Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Green Clean Test

I'm very good at making up excuses not to clean the bathroom. I'm happy to say that this post is a sign that one of those excuses has been eliminated. I hate the smell of most home cleaning products. So I decided to try some of the home-made green cleaning recipes I've seen around the web.

First up was homemade glass cleaner. I was always a fan of Windex until I found out there were other ways to get a "streak-free shine" that didn't involve industrial chemicals and light-blue dye. We all know (or at least all of us crazy people who have an unusual enthusiasm for cleaning) that consumer glass cleaners can be used on more than just glass, and I've found the same is true for the following homemade glass cleaner recipe from The Frugal Girls.

The recipe specifies Dawn dish soap, but my mixture works just fine with Gain dish soap. Any of you out there who try this, let me know if your dish soap brand makes or breaks the recipe. I also added a few drops of tea tree oil to mine to help with the vinegar stink, which my roommates wrinkle their noses at.

In the interest of keeping the whole experience as green as possible, I used microfiber cloth I got in a pack of three for $4 at Big Lots. I love paper towels, but I'm slowly weaning myself off them.

Don't worry, if the vinegar odor bothers you too, it fades pretty quickly.

Important tip: Don't mix your new homemade cleaners in empty consumer cleaning product bottles. You risk contaminating your new mixture, no matter how well you clean the bottle. It's pretty easy to find new empty spray bottles at the drugstore (usually near the hair accessories).

I don't have a before and after of any shiny glass to show you, but you'll notice in later photos that the top of my black cabinet where I photographed the cleaning supplies gets spontaneously cleaner and shinier. Yep, that's the glass cleaner at work. I also used it to polish the chrome faucet on the sink.

Speaking of the sink, we have trouble with slow drains in our bathroom. I've used consumer brands like Drano and Liquid Plumr in the past, but the huge warning labels on them really aren't encouraging for a healthy household. And I'm no plumber, but I've heard rumors that consumer drain un-cloggers will eventually eat away at the seals on your pipes, a big problem if you have a drain that clogs frequently.

So I found an industrial-chemical-free solution, from where else but my fellow Pinners on At first this method from Real Simple seemed too good to be true. Just baking soda and vinegar?

But if you remember your elementary school science lessons, vinegar and baking soda create quite a reaction. It's the fizz of that reaction that does the trick here. For this to work, it's very important that you cover the drain right after pouring in the vinegar. I used a rubber tub stopper. They come in different sizes and you can find at a drug store or a hardware store if you don't have one. I figure the more airtight the seal, the more pressure from the expanding fizz will be forced down into the drain, clearing your pipes of build-up and potential blockages.

The reaction will make the plug want to lift off the drain, so I suggest putting something with some weight on it, like your bottle of vinegar, to keep it in place. After waiting the indicated five minutes, I let the rest of the vinegar drain away. When I turned on the faucet the drain was flowing swiftly.

By the way, if you have a sink drain cover like mine that is immobile and doesn't have an integrated drain plug, the way you remove the cover is by twisting it like you're removing a lid from a jar.

Next I needed an all-purpose cleaner. I don't even know what I'd use as a consumer analog for this...I used to use Windex to clean nearly everything. Maybe OxyClean spray? I used the general purpose recipe on the food blog Macheesmo.

I didn't have any lavender essential oil, and I didn't want to spend extra cash and make a special trip to find some, so I bought the lavender-scented Dr. Bronner's Castille Soap.

And if you don't know what washing soda is, don't worry, I didn't either. Essentially, it's a powder of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3 to you chemistry types). It seems to me that it's one of those old-school products that not many people are aware of anymore. It's most popular use has been as a "laundry booster" so it ought to be found in a store's laundry section.

I said it "ought to be." I had quite an odyssey trying to find a store in my area that sold washing soda. Arm & Hammer has been making it for years, and it comes in a big yellow box (pictured below) that resembles the orange box of their famed baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, by the way).

I suggest calling a few different places first and asking if they carry it. But be careful, chances are you'll get a clerk on the phone who has never heard of washing soda either, so be prepared to describe the product (yellow box, sodium carbonate, etc.). I had a few people show me to Arm & Hammer's brand of powdered laundry detergent, which is also in a yellow box. Good hints that you've found the right thing is a medium-sized box (55 oz.) that only costs about $4 or $5.

After striking out at all four drugstores nearby, I ultimately found it at my local family-owned hardware store a few minutes from my house. They even had it waiting at the counter for me. Yet another reason to avoid the big box stores and shop local!

I used this general cleaner all over the bathroom: the floors, the walls, the door, door handles, light switches. Instead of paper towels, I used small dish rags that I also got at Big Lots. There is a rough, netted side for scrubbing and a soft towel side for wiping.

On to the tub, and the spotlight falls on the only cleaner here that comes from Martha Stewart's website. This non-toxic tub scrub gets your tub sparkling white. With a touch of tea tree oil and my lavender castile soap, it smells fresh and clean too. And not that "clean" smell that consumer products are engineered to have that makes you think "clean" but also makes you wonder if you should be wearing a mask and goggles and running a ventilation fan.

And the best part of the tub scrub is that with a little dedication and a good scrub brush, it can take care of hard water buildup. Here is the faucet handle in my shower before the scrub.

I scrubbed for about five minutes total, taking breaks to rinse and check my progress.

The result isn't perfect but it sure is dramatic. No other cleaning product I have used since living at this house has been able to bring back the chrome shine on my shower faucet, and it wasn't for lack of trying. But look at it shine now:

Finally, the toilet. This is the one place where I still use paper towels. I just have to be able to wrap up the mess and hide it in the trash, away from sight and smell. I used my all-purpose cleaner on the outside of the toilet (did you know that lavender and tea tree oils have antibacterial qualities?) and for the bowl I used a mixture of castile soap and baking soda. After a good scrub and a few flushes, I cleaned the bowl again with bleach mixed with the water.

After all that mixing and scrubbing it's time for a ice cold glass of sparkling mineral water. (By the way, sparkling water is a great way to help break a soda habit - you get the bubbly sensation, which is half the fun of soda, without the sugar!)

At the end of my green cleaning test, I feel I've been converted. Not only is it super cheap, it's probably a lot better for my health, both during the cleaning process and after.

These sort of homemade recipes are lumped in with the green cleaning trend, but I think these are just old-fashioned know-how that has faded in a modern, consumerist culture. I can just imagine someone's grandmother rolling her eyes and saying "well of course you can unclog a drain with baking soda and vinegar! Were you raised under a rock?"

We're used to being handed things pre-made, especially my generation. A benefit of the green movement is that we've been led to examine where everything comes from, and I'm glad that's carried over to cleaning products, and not only because I now have a good use for all the tea tree oil bottles the boyfriend gave me. There's nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when you've cleaned your house with products you made yourself. That warm fuzzy feeling...that's the DIY glow.

Anyone out there have any homemade green cleaning concoctions to share?

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