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Homemade Cleaners

Window Cleaners, Carpet Shampoo, and Multipurpose Cleaners

By Cynthia L. Adcock

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 quantities.

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 chlorine gas.

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 vacuum again.

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 enjoy.

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 if swallowed.

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 carbon tetrachloride?

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 known.

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, 1982).

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 hands.

Cost:  About 20 cents a gallon (not including water)

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 including water)

Metal Polish

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)

Multipurpose Cleaner

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 container.

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 including water)

Dilute Bleach

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)

Dilute Ammonia

1 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 including water)

Wall Cleaner

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 band.

Uses:  For painted walls, not wallpaper.

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 including water)

 

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