Straight talk about homemade ‘natural’ cleaners

(First published in the April 23, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Beware the Pinterest and mommy blog tips. For one, vinegar does NOT work for everything.


Go-to tools for natural cleaners include a spray bottle, essential oil, and baking soda bought ridiculously cheap in bulk, and accessed with a refillable container in the kitchen for cooking use, too

I’m not a chemist. But I know how to find real sources to verify simple chemical-based questions when it comes to homemade cleaning solutions. And I’ve been seriously living and continuously testing the efficacy of the whole nontoxic home cleaning drill for more than 15 years.

     Yes it works! The foundation of homemade natural cleaners mainly boil down to different combinations of baking soda, washing soda, vinegar, alcohol, and natural detergents like Dr. Bronner. These concoctions mostly work as good as the expensive “toxic” cleaners you buy every month (and their plastic packaging).

     A lot of these recipes you see online are pretty correct. But you know what else?  A lot of the tips take things too far. As in wreck your washing machine too far.

     That would be the overuse of vinegar, which is my #1 tip.

     Vinegar works in a lot of applications because it is a strong acid, which effectively dissolves grease and detergent residue. Rinse your hair with vinegar once and you’ll notice the wonderful softness of hair cleansed of a bunch of product residue.

     But when used too much and too often in things with rubber gaskets—like your dishwasher and washing machine—vinegar will eat away at important parts of these machines. A local appliance repair man warned me of that, in my own home, as we chatted about repairs he has seen over the years. Turns out other repair professionals, as well as appliance manufacturers, warn of the same thing.

     Tip #2: Mixing vinegar and baking soda creates cool bubbles. But that’s all. Vinegar works as an acid. Baking soda works because it can make a strong base solution. Mixing them together neutralizes their cleaning powers. Now, maybe those bubbles do have some cleaning power, but in my experience, not much, if any.

     A popular version of vinegar/soda bubbles is hailed for cleaning drains. Here’s what works better: Very hot water poured directly down a drain from up high. You’ve got the force of the water combined with the dissolving power of the heat. That’s better than neutralizing two perfectly effective things just to get bubbles.

     Tip #3: Baking soda is cheap and effective as a scouring powder, and a cleaner boost. Sprinkle it in the sinks for a scrub. Got a stinky washcloth? Do not throw it in the laundry, where you’re dispersing the smelly bacteria to everything else in the wash. This is what I do, often: Soak the offending washcloth in a small bowl/container with water and a few tablespoons of baking soda. In a few hours it’ll smell 100% fresh.

     Tip #4: Essential oils make homemade cleaners sing. My go-to solution: In a spray bottle mix water with a teaspoon of Dr. Bronner detergent (not soap, that’s different), several drops of essential oil, and a dash of rubbing alcohol to help it evaporate better.

     Tip #5: Do not use essential oil in a homemade cleaner for glass. Use water, vinegar and alcohol.  

     Tip #6: There are times you just need toxic oven cleaner. I’ve tried the nontoxic, soda-based oven cleaner, and it took all day, and a lot of hard scrubbing. Yes, the homemade versions will work on mildly dirty oven grime. Not a truly embarrassing oven. This caveat also applies to bleach. Sometimes, some things are just too gross to mess around with.

     Later, you can spritz the air with a homemade room freshener of purified water and organic lavender oil.