Simple Cleaning: Stuff That Won't Kill You or Your Bank

beth January 16, 2013

Household cleaners

Today”s Daily Tip: If you say you will start something in a week it will never happen. Get what you need to make the changes now. Make your commitment and stick to it for a month. I know it is hard. I know it is a lot of work. I know you can do this. (Amanda Klenner-Labrow, Natural Living Mamma)

So there are way too many cleaning products to choose from these days, all promising magical, shiny, clean results. However, none of ‘em tell you what the possible side effects are of the toxic chemicals in the ingredient lists that fog your house once you finish a cleaning episode. I’m going to discuss a few must haves that are essential tools for a fresh and clean home as well as some of the best and worst to avoid, according to the Environmental Working Group, a searchable database that rates commercial products.

First rule of home cleaning: it doesn”t have to be expensive. You can do a lot of things with a few items, specifically vinegar, baking soda, a bottle of 80 or 100 proof vodka (I’ll explain in a second), and some essential oils like lavender, lemon, and tea tree. An additional item that I use frequently is an essential oil diffuser.

  • For general cleaning purposes such as toilets, counter tops, sinks, and tile floor, vinegar is great. Yes, there is a pungent, acidic smell at first, but it goes away eventually. If you can’t stand the smell, add three to five drops of one (or two or three) of the aforementioned essential oils to your spray bottle and shake. Now you have a nice smelling, germ-fighting cleaner in your hand.
  • Sprinkle baking soda in the bathtub and then some vinegar over it to soak for a bit; use a rag to scrub the grime and this combo will compete with any commercial cleaning product with no toxic byproducts.
  • If you have a funky smell, put some baking soda in a bowl to help absorb the funk (see the Hall of Shame list below for what fresheners to avoid!)
  • In a small, clean glass spray bottle (amber glass is best), fill three quarters with vodka. Add 15-20 drops of the essential oils and shake. Use this as room spray that freshens but can also help keep bad germs at bay. You can spray door knobs, bed sheets, floor mats, etc.
  • There are several types of essential oil diffusers you can use. I use an electric plug that comes with small pads. I add about 5 drops to the pad, plug it in, and I get a refreshing home within minutes that last for a few hours. There are also ceramic and casino online soapstone stone varieties that may require a tealight.
  • If your sink is backed up, pour liberal amount of baking soda in the drain with vinegar on top. Let the combination sit and bubble for up to 3o minutes. Pour boiling water down the drain. This can be done several times in a row, if need be, to get things moving.
  • As usual, these things should be kept in a dry, cool spot, away from your kiddos’ reach.

Second rule of home cleaning: these cleaning materials are easy to find. I use Arm & Hammer baking soda, but if you can only get to a Dollar General that sells generic brand, no big deal. I use distilled vinegar, no special brand of vodka, and I have essential oils from several companies. Many people swear by DoTerra or Young Living or Mountain Rose Herbs. Ehhhh. For cleaning purposes, I strongly feel that as long as you are buying pure essential oils (fragrance oil is not an essential oil!!!!!), you can choose your own. I do happen to favor Mountain Rose Herbs. I like their business model, packaging, and wide range of products.

Third rule of home cleaning: when in doubt, check EWG (Environmental Working Group). This nonprofit organization is a beacon of light uncovering the all-too-common toxicities that are present in our home and body products. According to EWG, “Fumes from some cleaning products may induce asthma in otherwise healthy individuals. A large and growing body of evidence links frequent use of many ordinary cleaning supplies at home or on the job with development of asthma and other respiratory problems.” Each product they access is given an average grade based on the individual grades of the ingredients that make up the commercial product. Just a quick peek at the database will tell you that products claiming natural don’t have any weight. This term is not regulated so any old marketer can slap that adjective on a product and tickle that crunchy part of your brain that urges you to buy natural things. Here is a quick list of the A grades and the Hall of Shame, according to EWG:

The A’s-You can feel good about these products:

  • Heinz Vinegar, Distilled White Vinegar
  • Green Shield Organic Toilet Bowl Cleaner
  • Whole Foods Market liquid dish soap, Mandarin
  • Ecover ZERO Automatic Dishwashing Soap
  • Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Pure Castille Soap Baby Mild

Hall of Shame- You really should consider finding a place that will accept and discard toxic materials:

  • Air Wick Freshmatic Compact; Febreze and Glade automatic fresheners
  • Comet Disinfectant Cleanser Powder (includes formaldehyde, benzene, and chloroform!)
  • All of the following have asthma-causing ingredients: Clorox, Fantastik, Febreze, Formula 409, Easy-Off, Lysol, Mr. Clean, Spic and Span
  • Static Guard (this stuff isn’t even allowed in the European Union)
  • Walmart Great Value Heavy Duty Oven & Grill Cleaner, CVS/pharmacy Fume-Free Oven Clean: both emit toxic fumes with chemicals that can burn skin, lungs, and eyes
  • Drano- can cause caustic chemical backsplash, i.e.: your skin will suffer big time if it gets on you

Do you have products that you still need to throw out (because maybe you secretly love how they work)? What are your favorite cost-effective and non-harmful cleaning products? 

