Ask the EcoTeam: Homemade Cleaning Products

Ask the EcoTeam is created by Beck Cowles, the Ecology Center’s Program Manager of Information Services. Cowles and her team staff the Help Desk at the Ecology Center and answer the Ecology Center’s Information Hotline from 11:00am to 6:00pm, Tuesday through Saturday.

Dear EcoTeam,

I’d like to start making my own cleaning products at home to both cut down on costs and to use more safe, nontoxic ingredients that won’t harm my health or the environment. Do you have advice on getting started? What are some of the best ingredients, and which natural ingredients are effective for disinfecting?

-Clean, green, and pennywise

Dear Clean,

The best way to start is to try a few recipes out and have fun finding ones that you like best. One of the easiest recipes to try is a basic window cleaner: mix ¼ cup white vinegar, ¼ teaspoon liquid soap, and 16 ounces of water in a spray bottle.

Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond is an excellent book that includes an expansive collection of do-it-yourself recipes for housecleaning products, as well as other things like natural varnish and playdough. The book walks you through how to make, use, and store your own supplies with a recipe for just about everything. This book is a staple at the Ecology Center Info Desk. Feel free to come by and check it out from our library.

A sundry of natural ingredients are woven throughout the book with an emphasis on five that can form the basis for cleaning – baking soda, washing soda, liquid soap, white distilled vinegar, and antiseptic essential oils. Baking soda can cut grease, is a mild abrasive and is a good starting place for many cleaning jobs in the home. Washing soda is more heavy duty, a little caustic and can be used as a nontoxic replacement for solvents. Liquid soap works as a surfactant (can mix with grease and water). A good choice is Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap, which is made with organic oils. White distilled vinegar will neutralize many stains and odors as well as cut through scale. Essential oils such as eucalyptus, lavender, tea tree, and a few others have antiseptic properties and some can be used to kill bacteria and mold.

The Ecology Center’s fact sheet “Alternative Cleaning Recipes” contains a number of effective recipes for scouring, degreasing, removing mildew, cleaning your oven, polishing your silver, washing your floors, and more! It is available in both English and Spanish, as a free flier at the Ecology Center, or online at

Less toxic ingredients can be used to replace chlorine bleach, such as hydrogen peroxide, tea tree oil, borax, vinegar, or hot soapy water. While chlorine bleach is an effective germ killer, it’s most often overkill and can cause respiratory problems when inhaled. Furthermore, cancer-causing dioxin and brain-damaging mercury are released into the air from chlorine plants during manufacturing. This downloadable pdf from Colorado State University lists a few alternatives to using chlorine bleach as a disinfectant: 1) Fill a spray bottle with undiluted 3% Hydrogen Peroxide heated to 130 F, spray and leave on surface for one minute before wiping, 2) Fill a spray bottle with white distilled vinegar heated to 130 F, spray and leave on surface for one minute before wiping, and 3) Mix a paste of borax and water and apply to mildew areas in the bath. Let sit then scrub with brush.

Replacing store-bought products with your own homemade recipes will reap many benefits for your health, the environment, and your pocketbook. Take Triclosan for an example. This compound, which is commonly added to toothpastes, hand soap, and many other body care products, is under review by the FDA because it may interfere with the thyroid and endocrine system, which regulates growth and development. Replacing products that may contain Triclosan with your own recipes is a good choice for your health and it’s particularly important for children. It’s good for the environment, too. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the chemicals that cannot be thoroughly removed by the wastewater treatment plant such as Triclosan end up in the Bay, where they can be acutely toxic to aquatic life. Many other chemicals used in the household also have significant impact including chlorine, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, and phosphates. A class of common cleaning product surfactants, alkylphenol ethoxylates can mimic estrogen, and may be having an effect on the reproduction and survival of salmon and other fish. Our local water supplier, EBMUD, has long seen the importance of eliminating chemicals from household wastewater and encourages natural home recipes by detailing safer methods here.

Making supplies at home with reusable containers also eliminates the environmental and climate impact of all that packaging – the plastic bottles, the shipping containers – as well as the impact of transportation and the product marketing chain. The cost savings to you can be significant, especially if you’re able to find a store that sells supplies in bulk. You can buy large quantities of borax, washing soda, and vinegar at Target, although you may wish to call your local hardware store to see if they carry those items. Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco has a terrific bulk section that is stocked with baking soda, boric acid, detergents, vinegar, and other basics.

[Photo by Beck Cowles]

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