Clean? Seriously, who cares? Now rub my belly.

Or… more than you wanted to know about me and natural cleaning products!

I hate house cleaning (OK, who doesn’t). When I was a pre-teen, my mother had this wonderful pen and ink drawing of a woman in a long dress. In her hands was a broom, broken in half. The caption read F*#K HOUSEWORK. (Click here to see a copy if you’d like.) I understand exactly. It’s not the actual work which I mind. I love jobs where I can really see the results after I am done, and my detail oriented side will get out a toothbrush to get into that grimy corner that a sponge won’t reach. It’s just that it never ends. You sweep the floors, and a few days later, they need to be swept again. Such is the nature of entropy.

Add to this that I am somewhat chemically sensitive. I once spent the night in a cheap hotel room with too much carpet “freshener” and had a sore throat for two days as a result. I have to try out perfumes for a few hours to see if they give me a headache before I can buy them. Years ago, I bought a Swiffer WetJet floor mop, and the only option pre-mixed liquid cleaner was so strong that I had to throw the whole thing out. (This was before I became aware of the whole “planned obsolescence” strategy used by many manufacturers. Watch The Story of Stuff for a crash course on planned and perceived obsolescence, a model on which much of our economy is based. Then think about it the next time you buy a product that you are just going to have to buy more of in a few weeks or months.)

Some of my sensitivity I attribute to my parents. They both smoked two packs a day, so I was exposed to a lot of second-hand smoke until I moved out when I was 18. I suffered from post nasal drip until I moved from the polluted air of the bay area to the clean mountain air of Colorado when I was 24. Since I had never known anything else, I was stunned when I suddenly didn’t need to clear my throat all the time. Any kind of strong perfume or cleaner tends to bring it right back. Even lemon oil will bother me for days.

As I became aware of environmental issues in the mid 80’s, I bought a book called “Clean and Green – The Complete Guide to Nontoxic and Environmentally Safe Housekeeping” by Annie Berhould-Bond. It was an eye opener. Ever wonder if all those long chemical names on the back of a cleaning bottle are safe? Often, the answer is they are not something you want around yourself, your family or your pets. And currently, a lot of those ingredients are “proprietary” and so don’t have to be listed in detail. (Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database to look up the safety of products you put directly on your skin. Some of the “natural” products might surprise you. It’s often the perfumes that are the problem.)

We, as a country, seem obsessed with odor (or at least the advertisers think we are). Here’s a brief lesson on how the nose works. Have you ever walked into a smelly room (good or bad), and after a few minutes, you weren’t noticing the smell anymore? When your nose first detects a smell, sensory cells send signals to the brain. The brain processes the information and identifies the smell. Over time, the brain recognises the constant smell is not dangerous and stops identifying it. Our nose sensors also reduce their rate of firing. The smell seems to have faded.

Now, have you noticed all of the new air freshener products that spritz a new burst of fragrance into the room at regular intervals or when you walk by? Now you know why. Unfortunately, most home “air fresheners” just introduce a load of volatile organic compounds into the room and your body. See this link for details. I say, if the room smells bad, take care of what is causing the smell, don’t just try to cover it up.

So, knowing all of this, I seek out cleaners that are as natural and lightly perfumed as possible. I make a few of my own, particularly window cleaner (recipe below) but I’m not obsessed. Like most people, I’m looking for convenience. I do believe that for most cleaning, simple soap and water with some elbow grease are the best options. And I do believe that a little dirt can be a good thing. I avoid chlorine bleach (you really have to look to find automatic dish detergent that doesn’t have it) and anti-bacterial anything (here’s a good explanation why). I use unscented laundry detergent. And I read consumer reports for recommendations on what works best (enzymes people, enzymes). Sometimes you can pay a lot of extra for a “green” product and have it fail miserably (I’ve had this experience with some dish soaps). By the way, as traditional brands go, I recently learned that S C Johnson has a good record of improving their products to benefit both home health and the environment.

Here are some of my favorite products, many that I have been using for more than 20 years. The best part is that none of these are particularly expensive, and they tend to last a long time:

  • Bon Ami scouring powder. Ingredients: Feldspar and soap. No bleach. No need to wear gloves. Won’t scratch. Great for basic cleaning and also works well on grease buildup on surfaces near the stove like range hoods.
  • 20 Mule Team Borax. Disinfects, deodorizes and inhibits mold growth. Can be added to laundry and used as a bathroom cleaner. Look for it on the top shelf in the laundry aisle.
  • Super Washing Soda. Cuts grease, cleans petroleum oils, cleans dirt. Can be added to heavily soiled laundry. Look for it on the top shelf in the laundry aisle.
  • Generic version of OxiClean. Basically a dry form of Baking Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide. Safe. Effective. Does not morph into nasty chemicals that persist in the environment like chlorine bleach does. I’m a brewer, and it’s great for taking labels off of beer and wine bottles, in addition to all its other uses.
  • White Vinegar. Cuts grease, dissolves gummy buildup, inhibits mold growth, dissolves mineral accumulation (think around your sink faucets or your coffee pot), freshens the air.
  • Baking Soda. Odor absorbing, deodorizing, mild abrasive. Good for mildly dirty ovens, if left to soak as a paste.
  • Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds. A concentrated all-purpose cleaner with natural spruce and fir needle oil scent. One bottle will last you a LONG time.
  • Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day All Purpose Cleaner. Another concentrated all-purpose cleaner that comes in a variety of natural scents.
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap. A mild cleaner for sealed wood surfaces. Think kitchen cabinets or varnished furniture.

Homemade Window Cleaner (From Clean and Green). I quadruple the recipe in a bucket and use a sponge when I am washing outside windows.

  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp all-purpose cleaner such as Mrs. Meyers or Dr. Bronner’s.
  • 3 Tablespoons Vinegar
  • 2 cups Water
  • Spray bottle

Mix all ingredients and use as you would a store-bought brand. For outside windows, buy a quality rubber squeegee. I have an Ettore that I’ve owned for more than 20 years, and have only had to replace the rubber part twice. It really does deliver a streak free window.

UPDATE: I recently learned that the Environmental Protection Agency has a labeling program called “Design for the Environment“. Look for this label on cleaners you are thinking of purchasing.

From the EPA website: “The Design for the Environment label on a product provides assurance that the product has passed a rigorous review by EPA. It means that EPA scientists have evaluated EACH (emphasis mine) ingredient and approved it against stringent criteria established by the program. This includes chemicals used in small amounts like fragrances, colorants, and preservatives. Design for the Environment even evaluates and controls impurities. Many product manufacturers have invested heavily in changing a product’s formulation to earn the right to put the Design for the Environment mark on their products. People using Design for the Environment-labeled products are protecting their families and helping to protect the environment.”

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where we’re miles away from being obsessively clean but things generally smell  pretty good.