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How to Make Sustainable, Ecofriendly Household Cleansers

The conversation over how to strategize a more sustainable lifestyle kicks off still more of what passes for thinking around my household. In a comment, Frugal Scholar pointed out the irony that discussions of sustainability often entail buying things.

That certainly does seem to be the truth! Case in point: after learning that CFLs are supposed to save bundles on power bills, I went out and bought enough for every lamp in the house. That, we might add, was not cheap. Used them for a couple of years and finally had to conclude that I really dislike the quality of the light they emit; that their initial dimness, which gets longer as the bulb ages, is profoundly annoying; and that the truth is my power bills did not drop significantly as a result of this exercise because I don’t leave all the lights burning all the time. Not only an expensive buy, but a bad buy.

So, item 1 in buying sustainable: proceed with caution. Buy a small amount (or number), try the product for a substantial while, and assess whether it’s really worth replacing the old eco-unfriendly version with new stuff.

Second, look around you and see if  you already have something in the house that will substitute for both the old ecologically incorrect product and the new (expensive, not very effective) “natural,” “sustainable,” “ecofriendly” product. Household cleaning is a rich field for this kind of trade. Here are a few ideas that have been tried around my house and found true:

DIY Glass Cleaner and All-Around Disinfectant

Windex is really nothing more than alcohol, water, a dash of ammonia, and a few drops of artificial coloring. Here’s how to make glass cleaner that works every bit as well as the expensive stuff:

Rubbing alcohol
White vinegar

Fill a good squirt bottle about 1/3 full of rubbing alcohol, available cheaply at pharmacies and grocery stores. Add enough vinegar to bring the level up to about half-full. Add a tablespoon or two of ammonia. Fill with water. Shake gently to mix.

That’s it! It even smells like Windex. If you want it blue (or whatever), add a drop or two of food coloring…but first ask yourself why. Works well on mirrors, windows, tile, not-too-dirty bathroom sinks, and other hard surfaces. It’s a decent spot remover for color-fast fabrics, too. Obviously, don’t use it on paint or finished wood.

Scouring Powder

Baking soda. That’s it. Baking soda. Substitute baking soda, which you can buy in lifetime supplies from warehouse stores, for scouring powder. It’s mildly abrasive, contains no contaminating chlorine, and does a decent job at scouring sinks, tubs, and toilets. To sanitize afterwards: spray on some of your DIY glass cleaner—both ammonia and alcohol are germicidal. Wipe sinks and brightwork dry with a soft rag. To sanitize the toilet, be sure there is no chlorine in the water and pour in a little ammonia. Remember: never combine chlorine bleach or any product containing chlorine with any other chemical, especially not ammonia!


Hydrogen peroxide is oxygen bleach. You can treat many stains with H2O2 , also available for very cheap at your corner drugstore or market. It probably has a mild disinfectant quality, but I wouldn’t rely on it for heavy-duty disinfecting. You may have to let peroxide sit on a surface for a while to do its action.

Want a free source of bleach? It’s called sunshine. Place a stained piece of clothing in the freezer for a few hours or overnight. Then take it outside, still frozen, and place it in full sun. Let it sit there all day. Amazingly, this will fade or even remove some very tough stains. I’ve had it get bloodstains out of white garments.

Hanging sheets and white clothes to dry on a line in the midday sun will whiten them and make them smell wonderful. Conversely, if at all possible colored items should be hung in the shade. They still smell great from the fresh air, but are less likely to fade when kept out of direct sunlight.

Dishwasher Rinse Agent

Plain ordinary old white vinegar. Pour a cup of vinegar into the washer right before turning it on. Glasses come out sparkling.

Some people substitute vinegar for JetDry and competitor products in the rinse aid dispenser. I haven’t tried this; vinegar is quite acetic, and I’m concerned that having it sit there indefinitely could damage the machine. It’s not at all hard to splash a little vinegar into the washer at the last minute. The stainless steel tub in my five-year-old washer is still spotless and shiny, and I never have a problem with clogged spouts on the washer arms.

