If your cleaning cupboard is anything like mine was, you've got a household disinfectant for everything: one for the kitchen counter, one for the bathroom, one for wood surfaces, glass, fabric stains, and on and on. On cleaning days, my husband and I would open all the doors and windows to get rid of the fumes, but, if it was too cold for fresh air, we would find ourselves sprawled on the couch, light-headed and coughing. How healthy could this ritual be for our family?
It wasn't until we became pregnant with our first child when we finally realized that if it smells abrasive, it probably is! We turned to my father-in-law, a scientist for the USDA with two PhDs in Ecology and Biometry, for FDA-approved cleaning solutions that we could make at home, and that we could be confident wouldn't leave behind toxic residues for our little one (and another on the way). Bonus: they're all environmentally friendly and very economical!
White Distilled Vinegar
(impure dilute acetic acid)
Price: about $2.80 for a 1 gallon jug
White distilled vinegar is a popular household cleanser, effective for killing most mold, bacteria, and germs, due to its high level of acidity. Cleaning with white distilled vinegar is a smart way to avoid using harsh chemicals and can basically be used on anything. Don't worry about the smell—it only lasts while you're cleaning and dissipates as soon as it dries.
To use, combine 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar with 1 cup water in a spray bottle. Spray anything from countertops, floors, windows, the microwave, sink fixtures, and stained coffee cups. Wipe with a soft cloth.
• For pet accidents, after removing pet mess, spray area with vinegar solution and blot until dry.
• To eliminate odors in dishwasher, run 1 cup of undiluted vinegar through the wash.
• To whiten a load of laundry, add 1 cup of undiluted vinegar to your load.
• To prevent mildew and remove hard-water stains, spray your shower or bath with pure white vinegar and squeegee off.
Price: about $0.50 per lemon
Lemon juice, one of the strongest food acids, is an effective fighter of most household bacteria and stains. In addition, lemon is rich in flavanones, which, according to the British Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology, has shown strong antimicrobial activity.
• To clean and remove stains from wood and plastic cutting boards, slice a lemon in half, squeeze onto the surface, rub, and allow it to sit for 20 minutes before rinsing. For added scour power, dip the half-cut lemon in baking soda first (avoid using it on marble and stainless steel, as it may cause discoloration).
• To bleach stains from acidic foods like tomato sauce on dishes and tupperware, rub lemon juice on the spots, let dry in a sunny place, and wash as usual.
Price: about $1.69 for a 2 liter bottle
Seltzer (not to be confused with club soda or tonic water) is pure H2O infused with carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide makes the water more acidic and, like vinegar, can break down dirt and bacteria. Keep a spray bottle of seltzer around at all times. A quick spritz and a soft sponge makes wiping up spills, crumbs, and other daily messes easy. And because it's less acidic than vinegar, it's safe for pre-washing stains on colored clothing. Plus it's odorless and drinkable so you'll never feel guilty about over-using it around the house.
Price: about $1.50 for a 26 oz canister
Before toxic cleaners came with the promise of an easy fix, salt was used for cleaning since as far back as the middle ages. This is because salt is an inexhaustible mineral that serves as a gentle scouring agent and stain remover.
• To clean sink drains, pour salt mixed with hot water down the kitchen sink regularly to deodorize and prevent grease buildup.
• To scour stains in tea or coffee pots, add salt and crushed ice to the pot, swirl around vigorously, and rinse.
• For wine spills on fabric, blot up as much as possible and immediately cover the stain with a pile of salt, which will help pull the remaining wine away from the fiber through osmosis. Then soak the fabric in cold water for thirty minutes before laundering.
Price: about $2.25 for a 4 lb box
Baking Soda is best known for its odor-absorbing properties. Bad odor is almost always the result of strong acids. Sodium Bicarbonate, a slightly base product, has the ability to neutralize pH levels—that is, it acts as a buffer for strong acids like sour milk and rotting veggies.
• Place a box of baking soda as close as you can to anywhere that needs deodorizing, like the refrigerator, freezer, garbage can, laundry hamper, and so on.
• Remove odors from pet accidents by first blotting with vinegar, then sprinkling with baking soda. Let it sit overnight, then vacuum the next day.
3-Percent Hydrogen Peroxide
Price: about $2 for a 16 oz bottle
A solution of 3-percent hydrogen peroxide and 97-percent water is known for its antibacterial properties. A 2012 Johns Hopkins study found that spraying patient's rooms with hydrogen peroxide is a systematic and effective decontaminant and recommended that all hospitals include it in their regular routine. Lucky for us, this solution is easily available at most drugstores in a brown plastic bottle.
• To disinfect high-traffic surfaces like doorknobs, keyboards, and toilet handles, moisten a soft cloth (or cotton swab for nooks) with the hydrogen peroxide solution, and wipe.
• To remove stains of blood or sweat in fabric, soak in hydrogen peroxide to take advantage of its powerful oxidizing qualities. Soak until the stain is no longer visible, then wash as normal. Because hydrogen peroxide has bleaching properties, it's best to do this only for white or very light fabrics.
Note: Unlike many commercial house cleaners, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide are not poisonous or corrosive to the eyes, skin, and lungs. Nevertheless, they should not be ingested, and prolonged contact can cause irritation.