I've been trying to eliminate unfamiliar chemicals and the consumer products stuffed with them from my life when feasible. So I got advice on how to clean without them from Cori Morenberg, the owner of the Ms. Green-Clean cleaning service in New York, and Mary Findley, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Green Cleaning" and a seller of green cleaning products.
They had a few key ingredients for me: White vinegar, baking soda, dish detergent, essential oils, rubbing alcohol and water.
So can I clean without Clorox, Windex and Murphy Oil Soap? (Yes.) Is it harder? (Kind of it's an extra step to mix cleaners together rather than just spraying from a package.) Does it smell better? (Yes.) Is it easier on my skin? (Yes.) Cheaper? (A little.)
A one-size-fits-all soapy mixture works for most surfaces, both Morenberg and Findley say.
Morenberg likes warm water, dish soap she likes a brand called Ecover and a few drops of an essential oil in a bucket. Findley pushes warm water, Biokleen dish soap and about a quarter-cup of distilled white vinegar, and she puts the whole mixture in a spray bottle.
Morenberg recommends dipping microfiber and cotton terry cloths, available at grocery stores and hardware stores, in the solution, wringing them out and then attacking floors and other surfaces.
Exceptions: Findley says the vinegar mixture should not be used on stone floors or countertops because the acid in it can dull the surface. So stick to hot water and soap. On wood or laminate floors, avoid soap. Clean those with warm water and vinegar.
I filled a large plastic container halfway with warm water, poured in less than half a cup of white vinegar, added a few drops of some lavender essential oil and a squirt of my dish soap. I tried cleaning my window sills, which got grimy over the winter, with paper towels dipped in this mix. That didn't work so well the windowsills are less dirty, but aren't sparkling, either. Using paper towels with the solution didn't work well for me on really dirty surfaces.
I soaked an old T-shirt in my all-purpose mixture and scrubbed my tiled bathroom floor with it. It seemed clean enough and smelled better than Clorox, although I got a bit light-headed from the vinegar fumes. If you have windows in the bathroom, open them.
Then I sprinkled baking soda in the sink and bathtub and went over them with a sponge that had some of the dish detergent on it. My metal fixtures looked great and grime came out of the sink and tub fine.
The walls above my bathtub still had soap scum on them, though. Findley recommended wiping them down with a sponge or non-scratching pad drenched in boiling vinegar, but I was too nervous about burning myself to do so.
Some of the grout is moldy. The cleaner I mixed together didn't make much difference on the mold but neither had Tilex or Clorox, the cleaners I relied on before. Findley says hot vinegar can take care of it, and recommends squirting the liquid from a veterinarian's syringe, similar to a turkey baster.
I sprinkled baking soda inside the toilet and on its surfaces, then used a toilet wand to clean the inside as I normally would. I scrubbed the rim and outside with the soapy sponge. Morenberg sometimes just uses "a dollop" of shampoo and some mouthwash to clean a toilet bowl. "It works, it disinfects it," she says.
I also cleaned my kitchen floor with the all-purpose cleaner, which worked fine.
My countertops are marble, which Findley recommends wiping down with warm water and a mild detergent. Same for the inside of the refrigerator.
I didn't clean the inside of my oven yet, but Morenberg says this should take less than half an hour and does not require harsh cleaners. She uses dish soap and copper scouring pads that cost $3 for a two-pack on Amazon.com.
Findley's recipe: One-third cup distilled white vinegar, one-quarter cup rubbing alcohol and water she recommends distilled in an unused spray bottle. Use old cotton T-shirts to wipe dry.
I left out the alcohol, as I didn't have any. I used an old cotton rag to apply the solution and wiped dry with a paper towel that left little threads on my windows and mirror, so I would recommend sticking with cotton. But otherwise the cleaner worked as well as Windex.
A WORD ON COSTS
You might save a little money using homebrew cleaning products over the long term, but it's hard to predict how much. I'd estimate that I spent about $23 previously on traditional cleaning products and about $21.50 on ingredients for the homemade ones, though much of that was for the lavender oil, which will last a long time.
For me, the big advantage to mixing up my own cleaning solutions is knowing exactly what goes in them.