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Top Green Cleaners Already in Your Pantry

Lemons on a white surface
(Credit: Lauren Mancke on Unsplash)

(This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Disney Family website in 2007.)

You don’t have to shuck a lot of bucks to go green in your cleaning routine. Natural, nontoxic alternatives to high-priced detergents and cleansers can be easily — and cheaply — made at home. Not only will you have the satisfaction of saving money, but you’ll be pitching in to help the Earth while creating a safer, chemical-free environment for you and your family. Just keep these all-natural and inexpensive items on hand and you can clean green all year around. You’ll be surprised at just how many cleaning uses these common household items have. I’ve tried most of the techniques mentioned below, so I know they work.

1. White Vinegar

Such a simple substance is remarkably versatile for cleaning throughout the house. Vinegar’s mildly acidic nature helps it break down dirt and grime and kills bacteria, mold, and germs. Its pungent odor, which disappears as soon as it dries, is nontoxic, unlike most commercial cleaning solutions. Be careful when using it on tile grout (too concentrated can be damaging), and never use it on marble or other porous stone surfaces.

  • Laundry. Use 1/2 to 1 cup of vinegar during the laundry rinse cycle instead of a commercial fabric softener. It’ll cut down on lint and also break down the harsh chemicals of the detergent, which is great news for those with sensitive skin. For added greenness and savings, invest in reusable dryer balls (found at Target and many supermarkets and pharmacies). They may look like doggie chew toys, but they’re phenomenal at fluffing up your clothes.
    Cost Comparison (per load):
    Fabric softener (washer and dryer): $.08
    Dryer balls and vinegar: $.02
  • Kitchen. Use a solution of one-part vinegar to one-part water (1:1) to clean kitchen surfaces. (Again, due to vinegar’s acidic nature, test on grout and tile before using, and shy away from marble.) Instead of expensive dishwasher detergent, toss half a cup of vinegar in the bottom of your dishwasher.
    Cost Comparison (per dishwasher load):
    Dishwasher cleaner: $.15

    Vinegar: $.10
  • Bathroom. Pour three cups of vinegar in the toilet to get rid of rings. For continuous cleaning, pour three cups into the back tank once a week to keep the bowl fresh. Vinegar works great against soap scum and hard-water stains, even ones that have been around for years.

2. Lemon

Commercial cleansers have long sung the praises of citrus, hyping the presence of lemon prominently on their labels. It’s no wonder: Lemon’s cleaning powers extend beyond a fresh scent. Its acidic properties can cut through grease and grime better than most manmade products.

  • Living Room. Use a ratio of one-part lemon juice to two-parts olive oil (1:2) for an all-natural furniture polish; finish off with a soft, dry cloth (recycled, of course). If you have cats, lemon peels in your potted plants can deter them from digging — or worse.
    Cost Comparison (per ounce):
    Furniture polish: $.42
    Olive oil and lemon: $.35
  • Kitchen. Halve lemon and sprinkle with baking soda to scrub dishes. Dump leftover lemon (or orange) peel into your garbage disposal to eradicate nasty odors.
    Cost Comparison (per cleaning of garbage disposal):
    Commercial cleaner: $.43

    Leftover lemon peel: $.25 (or free, if you’ve already used the rest of the lemon)

3. Baking Soda

This seemingly benign white powder serves dual purposes: as an abrasive cleaner and a frontline odor fighter.

  • Kitchen. Make a paste with water for tough stains on your counter, or store an open box in the fridge to keep it smell-free. To more easily clean the stalactites that have formed in the microwave, boil two tablespoons of baking soda in a mug of water, then simply wipe out the gunk.
  • Laundry. Use a water-and-baking-soda paste on most fabrics to remove stains. Or put pure baking soda into sachets (stuff old socks or pantyhose) to remove odors from olfactory offenders like stinky sneakers.
  • Bathroom. Sodium bicarbonate can even help clear drain clogs. Just dump a cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by a cup of that other clean-all, vinegar. This may take a few tries, but it should clear even the nastiest of clogs — with a lot less fumes than chemical methods.
    Cost Comparison:
    Commercial drain cleaner: $3.00 (per suggested use — I usually used the whole container, at $6 a pop)
    Baking soda and vinegar: $1.50

