‘You’ll never have to scrub again,’promises one brand. The cleaning-product industry is saturated with ‘power’ creams, ‘dual force’ foamers, limescale ‘destroyers’ and ‘triple action’ formulas designed to sell us the idea that the tougher the product is, the cleaner and ‘safer’ your home will be – and the more ‘effortless’ the cleaning. With just one squirt and wipe you can cut through grease and kill germs dead. A product may be marketed as a miracle cleaner but the back label tells a different story. The clue is in the warning signs: ‘hazardous, corrosive, warning, danger or irritant, inflammable’.
Household cleaning products are made using industrial chemicals, often referred to as high production volume, or HPV, chemicals. According to a Friends of the Earth report, Chemicals in Crisis (2000), only 14 per cent of the HPV chemicals have a full set of basic safety data.
The majority of household cleaners contain harsh, often toxic chemicals that when flushed down the drain can be highly toxic to aquatic life – the impact of detergents, solvents and phosphates that don’t biodegrade have been well documented by organisations such as Greenpeace. Used in the home, the chemicals contaminate the air and surfaces with a mix of carcinogens, hormone disruptors, neurotoxic solvents and mood-altering chemicals. So much for a safer and cleaner home.
Simpler, safer, greener alternatives
The simplest (and cheapest) way to cut out the chemicals is to make your own cleaning products (see DIY cleaning cupboard essentials, below). Another way is to switch to eco-friendly brands like Bio D, Ecover or Natural House whose plant-based cleaners are made from natural ingredients like citrus, essential oils, minerals, salts, sodas and plant enzymes. With washing-up liquid, washing powder and bathroom and kitchen allpurpose cleaners, this is a pretty straightforward switch. But what about the places that are harder to clean, such as carpets, greasy ovens or kettles coated with limescale?
Cleaning tips for the five most difficult jobs:
• Give the vacuum cleaner a break and use a wooden broom with hard natural bristles instead, then collect the dirt with a dustpan and brush.
• Wash carpets using eco-friendly washing-up liquid. For a deeper clean, go for a carpet steam clean. As well as providing effective cleaning power, the very hot water used in steamcleaning machines kills dust mites, fleas, bacteria and mould.
• For stains, use soda water or make a spot-cleaning solution of ½ cup borax in 1 litre of warm water. Scrub with a stiff bristle brush; vacuum when dry.
• Disinfect carpets by sprinkling with borax. Wait for two to 24 hours before vacuuming it up. Note: inhaling any powder can cause respiratory problems in some individuals, so make sure you use other rooms while this is soaking in.
• For smelly carpets, make a natural carpet deodorant from plain baking soda with fragranced essential oils. Sprinkle onto the carpet and leave from 15 minutes to overnight, depending on the strength of the odour, and then vacuum.
• Spot-clean upholstery with a solution of ½ cup borax in 1 litre of warm water. Scrub with a soft bristle brush and vacuum when dry.
• Washable soft coverings (cushion covers, etc) and throw rugs should be laundered regularly (with eco-friendly washing powder, of course!). Nonwashable rugs can be taken outside and beaten with an old-fashioned beater – or old tennis racket.
• Regularly running boiling water down the drain is probably the best way to keep drains clear and running well.
• To clear out a drain, make a foaming drain cleaner with baking soda, table salt and vinegar. This will bubble and fizz, pushing the abrasive salt through the drain, removing deposits. After 20 minutes pour boiling water down the drain to flush it clear.
4. Ovens, greasy kitchens and limescale
• For ovens, sprinkle baking soda in the oven while still warm, to loosen grease, which can then be wiped away with warm water. Or, on the same lines as unclogging a drain, spray a solution of white vinegar into the warm oven. Sprinkle with baking soda, leave it to bubble and then scrub away.
• Make a scouring powder with bicarbonate of soda and a few drops of essential oil – lemon, grapefruit, tea tree, rose, peppermint or lavender.
• Disinfect surfaces naturally by mixing two parts water to one part vinegar or lemon juice. (NB: lemon juice and vinegar are acidic, so remember to wear gloves.)
• To get rid of limescale, soak the kettle/taps/plugs either in equal parts vinegar and warm water or cover with cloths soaked in hot vinegar for an hour.
• Eco-brand alternative: Bio D Multi- Surface Cleanser; Ecover Limescale Remover and Ecover Cream Cleaner.
• Wood: a dab of vinegar on a slightly damp cloth can be a very effective cleaner and a little light olive oil on a cloth can polish and protect the wood. Beeswax makes a good furniture wax.
• Brass and copper: rub pans with a mixture of salt and vinegar or lemon juice and then wash.
• Chrome: use soap and water removing stubborn stains with a bit of bicarbonate of soda.
• Eco brand alternative: Bio D Household Polish.
DIY cleaning cupboard essentials
Otherwise known as sodium bicarbonate, this domestic wonder powder is a key ingredient in many homemade cleaning products. As a powder it’s a mild abrasive that can scratch off dirt and absorb odours. When dissolved in water it is a mild disinfectant, cuts through grease and softens water. For a stronger version of soda, go for soda crystals (also known as washing soda), which are more effective at getting rid of grease. (Both available from Dri-pak, www.dri-pak.co.uk)
Simply made from the fermentation of ethanol, vinegar is a mild acid that cuts through grease and disinfects by killing many types of bacteria.
Lemons are acidic and can provide some antibacterial and antiseptic properties for cleaning. Adding lemon juice to vinegar can help neutralise the vinegar smell.
Use sparingly as a gentle cleaning agent and a mild detergent. NB: make sure it’s made from natural products, vegetable oils and animal fats, rather than synthetic ones.
A natural mineral compound, borax is an effective cleaner, disinfectant and water softener, but it should be used with caution – it can be toxic at high levels. You can buy it from most chemists.
Made from millions of high-quality micro-fibres, the E-cloth has such a good, natural cleaning effect that you only need to use water. When dry, the cloths have a natural ‘positive’ charge that attracts dust. (Available from Ecotopia, www.ecotopia.co.uk)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2007
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