9 simple DIY natural cleaning recipes for a healthy home
Supporting a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars, our quest for a sparklingly clean, sweet-smelling home has spawned a vast array of products. But dig beneath the familiar, friendly packaging and marketing claims so many of us inherently trust and you’ll find a scourge of chemical irritants, toxins and carcinogens. Ranging from petrochemical surfactants and solvents to antibacterials, fungicides and synthetic fragrances, most of these ingredients are unlisted and untested. As they say, out of sight, out of mind.
An unregulated industry
There’s no legal requirement for the ingredients in cleaning products (technically classified as industrial chemicals) to be listed on the container, says Jo Immig, co-ordinator of the National Toxics Network. “It may tell you some generic chemical class but won’t specifically list all the ingredients,” she says.
Eucalyptus and tea-tree oil are naturally antimicrobial and can be used to disinfect and deodorise.
Highly toxic products like bleach might have a warning label on them, but with some 30,000 chemicals in Australia never having been assessed by the regulator, it’s important to be cautious, Immig advises. There’s actually no regulation of individual cleaning products. “No one is regulating the product, just some of the individual chemical ingredients in it,” she says. “We don’t know exactly what happens in terms of long-term health impacts when you put them all together in a product.”
Telltale warning signs might include words like “corrosive”, “danger”, “poison”, “may cause burns”, “flammable”, or “vapours harmful”. Other helpful labels include “phosphate-free”, “no solvents” and “plant-based ingredients”.
Ubiquitous in your home, cleaning products leave residues on surfaces, are often used in enclosed spaces and involve repeated, ongoing exposures, Immig says. Contributing to indoor pollution, they can be inhaled, potentially ingested (from eating and drinking utensils, for instance) and absorbed through your skin. In research they’ve been linked with a range of minor and serious complaints including skin and lung irritation, allergies, dermatitis, burns, asthma, respiratory and reproductive issues, headaches and cancer.
A 20-year international study of more than 6000 men and women, published in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (in 2018), found that the lung decline in women working as cleaners was comparable to that from smoking 20 cigarettes a day. The study found that, in general, women who cleaned at least once a week, whether at home or occupationally, suffered significantly more decline in lung function compared to women who did not clean. Interestingly, it showed much less of an effect in men.
Research in 2017 additionally links disinfectants, including bleach and hydrogen peroxide, to a higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In a long-term study of 55,000 nurses working in the US, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research found that those who used disinfectants at least once a week over an eight-year period had a 24–32 per cent increased chance of developing COPD.
Increasing evidence also suggests our fetish for hygiene may contribute to imbalances of the gastrointestinal microbiome and the growth of superbugs. Babies living in homes cleaned regularly with household disinfectants were more likely to have disrupted gut flora than those where only detergent or eco-friendly cleaning products were used, revealed a 2018 Canadian Medical Association Journal article. Highlighting the risks to children, a 2010 study by the New York State Department of Health found that those born to mothers who were cleaners while pregnant had a significantly higher risk of birth defects.
Household cleaning products also cause the most poisonings in Australia, and infants and toddlers are the most frequent victims, according to Australian Poisons Information Centres data. It’s important to keep products locked up out of reach of children, Immig says. “This includes home recipes. People often make these up in containers and don’t label or lock them up. Have a dedicated bottle and write on it what’s in it.”
|Ingredient||Found in||Health risks|
|Oven and drain cleaners||
|Phthalates||Fragranced household products including air fresheners, fabric softeners, detergents & scented toilet paper; never listed on a product, but anything containing “fragrance” probably has them; unless listed as 100 per cent pure botanical essential oil, avoid||
|Triclosan||“Antibacterial” dishwashing liquids & soaps, toothpastes, some cosmetics||Long-lasting chemical capable of building up in the body & a skin & eye irritant; found in breast milk; a hormone disrupter; toxic to aquatic species|
|2–Butoxyethanol||Paints, varnishes, spot removers, household cleaners; responsible for sweet smell in many window cleaners||Hazardous to breathe in, a lung irritant; can cause liver & kidney damage|
|Quaternary ammonium compounds||Household cleaners labelled “antibacterial” such as disinfectants and spray cleaners||Can cause asthma, according to EWG|
|Toxic to sensitive tissues of eyes & respiratory tract; capable of releasing chlorine gas (causing cell necrosis) when mixed with other household cleaners|
|Perchloroethylene (PERC)||Dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, carpet & upholstery cleaners||Sweet but sharp-smelling neurotoxin & possible carcinogen, according to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hazard report; can impair mood, cognitive & motor neurobehavioural performance, reproduction & more|
|Methoxydiglycol (DEGME)||Floor polishes & floor cleaners||Based on animal studies, report by United Nations Economic Commission for Europe proposed the chemical be labelled “A possible risk of harm to the unborn child”|
|Formaldehyde||Used as preservative in a wide range of products including dishwashing liquids, fabric softener, shoe care products, carpet cleaners, disinfectants & household cleaning agents; has a pungent, suffocating odour||Eye, nose & throat irritant; classified as a probable human carcinogen by EPA|
|Sweet-smelling chemical common in laundry detergents & all-purpose cleaners, as well as personal care products & makeup||
Classified by EPA as likely human carcinogen; short-term exposure may cause eye, nose & throat irritation; long-term exposure may cause kidney & liver damage
Your own health isn’t the only reason for an overhaul of your cleaning cupboard. Most chemicals are routinely tested on animals. Washed down our drains, they also make their way into the environment, contributing to a multitude of environmental and human health hazards.
