When you think of the word “clean,” what do you think of? Is it the harsh, eye-watering smell from dozens of different sterilizing chemicals formulated to bring out the brightest shine and the whitest whites? Or is it the “mountain fresh” scent of detergents and dryer sheets?
Well, here’s the bad news: that mountain fresh scent has nothing to do with mountains or fresh air, and those brightly colored cleaners are harming your family almost as much as the germs you’re trying to get rid of.
Though technology has given us many advantages over our ancestors, cleaning your home is still best when done the old-fashioned way. Surprisingly, your grandmother had the right idea — instead of dozens of different synthetic cleaners, she cleaned her house with just a few simple ingredients. And those ingredients were safer, but worked just as well as the ones we use today.
Every time you use synthetic, modern cleaners, they off-gas potentially dangerous fumes called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some health effects associated with VOCs are eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system, and some organics are even suspected of causing cancer in humans.1 That harsh chemical smell burns your nose for a reason.
And all of those fresh and fruity scented products aren’t any better. Artificial fragrances are just more VOCs for your body to deal with, and in addition they can cause various allergic reactions. Fragrances are one of the leading causes of cosmetic contact dermatitis, which affects more than 2 million people.2 Though they sometimes sound “natural,” these fragrances are created in laboratories from synthetic chemicals almost entirely derived from petroleum.
That smell we’ve come to associate with “clean” is just from chemicals filling our homes and lowering our air quality. The real scent of clean is no scent at all.
A good guideline is that if you wouldn’t want it in your mouth, don’t use it to clean. Whenever you use products with toxic ingredients, some of those toxins will likely end up in your body through skin contact and inhalation anyway. In many cases, a bucket of warm, soapy water and a little elbow grease are all you need to clean and disinfect most of your home. However, there are a few other effective products you can use as well.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is extremely versatile, and has been used for generations as a natural way to clean. It effectively dissolves dirt and grime, eliminates soap scum, cuts through grease, and unclogs drains. Use it anywhere you would use scouring powders or odor-eliminating sprays. This natural deodorizer has so many uses, you may want to buy it in bulk.
White distilled vinegar is perfect for dissolving soap scum, cleaning windows and mirrors, disinfecting surfaces, and can even serve as fabric softener (but be careful never to use bleach and vinegar in the same load — toxic fumes can result). The strong smell will dissipate as soon as the vinegar dries, and while the fumes don’t smell very sweet, they certainly won’t do you any harm. Avoid apple cider or wine vinegars because they can leave stains.
Lemon juice has mild bleaching properties that make it a great stain remover and whitener. It can be used to polish brass and copper or remove hard water stains. If you use fresh-squeezed lemon juice, try putting the peels down the garbage disposal to make the whole kitchen smell fresher. Or put lemon slices in your dishwater to enhance the grease-cutting power of natural soaps.
Water is a universal solvent, and won’t leave lingering VOCs behind for you and your family to inhale. If you find that warm water isn’t enough to get the job done, think about investing in a steam cleaner. They are available in larger sizes for carpet cleaning, or in hand-held sizes for smaller jobs. You’ll find both are very powerful, non-toxic alternatives to cleaning with chemicals, as long as you don’t use the carpet shampoo they often come with.
Next time you clean house, try one of these natural cleaning recipes:
Window Cleaner: Add 3 cups of water, plus ¼ cup of white vinegar and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice. Try wiping this mixture off of windows with crumpled newspaper instead of paper towels to avoid leaving lint on the surface. If the glass appears streaky or has residue on it afterwards, it’s probably buildup left from those synthetic blue window cleaners you’ve been using for years. Try washing with vinegar a few more times and the residue should come right off.
Drain Cleaner: Pour half a cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by half a cup of white vinegar. Wait a few minutes, then pour a pot of boiling water down the drain to flush out any remaining clogs caused by food particles, soap, and grease.
Stainless Steel Polisher: Use baking soda and a soft-sided sponge. Toothpaste works, too.
Carpet Stain Remover: Baking soda combined with water or club soda.
Heavy-duty Cleaning (for large jobs): Add 1 teaspoon baking soda and 2 teaspoons liquid soap to 1 gallon of hot water. If it’s a particularly stubborn project, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of borax.
Toilet Bowl Cleaner: Flush the toilet to remove as much water as possible, then pour 1 cup vinegar around the inside of the rim and scrub to remove buildup. Repeat if needed.
Refrigerator Cleaner and Deodorizer: Mix a few teaspoons of salt with two cups of soda water to clean your fridge without getting synthetic chemicals close to your food.
If you need a little extra incentive, just look at the price tag. These natural cleaners are a fraction of the price of those brightly colored products you’re used to. And in the long run, your body will thank you.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs),” http://epa.gov/iaq/voc.html.
C. Bouchez, “Fragrance Allergies: A Sensory Assault” WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/fragrance-allergies-a-sensory-assault
© 2011 Dr. Myron Wentz and Dave Wentz, authors of The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family From Hidden Household Dangers
Dr. Myron Wentz, author of The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family From Hidden Household Dangers, holds a Ph.D. in microbiology with a specialty in immunology from the University of Utah. He founded Gull Laboratories in 1974 and developed the first commercially available diagnostic test for the Epstein-Barr virus. Later, he founded USANA Health Sciences and Sanoviv Medical Institute. Dr. Wentz was honored in June 2007 with the Albert Einstein Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Life Sciences. He is the author of A Mouth Full of Poison and Invisible Miracles. He travels the world with his lovely partner, Prudence.
Dave Wentz, author of The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family From Hidden Household Dangers, is chief executive officer of USANA Health Sciences, a state-of-the-art manufacturer of nutritional supplements and health products. He received a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego. Dave lives with his wife, Reneé, and children, Andrew and Sydney, in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he enjoys skydiving, playing volleyball and soccer, mountain biking, and skiing Utah’s famous powder.
For more information please visit http://www.myhealthyhome.com/