The popularity of making cleaning products at home is rising as people seek to eliminate toxic chemicals from their environment or save money — and sometimes both.
Many of the ingredients for cleaning products can be found in the pantry — vinegar, baking soda and ammonia are popular kitchen staples that can perform double-duty in cooking and cleaning. In some tasks, homemade cleaners perform as well as store-bought cleaners, and the main ingredients often are significantly cheaper than one bottle of store-bought cleaning solutions.
Even though homemade cleaners may be seen as a less-toxic alternative to store-bought agents, homeowners still need to take some precautions.
Know your ingredients
Lauren Weatherford, families and health agent for the West Virginia University Extension Service, said people need to research individual ingredients before following a recipe found on the Internet.
“You may have heard from your grandmother that you can scrub your floors with baking soda, but you can’t just throw baking soda on the floor. As a family consumer science person, I would not use anything without knowing the precautions,” she said.
That’s because making homemade cleaners is science in action. Some ingredients should never be used together, like bleach and ammonia, and vinegar and bleach, which can cause severe respiratory damage. Hydrogen peroxide and vinegar together create peracetic acid, which causes burns.
“I always go back to what is an alkali, what is an acid, what is a surfactant, and why do you need it when cleaning?” said Pamela Turner, associate professor and housing extension specialist at the University of Georgia. “Just because it’s natural, it’s still not necessarily safe to use in large quantities in an unventilated area.”
Turner also recommends using clearly labeled, dated, dedicated containers for homemade cleaning products to avoid any mixing of ingredients and make them in small quantities.
Brian Sansoni, vice president of sustainability initiatives at the American Cleaning Institute, the cleaning products trade association, said if there are accidents caused by improper use or storage of cleaning products, most manufacturers have provided Poison Control Centers with specific information on product ingredients, which isn’t the case with homemade cleaners.
Safety is also why people shouldn’t mix homemade and store-bought cleaners, or combine two store-bought cleaners.
Different surfaces need different cleaners, said Sonja Koukel, community and environmental health specialist in the college of Ag, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University. Some homemade cleaners can strip wax off hardwood floors. Some alkaline ingredients like baking soda and sodium carbonate may make irreparable scratches on marble or granite if used improperly, she said.
“You may not even see them, but they can harbor bacteria and germs,” she said. “Make sure you’re using the right product for the right surface.”
Meg Roberts, president of residential cleaning company Molly Maid, said watch when using vinegar as a cleaning agent on some metals.
“It’s great for stainless steel; it’s not great for aluminum or cast iron because those are reactive surfaces,” she said.
Cleaning vs. disinfecting
These terms are thrown around loosely, but they have different meanings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says cleaning essentially means removing dirt and debris, but cleaning products don’t necessarily kill germs. Disinfecting or sanitizing products use chemicals (natural or synthetic) to kill germs. If a product is labeled as a sanitizer or disinfectant, the EPA requires it actually kill the germs claimed to kill.
However, the EPA’s review does not evaluate all possible health risks for users of the products. It’s those issues that push many people to seek out less toxic cleaners and avoid products like bleach.
Koukel said there’s disagreement regarding milder home cleaners on what kills harmful bacteria like E. coli or salmonella, mostly because there is only limited research on how well products like vinegar work to disinfect and at what concentrations.
That’s why Roberts said they use professional grade cleaning products in their business unless a client wants 100 percent green products. Even so they will also tell them those products won’t kill the germs “in the way we would like to,” she said.
Bleach gets a bad rap with environmentally focused people, but that’s mostly because people use too much, Koukel and Turner said.
“If you walk into a room and you can smell the bleach that they’ve used, they’re using way too much,” Koukel said.
Turner said while green cleaners may not kill all germs, sanitizing isn’t always needed.
“Your countertops many times don’t need to be disinfected. It depends on what you’re doing, how many children you have, and how many people you have in your home who are sensitive or have a compromised immune system,” she said.
For people who see eco-friendly store-bought cleaners as a middle road between homemade and traditional cleaners, Turner recommends people go to the National Institutes of Health Household Products database.
“Household cleaners don’t have to tell you what’s in them. There’s no law that makes them tell you,” she said.
Tips for making your own. Weatherford, Turner and Koukel all have published home cleaning recipes and information as part of their research and offer the following advice for people who want to make their own products.
- Water-dampened microfiber cloths are great for the simplest cleaning of dust and dirt, especially on windows.
- Essential oils like tea tree, lavender and lemon can add scent to homemade cleaners and just a few drops are needed.
- Don’t like the smell of vinegar? Vodka is a good substitute. Weatherford uses a 50-50 mix of vodka and water and a few drops of essential oils for an air freshener and shower spray.