The idea of ditching your supermarket cleaners for natural alternatives might seem a bit daunting at first. I had so many questions before I made the switch myself…
- Do natural cleaners really kill germs as well as bleach and ammonia?
- Will I have to scrub like crazy to get everything clean?
- Are they as expensive as everything else at Whole Paycheck (er, I mean Whole Foods)?
Valid questions, for sure! In fact, they’re the reason my own transition away from the chemical cleaners took so long. But after I finally worked my way through each layer of hesitation, what I finally learned was that using natural cleaners is far easier, healthier, and less expensive than I could have imagined. And… the cleaners are just as effective as the toxic supermarket stuff.
I really wish I had just jumped right in and not wasted so much time and I hope the lesson I learned will encourage you to do just that: dive right in. You won’t regret it!
For fun, I’ll share the short version of how I finally landed on natural cleaners. Then we’ll talk about how to assess the cleaners you’ve already got under your sink and the natural alternatives to try.
In this article
- My search for truly natural cleaners
- Find out if your cleaners are safe (it’s easy)
- Natural cleaning alternatives
- For extra cleaning power (a shout out to Force of Nature)
My search for truly natural cleaners
Like a lot of folks, I cleaned my house with chemicals made by the big, well-known brands that most of us grew up using. But moving to sunny California and visiting my first farmer’s market in my twenties (they’re everywhere now, but they weren’t then) opened my eyes to a healthier lifestyle that I wasn’t very aware of when I was living in New Jersey. (Yoga what? Freakin’ hippies!!) 😆
To be fair, I didn’t exactly dive into healthy living right away. But after a bit of prodding from my sister — and an accidental read of Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma that I plucked off the shelf to pass some time while waiting in line for a smoothie — I finally gave in.
It happened little by little, starting with diet and exercise. I quick smoking, started hiking (even yoga’ing) and, over a span of a few years, eventually transitioned from a red meat and potatoes gal to an organic kale-loving vegetarian. My Jersey friends didn’t recognize me. (I didn’t recognize me!)
I remember the day I woke up and realized that I needed to take a look at my cleaning products as well. I hadn’t really considered it before. But I was scrubbing down the kitchen and thought, “is it ok that my eyes burn every time I spray down my counters? Hmm. Probably not.”
Needless to say, I started to look at my cleaning products through a different lens.
Clean, cleaner, cleanest… oh my!
With a bit of skepticism and a scratchy sponge, I tried different lesser-known brands that seemed more natural than what I was used to. I’d only been reading the front-side of labels back then, but it turns out my choices were definitely cleaner… but still not what I would call ‘clean cleaners’ today.
Eventually, I realized I should probably look at the ingredients on the back of the labels — and not just the marketing claims on the front. I wasn’t completely horrified by what I saw, but I was pretty sure I could do even better. So with a bit more courage and confidence, I started checking out smaller brands that I’d never heard of, but whose labels weren’t riddled with ingredients that made me want to dig up my old chemistry books just to decode them.
I did like most of those small brand cleaners and they were definitely safer and ‘more natural’ than the big name brands. But ultimately they still had ingredients such as “fragrance” that I didn’t want, as well as others that I couldn’t pronounce. A quick Google search made me think my journey for even safer and more natural cleaning products wasn’t quite over. That Google search pointed me to making my own cleaners. Ugh.
Natural DIY cleaners? (Man, I really am a hippie now!)
I’d resisted the DIY route for a long time because, well, who the hell has time for DIY? But after a bit of kicking and screaming, I realized that all I really needed was a spray bottle, a jug of plain old white vinegar, and baking soda. Man, was that easy! I could even find these ingredients at the supermarket — but in the baking aisle instead of the cleaning aisle. And wow, was it cheap!
Not only have I never turned back, but I kicked myself for not doing it sooner. These natural cleaners work just as well as the chemicals, but without the headaches and burning eyes. The peace of mind was just priceless.
So here’s the thing. I want you to skip the journey I took and jump right into the deep end. Afraid to make the leap? Don’t be! I dare you to read on and take the first step, which is simply to assess what’s already sitting under your kitchen sink. Let’s do that.
Find out if your cleaners are safe
All you have to do is open the cabinet to take stock of the cleaning products you have and gauge how comfortable you ware with using them. If they’re not too bad, then maybe just stick with what you’ve got. Or you’ll want to take it a step further. Either way, here are a few ingredients you may want to avoid.
As far as household cleaners go, chlorine bleach and ammonia (ammonium) are the biggest offenders. They are found in so many well-marketed supermarket cleaners, yet they are both toxic. Their smell is strong and lasting, and their vapors can cause a host of issues with both short- and long-term exposure. If your cleaners have either ingredient, I recommend putting them in the “not safe” bucket.
NOTE: You’ll never see chlorine bleach and ammonia used together in a single cleaning product because combining them can be lethal. Please be sure to never combine them at home either.
‘Fragrance’ is another common ingredient to avoid… in both the large, well-known brands as well as the smaller, moderately-known brands. Fragrance is a huge trigger for the chemically sensitive, but even the chemically-annoyed prefer to avoid it. And for good reason. Behind this single word and innocent-sounding descriptor can lurk hundreds, even thousands, of chemicals… none of which are required to be disclosed by the manufacturer. (Pure essential oils are a safe alternative to synthetic fragrances.)
