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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Natural and Non-Toxic Spring Cleaning

When spring is in the air, I prefer to smell flowers, not cleaning products. Manufactured and store-bought cleaners pollute the air and they contain toxic chemicals that can have negative effects on our health.

An analysis of 25 common household products including the best selling brands of all-purpose sprays and disinfectants found harmful ingredients in every single sample (Steinemann 2010). All together, the 25 products released 421 chemicals, some classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. laws. Only one chemical was listed on a product label and only two were listed on any material safety data sheet. And almost half the products contained chemicals recognized as carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Minimize your exposure to dangerous and cancer-causing chemicals by replacing store-bought cleaners with natural products. You can clean your entire home easily and effectively with just a handful of simple ingredients and a few basic materials.

Basic Supplies

To clean your home without chemicals, start with these basic supplies:
  • White vinegar
  • Pure essential oils
  • Fragrance-free liquid castile soap made from organic coconut, olive, hemp, and/or jojoba oils
  • Olive oil (doesn't have to be extra virgin or cold-pressed)
  • Baking soda
  • Spray bottle
  • Rags or old towels
  • Sponge with scrubbing surface
  • Broom and dust pan
  • Steam mop (or regular mop)

Make your own non-toxic all-purpose cleaner by adding 1 cup white vinegar, 5 drops tea tree essential oil, 5 drops pure lavender or citrus essential oil, and a half cup water to a clean spray bottle. (For tough cleaning jobs, omit the water.) Label the bottle, close it tightly, and shake it up before each use.

Vinegar cleans by dissolving surface residue. Essential oils disinfect because they are naturally anti-bacterial and tea tree essential oil is especially effective at removing mold and mildew. Be sure to use only pure essential oils and avoid any fragranced, synthetic, or perfume oils.

Before You Start

According to the EPA, indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air, even in the largest and most industrialized cities, so open your windows to exchange and circulate the air inside your home (EPA 2012). Before you begin the actual cleaning, clear off all the surfaces you intend to clean and take time to organize and de-clutter your home. Don’t forget closets and storage spaces.

Clean out your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Get rid of unhealthy processed foods, expired items, and dried herbs and spices more than a year old. Replace plastic storage containers with glass containers or wide-mouth canning jars. Replace non-stick pots and pans with cast iron or stainless steel cookware.

Round up all of your personal care products and get rid of the ones you don't use. Research the rest on the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database. Search by product, manufacturer, or ingredient to read safety reviews and find safer alternatives if necessary.


Dusting is especially important because household dust can be full of environmental toxins. A Cape Cod study found 66 different toxic chemicals in household dust including phthalates, flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and 27 different pesticides. DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) has been banned in the U.S. for the past 40 years but it was detected in 65 percent of homes.

Avoid using dusters that simply move dust around and redistribute it in the air. Instead use a clean, slightly damp, washable cloth, rinsing it out as needed, to pick up dust and remove it completely. Let dusted surfaces dry thoroughly and don't forget to dust the leaves of your houseplants. They help filter your indoor air so make sure they can breathe. If you don’t have any houseplants, consider adding species shown to remove toxic chemicals from indoor air such as ivy, snake plants, spider plants, and peace lilies.

Household Surfaces

Use your non-toxic all-purpose cleaner to clean counters, sinks, stove tops, appliances, tiles, toilets, mirrors, windows, and floors by spraying it on and wiping it off with a wet sponge. It smells like vinegar when it’s wet, but the odor evaporates as soon as it dries. For stubborn residue, allow the solution to sit on dirty surfaces for several minutes before wiping it off. Or sprinkle baking soda, which acts as an abrasive agent, over the area and scrub it off with a wet sponge. 

Don't use the vinegar-based solution on wooden surfaces or those made of natural stone. Instead wash surfaces made from marble, limestone, calcite, or dolomite with liquid castile soap diluted in warm water. Polish wooden surfaces by using a dry cloth to rub in a small amount of olive oil.

If you don't clean regularly, removing built-up grime sometimes requires a stronger solution. This is especially true in the kitchen where airborne oil droplets collect on surfaces surrounding the stove and interact with dust particles. In these cases, isopropyl alcohol can be used to dissolve stubborn residue. It's flammable and can be irritating, but the ingredients are known (alcohol and water) and it's an effective solvent when everything else fails. If you have to use it, do so sparingly, only in well-ventilated areas, and be sure to wear rubber gloves.


Clean the floors last. Steam mops are the best tool for cleaning non-carpeted surfaces after you sweep because they use only water, steam, and washable, reusable pads. Use steam mops on finished hardwood, tile floors, and other smooth surfaces. If you don't have a steam mop, use a regular mop and make your own cleaning solution by adding a cup (or more) of white vinegar to a bucket of hot water, along with a few drops of tea tree oil.

For carpeted surfaces and upholstery, high-efficiency particulate-arresting (HEPA) vacuums are the most effective way to remove dust and toxins.

Room by Room

Besides organizing, dusting, and cleaning surfaces and floors, certain rooms have special considerations:
  • In the kitchen, disinfect sponges by moistening them and heating them in the microwave. One study showed that two minutes at full power killed or inactivated more than 99 percent of germs and bacterial spores including E. coli (Park 2006).
  • In the bathroom, unclog drains by pouring down a quarter cup of baking soda and following it with a cup of white vinegar. Wait for the foaming to subside and flush with plenty of boiling hot water. Don’t forget to make use of drain snakes and plungers.
  • In bedrooms, rotate mattresses and wash comforters, blankets, and pillows.
  • In the laundry room, replace store-bought fabric softeners with white vinegar (use a half cup per load) and organic wool dryer balls. Replace fragranced, chemical-based detergents with those that are biodegradable, made from natural plant oils, and free of phosphates.

Don’t forget to clean windows, window treatments, light fixtures, rugs, and door mats. Check fire detectors and carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they are in good working order. Change your furnace filter and clean out air ducts and vents. If you need help, hire a professional to do it for you.


Environmental Protection Agency. 2012. “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.”

Park DK, Bitton G, and Melker R. 2006. Microbial inactivation by microwave radiation in the home environment. Journal of Environmental Health 69(5):17-24.

Steinemann A.C., MacGregor I.C., Gordon S.M., Gallagher L.G, Davis, A.L., et al. 2010. Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, DOI: 10.1016/j.eiar.2010.08.002

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