Adventures In Green Cleaning
As time passes I become more sensitive to just about every standard cleaning product I try. The information out there tells me this isn’t all in my head. With the advent of widespread chemical use, the prevalence of cancer, autoimmune disease, infertility, birth defects, and a lot of other scary things have increased dramatically.
According to the Prevent Cancer Coalition, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) conducted a study over a five year period. The results are frightening. Indoor toxins, specifically 20 widely used chemicals at peak concentrations, were measured anywhere from 200 to 600 times higher than those of outdoor levels (www.preventcancer.com). Studies done by the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that harmful toxins are found in the blood and tissues of 9 out of 10 Americans, and hundreds of known chemicals can be found in the umbilical cord blood of babies born in the United States (www.edf.org).
Hormone disrupting chemicals are measured everywhere, from the carpet in our homes to the plastics that hold our food. All kinds of harmful chemicals are found in our furnishings, wood cabinets and other wood finishes, tile, clothing, computers, paper, cosmetics, even the DVD disc you may watch tonight. Our home is supposed to be our safe haven. Yet modern environmental practices leave us surrounded by hundreds of substances dangerous and deadly.
While some of this may be hidden from us, most of us know just by glancing at the bottle of a cleaning product that all kinds of health dangers lurk, simply by scrubbing our shower tile, toilet and sink. Anyone who has handled bleach can tell you how it irritates the lungs, and yet it is used by millions of us to clean our clothes and linens, and keep our living areas squeaky clean. Formaldehyde and phosphates are a common ingredient in mainstream soaps and cleaners. Both are incredibly harmful to our bodies and the environment, with phosphates being particularly devastating to our water sources.
My week always seems to get away from me, and Saturday involves some activity or another. This leaves Sunday morning to clean the house. I focus on the main areas where we and the doggies spend the majority of our time. And then I get to the dreaded bathrooms. It never fails. After just two minutes, I begin to cough and my chest tightens. Then the headache sets in. I get tired and even achy. By 1PM, I decide to forgo my cool plans and errands, and instead spend the rest of the day wiped out on the couch, sick and grouchy. Only to go through all of this crap again when the bathrooms are due for a good scrub.
Being someone who lives with a chronic health condition, I realize my consitution isn’t helpful. But for even the healthiest person this can’t be good. For heaven’s sake, we live in this house, spend most of our time in it. My furry babies and husband are here, and my mom and friends are here a lot, too. All loved ones I hold most dear. This shouldn’t be a dangerous place.
But hey, I need to keep a clean house. I have to find a way to reconcile this. It just seems impossible to escape the madness. But short of moving out to the middle of nowhere, living like a 19th century pioneer woman and channeling my inner Laura Ingalls Wilder, all I can do is try and limit the exposure to these nasty things. I resolve to make effective and healthy changes to how I clean my home, because I don’t think I will be going off the grid anytime soon. Though I do fantasize about it from time to time.
To begin this odyssey, I decided to study the labels on the products that for years have been mainstays in my home cleaning kit. It’s very interesting. All lack an actual list of ingredients. This seems very convenient to me. And all of these labels have something scary in common. All have lengthy warning labels that mention the various illnesses and problems that can cause serious harm and even death.
Frightening warning labels aside, one of my more aggressive products apparently does not contain phosphates. Comes with a scary mile long warning label about all the awful things that can happen, but no phosphates. How noble. Well, score 1 for me and the planet. I guess.
My bathrooms both have windows, my master bath a pretty good sized one. I do have some ventilation but it isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination. My set up can in no way remedy the problem. All of the air in the world can come breezing through the room, but these products still overwhelm and make me sick.
Since the green movement began, the popularity of green products, safer for the planet and for us, has increased exponentially. But I haven’t paid much attention. At least until now. I guess I thought without the harsh ingredients, anything more natural or plant derived could not possibly kill all the bad stuff and get my house just as clean. But I decided to find out. I tried some commercially popular “green” brands, such as Green Works and Seventh Generation: laundry detergent, household cleaners, etc. While fantastic, and I didn’t feel sick using them, they can be expensive. But all is not lost. I researched further, and discovered that much safer and very simple things, some of which I already had on hand, can get the job done. Borax. Baking soda. Distilled white vinegar and water. Who new? This is going to be great for me, my home, my loved ones, and apparently my finances, too.
My experiment began with creating my own glass cleaner. I seem to clean my glass quite often, but I would say the amount I have to clean is reasonable. Glass tabletops in the family room and office, bathroom mirrors, and bedroom mirrors. And a few random mirrors here and there. But none challenge me more than my mirrored closet doors in my master bedroom.
These floor to ceiling monstrosities are the bane of my domestic existence. And tend to get messy pretty quick. The dogs are fascinated with their reflections, and often leave big streaks right at their eye level. As if to say “let’s give Mommy one more thing to clean, nothing like a good nose smudge to keep her busy!” These darn doors seemed like a good idea at the time. They do make the area look bigger, and that’s nice. But keeping them clean requires a lot of bending and elbow grease. One round of cleaning isn’t enough, it most often takes a second attempt to get every streak and smudge. And when using the standard well known commercial glass cleaner laden with chemicals, that only means more crap I’m breathing in.