Fabric Softener

Hair conditioner contains the same chemical that’s in fabric softener. It smells a lot less obnoxious, and there’s no need to buy two products.

Get a squeeze bottle (see below). Dilute one part hair conditioner to ten parts warm water. Stir or shake well. Store the stuff in a squeeze bottle to dispense into your laundry.

Dryer Fabric-softener Cloths

Dedicate an old, clean washcloth to this job. Dampen and wring out the washcloth. Dribble a little of your home-made fabric softener onto the washcloth and squeeze to distribute it through the fabric. Toss it in the dryer with your clothes. If I have a large load of dog-hair-laden laundry, I sometimes put two of these in the dryer. Gets rid of dog hair like a charm.

Furniture Oil

Did you know that mineral oil will work to polish and refresh oil-rubbed finishes? It’s cheap and it’s odorless. Just wipe on a thin film with a clean, soft, slightly dampened and wrung-out cloth. Take another clean soft cloth and buff dry.

Garbage Disposal Cleaner/Deodorant

Baking soda

Place a few pieces of ice in the garbage disposal followed by a half-cup or more of baking soda. Turn on the garbage disposal. Run cold water through to rinse well.

Another strategy is to drop half a lemon into the disposal, then run and rinse the disposal thoroughly.


Occasionally you do need some actual commercial detergent. Some folks make their own laundry detergent, but IMHO this is more trouble and mess than it’s worth. Instead, be aware of two things:

1. You can use a lot less detergent than most of us are accustomed to using, and still get things just as clean.

2. You don’t need different cleansers for different jobs. One all-purpose cleanser will suffice.

Dish detergents are sold in squeeze bottles so that consumers will use more than necessary. The packaging is designed to help you splash the stuff around with élan and without thought. Transfer dish detergent out of its squeeze bottle into some other container that make it easier for you to measure it out. I use a heavy-duty squirt bottle, available inexpensively at places like Home Depot, Target, or Walmart. One squirt is all it takes to suds up a sinkful of water or to saturate a sponge with enough detergent to do a messy job.

Also, you can dilute dish detergent. When transferring it to its new bottle, add a little water, rubbing alcohol, or ammonia (don’t use ammonia if you’re likely to use the detergent around chlorine bleach). This will make the detergent less viscous, but the viscosity of the stuff seems only to be an illusion designed to make you think the detergent is somehow more detergenty. Think about it: the stuff gets diluted the minute you scrub it around with water in a dirty pan or pour it into a sink, anyway! Diluting detergent makes a bottle of the stuff last a lot longer.

Don’t throw out the plastic squeeze bottle. Use it to hold the home-made fabric softener described above. Washed thoroughly, these bottles are great for holding houseplant fertilizers mixed up from dry granules, and also for dispensing weed killer (don’t use the same bottle for weed killer and then later for fertilizer!).

In the laundry, you can use about half as much detergent as the maker recommends, especially on lightly soiled garments. Use spot cleaner for stains. Your clothes will come out clean, and your laundry dollar will stretch twice as far.

Elsewhere, there’s no reason to use bathroom cleanser to clean the bathroom sinks, floor cleaner to mop the tile or vinyl, and kitchen cleaner to clean the kitchen sink. The stuff is all the same!

Get yourself an all-purpose cleaner whose odor does not annoy you. I happen to be partial to Simple Green, but Mr. Clean, Lysol, Fantastik, Seventh Generation, Mrs. Meyers, Method, or any of a number of others will do the job just fine. Put some of it in a squirt bottle for use in the bathrooms and kitchen. Often these products come as concentrates, and so remember to dilute it when you dispense it into a bottle. Add a little to warm water in a bucket and use it to mop your floors or clean the walls and woodwork.

That’s about the extent of what I have. What are some of your favorite DIY and sustainable household products?


Rubbing Alcohol. Craig Spurrier. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda). Thavox. Public domain.
Ball & Stick Model of Hydrogen Peroxide. Public domain.
Detergents. Nordelch.
GNU Free Documentation License.

