Monday, April 6, 2015

Are Homemade Cleaners Worth Your While?

Back in the 1960’s, housewives read the Heloise column in the morning paper and learned to use hairspray to remove ballpoint pen ink stains from their husband’s shirts, and to use crumpled newspaper with a vinegar-water solution to clean windows. Did you know that, 50 years later, Heloise’s daughter still publishes magazine and newspaper columns, as well as maintaining a Heloise website? There are several books listed on Amazon, too. The latest is Handy Household Hints from Heloise: Hundreds of Great Ideas at Your Fingertips.

I learned a lot from Heloise - about easier ways to clean my home, how to do little things to save pennies here and there (and we know how these really do add up), doing laundry, recycling. She was out at the front of the movement that continues to this day... using nontoxic, everyday products like vinegar and baking soda to do much of your cleaning.

Today’s Sources of Cleaner Recipes

Today it’s not just Heloise. and the blogosphere are full of books and websites about natural, homemade cleaner recipes. Here are a few of the websites:
  • Rodale's recipes for 8 green cleaners that work. These include an all-purpose spray cleaner, a tile cleaner, an oven cleaner, window cleaner, lemon oil dusting liquid, air freshener, a gentle scouring cleaner, and laundry powder.
  • Apartment Therapy one-ups Rodale by providing 25 green cleaning recipes. The author claims that cleaners for almost every purpose can be made using various combinations of baking soda, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, borax, essential oils (such as tea tree oil, lavender oil, and eucalyptus oil), castile soap (such as Dr. Bronnerss), herbs and citrus peels, olive or other vegetable oil, and water.
  • HGTV’s article discusses ingredients used in green cleaning formulas and provides several recipes. Ingredients include white vinegar, baking soda, lemon, and rubbing alcohol. They also suggest adding a little ammonia to make strong cleaning solutions. Ammonia is often left out of “green” recipes because it is a strong alkali and therefore hazardous when undiluted. But it also provides strong grease-cutting power that may be needed at times, and is safe to use when handled properly (wear eye protection when mixing, for example, and NEVER combine ammonia with bleach (unless you want to damage your lungs with chlorine gas). 
  • Good Housekeeping Provides 9 recipes for homemade cleaners. These include the old “green” standbys of vinegar and baking soda, plus some non-natural ingredients such as ammonia, toothpaste, and dishwasher detergent. 

Is It Worth Your While to Make Your Own Cleaning Products?

There are good reasons for both making your own cleaners and for buying commercial products. So whether it's worth your while to make your own depends. It’s really a trade-off between convenience and effectiveness versus cost, environmental considerations and health. And how these balance out for you will probably vary from product to product.


There’s no question that it’s faster and easier to pull a bottle of cleaner off the supermarket shelf and bring it home. When you make a batch of cleaner, you usually need to have multiple ingredients on hand, as well as containers to mix, store, and dispense your cleaner. Many homemade cleaner recipes just call for a few things you might already have on hand, such as baking soda or vinegar. For others, however, you may have to hunt around for things like lemon grass oil or other essential oils, or you may even have to order them online.


Any of us who have purchased “green” cleaners have noticed that many don’t work as well as the “heavy duty” cleaners we used to buy. The same thing will be true for many homemade cleaners. That said, for many cleaning jobs you don’t need super powers. You can usually clean windows and mirror with just water and a towel. Adding a little something to the water is usually all you ever need. The same is true for kitchen counter sprays. Mothers with babies and young children may need a super-powerful laundry detergent. But empty-nesters like us may just need a basic detergent plus a bar of Fels Naptha soap for treating spots.


Most homemade cleaners will be cheaper than purchased cleaning products. There’s no way you’re going to find a bottle of window cleaner for sale that costs less than a cup or two of water, a little bit of vinegar, a drop of dish detergent, and a $1 spray bottle from the dollar store. Homemade may not always be cheaper, however, especially for some of the recipes that use more unusual (and costly) ingredients such as essential oils. There may also be commercial products sold at dollar stores that work as well, or almost as well, as the higher-priced brand name products sold at supermarkets. Some of these dollar store products may actually be cheaper than a homemade cleaner, especially when you include the cost of a container for storage or application.

Environmental and Health Concerns

Commercial cleaning products are made with a large number of chemicals, many of which are not good for the environment, your health, nor the health of your grandchildren and pets. And many or most are not specifically listed on the label.

The truth is, many of these may be causing allergies, sensitivities, and possibly even long term damage to our health we’re not aware of. And things that may not cause you a problem may be harmful to children or pets. For example, many people like to use pine oil cleaners for the fresh “natural” scent they leave behind. But vets recommend against using them around dogs, because they can cause liver damage. If they cause liver damage to dogs, what are they doing to OUR livers?

Homemade cleaning product recipes are now often touted as being “green.” Their ingredients are mostly non-toxic. Even potentially toxic ingredients like bleach and ammonia are quickly neutralized in the environment, when released in small amounts, and don’t cause any lasting harm. Making cleaning products at home from basic ingredients means you can know what is in your cleaner. There will be few, if any, undisclosed chemicals that you don’t understand. For people with allergies, liver damage, or other health problems, this factor may outweigh all the others.

Another environmental consideration is packaging. When you buy a bottle of liquid detergent, for example, its heavy plastic bottle goes into the recycling (hopefully) or the trash. You may feel OK about that if you recycle, but don't forget the additional environmental cost of manufacturing both the product and the packaging. Manufacturing in the US is far cleaner than it used to be, but it still requires a lot of energy, and inevitably results in some level of air and wastewater emissions.

This will also be true, remember, for the raw ingredients you use to make your homemade products. That vinegar and baking soda were manufactured, too, and someone had to produce the plastic or glass jug the vinegar came in, and the printed cardboard baking soda box.

Still, the biggest ingredient in many cleaners is water, and for many homemade cleaners you add only small amounts of other ingredients. Too, you’ll may use an existing container you’ve recycled for use in storing and applying your cleaner, and you’ll certainly reuse it when you need to make another batch. So from a packaging standpoint, homemade will usually come out ahead of purchased.

It’s Confusing... What Should I Do?

I know, it’s confusing for me, too.

Personally, I buy some cleaning products, and others I make. I really can’t see going to the trouble of making up one of those laundry soap recipes when a mid-sized bottle of laundry detergent lasts me for months. I’ve learned that we mostly use way too much detergent, and have cut way back on both that and softener.

In the bathroom, I prefer to use a scouring cleanser (like Comet) and commercial toilet cleaner for heavy cleaning, but I use homemade cleaning solutions for wiping down tile, tub, sinks and other surfaces. And of course vinegar, water, and crumbled newspaper are better than Windex for windows and mirrors.

I’d say just weigh your situation and needs, and the factors listed above, and make the best decision you can. But don’t make spreadsheets or spend hours at it. Use your knowledge and common sense. Remember that as an empty-nester, your need for cleaning products is probably a lot lower than when you had to clean up after a family. On the other hand, because things don’t usually get as dirty, you will likely have less need for really strong cleaners. Above all, your own priorities, such as health, finances, and available time, should be the deciding factors.

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