Window Cleaners, Carpet Shampoo,
and Multipurpose Cleaners
Toss out those expensive chemical compounds
and clean your home a safer, natural way.
For many of us, the thought of housecleaning
conjures up the image of a huge array of cleaning products --
products with brand names and mysterious chemical ingredients.
The average person has been so bombarded with advertisements for
these products that he or she actually believes cleaning is
impossible without them. We know of one woman who bought
$38.32 worth of cleaning items alone on one trip to the supermarket.
And for many of us, these expensive products end up lying
half-empty, moldering in kitchen cabinets. But cleaning can be
done without brand-name products, which are not only expensive but
also can be dangerous your health.
Of the two million chemicals now in existence, only
a few hundred have been tested adequately for their potential for
causing cancer, liver or kidney damage, birth defects, and so on.
Even when there is a known danger, many chemicals remain in use.
Spot removers, for instance, contain either chlorinated hydrocarbons
or petroleum distillates, and can be lethal even in small
Some 35,000 serious accidents occur each year with
bleaches, dyes, waxes, polishes, and assorted cleaning compounds.
More than a thousand children in the United States die each year
from accidental poisoning, often from chemical compounds. Some
swallow electric dishwasher detergent (the container may look like a
cereal box), some drink furniture polish that resembles cherry soda.
But these are the acute cases.
A clue to long-run effects of these chemicals is
found in the recent study showing that housewives have a cancer rate
double that of women working outside the home. Our houses
contain many of the chemicals known to be cancer hazards in industry
-- and many of these we use for cleaning.
However, we can reduce the number of dangerous
chemicals in the home to a very few -- perhaps bleach, washing soda,
and ammonia. We can keep these under lock and key, and use
them sparingly. As for all the rest, the o-phenylphenols and
isopropanols, we don't need them.
Here are some "grandmother-tested" ways to clean
without dangerous chemicals, and save money, too.
Scouring powder: Combine nine parts
whiting (from a hardware store) with one part soap granules.
This mixture won't scratch surfaces as commercial products do, and
it omits the unnecessary chlorine, which could accidentally combine
with other chemicals -- like ammonia -- to produce dangerous
Brass and copper cleaner: Vinegar
and salt paste.
Window cleaner: 4 tablespoons
ammonia, 2 tablespoons vinegar, and 1 quart water, followed by lots
of elbow grease with crumpled old newspapers for a special sparkle.
Drain cleaner: First, try a
plunger. Then try 1/2 cup washing soda followed by 2 cups
boiling water. For a stronger treatment, combine a handful of
baking soda with 1/2 cup vinegar. Close the drain and let it
sit, then flush with water. Do this regularly to prevent
buildup. (Washing soda is an alkali much less caustic
than lye, but it should be kept locked up. It is dangerous.)
Rug cleaner: Get the spill scooped
or blotted up fast! Dip a small brush in cold water and work
out the spot. For a grease spot, sprinkle a generous amount of
dry baking soda or dry cornstarch on the spot. Let it stand
for an hour or so, then vacuum. If the grease remains, try the
Magic Spray Cleaner below, and a stiff brush.
Rug shampoo mix: Mix 1/4 cup
mild detergent or soap, with 1 pint of warm water and 2 tablespoons
vinegar. Whip into a stiff foam. First, vacuum the rug
thoroughly. Apply the foam and scrub. Let dry, then
Magic spray cleaner (for surfaces
other than varnish, aluminum or asphalt tile): 1/4 cup ammonia, 1/8
cup vinegar, 1 tablespoon baking soda, and 1 quart water. Pour
into glass or plastic bottle, screw on a hand squirter top, and
Furniture polish: Use paste
wax or mineral oil, which are much less toxic than petroleum
distillates like "lemon oil," which isn't from lemons.
Spot remover: For fabrics that
don't take to bleach, apply ammonia diluted with an equal amount of
water. Put paper towels underneath to blot. If the
ammonia odor clings, apply a table-salt solution. (A last
resort for old stains is a dab of vinegar.)
Oven cleaner: Sprinkle
spills generously with salt while the oven is still hot. The
burned deposit should scrape off with no trouble when the oven
cools. For thorough cleaning, set an open shallow dish of
full-strength ammonia inside the cold oven. Close the door and
let it stand overnight. The ammonia gas from the solution is
absorbed by the grease, which ends up like soap. Do not use
this method on aluminum.
Deodorizers: Use baking soda here,
there, and everywhere -- down the drain, on baby spit-up, in diaper
pails, refrigerators, cat litter and the kitchen sponge. It's
easy and simple.
But now that you've cleaned the house, you're
hungry. You eat, and then you have all those dirty dishes,
rags, and the laundry, too. What to do about them? It's
time to look at the great detergent/soap controversy.
Dishes done by hand come clean quite easily
with soap powder. Greasy or burned residues can be soaked with
soapy water and a dash of ammonia. Dish detergents aren't at
all necessary unless you use an electric dishwasher, and then they
are extremely dangerous. They are so caustic that a mouthful
could be fatal to a small child.
