8 Must-Haves for a Nontoxic Cleaning Kit

Green cleaning can save your lungs and your bank account, keeping your family happy and healthy. Here's what you need to get started.

April 4, 2012

Lemon juice is a powerful cleaner, no toxic ingredients included.

Just because a store-bought "green" cleaner label makes claims of being natural or ecofriendly doesn't mean the contents match the message. According to research from the American Chemical Society, the truth behind green-cleaning product claims varies wildly, with some loaded with harmful petrochemical ingredients.

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The authors measured the source of ingredients in more than a dozen liquid laundry detergents, hand soaps and dish soaps that advertised claims such as "natural" and "ecofriendly." The plant-based ingredient content in the hand soaps ranged anywhere from 28 to 97 percent; laundry detergent ranged between 28 and 94 percent; and dishwashing liquids from 43 to 95 percent. So there were a fair number of products whose green claims held true—being made from plants, they were actually natural and ecofriendly. But many more still harbored considerable amounts of harmful petroleum-based ingredients, which can emit respiratory irritants and hormone-disrupting chemicals and are made from a decidedly eco-unfriendly nonrenewable resource.

"As the authors of the study point out, their findings underscore the significance of the fact that there are no regulatory definitions for advertising words like 'natural' or 'ecofriendly,'" explains Karyn Siegel-Maier, author of The Naturally Clean Home: 150 Super-Easy Herbal Formulas for Green Cleaning (Storey Publishing, 2008). "Of course, if you make your own cleaners, there’s no question about the contents."

Besides being potentially toxic, conventional cleaners cost a lot more than those you make yourself. (Just in time for spring cleaning!) If you feel like you're somewhat of a homemade-cleaner novice and all the DIY cleaning recipes are overly daunting, never fear.

Karyn Siegel-Maier has suggestions for ingredients that should be in every home green cleaning kit:

• White vinegar—This simple solution is 5 percent acetic acid, which kills numerous strains of bacteria, including E. coli. It's also effective in killing mold and other fungi.

• Baking soda—Great for jobs that require scouring, such as bathroom tiles.

• Lemon juice—A natural degreaser with antimicrobial properties.

• Cream of tartar—Mix with water and white vinegar to battle stains. Look for it in powdered form in the herb and spice section of your grocery store.

• Castile soap—A plant-based, petroleum-free soap found in most natural food stores and online. (We like Dr. Bronner's because it's also fair trade–certified and organic.)

• Washing soda—Its washing power actually comes from the fact that it's sodium carbonate. You can usually find it in the laundry aisle of your supermarket.

• Borax—Use as a shampoo or laundry cleaning booster. 20 Mule Team is a popular brand.

• Pure essential oils—Oils like basil, rosemary, thyme, sweet orange, and tea tree add an even deeper germ-fighting kick while providing a pleasant, natural smell. "A small bottle of these essential oils costs just a few dollars and it lasts a very long time," Siegel-Maier says, adding people should buy pure essential oils and not aromatherapy-grade oils.

Now, make your own green cleaning recipes for mere pennies! (Excerpted from The Naturally Clean Home (c) 2008 by Karyn Siegel-Maier, with permission from Storey Books, www.storeybooks.com.)

Simple All-Purpose Cleaner

Here's Siegel-Maier's go-to cleaner:

Mix equal amounts of water and white vinegar, a few squirts of castile soap, and about 20 drops of basil oil in a 16-ounce spray bottle. "This formula is great for surfaces in the kitchen and bath, spills on tile flooring, and even for minor carpet stains, she says.

Super-Easy Automatic Dishwasher Powder

2 cups washing soda
1 cup borax
1 cup baking soda

Combine all ingredients and store in a plastic container. To use, add about 2 tablespoons to the soap compartment of your dishwasher. If you find your glasses are getting a residue buildup, reduce to 1½ tablespoons.

Minty-Fresh Fabric Softener

1 gallon vinegar
10 drops peppermint essential oil

Combine the ingredients in a glass or heavy-duty plastic container. Add 1 cup to the rinse cycle for each load.

Tough Dirt & Grease Formula

1 gallon hot water
2 Tablespoons liquid castile soap
¼ cup washing soda
1 cup vinegar
20 drops eucalyptus, peppermint, or tea tree essential oil

Combine all ingredients in a large bucket. Dip a mop into the bucket and squeeze out excess liquid. Clean the floor by working in sections, using short strokes and dipping the mop as needed. Rinsing is not necessary.