It's an old secret our grandmothers knew very well: There's no need to spend hundreds of dollars a year on exotic cleaning products full of questionable chemicals. The fact is, you can make your own household cleaners dirt-cheap and be good to your indoor air and the planet at the same time.
As Kari Gies shows students in classes she teaches on "natural cleaning products," you can whip up your own tub-sink scrub, all-purpose cleaner, window cleaner, furniture polish and many other cleaners by using a handful of low-cost ingredients, such as distilled white vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, baking soda, borax, Dr. Bronner's Castile soap, lemon juice and water.
The simplicity of the recipes can make you question their effectiveness when stacked up against well-packaged commercial products advertised on prime-time television.
"But unless you have an overwhelming situation like cleaning up after five dogs owned by five college students with no cleaning skills, these are going to clean just about anything — and they've got disinfectant properties, too," says Gies, education coordinator at North Mountain Park Nature Center.
For an all-purpose cleaner useful on counters, floors, bathrooms and other non-porous surfaces, you can mix two teaspoons of Dr. Bronner's organic Castile soap, one teaspoon of borax and a quarter cup of vinegar in one quart of warm water, then pour in a spray bottle.
Gies demonstrates its power by spraying it on a dirt patch under the hand dryer of North Mountain Park Nature Center — and a clear, bright, nice-smelling clean spot emerges.
She smiles. "See? For 90 percent of cleaning, we're sold a boat load of goods. We don't need these fancy cleaning products. They're just not necessary."
For jobs that need a little grit, you can easily concoct "clove scrub" by mixing one cup of baking soda, a quarter cup of borax and a few drops of essential oil, such as tea tree oil, clove oil, rose oil or lemon oil. These oils aren't cleansers; they add lovely scents and, in the case of tea tree oil, are powerful disinfectants.
This cleanser, also called "tub and sink scrub," is a loose powder that you store in a Tupperware container and use like Comet or Bon Ami.
Windows? Everyone knows grandma's method: just rub them with vinegar sprinkled on a newspaper. But after experimentation, Gies' recipe calls for one cup of alcohol, one cup of water, one tablespoon of vinegar, mixed and put in a spray bottle (and don't clean windows when they're hot in the sun).
Furniture polish is a simple mixture of olive oil and fresh lemon juice in equal parts. Put it in a squeeze bottle, shake, dab on a cotton cloth, apply, wipe dry.
Students in a class Gies taught Nov. 7 at Pioneer Hall across from Ashland's Lithia Park went home with the above four compounds after making them in class.
They also took home a set of laminated recipe cards that included:
One quarter cup baking soda with Dr. Bronner's soap, mixed in bowl. It makes a paste the consistency of cake icing. Scrub.
One quarter cup baking soda in one cup vinegar. Or use two parts borax to one part lemon juice. Scrub.
Two ounces of Dr. Bronner's organic soap in bucket of warm water. Mop.
Equal parts vinegar and water, with a few drops of essential oil. Mop on floors. Spray on carpets from spray bottle.
Two teaspoons tea tree oil in two cups water. Or straight vinegar or straight lemon juice. Spray from spray bottle. Do not rinse. Smell will go away.
A half cup of baking soda and one-half cup of vinegar. Pour down drain, let sit for 15 minutes. Then pour boiling water down the drain to clear residue. Use only on metal pipes, not plastic. Don't use with Drano-type chemicals.
Distilled water, 10 to 20 drops of essential oil. Use in a spray bottle.
Of course, you'll also need the usual scrub brushes, brooms, mops and rags — and a cleaning caddy to hold everything.
When you start to run out of something, it may seem a bother to have to mix it again — or to go to the store to buy the basics, so buy them in volume, says Gies. They keep well.
"When people run out of a cleanser, they want instant replacement," she says. "The little bit of time it takes to plan ahead and to make these cleaners, however, more than pays itself back in reduced costs."
In addition to being thrifty and air-friendly, the homemade cleaners are great for the planet, says Gies.
"They don't have harsh chemicals, as lots of products do, which get in our air and water systems — and who knows how many we're absorbing into our bodies?" she says. "A lot of people are sensitive to the chemicals. The average space under the sink is full of them."
Many commercial cleaners are marketed in small containers as a way to make them look more powerful and to get you to buy more, but the fact is, you can get pretty far with just vinegar and water, she notes.
"If you have these natural cleaners, plus dish and laundry soap, preferably natural, you can eliminate pretty much all the harsh, chemical cleaners. You also don't accumulate a lot of plastic containers."