Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Homemade Cleaning Solutions

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in any way on any subject. I can make no promises that taking my advice will be safe or beneficial to you and your household! In fact, it may even be dangerous, so please follow any advice with caution and always consult a professional (medical, architectural, etc.) before trying out anything you read in my blog. I cannot be held responsible for any injuries or damage that may result to anyone or anything from trying out what I hope to be helpful tips! Thanks, and have fun using your common sense! - Hayley

Toxic, prettily packaged germ-fighting, soap-scum busting, “use in a well-ventilated area” commercial cleaning products STINK. Yes, not only will you kill brain cells, you’ll also kill your household cleaning budget.

Take it from me, who has an undergraduate degree in Microbiology and the uncanny ability to make any food container mould over in record time – you probably don’t need to completely disinfect your home on a daily basis, despite what the television commercials suggest. If you have small children or are pregnant or otherwise immuno-compromised, or have an elderly relative to worry about, spraying your doorknobs and faucets with Lysol is not a bad idea. Same goes if you’ve had an outbreak of a nasty virus or infectious agent – follow the advice of your knowledgeable health care professional! But apart from that, do you really need to destroy every potential living thing on every surface? How much bacteria are there on a given surface to begin with? 

For starters, bacteria like warm, dark and moist places (your mouth and other bodily orifices, sinks, wet gym strip and towels, etc.). Your linoleum floor is obviously not an ideal place for a dangerous bacterium to settle down and start a family. Keeping it clean to prevent build-up of dirt and grime is pretty much all that is necessary.

There are some key areas where it makes good sense to keep bacterial growth to a minimum (the toilet and sink, for example). Surprisingly, it’s not the usually bathroom where the really hazardous bacteria live (unless you have a house guest with cholera, that is). The biggest reservoir of nasty, potentially virulent bacteria, fungi and mould is the kitchen sink and the damp sponge that accompanies it. And cutting boards are a close second. It just makes sense – bacteria that can thrive in food (Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli (E. coli), Staphylococcus aureus) are found in food, and living in an environment where it’s nice and damp (water in sink and drain, damp sponge, damp cracks in cutting board) and where there’s lots of microscopic food debris (fuel for the little pests) is basically tantamount to microbiological heaven. And since you’ll be preparing and storing food in the kitchen, there’s a good chance of cross-contamination (i.e. food poisoning)! Yes, your toilet will have enterobacteria (bacteria that live in your guts, and that includes some that aren’t beneficial – the opportunistic pathogens), but how likely are you to end up ingesting (eating!) something that’s come into contact with the toilet? Not very, unless you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet and then reach for a sandwich or finger food.

Some advice to live well and not have to disinfect your entire home on a daily basis with nasty chemicals:
  • Wash your hands really well. 30-60 seconds or longer, regular soap and warm water will do, and scrub the nails and cuticles, between your fingers, all along your thumb, the back of your hand and your wrists, and to get under the nails without a nailbrush (which is a fantastic invention), bury your fingers into your soapy palms and scrub back and forth. Note that this won’t exactly work on long nails and will be uncomfortable if you have them. Trim the claws or get a nailbrush to compensate. Dry your hands thoroughly (all the same places – nails, between fingers, everywhere). Washing your hands often and well is a great habit to adopt, but if your skin gets dry, invest in some moisturizer. Or simply rub a little olive oil (one tsp goes a long way) into your hands. 
  • Microwave your kitchen sponge UNTIL IT IS DRY. Be careful not to make it burn, of course, but steaming and boiling your sponge dry in microwave radiation will kill what’s living in it and make it inhospitable. Works great and it’s a good way to get more life out of your sponge. It will also make your kitchen infinitely safer! For my cellulose sponge and microwave, it takes about 3 minutes on High power to dry it out. I also store it away from the damp sink.
Why don’t I recommend anti-bacterial soap? Easy! Do you know what cells are made of? Well, with some variation for adaptation to specific environments, cells have a phospholipid bilayer that acts as their skin, essentially. Phospholipids are basically fat (lipids) with phosphate groups on them. The phosphate groups are hydrophilic (meaning they like water and aqueous environments) and the lipid portion doesn’t like water at all (oil and water don’t mix!). So what happens is that a double layer of phospholipids naturally forms, with the fats in the middle away from the water, and the phosphate groups outside. 

