Cleaning – Naturally!

Citrus peels added to white vinegar will give your cleaning solution a sprite and pleasant smell. Photo: C. Plume

It’s an interesting paradox that while many people are moving towards organic foods, household cleaners—which are often filled with toxins— are kept at the ready in many homes.  With everyone, including kids and pets, spending more time at home these days than anyone ever imagined, reducing the number of toxic chemicals in your home makes a lot of sense. But, in these days when hygiene and cleanliness are of paramount concern, which natural cleaners really work?

White vinegar is a cleaning staple in our home.  Straight white vinegar in a spray bottle will make your stainless steel appliances shine, while a douse in your laundry will work as a fabric softener substitute.  I put a half cup of vinegar in my dishwasher and run it on the “quick wash” cycle every few weeks to keep food particles from building up inside the machine. A half cup of vinegar mixed with a cup of water, two tablespoons of oil (grapeseed, olive, coconut, etc.), and a drop or two of your favorite essential oil will give your wood furniture a beautiful glow. Put equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle, and you’re ready to tackle almost any cleaning project in your home from cleaning windows and mirrors to countertops. Though white vinegar doesn’t have a lingering smell, you can add some citrus peels to some vinegar, set it aside for a couple of weeks, and then add a bit of it to your vinegar and water solution for a clean, citrusy smell. And the addition of those fruit acids to the vinegar will increase the solution’s ability to clear stubborn stains.

White vinegar, water, and baking soda, and you’re ready to clean. Photo: C. Plume

When you need a bit of grit for your cleaning, baking soda is an excellent light abrasive. I buy it in bulk, so I have it on hand for any project. (You can purchase it online at Ace Hardware and have it delivered to Frager’s for pick up.) Baking soda will bring shine and cleanliness to any number of things – from your kitchen and bathroom sinks, the bottom of your grimy pots and pans and even your grandma’s silver or that old brass doorknob. I use it, or cream of tartar, to get rid of the scratches on my older dishes from time to time. (It works!) And, it will even work as a stovetop and oven cleaner.  Apply a paste in your oven, leave it for a few hours and return for a quick clean up. When baking soda is mixed with vinegar, it becomes two new chemicals – carbonic acid and sodium acetate – a fizzy concoction that kids will love to watch.  A one to two ratio mix of these two ingredients will create a mixture ideal for cleaning toilets and keeping drains flowing.

Thyme oil – and more specifically “thymol” found in thyme and bee balms among other plants—is proving to be another excellent natural cleaning/disinfecting product that can be used as a cleaning product throughout your home, though research indicates that it is ineffective against COVID-19.  It, like neem oil, however, can also be an effective natural pesticide for household and outdoor plants.

Sometimes natural cleaners need a bit of a boost to do an effective job.  I’ve found that a solution of 70% isopropyl alcohol (which is what stores commonly sell), soap, and water can give my granite countertops a shine that a simple vinegar and water mix can’t.  Meanwhile a dash of hydrogen peroxide added to a laundry load will make colors brighter, or diluted in water, it can be an effective disinfectant.

If you’re trying to disinfect for COVID-19, remember that just like a good soap and water wash will kill the virus on your body, a good soap scrubbing will kill it on any surface. A March 2020 Consumer Reports article reminds us that using or adding anti-bacterial soap to the mix has no added value against the COVID-19 as it is a virus versus a bacteria.  And, hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, and bleach can destroy the virus when in the right concentrations while vinegar, vodka, and tree oils, can’t.

While using natural cleansers will help you minimalize the chemicals in your house, you’ll also save money.  A gallon of white vinegar costs less than $3 while baking soda costs around $10 for a 13lb. bag.  You’ll be able to get a lot of cleaning done with those quantities, and you’ll have a lot fewer toxins in your home.

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and blogger for the DC Recycler:; Twitter: @DC_Recycler.  She is also the Chair of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, however, perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.