It is possible to do most cleaning using only white vinegar, table salt, baking soda and the like, without a lot of confusion or more memorization than a chemistry exam. Where to start?
First, keep in mind that every bit helps. Rather than toss everything in the cabinet, try testing some simple cleaners and then start throwing out what you no longer need. The result may be a decrease in the use of the more toxic and costly items by 30 percent or even 90 percent — which makes a difference.
Second, experiment for yourself. Over time, you’ll probably find that several substances work for the same job but do it differently. See which one you like best.
Here’s how a few ordinary, low-toxic items can help with most cleaning chores.
White vinegar comes first on many “green” or “eco” cleaning lists. It contains about 5 percent acetic acid and, in the USA, is usually distilled from grain or sugar — check the label. White vinegar degreases, deodorizes, disinfects and removes mineral scale. At about $2 a gallon, it’s extremely inexpensive, especially since it can be diluted with water for most tasks. As white vinegar dries, the odor, which some find objectionable, disappears.
White vinegar rinses clean, which makes it a good choice as an all-purpose, nontoxic cleaner for counters, cabinets, appliances, floors, windows and the cat’s litter box. For general cleaning, try diluting white vinegar with water — about 2 or 3 cups per gallon of water for the floors and a 1-3 ratio for the windows and woodwork.
White vinegar, via a chemical reaction, is good for de-scaling so it is a good choice for the removal of buildup inside the coffee pot, fertilizer buildup on terra cotta pots, etc. Let soak overnight, and the vinegar will work its magic.
A cup of white vinegar in the dishwasher will make the glasses sparkle; a gallon will clean the dishwasher tank. A cup in the laundry will remove sweaty odors from clothes. Vinegar may be too acidy for marble, porous wood, grout and the like, so test first or choose a milder cleaner. White vinegar is safe for most laminated countertops.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is generally manufactured from a special ore, trona, found in abundance in the Green River Basin, in Wyoming. Baking soda is an abrasive, a degreaser and a deodorizer that can also smother a kitchen fire.
Baking soda is a mild abrasive that scours with minimal scratching — try it on fruits and vegetables, countertops, appliances and tile grout. Some even use baking soda for woodwork and leather goods, but it can scratch soft plastics and metals, so always test first.
As a deodorizer, baking soda doesn’t just cover up odors; it chemically neutralizes them. This makes baking soda very useful in the refrigerator, freezer and garbage pail, as well as sneakers. Put a new box in the refrigerator and later rotate it under the sink for use as a cleaner.
Baking soda is mildly alkaline, so it helps to break down fat. It works even better in hot water, which boosts the alkalinity. Baked-on food can be loosened by soaking in baking soda and hot water. If the food still won’t come off the pan, try throwing in some salt, baking soda and water, then boiling the solution for a while.
A baking soda soak can also remove tarnish from silver. Baking soda is an alternative to white vinegar for de-scaling coffee pots and the like, yet works completely differently on a chemical level from vinegar so consider switching between the two.
Adding an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, to baking soda, causes the release of carbon dioxide bubbles. This foaming action is good for helping baked goods rise and helps clean grease out of drains. There are several popular recipes for unclogging greasy drains. The most common seems to be the following: pour 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by either 2 cups of boiling water or 1 cup of vinegar; let it stand for an hour, then flush with the hottest available water. If that doesn’t work, try 1 cup of baking soda, followed by a 1/2 gallon of vinegar. A periodic cleaning of a problem drain, of course, is much more effective than waiting until there’s a clog.
Table salt (sodium chloride) generally comes from seas and salty lakes or from an ore called halite. Salt is an abrasive, a degreaser, an absorbent and a disinfectant. Because, chemically speaking, salts act differently from acids or alkaloids (bases), table salt can also be used to boost the power of baking soda (alkaloid) or vinegar and lemon juice (acids).
Salt is also more abrasive than baking soda, so consider using salt for scrubbing when baking soda is found too mild (but watch out for scratching).
Try salt as a metal cleaner. A saline solution cleans and shines metal via a chemical reaction that removes tarnish (oxidation), so you don’t have to scrub soft metals such as silver. A quick salt scrub is great for removing that coating left in the pan bottom by boiling hard water or cooking rice.
Since table salt absorbs grease, as well as water, and since it disinfects, table salt is perfect for wiping out that well-seasoned frying pan that you won’t dream of washing. For another great cleanup solution, sprinkle table salt on a sticky cooking spill or a dropped egg. Let the mess sit until it becomes crisp, then lift up with a spatula.
Lemon juice degreases, shines, bleaches, deodorizes and disinfects. Since it is both acidy and oily, it’s good for removing a variety of substances that don’t dissolve readily in water alone. If you don’t care for the smell of vinegar, lemon juice is a good acidy cleaner-disinfectant for kitchen counters, cutting boards and the like. It also works well to counteract pet odors.
Undiluted lemon juice is great for cleaning and polishing the outside of the toaster and other appliances. Because lemon juice contains oil, it’s also good for cleaning, deodorizing and disinfecting wood objects, such as cutting boards and pot handles, without drying out the wood.