Soaps and detergents dissolve fats, right? Well, technically they emulsify oils, meaning that the soap breaks the fat droplets into such tiny pieces in such a way as to ‘dissolve’ them in water – then you can just rinse them away! The same thing will apply to the lipids in a biological membrane. This is why any old detergent will kill most bacteria – the bacterial cells will rupture and the organism will die. The more you expose regular, easy-to-kill bacteria to anti-bacterial soaps and other products, the more resistant the bacteria will get until it takes a new, undiscovered chemical to kill it. Remember that you are made up of trillions of cells, too. If it’s toxic to bacteria, it’s also likely toxic to you!!! 

Don’t forget that you have the most incredible system in the world working defence for you – your immune system. There are studies suggesting that exposure to pathogens actually HELPS your immune system (why kids who grow up on a farm almost NEVER have asthma – it’s called the hygiene theory of allergies if you want to look up more on the subject). Let your kids eat dirt – I could write about how insanely awesome the human immune system is for days on end, but will resist for the sake of the reader.

  • Boiling water straight from your kettle will kill! Yes, good old boiling H2O will beat the snot out of almost everything. Whenever I boil water for tea, I boil the full 1.5 litre capacity. I usually only use about 500 mL, so that means I have a whole litre of boiling water to douse my stainless steel sink with. It kills better than a lot of commercial cleaners, and it’s practically FREE!
One note of discretion – plastic plumbing (or plastic-lined pipes) will likely not enjoy boiling water. Look under the sink to see or ask your landlord if this is safe first!

I also like to lay out a reusable rag (ditch the paper towels – they’re flimsy and expensive) on a cutting board and then pour boiling water on that. Works on countertops, too, especially if they’re old crappy rental-suite formica (wouldn’t recommend this on marble….again, consult your landlord or an expert in the field before following this advice). Just let the rag sit there, steaming, killing whatever’s trapped beneath. Free, healthy and incredibly effective. Awesome, if you ask me.

  • Grade-school science: the ol’ vinegar and baking soda trick. Remember the volcanoes you made that spilled over and made a colossal mess when you poured in a little vinegar? Well now you can have the same satisfaction cleaning your sinks and toilet, and clearing the drain, too! Don’t buy Drano and similar products unless you absolutely, positively have exhausted ALL other options – it’s pure evil to the waterways! With about ½ a cup of baking soda and ½ a cup of vinegar (equal amounts – you could make a really big eruption if you wanted some entertainment….!) and about 30 minutes chased with some boiling water, you can get those slow drains working with the magic of basic acid-base chemistry! First send down the baking soda, then pour on the vinegar and enjoy the carbon dioxide spewing out, bubbling and pushing around the bits of gunk that were stuck. Wait about half an hour and wash it all away with your kettle, and that’s it! I use this in my slow and pathetic toilet to bubble off all the crud that builds up because the bowl never empties, minus the boiling water plus a quick scrub with a toilet brush at the end of the 30 minutes. The fizzing makes me happy. Another tip is to make a scrub out of baking soda and a little splash of water to get tiles and tubs shiny. Another item to buy is a hair trap for your shower drain (fits over the drain – usually white plastic disk-shaped with a mesh in the centre) – such an easy way to keep your drains running freely.
Again, apply common sense here – boiling water is hot and dangerous. Don’t splash it in your face or spill it on skin. And do be kind to your plumbing. The hot water could even crack your sink or toilet, so please again consider all eventualities before following any advice here.

