Cleaning Up

May 20, 2011

Spring Cleaning Series, Part 1

Channing, who is apparently sick of vacuuming, recently hired our friend Brian to clean our tiny abode once every two weeks. Brian started on Wednesday (and did an excellent job). His one-man cleaning operation isn’t necessarily “green,” but he does ask that his clients supply their own cleaning products. So, I, of course, supplied him with some earth-friendly alternatives to the usual industrial stuff.

Commercial soaps and chemical cleaners are loaded with harsh chemicals, some of which are endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive problems and breast and prostate cancer, some of which irritate the lungs, liver, and kidneys and can cause lasting damage, and some of which cause headaches, depression, and weakness. Many commercial household cleaners and detergents contain petroleum-based solvents. During the process of refining crude oil to create these petroleum products, a ton of toxins are released into the environment. And, as we all know, continued reliance on oil—a finite resource—as fuel for cars and in its numerous uses in manufacturing is causing not only significant environmental degradation but a whole lot of political grief. Finally, one of the primary ingredients in commercial cleaners is phosphate, which does not break down as it runs from our drains into the sewers. Phosphate from wastewater has found its way in quantity into our streams, rivers, and lakes, where it causes rampant algal growth that is devastating to the freshwater ecosystem (not to mention smelly and ugly).

Before Brian’s visit, I stocked up on baking soda and lemon juice (both on the OK-to-buy list because I can also use them in cooking). We already had a large bottle of distilled white vinegar, a box of Borax, castile soap, and rubbing alcohol. These are the building blocks of do-it-yourself eco-cleaners—and they are all available at the grocery store for cheap.

With supplies gathered, I wrote a little cheat sheet for Brian, telling him which stuff to use where:


  • Most surfaces in the kitchen can be cleaned with castile soap and water and a towel or rag.1
  • Use vinegar on the cooktop. Straight vinegar applied with a rag works well.
  • A half cup of vinegar mixed with a gallon of water can be used to clean the kitchen floor and all of the other tile floors in the condo.

Dining Room

  • Use equal parts olive oil and lemon juice to clean/shine the hutch (which is unvarnished wood). Apply with a rag.
  • We have Windex for the dining room table and all other glass surfaces in the house. We don’t have paper towels, but old newspaper or a rag should work fine.2


  • To clean the toilets, mix two parts Borax with one part lemon juice. This mixture should also work to clean the stains on the shower floor. For the shower, scrub the mixture on the tile, let it sit for 30 minutes, then scrub clean with water.3
  • A vinegar and water mix in a spray bottle can be used to clean the sinks, tub, toilets, shower, and any other place where mold might grow.4
  • Wipe/shine faucets and toilet seats with rubbing alcohol (on a rag) after cleaning.

1. I had already mixed a little bit of castile soap with water in an old spray bottle (which previously contained a commercial, eco-friendly cleaner). Channing and I use this simple all-purpose cleaner on a regular basis, primarily in the kitchen but also to dust most surfaces around the house. Castile soap, made with vegetable oil, is a surfactant, and I find it extremely effective at removing dirt and stains from countertops. We’ve also used undiluted castile soap to wash pots and pans by hand, and I think Channing is using it as body wash these days. The stuff is good for everything.

2. Windex is awful. It’s full of ammonia, which in concentrated doses can burn the skin, irritate the eyes, and damage the lungs. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life bought a bottle of Windex, and yet, for the last eight years, I’ve had at least one in my house at all times. Once we finish this bottle, we will start making our own glass cleaner. Here is the recipe: ¼ cup vinegar + ½ teaspoon castile soap + 2 cups water. In the meantime, if you know how we can responsibly dispose of the Windex we have (less than half a bottle—yippee!), I’m all ears.

Regarding the newspaper, Channing told me a few years ago (when he was watching How Clean Is Your House? every Saturday at 11:00 a.m.) that we should use only newspaper that is at least three days old to clean glass. Otherwise, you’ll end up with black streaks on everything.

3. I only recently discovered the wonders of using Borax in cleaning. It is excellent at removing stains from surfaces. My box of Borax says that if you sprinkle a quarter cup in your toilet, brush it around, and let it sit for a half hour, you’ll have the cleanest bowl of your life. Borax can also be used in the laundry as a bleach or on carpet to remove tough stains. You should be able to find it at the grocery store.

If you don’t have Borax on hand, a mix of 4 parts vinegar and 1 part baking soda can be used to clean the toilet. It bubbles quite a bit, so I usually mix it in the toilet. Then, I let it sit for 15 minutes or so before I start to scrub. Baking soda, a gentle abrasive, is almost as amazing as Borax. I’ve started using it to remove stuck-on food from our stainless steel pots and pans—works like a charm.

4. Vinegar is a natural mold killer and our go-to bathroom cleaner. The mix in our spray bottle is equal parts vinegar and water.

For more information about making your own cleaning products, I’d recommend the following books:

Reneé Loux, The Balanced Plate: More than 150 Flavorful Recipes That Nourish Body, Mind, and Soul (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006), pp. 145–152

Diane Gow McDilda, The Everything Green Living Book: Easy Ways to Conserve Energy, Protect Your Family’s Health, and Help Save the Environment (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2007), pp. 66–67


2 Responses to “Cleaning Up”

  1. Brian Says:

    I’m the Brian Julie spoke of. Having gone to College in Vermont I spent more than a few years around eco-friendly house holds. I see the importance of trying to use more health/earth friendly products in cleaning. In my cleaning (Bede Cleaning Services) I tend to use what that home uses for ease. However Julie has got the right idea, make small changes to make a larger difference.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Very informative! Thanks for the tips, Julie!

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