a chemical that can produce chloroform (a suspected carcinogen) when it interacts with the chlorine found in tap water.
Instead try cellulose sponges, available at natural foods stores, which are biodegradable and will soak up spills faster since they’re naturally more absorbent. For general household cleaning, try Skoy Eco-Cleaning Cloths. These cleaning cloths are non-toxic, extremely absorbent (15x paper towels), reusable, and biodegradable.
Keep bedrooms clean
Most time at home is spent in the bedrooms. Keep pets out of these rooms, especially if they spend time outdoors.
Use gentle cleaning products
Of the various commercial home cleaning products, drain cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners and oven cleaners are the most toxic. Use the formulas described above or purchase green alternatives. Avoid products containing ammonia or chlorine, or petroleum-based chemicals; these contribute to respiratory irritation, headaches and other complaints.
Clean from the top down
When house cleaning, save the floor or carpet for last. Clean window blinds and shelves first and then work downwards. Allow time for the dust to settle before vacuuming.
Clean up after pets
Owning a pet means dealing with fur, dander, tracked-in dirt, and accidents of various sorts. Keep your pet brushed to cut down on fur balls, vacuum often, and train them to use only certain pieces of furniture. A blanket on the sofa for them to lie on is easier to clean regularly than a sofa cushion.
A word about allergies
Though keeping your home free of dust can help with allergies, overly aggressive cleaning—especially with the many chemicals linked to allergies and asthma—can actually make them worse. Switching to a gentle cleaning routine using non-toxic products from your pantry may greatly improve allergy symptoms.
Commercial, non-toxic household products
In the marketplace today there are many safe, non-toxic products that are also effective for home cleaning tasks. The natural cleaning products below meet Eartheasy’s standards for safety and effectiveness.