How To Make Your Own Cleaning Supplies

We live in a niche world, where there’s seemingly a product for every single task. But it wasn’t that many years ago that people used little more than a handful of simple substances and some elbow grease to keep houses spic and span. They relied on these substances because they worked. And they still do.

Making your own products costs about a tenth as much as buying readymade cleaners off the shelf and keeps your home free from some of the most toxic chemicals used in product formulation. Gather up the following ingredients, and you’ll be on your way to a healthy home that will look great and smell great, too.

White Distilled Vinegar

In the world of natural cleaners, vinegar is a superpower, as it can be used for so many things. And it’s incredibly cheap. No matter where you shop, you should be able to find a big bottle of it for pennies. (Always use plain white vinegar for cleaning purposes — not cider vinegar or malt vinegar or balsamic vinegar or anything else. It’s the cheapest, and the other stuff can stain).

Vinegar gets its cleaning power from a weak form of acid — in this case, acetic acid — that is created when sugars or starches ferment. Vinegar’s acidic nature also means it has antibacterial properties. Worried about germs? Ditch the antibac wipes and sprays (and the toilet bowl cleaner, too) and get out the vinegar instead.

Vinegar is so versatile that it makes sense to have it ready to use at all times. Mix equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle, or simply use it straight out of the bottle for jobs like…   

Odor zapping. You might not like the smell of vinegar, but if you need to get rid of another smell in your house, simply set out a small bowl of vinegar in the vicinity of the aroma. Just sliced up an onion and your hands reek? Wash them down with a little vinegar, rinse them thoroughly, and then wash with soap and water.

Soil testing. Since vinegar’s an acid, it reacts with substances that aren’t; e.g., alkalis. You can use this chemical knowledge to see what’s in your soil. Just grab a little dirt and drip vinegar on it. If the vinegar starts to fizzle, you’ve got alkaline soil.

Mold and shower scum zapping. Have a corner in your shower that’s looking a little dark? Spray it with vinegar. To prevent future buildup, spray shower walls and doors daily, either straight or mixed 50/50 with water, if the smell gets to you. If you’ve got a ring around the bathtub, simply fill it with hot water and add a couple of cups of vinegar. Let it sit for a few hours and then drain. The ring won’t be gone, but it will be a lot easier to remove.

Window shining. Wash your windows with a 50/50 blend of warm water and vinegar for streak-free glass.

Water-ring removing. Remove water rings from wood furniture by rubbing them with equal parts of vinegar and olive oil. Work with the grain and polish when done.

Fabric softening. Just add half a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is as much of an all-arounder as vinegar, and it’s used in many of the same ways. It’s a fantastic all-purpose cleaner, and especially so when you need a little extra oomph, as its slightly gritty texture makes it a mild abrasive.

Because of its chemical composition — it’s an alkali or a base rather than an acid — it’s the substance of choice when you need to attack dirt and grime that is oil- or fat-based. It’s also a great odor eliminator — a box of Arm & Hammer in the fridge or freezer is almost ubiquitous; sprinkling some on your carpet before you vacuum will help get rid of pet or other odors that might have settled in.

Washing Soda

Go up a little higher on the pH scale and you’ll find washing soda (sodium carbonate), which weighs in at a pH of 11. This makes it more caustic than baking soda. It also means it’s even more effective at doing the same things that baking soda does, but you also have to be more careful when using it. If you were to work with it without gloves (definitely not the recommended approach; gloves should always be used around washing soda), your fingers would start to feel slippery as the washing soda literally dissolves the oils in your skin. Also be sure to keep it away from no-wax floors and aluminum surfaces and products, as it can discolor them, and don’t use it on fiberglass sinks, tubs or tile.

Washing soda is a great product to have on hand for tougher cleaning jobs, especially outdoors where grime can really build up. Mix up half a cup of it in a gallon of warm to hot water and use it for...

Cleaning plastic and/or wrought iron outdoor furniture. Simply sponge it on, let it sit for a few minutes (longer for really dirty jobs), and then rinse thoroughly. (Note: washing soda can remove the finish on wooden decks and painted surfaces, so wash furniture on the lawn or the driveway instead).\

Grill racks. Remove racks and place in utility tub or other container large enough to hold the racks (a large plastic trash or leaf bag works for this too). Cover with the washing soda and water mix and let sit overnight. Wash with soap and water, and then rinse thoroughly. (Do not use on aluminum racks, as it can discolor them.)

Garbage cans. Washing soda will clean and deodorize. Wash surfaces inside and out and rinse.

Recipes and Applications

For countertops, windows, mirrors, shower doors, etc., mix equal proportions of vinegar and warm water in a spray bottle and use as necessary. Add a few drops of tea tree oil or lavender to fight bacteria and leave a great scent behind.

For no-wax floors add 1cup vinegar for every gallon of water.

For laminate wood floors, 1/2 cup vinegar for every gallon of water. But be sure to check manufacturer’s guidelines first; some recommend against using vinegar.

For glazed tile, substitute baking soda for vinegar, as vinegar can etch tile and grout — some experts say it should never be used on any stone surfaces (like marble and limestone) or grout, as it can react with the minerals in both. Mix 1/2 cup baking soda to 1 gallon water. Rinse thoroughly.

For natural stone, mix a squirt or two of liquid soap with a gallon of warm water. Wash and rinse.

To clean and deodorize the toilet, pour a couple of cups of undiluted white vinegar into the bowl. Allow to stand for several minutes, then scrub and flush.

To keep drains flowing freely, pour in 1/2 cup baking soda, then add an equal amount of vinegar. You’ll see a lot of fizzing — this is caused by the release of carbon dioxide gas that happens when you mix the two ingredients together. When it stops, pour boiling water down the drain. Do this at least monthly to keep clogs from forming.

To tackle mildew, mix 2 cups water with 1/4 teaspoon tea tree essential oil and 1/4 teaspoon lavender essential oil (about 25 drops of each) in a spray bottle. Spray everywhere mildew is a concern and let dry. Don’t rinse; you want to leave the essential oils in place so they can do their job. You’ll have to shake this blend before use as the oils will separate from the water.

Excerpt used with permission from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss.   

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