Lemon juice’s power is boosted by heat, by adding baking soda or salt to make an all-purpose scouring paste, or by mixing it with cream of tartar (also an acid) for clothes stains. Let the lemon juice mixture sit for awhile, even overnight, to remove stains. (Don’t forget to pretest on an inconspicuous area.)
Similarly, you can buy an inexpensive, concentrated citrus oil degreaser-solvent that will work on tough substances such as ink, paint, label glue and motor grease. However, any strong spot remover-degreaser may dissolve plastics or strip color, so carefully test first.
Hydrogen peroxide is essentially water with an extra oxygen atom (H2O2). It disinfects and bleaches by using the extra oxygen to combine with (oxidize) various substances. The oxidation process can actually break down the cell walls of bacteria. When hydrogen peroxide fizzes up, it is releasing oxygen in gas form. Hydrogen peroxide occurs naturally, but what we buy from the drugstore in a 3 percent solution is chemically produced. It works well on grout stains and mold.
To remove oil, coffee and other organic stains from color-fast clothing, pour a capful of hydrogen peroxide on the stain shortly before washing.
Hydrogen peroxide is used to make the “oxygen cleaners” that are useful in the bathroom for porcelain and grout. “Oxygen cleaners” are also useful for whitening the laundry, and for major kitchen floor stripping. Let the “oxygen cleaner” solution sit for a while to work but watch where it drips as it can strip nonfast colors; use it properly diluted and make sure to rinse clean.
Vegetable Oil Soap
One liquid vegetable-oil soap, made from something like coconut, palm or olive oil, will do just fine for hands, dishes, body, plants, counters and the dog. There’s no need for several separate products clogging the cabinet and emptying the wallet. It is cheapest, and best for the environment, to buy a large container of concentrate (e.g., from the health food store or online) and decant into smaller reusable bottles for the tub, and each sink.
A similar vegetable-oil-based product is a good, low-allergen laundry soap.
However, unlike the post-World War II synthetic detergents, soaps do react with minerals in hard water and can leave a grayish film on shower walls and laundry. Counteract with an occasional vinegar wash on the tiles and by adding a scoop of powdered “oxygen cleaner” to the laundry.
Hot water itself is a powerful disinfectant and degreaser. It can be used alone or can be used boost the power of the cleaners mentioned above. If you like gadgets, a handheld steam cleaner is useful in the kitchen and bath to clean and disinfect without streaking. A hand steamer can also disinfect and deodorize items from toys to pillows. Sometimes, a steamer can even help with rug and upholstery stains.
Natural, nylon and wire bristle brushes will boost the power of many cleaners and make scouring substances such as baking soda and salt more effective. Buy fairly inexpensive ones so you can replace them frequently. The ones with nonwooden handles can usually be run through the dishwasher.
Terry cloth washcloths are an all-time best cleaning aid. Nothing works better for many tasks or is more versatile. You can pop them in the wash with the regular laundry. A pack of four to 10 costs $5 to $10, depending on quality. Keep a stack of new ones in the bathroom to wipe faces and hands. In the kitchen, terry cloths serve as reusable paper towels, sponges, dust clothes, counter-wipers, dishrags, dish dryers, floor mops, window washers, etc. Since terry cloths are small, you can use several a day, and still always have a clean, dry cloth at hand. Wiping the cat and dog down weekly with a damp washcloth helps control pet allergens.
Prevention works best for insects. Keep food and garbage securely sealed in glass or metal. Put bay leaves in flour and in corn- and wheat-based cat litter to ward off weevils that are becoming a pest with warming weather. Lavender, cedar and the like have repelled clothes moths for generations. Regularly wash houseplants under the kitchen faucet. Sprinkle cornstarch to kill ants.
If tempted by a pesticide, “natural,” “organic” or otherwise, read the label. Federal law requires the label on cleaning products, insecticides and the like to read:
• “DANGER-POISON” — if as little as a taste to teaspoon can kill a person;
• “WARNING” — if a teaspoon to a tablespoon can kill a person; and
• “CAUTION” — if an ounce to more than a pint can kill a person.
Keep in mind that “person” means “adult,” so much smaller amounts (e.g., in residues or fumes) might be an issue for children, pets and sensitive adults.
Beware of the Hype
There are all kinds of “new,” “improved,” “green” and “natural” products clamoring for your dollars. Read the labels. Think very carefully about whether you really need anything with a “CAUTION,” “WARNING” or “FLAMMABLE” label. Think equally carefully about ingredients that aren’t disclosed: a label that says “contains: biodegradable surfactants” says nothing — what’s being hidden and why? Also, think about where the ingredients might be coming from and whether the ingredients are truly required to get the job done. Remember, “natural” is not the same as “harmless” or “necessary.”
Try it for yourself. Despite all the hoopla about the “new-better-different” this and that, when it comes to cleaning, “best” may be the simplest, cheapest and most old-fashioned. ■
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