Cleaning naturally

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Cleaning with natural ingredients is becoming more and more mainstream, as covered by RTE, the BBCthe Guardian and more.

Most cleaners, while effective, are full of chemicals (some of which have not been tested), are not healthy for you or the environment and are always packed in plastic. In fact, many of the products claiming to be designed for specific tasks – cleaning surfaces, say instead of cleaning floors, are made of the same ingredients. The power of marketing is at work to make us buy yet more things with the excess of packaging that that entails.

“Natural cleaning products”, a fancy term for simple household items that you might already have around the house, can provide the same cleaning action, are non-toxic, eco friendly, can be obtained package free, and are super cheap. What’s not to like?

Many cleaning tasks can be tackled with the same ingredients, so really you just need a handful of products to clean your house. You can find many different “recipes” to make your own products (see, for example, the wonderful books by Nancy Birtwhistlewe donated two copies of Clean & Green to our local library in Louisburgh, find them there!) but we have found that understanding what each ingredient does makes more sense, and just keeping them separate until we need to fulfill a specific task (like cleaning the oven) does the job.

Main home cleaning ingredients

ACIDS

Plain white vinegar {CH₃COOH}: A strong acid in liquid form (pH=2-3). Great for cleaning, this is, dissolves dirt, dust, scum, limescale and rust. It has some disinfectant properties, but it does not kill all germs. It works by dissolving mineral deposits. Vinegar’s acidity may damage surfaces like waxed wood, natural stone, aluminium or cast iron so skip it in those situations. You can use it pure for heavy tasks or diluted in water with some dish soap for an all-purpose cleaner. The vinegar smell disappears when it dries, but if you particularly dislike it, just add a few drops of essential oil into the mix.

Citric acid {C₆H₈O₇}: An acid (pH=3-4) with mild citrus smell that comes in granulated solid form. It has all the above uses and caveats, but because it comes in crystal form it needs to be dissolved in warm water beforehand. It dries sticky so it’s not frequently used as a general cleaner. Unlike vinegar, it is a chelating agent, and it dissolves metals. If you have waste lemons you can use those instead!

BASES

Bicarbonate soda {NAHCO3}: A mild base (pH=8.4) in powder form. Removes scum and grease. The powder is a mild abrasive, so it’s great to get rid of caked-up dirt and grim without scratching surfaces. It is also antimicrobial and a deodorizer. Sprinkle on top of surfaces and rub with a wet sponge, or make a paste with water if you feel that works better for you. 

{BEWARE: Do not mix vinegar and baking soda for cleaning: by mixing them they loose their power, you’re cancelling each other out!}

Washing soda {Na2CO3}: Soda crystals, soda ash or Sodium Carbonate, a strong base (ph=11.6) in solid granulated form. Cleans and removes grease. Good for tougher cleaning jobs than bicarbonate, but needs to be handled with care. Avoid contact with eyes. It’s a water softener, laundry booster and deodorizer. Dissolve in hot water before using.

Green bleach: {Na₂H₃CO₆.}: Sodium percarbonate, a base (pH=10.5) in solid granulated form. Natural bleach, removes stains, brightens your whites and deodorises laundry. It’s the main component of “oxy” bleaching products and it’s colour-safe. It is also a disinfectant. When it mixes with water, it breaks down into sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide. By being a base is great at removing grease and by releasing hydrogen peroxide is a powerful oxidizer. Most effective when mixed and used in warm or hot solution. Mix with water only when you’re about to use it, it remains active just for a few hours. It comes in a handy solid form with a longer shelf life than hydrogen peroxide. Handle with care and avoid contact with eyes.

OTHER

Rubbing alcohol {C3H8O}: Isopropyl alcohol, surgical spirit, neutral in pH (pH=6-8), it’s a liquid antiseptic and disinfectant, the main component of hand sanitizer. It is also a solvent, useful to remove annoying sticky labels and to get rid of stains. It evaporates quickly so it helps get rid of water marks from your glassware and windows. Find it in your local pharmacy. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is also available in some places and it has similar uses. Do not use on wood, it will damage the finish. Handle with care and avoid contact with eyes.

Charcoal/ashes: natural charcoal is a deodorizer, just place a piece of charcoal in your fridge to get rid of smells. Ashes are a great cleaner for your wood stove glass, just rub with a wet scrubber. They are also one of the best ways to clean a badly burned saucepan or pot.

Essential oils: Oils from different plants do not clean, but can add a nice smell to your natural cleaning routine. Some have special properties: tea tree, pine, lavender, lemongrass and eucalyptus oil, for example, have antibacterial, disinfectant, anti fungus and antiseptic properties. We add tea tree oil into our cleaning routine because we live in an old house that tends to have localized mold problems.

Uses

We’re highlighting different uses of the different products below. To be honest we use detergents (laundry and dishwashing soap), citric acid for the toilet, vinegar and bicarbonate in our weekly clean, and some of the other ingredients only when we need to tackle specific tasks. As we said before, in the web there are a lot of recipes that you’re welcome to try, but beware of the scams! “natural cleaning” is somehow becoming trendier… and there is a lot of misinformation out there. Play with it, look for trusted resources, and see what works in your home. We love Nancy’s instagram feed, for example. And Pax in Westport stocks most of these items, they will be happy to help you starting a greener journey in your daily cleaning if you pay them a visit.

A note on utensils: every single plastic sponge you own is releasing microplastics to the ocean or your septic tank with each use. Try a simple swap: next time buy a wooden brush, a natural sponge or scrubber and a cotton rag.

We’re curious to know what’s your experience with natural cleaning. If you have any comments or insight, please post them below!

Thanks to our friend Jose Luis Marco Brown, chemistry professor at Professor @ Universidad Nacional de San Martín in Buenos Aires, for the peer-review. Gracias, profe! And thanks to Ciara Cullen and Wendy Woo for her comments and feedback on a draft of this post.

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