4. Rubbing alcohol

If you’re looking for one-stop household cleaning, vinegar can solve all your glass and mirror issues. But to go a step further, add one part rubbing alcohol to a spray bottle for maximum shine. For added greenness, use newspaper instead of paper towels. Newsprint doesn’t streak or smear as might be expected, and it actually makes the surface a lot cleaner. Note: Since this liquid is mostly alcohol, it is flammable, so store in a cool, dry place away from heat and sparks. Also, be sure to spot-test surfaces as rubbing alcohol may react with certain plastics and other substances.

  • Bathroom. Using the formula described above, polish mirrors and glass surfaces. Slightly diluted rubbing alcohol also works great as a germ killer, which comes in handy when someone in the household is sick.
    Cost comparison (per ounce):
    Commercial disinfectant: $.32
    Rubbing alcohol: $.11
  • Home Office. A dab of rubbing alcohol on a lint-free cloth can clean your printer head. Also safe for LCD screens (only when diluted) and dry-erase boards. Also works to remove ink (even permanent marker) from most surfaces, but be sure to spot-test first as some materials may not react.
  • Kitchen. Disinfect and cut grease off switch plates, phones, and other frequently handled items. If vinegar and baking soda have failed to remove a stain, try rubbing alcohol, but spot-test to avoid potential damage to the surface. Remove dust from candles by rubbing with cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol. (Be sure candle dries before lighting.) Also tackles soot in jar candles.
  • Outside the Home. Carry in a small spray bottle and use it to disinfect shopping carts or in other public places. A cotton swab and rubbing alcohol go far in giving your car’s interior that professional, detailed look.

5. Salt

The Salt Institute purports that there are more than 14,000 uses for salt, beyond its common seasoning duties. Just the plain ol’ variety will do — no need to get fancy with kosher or sea salt.

  • Kitchen. Sprinkle on lemon to scrub pots and pans. Rinse to avoid stickiness. Pour a strong concentration of warm salt water down sink drains to avoid grease buildup. Rub pure salt on cups and mugs to remove stubborn tea and coffee stains. A salt and soda water solution will freshen your refrigerator and won’t scratch enamel. Rub tarnished silverware with salt before washing. Stains on copper pans come off more easily if you rub salt into them with a vinegar-soaked cloth. Get rid of old odors by running your coffee maker with water and four tablespoons of salt; be sure water comes to a boil.
  • Living Room. A paste of salt and vinegar can be used on brass and copper to restore shine. If wine is spilled on a rug, dab up as much as possible, then immediately sprinkle the stain with salt, which should absorb most of the remainder. Rinse with cold water.
  • Laundry. Sprinkle salt in laundry starch to keep iron from sticking to fabric. Linens and cottons shine after a good salt-ironing. Salt in the color cycled will brighten colors.

Skeptical? So was I, so I decided to experiment before putting my name on this article. By the end of my cleaning foray, I’d decided to permanently ditch several of my steadfast commercial cleansers, including the glass cleaner and spray disinfectant. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more significant results:

  • My favorite tip by far was the baking-soda-in-the-microwave trick. Holy timesaver, Batman! It took me less than a minute to clean out the crud.
  • My mom turned me on to using vinegar in the dishwasher, and I haven’t bought a commercial glass brightener since. For some reason, I failed to make the connection with other glass surfaces until I began my research — and once again I was pleasantly surprised. When I cleaned one side of my mirrored closet doors with a name-brand glass cleaner and the other with my homemade vinegar solution, I couldn’t tell the difference.
  • The experiment I was most wary of trying was the lemon/olive oil furniture polish, so I offered up the back of my Ikea bookcase as sacrifice. I was so pleased with the result that I quickly went to work polishing my brand new entertainment armoire. My furniture is shiny and my living room now smells like a lemon grove.
  • I had to call in my scouring pad for backup with some of the tougher baked-on foods, but scrubbing dishes with lemon otherwise went as smooth as can be.
  • A bonus tip for having read this far: For added greenness — and cost savings — throw sponges in the dishwasher to extend their life.

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