Less recognized ingredients
While chlorine bleach, ammonia, and fragrance are the commonly touted ingredients to avoid, also beware of any hard-to-pronounce ingredient that makes you wish you’d paid more attention in chemistry class.
The Environmental Working Group has a Skin Deep Database that makes it incredibly easy to look up individual ingredients, as well as many well-known and lesser-known cleaning products. They rate both the products and the ingredients on a scale from “low hazard” to “high hazard”, which is very helpful.
If you check the label and the ingredients look suspicious, but you don’t have immediate access to EWG’s database – or, like me, you couldn’t be bothered to look them up while shopping – trust your gut and put the cleaner back on the shelf.
Another thing to be aware of is that some cleaners don’t even list their ingredients at all. This is a huge red flag for me. Sure, you can sift through the manufacturer’s website, if so inclined. But brands know that these days, folks are actively seeking healthier alternatives. They sometimes design labels and make marketing claims that make their product appear safer and more natural than it really is. But transparency is key and if the ingredients are not readily found, back on the shelf it goes. Period.
If that cleaner is already under your sink, then I recommend getting rid of it. And by the way, you can’t just throw chemical cleaners in the garbage. They are considered hazardous waste and you are supposed to bring them to your local hazardous waste disposal center. Yep! If that doesn’t make you want to switch to natural cleaners, I don’t know what would. (Simply Google ‘hazardous waste disposal center‘ to find the drop-off location near you.)
If you haven’t already done so, grab your favorite cleaners from under the sink. Look up a few of the ingredients in the EWG database and see what you think. If you’re bothered by what you find, it’s time to make the switch. The good news — no, the excellent news — is that there are plenty of safe, clean alternatives that’ll get the job done. Let’s take a look.
The Natural Cleaning Alternatives
White vinegar and baking soda are hands down, the favored cleansers for healthy lifestylists. And like I said, that’s where I ultimately landed. These single ingredients do an amazing job of cleaning your home naturally and can be a godsend for those who are acutely sensitive to chemicals… as well as those who are just chemically fed up. Enzyme cleaners are a solid runner up and a good alternative if you prefer a premix solution.
Here’s how they work.
White vinegar kills germs and bacteria nearly as effectively as bleach. It does produce strong fumes, but unlike bleach and other chemical cleaners, vinegar fumes are not harmful and they wear off quickly. Even at full strength, the chemically sensitive don’t typically report issues. If you do find it bothersome, try diluting it down to a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water. You’ll need a spray bottle or two, if you don’t already have them.
Baking soda is amazing as a non-abrasive scrub for removing film from the bathtub, getting the kitchen sink to shine, and helping to remove baked-on foods from pots and pans. Baking soda has no odor whatsoever and it absorbs most odor-causing bacteria in the kitchen and bathroom. I use baking soda so much that I keep a bulk size container in the laundry room, filling a couple of empty tomato sauce jars with it, so I can have some handy on the kitchen sink and under the bathroom counter.
Enzyme cleaners use good bacteria and natural enzymes to break down and essentially ‘eat’ soils and stains. (Look for protease, amylase, lipase, mannanase, pectinase, and/or cellulase on the label.) Enzyme cleaners are especially popular for neutralizing pet odors (urine), but they can also be used to effectively disinfect countertops, bathrooms, carpet stains, and more. That said, please note that commercial enzyme cleaners often contain some amount of chemicals and synthetic fragrances, so you do need to check the label.
Here are two enzyme cleaners I found that don’t contain any harsh chemicals or fragrances…
For Some Extra Cleaning Power…
If you decide that vinegar’s your jam, but you want an extra boost, you might consider Force of Nature.
Force of Nature isn’t a bottled cleaner, per se. It’s actually a small appliance that “electrifies” tap water + vinegar + salt, making it an all-purpose natural cleaner that has been independently tested to be more effective (and more cost-efficient) than most commercial products for both cleaning and deodorizing.
Because it is completely non-toxic, you can use it to disinfect toothbrushes, makeup brushes, cloth diapers, toys, sippy cups, gym sneakers, yoga mats, litter boxes, humidifiers, washing machines, sports equipment, colorfast textiles (e.g., rugs & upholstery)… just about anything.
Keep it simple, keep it clean
As you can see, even a more advanced system like Force of Nature uses basic, all-natural ingredients. Cleaning doesn’t need to be complicated or toxic. After everything I’ve tried, a basic box of baking soda and a jug of vinegar are usually all I need to keep things fresh. No chemistry book required.
A quick note for the acutely chemical sensitive
As you know, your body may react to certain chemicals (and essential oils) that don’t bother other folks. So just because EWG rates a product or ingredient as “low hazard”, doesn’t mean it won’t trigger a headache or worse for you. Only your body can tell you what it can or cannot handle.
Nearly any cleaner you’d buy at a regular supermarket, or even a ‘healthy’ market, may contain ingredients that can trigger a response — a serious response for the chemically sensitive and perhaps a lighter response for the chemically annoyed.
For context, most of us are simply irritated by chemicals and we may experience a passing feeling of dizziness or momentary itchiness in the throat. It is unpleasant. But for the acutely sensitive, even the smallest exposure to chemicals can be debilitating.