Concocting my own glass cleaner introduces me to white distilled vinegar. And this modest no frills ingredient may prove to be the most versatile cleaning agent I will ever come across.
To prepare, I purchased a 24 ounce plastic spray bottle (under $2 at my local major retailer). Recipes I found online were all different. All of them called for water and vinegar, but measurements varied for each. Some recommended a few drops, or a teaspoon of anti bacterial earth friendly dishwashing liquid soap. Some a squeeze of lemon juice. The soap and lemon juice apparently are supposed to prevent streaking. I started with the quick shot of liquid soap in my two parts water, one part vinegar solution. While this worked well on my bathroom mirrors, when I got to my closet doors I experienced moderate streaking. I tried again, and the problem continued. Now for plan B, this time using the recommended lemon juice in place of the soap. The streaking problem persisted. I thought maybe it was the paper towel, or the saturation level of it. Didn’t seem to matter. Switched to a lint free cloth. No matter the level of saturation, the streaking continued. But before I would give up, I tried again. The successful end result: Equal parts vinegar and hot water, with nothing else, left all of my glass perfectly streak free and glistening. Not to mention it did a phenomenal job on my bathroom fixtures and shower heads, removing all hard water spots, dust, and any other gunk lurking around.
At first I wasn’t sure about vinegar. How can something so simple do so much? I’m not super crazy about the smell, but mixed with water it didn’t really bother me at all. It actually reminded me of dyeing Easter eggs when I was a kid. That makes me smile. As it turns out, it is a mild disinfectant, cuts grease and soap scum and inhibits growth of mold.
Not wanting to waste what was left in the bottle after my glass cleaning, I generously sprayed the shower/tub tiles in both bathrooms, to start cutting through the lingering soap scum and germs before diving into phase #2. Now it’s time to play with my new box of Borax. I am on the fast strack to house cleaning enlightenment.
Borax is also known as sodium borate. This naturally occuring substance is created by the evaporation of seasonal lakes, with some of the most commercially significant deposits located in California. Kind of interesting. For commercial purposes, it comes in a white powder form, that dissolves readily in water. So versatile, there should be a box in every household! The same goes for baking soda. Both of these magic white powders not only clean your bathroom and kitchen, they also work wonders in your laundry and can even clean your drains (but that is a discussion for a different day).
I prepared one gallon water with 1/2 cup Borax and 1/2 cup baking soda. I also sprinkled a bit of both on the floor of my shower and tub for good measure, and a bit on my sponge and scrubbed away. I got my shower clean in half the time with what felt like half the effort. Not a trace of mold, mildew, or any other kind of mystery gunk. My tiles and fixtures are gleaming! As it turns out, both Borax and baking soda are gentle and non abrasive.
Let’s not forget about the toilets and sinks. I sprinkled one fourth cup of Borax and baking soda in each toilet, came back in a half hour and scrubbed away the stains. My toilet bowls are ridiculously clean. Blinding shine and not a stain to be found. The same can be said for my sinks.
What works for my bathrooms also works for my kitchen: sink, stainless steel appliances, and countertops. I was worried about what to use on my granite, but it turns out that vinegar is safe to use as long as it is adequately mixed with water and a teaspoon of Borax. Like my bathrooms, my kitchen was left sparkling, disinfected, and felt oh so clean. Think about it. What did people use to clean their homes before all this chemical stuff was available? I’ve gone old school, using what my great grandmother and those before her relied on. And it feels really cool!
The verdict: After over an hour of experimenting and scrubbing both bathrooms and kitchen with my homemade glass cleaner and Borax/baking soda/vinegar/water combo, my house is pristine and I feel great. No coughing, wheezing, headache, and no need to crash on the couch and sleep the day away. And this stuff can be had for pennies compared to what you can spend on standard household cleaners. Two one gallon bottles of white distilled vinegar cost under $4 at Costco. The 4 pound box of Borax cost under $6 (my husband hunted it down at our small neighborhood drugstore, I assume the price is even lower at a major retailer). And my giant 13 pound pouch of baking soda was under $7, courtesy of good ‘ol Costco.
With standard cleaners you get the overabundance of suds, not to mention the noxious smells that can knock you out. You get neither with Borax or baking soda, at the most I detected a mild, natural and pleasant smell. We are seduced into thinking that all those bubbles mean it is getting stuff really clean, and without them the job ain’t getting done. I will admit, I was skeptical when the Borax didn’t soap up like crazy or hit me over the head with a smell. But I have very quickly overcome my skepticism. This stuff works.
So pass up the products with a list of ingredients you can’t pronounce, the fancy bold packaging, tons of suds and fancy fragrances. All you need to keep your bathroom and kitchen clean is the power of Borax, baking soda, vinegar, and water straight from the tap. Excellent clean while spending less moola. And you get to make the Earth happy, too. I upped my green cred and went way easier on my wallet.
So what’s up next for me, Miss Newbie Green Pristine? Time to see what these cleaning superstars can do for my laundry.