Some folks think that electric dishwashers are
necessary to reduce the number of germs on their dishes, but there
are other ways to get them germ-free. The best approach is to
wash and rinse them well in hot water, then let them dry by
standing, covered with a towel. Do not dry them by hand.
It's clothes-washing that really sparks the
soap-detergent controversy. Soaps don't dissolve as easily as
detergents. And in hard water, soap combines with the water's
calcium grains to make a hard "curd" on clothes and tub. But
soaps can do as well as detergents, even in cold water,
according to a study published in Consumer Research Magazine.
What's needed is to make sure the soap dissolves
before you put the clothes in -- stirring helps. If you have
hard water, add some washing soda. It will precipitate the
calcium out of the water to prevent curd formation. (Other
water-softening powders rely on huge quantities of phosphate.)
Remember that washing soda is dangerous, so keep it
away from children. Bleach helps clean, and borax will
"sweeten" the wash, but these may not be needed most of the time,
and they, too, are toxic chemicals.
But why bother with soap? Are detergents
really that bad? Actually, we know little of the possible
harmful effects of detergent chemicals, either on people or on the
natural environment. We do know that enzymes added to some
detergents to "fight stains" can induce allergies. Detergents
can cause asthma and skin irritation, and they have been shown to
kill sperm in mice. They irritate if inhaled, and can be fatal
Besides, detergents generally cost 1/3 more per wash
load than soap powder. The profit margin in detergents has
been at least 25 percent greater than that on soaps, according to
one government study.
Another point is that detergents usually rely on
some phosphates to carry off dirt. Phosphates pollute our
waterways, destroying lakes and rivers. Some detergents rely
on other compounds, but often we do not know the long-term effects
of these. NTA (nitrilotriacetic acid), for instance, was
touted as the replacement for phosphates until it was found to cause
birth defects and cancer.
One further argument against detergents is that they
are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. In contrast,
soap is made from lye and fats or oils that are part of an
ever-renewing natural cycle of life.
That's what cleaning is about, really -- renewing
our environment so that life goes on happily and healthily.
What use is a clean house, if it pollutes our bodies and the world
around us? Cleaning with simple, natural ingredients can be a
testimony of our dedication to an integrated, organic way of life.
"Out, Out, Damned Spot!"
I remember Lady Macbeth washing her hands endlessly,
trying to get the bloodstains off. She was guilty. Spots
and stains tend to bring on guilt feelings.
A little historical light on the subject may help.
A friend of mine did a study on the American home as it was
portrayed in magazines since the year 1900. She found that
every new invention, like flush toilets or vacuum cleaners,
inaugurated a new -- higher -- standard of cleanliness.
For instance, an advertisement for vacuum cleaners
urged women to "put an end to dusty Friday," the day when they swept
the floor and the rugs for the weekend. The standard of
cleanliness was once-a-week sweeping. After the arrival of the
vacuum, a higher standard developed -- cleaning floors and rugs two
or three times a week.
The flush toilet, when invented, became not simply a
way to avoid cold, wet journeys to the outhouse, but a new object
that must be scrubbed, deodorized, and disinfected.
Detergents, invented in the 1930s, led to standards
of clothes cleanliness in which even a tiny spot leads us to throw
the whole garment in the wash, rather than sponging the spot and
wearing the article one more day.
Cleanliness became next to Godliness -- a sign that
people had "made it" into the middle class and could afford the new
appliances and chemicals.
There was, however, a strange side-effect for women.
The housewife's work may have been easier, but the hours were
longer. A time study of rural urban housewives in 1930 showed
almost no differences in hours -- 61.0 on the farm, 63.2 in towns
and cities. By 1947, farm women still worked a 60-hour week,
but women in cities (usually the owners of more labor-saving
devices) were logging close to 80 hours per week.
The clue to this mystery comes from the Ladies
Home Journal: American homes were becoming "more
satisfying," and housekeeping standards were much higher.
So when we consider that spot or stain, we should
remember that cleanliness is only one of many values which change
from time to time. Is it more important to have perfectly
clean clothes, or to end the chemical contamination of our waterways
brought on by phosphates, enzymes, brighteners, and cancer-causing
If art gum erasers, soap-and-water, and elbow grease
don't get all the smudges off the walls, is it better to leave them
for the next paint job or to run for an aerosol-foam wall cleaner
with expensive packaging, high advertising costs, and several
chemicals that have not been tested for their long-term effect on
humans? (My experience is that the commercial cleaners will
not get all the smudges off anyway.)
Most of the time we may find ourselves saying that a
little dirt never hurt anyone. It's a sign of life and growth.
We may find ourselves buying the clothes and furnishings that accept
soap and water, nature's own remedies for dirt. After all,
nobody ever expected a garden to be dirt-free, and in cleaning our
homes we are truly tending the garden of our lives.
Article from Organic Gardening magazine, March 1979
Our product testing department tried about 50
formulas for grease removers, furniture polishes, drain cleaners,
window cleaners, and other common household cleansers that you can
make yourself. Many of the homemade versions do cost less,
some only half as much as commercial counterparts.
Suzanne Ebbert, Product Testing Director, cautions
that you shouldn't count on homemade formulas to cut your cleaning
costs in half, though you could shave a couple of dollars off the
grocery bill every month or so.
