Making your own cleaning products might seem like a charming notion — after all, retro is pretty hip right now. But ridding your home of store-bought, chemical-laden cleaners is more than just a cute idea and a paean to days gone by. It's a legitimate step toward creating better health for you and your family.
Chemical mix hazards
Vince Smith, assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies director at Southern Oregon University's Center for Sustainability, cautions that many of the ingredients that are labeled as safe for use in the United States have been banned in other countries.
"We have tended against what environmental science calls 'the precautionary principle,' despite that many other countries exercise that," he says. "They believe that until something is proven to be safe, it won't be utilized. Here, we operate under the assumption that until something is proven to be harmful, it's safe."
Consumers adopt the same faulty logic, believing that things like household cleaners are strictly tested and monitored and that, "if it's on the shelf, it must be safe."
Truth is, that's not necessarily so.
Smith explains that the United States produces such a large number of chemicals with so many potential uses, it's difficult to stay on top of testing them. Then the untested chemicals are combined to create new products, and you wind up with a cocktail effect that creates basically a new chemical with an even more unpredictable nature.
Then, consumers tend to mix products once they get them home — in ways that can be far more dangerous than they imagine.
"A lot of people will mix ammonia and bleach at home," Smith says, "and they wind up with a toxic compound on their hands that is lethal."
Smith notes that things like phenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates are a few of the chemicals to avoid, but he advocates making your own to avoid any potential problems. It's safer, more cost effective and easy.
"If something calls itself antiseptic or antibacterial, it's designed to kill things. That's what it does," he says. "And a lot of cleaners have no ingredients listed on them because it's not required. From a scientific perspective, I find that a bit startling. I would like to know what I'm putting on my kitchen counter, where my kids put their hands."
Libby VanWyhe, manager at the North Mountain Park Nature Center, part of the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, is a proponent of creating homemade options that work.
"You get high-quality disinfecting properties from natural components," says VanWyhe. "And they're just better overall. The antibacterial annihilation you get from store-bought products has the unintended consequences of making microbes more resistant. The stronger the antibacterial solutions, it presses the organisms to evolve to beat them and we end up with supermicrobes that then become very difficult to kill with anything on the market."
To make the most of VanWyhe's recipes, she recommends buying the base ingredients in bulk and keep a large supply of the Multi-Purpose Powder (see sidebar) on hand at all times, since it's the foundation for many homemade products. Also, keep all of the supplies in one big container, with everything you need it in one place when it's time to mix up a new batch.
"It can be daunting if you think you have to start fresh every time, like you have to stand in front of your cabinet and say, 'Let's see, how am I going to make my toilet cleaner today,'" VanWyhe says. "If you have everything all in one kit, then you don't have to rethink it every time."
Karen Parnell, energy medicine practitioner at Orenda Energy Arts in Medford, emphasizes the use of essential oils in homemade products. The place to start, she says, is with research. Different oils have different qualities and can affect your home and even your mood in different ways. For example, Parnell shares, lemon, wild orange and bergamot are great for degreasing; cinnamon, melaleuca, oregano, clove, thyme and rosemary can combat mold; and cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lemon, marjoram, melaleuca, oregano and thyme have both antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Kick off your spring cleaning by cleaning (out) your cabinets, get a few basic ingredients on hand — save money by buying them in bulk — and get cleaning.