Smelling supposedly nontoxic Simple Green makes Ellynrose Sheehan wheeze.

Smelling supposedly nontoxic Simple Green makes Ellynrose Sheehan wheeze.

A longtime asthmatic and allergy sufferer, Sheehan avoids the popular all-purpose cleanser. But other commercial products didn't exactly make breathing easy, she says.

So she found simpler solutions for cleaning with common household items such as baking soda, vinegar, rubbing alcohol and lemon juice. A recent Ashland class showed Sheehan and a dozen other participants how eight all-natural ingredients used in different combinations can make 12 cleansers that keep both the home and environment healthy.

"When you actually look at some of the chemicals in the everyday products ... being able to use natural products makes a lot of sense," says Sheehan, 33.

Mixing up one's own cleansers makes sense on several fronts, says Kari Gies, education coordinator for North Mountain Park Nature Center. Ingredients are not only nontoxic, biodegradable and renewable. They're inexpensive, promote buying in bulk and foster reuse of containers, which eliminates packaging from the waste stream.

For a $12 class fee, the Nature Center provided baking soda, borax, rubbing alcohol, distilled vinegar, vegetable oil-based soap and essential oils for each participant, along with containers for samples of tub-and-sink scrub, soft scrub, window wash and all-purpose cleaner.

"There's a lot of overlap how they're used," says Gies. "It's not an exact science."

The cleansers are so basic, in fact, that Gies anticipated participants' laughter over her "recipes." But each ingredient has time-tested attributes.

Baking soda, chemically known as sodium bicarbonate, tackles grease by turning it into soap. It also deodorizes, softens water and gently abrades. Borax, chemically known as sodium borate, deodorizes and softens water while disinfecting. It's particularly suited to cleaning painted surfaces, wallpaper and floors.

The strongest food acid, lemon juice is strong enough to kill most bacteria. The juice also neutralizes alkaline substances, such as hard-water scale. It dissolves grease, removes tarnish, deodorizes and whitens.

Also a mild acid, vinegar removes mildew, stains and odors; it can be used like lemon juice for many tasks. Along with rubbing alcohol, it's antibacterial.

Essential oils from botanicals don't just add aroma to cleaning agents. Many are antimicrobial, says Gies. Although essential oils are relatively expensive by volume, a little goes a long way, and they can be added according to preference.

"If you're using the essential oil, your house is just going to smell so nice," says Gies. "It's not going to smell hospital-clean."

Gies acknowledged Americans' penchant for sanitizing and suggested society's standards of clean are a bit too high. The ideal seems at odds with warning labels indicating that many common cleansers — even "green" formulas — are "slightly toxic," she says, and could kill a person if ingested in large-enough quantities.

As for liquid soaps, the safest, most environmentally sound type is made from vegetable oil, says Gies. Dr. Bronner's is a commonplace brand and comes unscented or in several aromas.

Sheehan didn't purchase all the suggested ingredients after taking Gies' class but did remove a carpet stain with baking soda and vinegar. Because economy is one of her goals, Sheehan says she plans to use up her commercial cleansers but will add alternatives over time.

"I always have baking soda and vinegar on hand," she says." I knew that those two things were natural and safe."

And there's little chance that natural cleaning agents will damage a home's fixtures or furnishings, says Gies.

"You're not gonna do this wrong," she says. "You're not going to mess up your house.

"You are going to like cleaning — I think you will."

For more information on Nature Center classes, see or call 541-488-6606.