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Is It Possible to Clean Your House Without Poisoning the Environment?

Yeah, but you better stock up on lemons

Commercial cleaning products: Great for getting grease off of your stove, and massacring wildlife! Seriously, though: Many household cleaners contain chemicals that add to smog, poison drinking water and are toxic to animals that have absolutely nothing to do with your goddamn grimy interior.

If you couldn’t care less about the environment, I should add that this pollution can contribute to chronic respiratory problems and cause cancer in humans, too. “Many of the cleaning products we buy at the store use a petroleum-base,” explains Kathryn Kellogg, founder of Going Zero Waste, author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste and spokesperson for National Geographic on plastic-free living. “When these are used, they emit air pollution in the form of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are also emitted by cars. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency found that indoor air pollution is two to five times worse than outdoor air quality.” And our communal obsession with cleanliness is at least partly to blame.

Then again, keeping a clean home is important, preventing you and anyone else who spends time in your house from being a sick mess all the time. Alas, we find ourselves in a lose-lose situation: Clean the house frequently, contributing to the death of the planet and eventually succumbing to lung disease, or ditch cleaning altogether and live in a petri dish to save the seals. 


Actually, you have one other option: Clean your house with other, less harmful stuff. “Making your own cleaners is super simple and takes only a few minutes,” Kellogg says, adding that it “will save you loads of money,” too. On her website, she has several recipes for homemade household cleaners, most of which are made up of some combination of white vinegar, lemon and liquid castile soap.

While you might be inclined to believe that only heavy chemicals can tackle your greasy interior, Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, recently told the New York Times that the likes of vinegar, baking soda and soap can indeed tackle ordinary household grime (although, cleaning up after a serious virus might require bringing back the Big Guns). Making homemade cleaners even more attractive, Schwarcz also warns that even products labeled as “green” or “natural” may be bending those terms to appear better, while actually being no safer than their synthetic counterparts.

As for actually making your own household cleaners, I asked for some tips from Jennie Varney, brand manager for the Molly Maid cleaning company. First, though, a few ground rules:

  1. Never, ever mix ammonia and bleach. This creates chloramine gas, which can kill you by essentially liquifying your lung tissues. In fact, you should avoid mixing bleach with anything, really, except for water.
  2. Borax, a popular ingredient in the DIY cleaning world, is not 100 percent safe. While it might be mostly fine for the environment, it only takes an oral dose of about five to 10 grams — around half of a teaspoon, or perhaps a little more — to potentially kill a child. You can still use it, but remember, even though something is natural, it can still be dangerous, especially if you put it in your mouth.
  3. Tons of homemade cleaner recipes suggest mixing acids (like vinegar and lemon juice) with bases (like ammonia, baking soda, borax and bleach). But as you probably learned in fifth grade science class and have since forgotten, combining acids with bases essentially neutralizes the concoction and leaves you with nothing more than salt water, or sometimes in the case of bleach, noxious gases. So, one or the other, please.
  4. While vinegar can be an effective cleaner (more on that momentarily), it lacks the surfactants necessary to remove serious dirt and grease buildup. So, many people mix in castile soap to get that extra umph. However, if you want the benefits of both castile soap and vinegar, use them in that order, as mixing them together can nullify some of those effects.

Now, back to Varney and her tips…

How to Make Homemade Glass Cleaner

“In a spray bottle,” Varney explains, “mix one cup of water, one tablespoon of vinegar and one cup of rubbing alcohol [another acid]. This concoction will work on glass, chrome, stainless steel and hard tiles. Just use a clean cloth to scrub the surface, or an old newspaper for a streak-free shine.” Other green cleaning ingredients, Varney adds, “include baking soda, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, fresh herbs, castile soap, essential oils and liquid soaps.”

How to Make Homemade All-Purpose Antibacterial Cleaner

“Fill a jar with citrus peels and herbs, dried or fresh,” Varney says, “Add vinegar and seal tight. Leave to infuse for one to two weeks. Then, combine one part vinegar-fruit concoction and two parts water into a spray bottle, and shake well.” Indeed, vinegar is a great cleaner: Consumer Reports tested a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water against their commercial all-purpose cleaners, and it topped the charts, although they warn that it left a lingering odor (which the citrus peels and herbs should hopefully help cover up in the above concoction). However, vinegar can damage marble, so watch out for that.

How to Make Homemade Wood Cleaner

“Combine one part lemon juice with two parts olive oil to make a natural and safe polish for wood furniture,” Varney explains. “Use a clean, soft cloth to polish the furniture, before wiping with another clean cloth to remove any residue.”

How to Make Homemade Dishwasher Detergent

Just throw a freaking lemon in there, bro. “Try leaving half of a lemon or orange in the bottom of the dishwasher for a fresh scent,” Varney suggests. Or, since that might not do the job of really degreasing your dishes and keeping you safe from Salmonella, consider stretching your real detergent with some lemon juice. “For extra grease-fighting power, add one teaspoon of lemon juice to the detergent,” says Varney. “Manually scrub grease and caked-on food with half a lemon.”

You can also use lemon to clean your microwave. “Clean a microwave naturally by placing half a lemon in a bowl of water, and microwaving for three minutes,” Varney says. “Once the time is up, wipe out the microwave.”

How to Make Homemade Bleach Without Actual Bleach

“Use lemon juice as a substitute for a gentle bleach to brighten whites,” Varney says. “Lemon juice can be used as a spot cleaner for underarm or other mild stains. Simply massage lemon juice into the stain as soon as possible, and let soak in warm water for five minutes. Wash in cold water afterward.” Never combine bleach and lemon juice, though, as this can result in the release of a toxic chlorine gas. Also, avoid using lemon juice on colored clothes, as it can cause discoloration.

Now quit reading, grab some lemons and get to cleaning!