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  1. Do you have a suggestion for cleaning an oven naturally?


    • Randi, I wish…I must admit, I hardly ever clean my oven. I just scrub with steel wool. I was hoping someone might comment on their fave product.


      • The last time I cleaned my oven I used vinegar and baking soda and I was surprised how well it worked. I just sprinkled on the baking soda, sprayed on the vinegar and let it sit and fizzle for a few minutes while I cleaned the sink with the same stuff. After it sat, I scrubbed with a damp rag. There were a few spots that I applied more vinegar/baking soda to, and scrubbed a second time, but the chore wasn’t bad. And the result wasn’t much different from when I used to use SOS pads.


  2. Just to clarify: I realize that you took that ‘Hall of Shame’ stuff directly from the EWG. I was curious about the ‘banned in the EU’ comment they make about Static Guard, so I looked into it, and discovered that the EWG is being a little disingenuous with their wording. It’s not that Static Guard is ‘banned’ in the EU, it’s that one of its ingredients, DTDMAC, is not permitted as a cleaning product in the EU because it seems to ‘persist in the environment’ [ ]. However, what I find curious is that outside of the EWG, the RPS Environmental website I’ve referenced, and a couple of scientific papers, I can find no evidence to support any claims about DTDMAC – in fact I haven’t even been able to find a good, plain-language breakdown of what DTDMAC really is, and what it DOES (good and/or bad).

    This is concerning to me. I feel like people say ‘such-and-such is safe’ and ‘such-and-such is a terrible danger’ – but all they’re really doing is quoting one other source (in this case, the EWG), and no qualified scientist/chemist has actually been consulted. I feel like the default position is always, “Just use vinegar and baking soda for everything, because everything else is evil.” And I’m certain that the answer isn’t that simple.


    • Hey Sarah, so a quick search on bing and google shows me that DTDMAC is a quartenary ammonium cation… a nitrogen molecule that has four (alkyl, a carbon group or aryl, an aromatic ring) groups attached. Since the nitrogen is a cation, it is looking for an electron charge. So, reaching into my organic chemistry classwork, I know that cation are searching for a mate, essentially trying to find it to feel fulfilled. This is always happening in chemistry, the constant ebb and flow up electrons. Here is wikipedia says: “Quaternary ammonium salts are used as disinfectants, surfactants, fabric softeners, and as antistatic agents (e.g. in shampoos). In liquid fabric softeners, the chloride salts are often used. In dryer anticling strips, the sulfate salts are often used. Spermicidal jellies also contain quaternary ammonium salts.”
      Now, a little more reading indicates that these salts do what they are supposed to by interfering with the cell wall of a plant or cell membrane of an animal, the goodness that holds all our stuff together. The problem is, that when used in homes in products from A-Z, whether it is Static Guard or in your laundry detergent, it gets washed out into our environmental ecosystem or ends up in or on our bodies. This can affect the reproductive systems of whatever animal it comes in contact with or retard or prohibit growth in plants. Here is a link about the teratogenic effects on two groups of fish when DTDMAC was introduced into their environments: It is from 1992.
      Here is another article from the NIH talking about the “likely biological consequences” of DTDMAC in the River Rhine:
      Now, there are also articles that say certain nominal levels of the molecule pose no threat, but I would argue that we aren’t using nominal amounts. We use surfacants (soaps) on a daily basis (not just DTDMAC, but many different salts that do all the sudsing) with laundry, dishes, car washing, dog scrubbing, baby bath time, and so on. I certainly don’t think all cleaning products are evil, however, the burden of responsibility to prove they are safe isn’t really determined for any chemical until after someone is harmed, unfortunately. Even then, there are so many things we put into our bodies it is difficult for anyone to build a case against the use of one chemical used in a product.
      I don’t know that there really is a whole lot of plain-language info out there that describes the harms of our regularly used chemicals, but I do appreciate sources like EWG, even if adding whole products to the Hall of Shame instead of just the molecule.
      I hope that helped.


      • Thanks for that, Nova – my problem is that my degree is in English, not chemistry, so I don’t feel confident when I’m reading about things like cations. I appreciate you taking the time to source the materials and read the literature!


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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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