What Suzanne found most attractive about mixing your
own cleaners was the control over ingredients. Some commercial
preparations don't tell you what's in them. Some contain only
common chemicals like bleach and ammonia, whose health hazards are
But the labels on others show weird, unfamiliar
ingredients. If you find you're using one of the mystery
blends, you can mix a substitute yourself -- and know what's in it.
Don't assume that all homemade formulas are
harmless, Suzanne warns. Ammonia is just as poisonous, and
smells just as bad, regardless of whether you pour it into the
bucket or a chemical company pours it into the factory vat.
Still, you can mix harmless cleaners from ingredients like baking
soda and water.
How effective are homemade cleaners? Suzanne
found several formulas that worked as well as the most expensive and
effective commercial preparations. Many of the formulas
cleaned as well as the cheapest commercial counterparts but meant
more scrubbing than the most effective ones.
But Suzanne points out that there is a place for
these milder formulas. The mild cleansers work perfectly well
for light cleaning jobs, and if you're willing to scrub, they'll
work on tougher jobs. As far as household chemicals go, too
often we're tempted to use the big guns to swat flies.
Here's a selection of some of the better cleaning
formulas Suzanne found. More appear in The Natural Formula
Book for Home and Yard, edited by Dan Wallace (Rodale Press,
Old-Fashioned Glass and Window Cleaner
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup household ammonia
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 gallon warm water
Mix the ingredients in a bucket and use to
scrub windows. Try not to clean glass the sun is shining on
because it will dry too fast and streak.
Rating: Very good. The best
commercial preparations left the window only a little shinier.
Even though the cornstarch makes the mixture slightly gritty, it
didn't scratch the glass. Poisonous.
Hazards: Ammonia is poisonous, so
keep the mixture away from children and arrange good ventilation.
Wear gloves, because it's a heavy-duty cleaner and rough on the
Cost: About 20 cents a gallon (not
Vinegar Window Cleaner
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 gallon warm water
Just mix and scrub.
Rating: Very good. We'd been
warned that plain water could do as well as a vinegar solution, but
our subjective impression was that the vinegar made it a lot easier
to get rid of smudges. In theory, vinegar is supposed to
remove hard-water spots.
Hazards: May be hard on your hands,
but safe enough to drink.
Cost: About 7 cents a gallon (not
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Combine salt and flour in small bowl and stir until
blended. Add the vinegar and mix into a thick paste.
Smear on the paste with a damp sponge or cloth and rub gently.
Let the polish dry for about an hour. Rinse well with warm
water and buff dry with a soft cloth.
Rating: Good. Does the job
but you need to scrub more than you would with a commercial cleaner.
Hazards: Safe enough to eat, and
it's not gritty enough to scratch the metal.
Uses: Suitable for brass, bronze,
copper and pewter. Not for silver, silver plate, and jewelry.
Cost: Less than a penny for about 3
tablespoons of paste (not including water)
1/4 cup baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
1 cup household ammonia
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 gallon warm water
Mix ingredients and store in tightly capped
Rating: Excellent. Performed
as well as top-of-the-line commercial products.
Uses: Many. Tile and linoleum
floors, formica countertops, appliances, etc.
Hazards: Read about ammonia above.
Cost: About 40 cents a gallon (not
2 tablespoons or 1/8 cup liquid bleach
1 quart cold water
Mix in a scrub bucket. Moisten an old cloth
with the solution and wipe onto surface. Let stand about 2
minutes and rinse well.
Rating: Very good. In the
ballpark with commercial cleaners, but few name-brand cleaners got
rid of smudges with less scrubbing.
Hazards: Bleach is poisonous, so
keep it away from children. It will bleach anything it
touches, so use only on colorfast items. Check the solution
first on a hidden spot.
Uses: Same as above.
Cost: Less than a penny a gallon
(not including water)
1½ cup household ammonia
1 gallon warm water
Mix in a pail and use to scrub.
Rating: Very good. A few of
the best commercial cleaners outperformed it.
Hazards: Ammonia is poisonous and
its fumes sting the eyes and throat. Wear gloves. Don't
mix with chlorine bleach because the combination produces poisonous
gases called chloramines.
Uses: Same as above.
Cost: About 8 cents a gallon (not
2 ounces borax
1 teaspoon ammonia
2 quarts water
Dissolve the borax and ammonia in a bucketful of
water. Scrub a really dirty wall from the bottom up. If
you scrub from the top down, the dirty water will run down over the
dry, soiled wall leaving hard-to-remove streaks. Oddly enough,
it won't stain wet, clean walls. For textured walls, old socks
are good scrubbers because they won't tear off in little pieces as
easily as a sponge might. To keep water from dribbling down
your arm, fasten an old washcloth around your wrist with a rubber
Uses: For painted walls, not
Rating: Very good. A few
commercial preparations required less scrubbing.
Note and a Caution: Users have reported that
this solution works well to remove wallpaper, if that's what you desire.
If not, see Uses above.
Hazards: See ammonia above.
Don't let children eat the borax either.
Cost: About 6 cents for 2 quarts (not
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