Between 80,000 and 140,000 chemical contaminants from cleaning products can be found in our wastewater, according to a 2017 article by the Australian Water Association (AWA). Adverse effects range from phosphates upsetting the balance of nutrients in waterways and thereby contributing to algal bloom to oestrogen-mimicking chemicals that impair the health and reproduction of humans and wildlife, says the Organic Consumers Association.
Approach the cleaning aisle with caution, Immig says. “There’s a lot of greenwashing.” Greenwashing occurs when manufacturers cash in on popular marketing labels like “green”, “natural” or “eucalyptus scented” while hiding less benign ingredients. Regardless of advertising claims, such products may contain harmful toxic ingredients, Immig warns. Even certification labels such as “cruelty-free” can be meaningless, she says. “Unless you know what’s behind that certification it’s no guarantee of anything.”
The holistic cleaner
Fortunately, there are safe alternatives to toxic-chemical-containing products within your own pantry, says Prema Deva Day, founder of All Pure Cleaning, a green and socially conscious cleaning business in Perth. “Most household cleaning needs can be met safely and inexpensively with a sturdy scrubber sponge and simple ingredients like water, liquid castile soap, vinegar, lemon juice or baking soda for scrubbing grease and grime,” she says. As well as yummy smelling, they do the job efficiently.
An investigation by CHOICE found bicarb soda and vinegar as effective at cleaning the bathroom as “the big gun” products on the market. However, you will have to put in more elbow grease and time, Deva Day advises. Ultimately, cleaning is about applying an effective method (eg scrubbing, wet dusting) to a surface and contaminant (eg dirt, grease or dust) and using chemistry to your advantage.
Also a holistic health coach, Buddhist and yoga teacher, Deva Day encourages homeowners to give as much thought to their cleaning products as they would to renovating and decorating their homes. “Think about what you’re spraying in the air and what you’re putting on floors that children and pets are walking on”, she says. “I think we’ve been frightened into being squeaky clean … we don’t need to be as scared and clean as we have been.”
Tools of the trade
Deva Day suggests the following tools, recipes and methods, which she uses in her own holistic cleaning business.
- Liquid castile soap for general cleaning including dishes, clothes, floors and benches, including stone.
- White vinegar is powerful against grease and mould in bathrooms, including on ceramic tiles, and an effective glass cleaner. Avoid using on stone, polished concrete, marble or travertine. It can eat away at such surfaces.
- Lemon cuts through grease and disinfects. Squeeze fresh lemon into the sink and use an old toothbrush to scrub.
- Bicarb soda can be made into a paste for scrubbing grease and grime, such as the rings of the bathtub or the oven.
- Eucalyptus and tea-tree oil are naturally antimicrobial and can be used to disinfect and deodorise.
- Vanilla extract, lemon and other essential oils can be used diluted with distilled water and castile soap for cleaning.
- Microfibre cloths for general cleaning of surfaces.
- A squeegee or sponge
- A coarse scrubbing brush for removing stubborn stains and grime from floors.
- Ultra-fine 0000 grade steel wool for removing stains, rust, calcium deposits and other grime from glass, stainless steel, taps, handles, marble, chrome, porcelain and oven doors. “Pull a little bit off, use some soapy water, rub in little circles and slowly buff.”
- A hard-bristled toothbrush for scrubbing the grime around plugholes, taps and sinks.
- Refillable, reusable, plastic-free spray bottles and jars for your homemade mixes and potions.
- Magic eraser for crayon marks on walls, scuff marks and shower screens.
Safe, simple DIY
Half fill a baking dish with water and put in the oven to create steam for 30 minutes at about 180°C. Mix some sea salt, white vinegar and bicarb soda in a jar and set aside. Allow the oven to cool. Using the paste, scrub the oven walls and door and wipe down with a cloth. A fine window-cleaning razor blade (available from hardware stores) or fine-grade stainless steel wool can be used with soapy water to scrape hard to remove grime off the oven door or bottom. Because all ovens are made differently, be careful and heed the manufacturer’s instructions.
Window & glass cleaner
Mix 1 litre water with ¼ cup of white vinegar in a spray bottle. Spray on windows, using a cloth, crumpled-up newspaper or squeegee for cleaning and wiping off.
Sprinkle some baking soda into the toilet along with some all-purpose cleaning spray or creme cleanser paste below. Scrub using a toilet brush or pumice attached to a handle. Use the all-purpose cleaning spray to clean the seat.
Creme cleanser paste
Make a thick paste out of the following. (The thickness gives extra scrubbing power and is useful for bathtubs, toilet bowls and other stained surfaces.)
- Bicarb soda or baking powder
- Liquid castile soap
- Small amount of water
- Essential oils
All-purpose cleaning spray
- 2 cups water
- 3 teaspoons castile liquid soap
- 1 teaspoon tea-tree or eucalyptus oil or essential oil
Can use on everything, including benches, most fridges, floors, sinks, toilet. Spray on and wipe clean.
Citrus/mint air freshener
- 3 cups water, preferably distilled
- 2 tablespoons vodka or real vanilla extract (the alcohol emulsifies the oil and water)
- 10 drops wild orange essential oil and 8 drops peppermint oil
- 500mL water
- 125mL white vinegar (leave out if polished wooden boards)
- 10 drops essential oil such as eucalyptus, lemon or lavender
- 1 tablespoon bi-carb soda (helps to lift stains off floor)
- 2 tablespoons castile liquid soap
Soap nuts (from the Chinese soapberry tree) are available online and from specialist retailers. Spray any stubborn stains with undiluted castile soap and scrub a little before washing.
The EWG suggests using ½ cup of vinegar and ½ cup of baking soda as a fizzy drain mix. Alternatively, try a drain snake.
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