  • Vinegar and water: yes, it works! A 1:1 ratio (equal parts) of vinegar to water will clean just about everything – windows, floors, countertops, you name it! You can heat it up in the microwave (glass containers), you can customize with a little lemon juice or lime zest or drops of essential oils (but keep the add-ons out if you’re cleaning windows or mirrors!), and it’s cheap and efficient.
  • Borax – how to make your dishwasher detergent go farther, and an alternative to vinegar and water cleaning solutions. Make a mix of 1:1 (equal parts) generic powdered dishwasher detergent and Borax and store it in a container. Use this to fill your powdered detergent reservoir. It’s cheaper and cleans really well! Borax and hot water can also be used to make a floor cleaning solution – I cheat and add a tiny splash of Tangerine Dream VIP dish washing liquid to help cut the grease. Borax has a ton of other uses: laundry (they say for baby clothes, but it’s best not to expose your infant to appreciable amounts of sodium borate (Borax) as there appears to be some developmental toxicity associated with its use on children), deodorizer (sprinkle in the garbage can), carpet clean up (sprinkle on wet spills and vacuum when dry), stain removal and as a scrub for tubs and tiles. Works great for cleaning and deodorizing toilet bowls and rims, too.
  • Microfibre cloths – can be used wet (water) or dry. Will make mirrors and windows spotless, and bathroom taps and stainless shine! You don’t even need a cleaner! Dry, and without grit, they can safely clean computer monitors and TV screens. Find them for cheap at YokoYaya or at most dollar stores. Reusable and really, really easy!
  • Homemade air fresheners – especially good if you don’t like the smell of your vinegar solution! You can simmer a pot of water with the zest (grated rind) of citrus fruits, or cinnamon sticks, or spices, or lemon juice to scent your kitchen and apartment. But that takes electricity, so it’s not the greenest option. Why not bake some bread or roast some garlic while you clean instead? A simmering pasta sauce with sautéed onions will smell like dinner and easily overpower the vinegar scent. Other air fresheners include old-fashioned pomanders (oranges stuck with cloves and hung from a ribbon – I have never made one that hasn’t moulded, for the record. I hear Orris root powder helps, but I’ve never found it for sale. Cinnamon is purported to have anti-fungal properties – good for dusting broken roots of orchids in during transplanting – so maybe you could dust the pomander with it as well). I often just mince the end slice of a lemon that I’d throw away anyway and leave it sitting on the cutting board or in a bowl. People with garburators often throw down lemons or portions of lemons for the same reason (but garburators aren’t very energy efficient, so avoid using them when possible).
And that’s about it! There are a few things like soap-scum that don’t come away easily, and that’s where the rags come in and the homemade scrubs (Borax or baking soda mixed with a little water). You’d be amazed with what you can do with a cut-up old towel and some muscle! And if that’s not working, VIP soaps/Echoclean make ecologically sound (and nicely priced!) green cleaners to help you out on the tough jobs.

The bottom line today is that products that kill viruses and bacteria can potentially kill you too. Try making your own homemade cleaners this month! Some cautions: NEVER, ever mix bleach and ammonia together (even accidentally, like cleaning with Vim (bleach-based) and then spraying with Windex (contains ammonia)! Be careful!) because of the poisonous gas that forms! And keep in mind that carbon dioxide will displace oxygen, so don’t go sticking your face next to the bubbling vinegar and baking soda expecting to breathe freely.

Further tip – did you know that you can crochet or knit a cover for your Swiffer or generic flat floor sweeper/mop? You might even be able to stitch one out of an old towel. Imagine how handy that would be! Some links to free patterns for Swiffer-compatible crocheted and knitted cleaning cloths on
Happy cleaning and again, take any advice with a grain of salt!


  1. Great read.

    I use Microfiber towels that I have cut to fit my Swiffer floor mob. They work great Wet or Dry.

    Don't buy Jet dry for your dishwasher, White vinegar is way cheeper and works EXACTLY the same.

    Your Stainless Items not shiny anymore? soak them with vinegar, inside pots, out side pots, kitchen appliances, kitchen sinks, BBQ. you can bring back the shine in minutes.

    Baked on food in your frying pan or other cooking Items? cover the bottom with water and place them on the stove, a few minutes on high and you will have no issues. Not a stove top safe Item? place it in a pot with boiling water and pot a lid on, it will steam clean the burnt on food off in seconds.

    Want to save energy? not kill your dish's? Change you Automatic dish washer cycles. Turn off Heat dry and Turn on High Heat wash. the Dishes will come out cleaner, and will dry from the heat the dish radiates out. And if a Dish isn't 100% clean, the food won't have been baked on. making them alot easier to clean the second time.

    Great read :D


  2. Thank you, Walter! Wonderful tips! Love the stainless steel tip - it's so easy to resort to much-hyped commercial products that probably corrode more than they shine. :) I'll be using these tips - thanks again!