7 Mistakes You're Making When You Use Green Cleaners

You've eliminated toxic cleaners from your home, but are you using your green alternatives correctly?

November 14, 2016
green cleaning products
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We all know the dangers of the toxic chemicals in commercial cleaning products, and most of us have taken steps to cut back on them. We’ve swapped our conventional window cleaner for white vinegar and switched chemical-filled air fresheners for boxes of baking soda and essential oil infusers. But is simple cleaning really all that simple? Not always. Here are a few mistakes you might be making in your green-cleaning routine—and easy ways to remedy them!

(Find seasonal recipes, inspiring imagery, and gardening tips every day inside the Rodale’s Organic Life 2017 Calendar!)

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1. You Use Vinegar Everywhere

Vinegar is a powerful, effective weapon in your green-cleaning arsenal—but it can't really do it all. It has a pH of 2.2—that’s weaker than battery acid (pH 1) but much stronger than, say, tomatoes (pH 4.5). That makes vinegar much too harsh for some delicate surfaces. It can damage marble, crumble grout, and cause problems on enameled surfaces. Vinegar can also strip many floor finishes, so if you’re using it as a mop solution, mix only a half-cup of vinegar per gallon of water, and spot test first.

Related: 5 Vinegar Myths Worth Busting

hydrogen peroxide
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2. You Decant Your Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is a good weak disinfectant that works particularly well on porcelain surfaces. Since store-bought hydrogen peroxide is diluted to 3%, you can apply it directly to surfaces, although to truly get rid of all the germs, you'll have to leave it on for 30 minutes, according to the CDC. But there's a reason this disinfectant is always sold in an distinctive opaque container: When peroxide is heated even a small amount, as might occur in a glass bottle exposed briefly to sunlight, it breaks down into its far-less-powerful components of water and oxygen. So leave it in its brown bottle, and if you're looking to make application easier, try screwing on a squirt top in place of the bottle's cap. 

castile soaps
3. You Mix Vinegar With Other Cleansers

Back to high school chemistry: vinegar is an acid, soap is a base. What happens when you mix an acid with a base? They neutralize each other! Lots of home cleaning remedies involve a squirt of castile soap and a splash of vinegar, but when combined, these two ingredients cancel one another out. On most surfaces, use soapy water first, rinse, and only then do a quick vinegar spritz and wipe-down for maximum shine. This also goes for the laundry: putting vinegar in with detergent in your wash cycle weakens the cleaning power of both. Use vinegar in the rinse cycle instead; it’ll soften your fabrics and also remove unpleasant odors. (Note: don’t use vinegar to soak things in the washing machine since it can rust metal components.)

Baking soda is another hero of the green cleaning movement, and when mixed with vinegar, the result is a great fizzy reaction that works well for both science-project volcanoes and mild drain clogs. But if your home-cleaner recipe has you mixing the two, note that once the initial fizzing has died down, all that’s left is a close-to-neutral solution with little cleaning power. Use one or the other, or use them in sequence, but don’t waste your time mixing baking soda and vinegar together.

Related: 9 Surprising Uses For Baking Soda

baking soda
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4. You Use Baking Soda On Your Hardwood Floor

Baking soda (and its tougher cousin, washing soda) can remove wax quite easily. This is great for melted crayons on your tile floor, but not so good for waxed hardwood or linoleum. If your floor has a waxed finish, stick with a mild, diluted vinegar solution or an oil soap for mopping and keep the baking soda box far, far away. 

Related: The Only 10 Things You Need To Buy To Make All Your Own Cleaning Products

cleaning with vinegar
5. You Think Vinegar Demolishes All Germs And Bacteria

Contrary to popular opinion, vinegar is only a mild disinfectant, meaning it won’t automatically kill any and all germs it comes across. According to the CDC, while undiluted vinegar is effective against salmonella typhi and E.coli, vinegar can't eliminate staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that accounts for a fair bit of food poisoning and other infections.

For getting things like cutting boards and counters clean, you’ll want to use hot, soapy water and plenty of elbow grease. Scrub and repeat a few times and that should get you cleaned up and safe. To thoroughly sanitize your cutting board, spray on vinegar (to attack the staph) and rinse it off, then scrub with fresh lemon, which can kill salmonella and E. coli, and salt. 

Related: 9 Times You Should Never Use Vinegar Around Your House

empty vodka bottle
6. You Forget The Liquor Store Has Cleaning Options, Too

Vinegar does pretty well as a deodorizing spray, when diluted and spruced up with a splash of essential oil. If that’s what you have around, go for it. But the best deodorizing sprays are made with the cheapest rotgut vodka that your liquor store sells (there’s no good reason to go high-end here). You can spray vodka directly on most fabrics, including upholstery. As it dries, it takes the bad odors with it.

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7. You Don't Have A Regular Cleaning Schedule

Natural cleaners are amazing and surprisingly powerful, but there’s a reason toxic chemicals are the cleaners of choice for many people: They really work, even on the worst messes. Part of the commitment to non-toxic cleaning means that you simply can’t let messes build up the way you can if you’re using commercial cleaners. Greasy splatters in the kitchen must be cleaned up immediately, because once they harden or accumulate dust, it’s going to take a lot of scrubbing to get them off. Floors have to stay swept and dry-mopped, stains must be quickly treated, and dust and grime in general need to be tackled before it accumulates. This is easier said than done when life is busy, but if you want to stay non-toxic, it’s essential.