How To: Green Cleaning
Many of the most toxic chemicals in our household sit under our sink: our cleaning products. I don’t know how it is that clean and toxic came to coexist in so many products, but the fact is they do. Ammonia and chlorine are probably the two most common toxic chemicals found in our households and although they are bad enough on their own they can be downright fatal when mixed together. We only use non-toxic cleaners in our house and store, and here are the basics on how you can green up your cleaning routine easily and economically.
The first thing to understand in green cleaning is what ingredient performs what function. A lot of modern cleaning products lump everything together into one product, but by understanding what different ingredients contribute to cleaning you can customize your own cleaning products no matter what the situation. This way you can ensure that nothing you don’t want makes its way into your cleaning products and you can save a lot of money because you are only paying for active ingredients and not all the colors and fragrances that get put into a lot of traditional products. You will also save money because you won’t be buying water, which comprises a high percentage of most cleaning products and costs a lot, in dollars and carbon dioxide, to ship around the country. Also, the presence of water often necessitates the use of preservatives in products, because water provides an environment for bacteria to flourish; so no water means no preservatives.
There are 5 basic components to most household cleaning:
2) Gritty Powder (Abrasive)
Cleaners remove “foreign material” (to quote the dictionary.) A cleaner can be soap, it can be water, and it can be vinegar (to name a few options.)I personally like to clean with vinegar and water. The general solution that I use is 70% water to 30% organic white vinegar (70/30 solution) mixed in a sprayer bottle. I use this to clean my counter, glass, mirrors, tile and poly-finished wood floors. I like to use vinegar because it actually disinfects and deodorizes too. When I clean my stove I boil water in a kettle and then pour it over the cook top to loosen caked-on food. Then I just wipe/sop it up with a rag. If there is a little grease left over I spray it with the 70/30 solution and wipe it down. I know a lot of people who like to use lemon juice instead of vinegar. I’ve never done this personally, but I hear it works well. The reason I don’t clean with soap, pure vegetable soap (aka: Castile or Marseilles soap), is because it is often so emollient that it leaves a layer of oil when you use it for cleaning; great for cleaning yourself, not so great for cleaning the house.
Gritty Powder is useful for removing oil build-up and for cleaning porous surfaces such as grout. I use baking soda for this task. When I’m cleaning my tub I sprinkle baking soda on the surface, spray it with the 70/30 solution and let it sit for 10-minutes. This helps to get the baking soda “bubbling” and does some of the cleaning for me. I then take an organic loofah and scrub away.
Disinfectants/Deodorizers kill bacteria which is usually the true source of most unattractive odors. Many store bought deodorizers only mask smells, they don’t kill them. Again, I like to use white vinegar as my disinfectant/deodorizer. My dog likes to sit on one particular spot of the couch and I leave a shallow dish of water and organic white vinegar, diluted enough so the vinegar smell isn’t wafting through the air, near there and it keeps the air smelling fresh. I also use 100% vinegar when I’m cleaning the toilet. Just pour about a cup into the toilet and use the scrub brush. Again, lemon juice is often a favorite of green cleaners if you don’t like the smell of vinegar or if you have a lemon tree in your yard and need to use the fruit up. One thing I want to point out is our modern day obsession with hyper disinfecting is misplaced. Your home is not a surgery room and does not require the kind of hardcore disinfectant used in hospital settings. I’ve been cleaning this way for YEARS and no one in my house has ever gotten sick because of lurking bacteria and germs. Don’t believe the hype!
Whitener removes colored stains. We use and sell Bi-O-Kleen’s Oxygen Bleach which is made by a great company in Washington and works better than any of the other oxygen bleaches we’ve tried. For the record, bleach is not an inherently bad thing; it has just become synonymous with chlorine-based bleaches which should be avoided. When I need to remove strawberry stains from my sink or whiten clean grout further (because the grit and cleaners may not remove all of the stain in grout) I sprinkle a bit of the powdered bleach onto the surface, spray it with the 70/30 solution and then let it sit for about 10-minutes. I might need to scrub a bit (a used toothbrush is good for small places) or I might just rinse it away. One note: do not premix oxygen bleaches and leave them in a sprayer bottle or other capped bottle since the oxygen will build up and might cause a (harmless but annoying) explosion. Trust me! I’ve learned this from experience.
Solvents dissolve/remove really difficult and/or greasy items. Vinegar is usually a fine solvent for most household projects, but if for some reason you need something stronger, like a heavy duty degreaser, there are green options. Bi-O-Kleen makes a great, soy-based solvent that removes commercial grade messes and is non-toxic. I personally never use it in my home, but I’ve used it on construction projects with great success. I’ve also had artists purchase it in order to clean out air-spray machines or clean brushes.
It honestly doesn’t take any more time to clean green, and it will save you a ton of money (and space under the cabinet) if you learn to mix your own using single ingredients as I’ve outlined above. And remember, if you have household chemicals to dispose of, be sure to do it responsibly. A lot of household cleaners are considered household hazardous waste (HHW) so be sure to check with your city’s waste pick-up for HHW drop-off locations in your area.
Alegre Ramos is a LEED AP interior designer and green living expert based in the