11 thoughts on “How to Make Sustainable, Ecofriendly Household Cleansers”

  1. We use a mix of vinegar and water for our standard household cleaner (in place of things like Fantastik or Formula 409) and it works great. We switched over to that to make cleaning a little less chemical-y for Little Boy Beagle and it also saves us lots of money as well.

    We still buy Windex but I’ll have to think about switching over to that when our current supply runs out. One trick I’ve mentioned on my blog that is always worth mentioning is that, when cleaning windows or other glass, newspaper (black and white print) works amazing at leaving a streak free surface. So, before you toss the Sunday paper, keep the pages and you’ll have a nice supply when it’s time to do spring cleaning.

  2. Wow! That was a lot of good information. I did know quite a few of these tricks and use some of them. And I totally agree with you on those CFLs. Particularly for the front porch light. When someone rings the doorbell in the dark you have to wait about two minutes until enough light is produced to see who is there!

  3. Homemade laundry soap is easy and way cheaper than store bought. Just one fel naptha bar, grated (I use the food processor), one cup of borax and one cup of washing soda. All of this is available at my local grocery store. Then I put it all in a clean coffee can with an old tablespoon. Done. Just mix it up before putting in the spoon. One tablespoon per load.

  4. @ Barb: Please google Fels Naphtha. When you know what’s in it, you feel a great deal less enthusiasm for using it regularly in the laundry.

  5. This is the best information I’ve ever read on this topic, and I’ve read a lot. My favorite tip has to do with cleaning/detarnishing silver. Put the silver on a piece of aluminum foil and put it in the sink (unless your sink is stainless steel, then use a non-metal container.) Sprinkle the silver with baking soda and then pour boiling water over the top. The tarnish will transfer from the silver to the aluminum foil. It’s a huge time saver and eliminates the need for smelly silver cleaners.

    • @ Julie: Yes, that technique works pretty well, although it also releases some fumes.

      Did you know that fireplace ashes will clean silver? Yea, verily! Take a small amount of wood ash, dampen slightly to make a kind of paste, and use it exactly like paste silver polish. It works quickly and well.

  6. I hate the light that CFL’s produce…too bluish and horrible in the bathroom for putting on makeup. But you’d better start stocking up on incandescent lights. They will no longer be sold after the first of the year. I didn’t get a vote on that!

    Also you’re not supposed to put them in the trash. But where I live doesn’t recycle them. So what to do with the burned out ones? Heck if I know.

  7. @still hangin’:

    Well, it’s unclear that ALL incandescents are going away on the first. Apparently you’ll still be able to get ahold of chandelier lights (you know, the ones that are supposed to look like candle flames) and three-way lights, and possibly some of the dimmer wattages. However, 100-watters are definitely on the way out, and the changes clearly are the first step in a plan to take all incandescents away from us.

    I’m not getting rid of the (large!!) cache of flourescents, though. They’re fine for some uses — they’ll work in some well-sheltered exterior fixtures, for example, and they don’t seem to mind being put in a motion-sensitive exterior light (not a floodlight fixture, of course). They’re fine for a closet, if you don’t mind looking up and seeing the ugly curlicue design. Great for garage lighting, where all you need is to be able to stumble around to find the broom or stick your key in the car’s lock. And BECAUSE the CFL luminescence is dim and slow to come up, I put one in the lamp next to my bed: it doesn’t hurt my eyes when I turn it on in the wee hours.

    M’hijto points out that you can get the best of both worlds if you have a floor lamp with several bulbs: he combines CFLs with incandescents. The incandescent bulbs soften and mellow the light, and the CFLs add brightness and save a penny or so.

    But I agree with you in general: it’s a very unpleasant light. I’m collecting incandescents and intend to have a sizable stock by the time Big Brother lowers the boom (again).

  8. Yes, I’m an advocate of phasing things in slowly too. I bought my CFL bulbs a box or two at a time, then put the “old school” bulbs back in the supply box for outlets I had not yet converted over.

    Here’s another trick with the solutions and sprays: if the results are good enough for most purposes, then alternate the homemade / DIY cleaners with the professional / storebought chemicals. Example: I still get the dishwasher cleaner solution on occasion. But I’ll do a vinegar rinse for one or two cleanings first.

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