Before I had kids, I didn’t think a whole lot about what was in my cleaning products. Then I had two kids who seem to devote a considerable portion of each day to licking the floors and furniture. (Yes, I hope they grow out of it too.) When my favorite no-frills detergent added optical brighteners, I decided enough was enough. I asked around to a few crunchier friends, did some reading and some experimenting, and discovered that I can clean almost everything in my home with six ingredients – vinegar, Borax, baking soda, Oxiclean, Octagon Soap, and washing soda. They take up less space in my cabinets, cost next to nothing, and save me countless trips to the store. Here are a few easy and scandalously cheap recipes for basic household cleaners to get you started:
Dishwasher Detergent. We have hard water, and it took a few tries to find a recipe that worked for us. I thought our detergent was leaving nasty white residue on our dishes, but it turned out we just needed to clean our dishwasher. There are a number of products available to clean mineral scale out of your dishwasher, or you could also pour a generous amount of vinegar into the bottom of your dishwasher and let it soak for a bit, then run a cycle with the dishwasher empty on the highest temperature wash available. The detergent recipe is simple – equal parts Borax and baking soda. I mix it up 2 cups at a time, because that’s how much the canister I store it in will hold, and I use about half a tablespoon per load. I add about a 1/4 cup of white vinegar to the rinse agent reservoir before each load as well. If I think my dishes might need some extra cleaning power, I’ll add a few tablespoons of kosher salt to the detergent. I don’t know if the salt acts as a scrubbing agent or if it softens the water to help it clean more effectively, but I do know it works.
Laundry Detergent. I make two batches for laundry, one for cloth diapers and one for the rest of our clothes, but I’ve used one on the other in a pinch and they work equally well. For clothes: One bar shredded laundry soap, (I grate mine on a microplane grater), plus one cup Borax and one cup washing soda. We have a HE washing machine, and I use one tablespoon per load. I measured the last time I made detergent, and this recipe makes about 55 tablespoons. For diapers: one cup each of Oxiclean, washing soda, and Borax. I use one tablespoon per load. Again, we have hard water, so you might need a different amount.
General Cleaning. These days, I clean pretty much everything with a solution of two parts water and one part vinegar in a spray bottle, with a few drops of lavender or orange oil thrown in to make it smell nice. If I find a particularly stubborn stain that needs extra attention, I’ll scrub it with a damp sponge sprinkled with baking soda. Plain white baking soda toothpaste is also a good stain remover for furniture and hardwood floors. I use vinegar and water in my floor washer, and I’ll spritz it onto my rugs as a stain remover as well. A scoop of Oxiclean dissolved in a gallon of water will clean most stains off of walls. And no, my house doesn’t smell like vinegar – the smell evaporates almost as soon as the vinegar does, and your house will smell like whichever essential oil you added to your cleaning solution.
A few words about the ingredients. I use plain white distilled vinegar for all my cleaning recipes, and I buy it by the gallon. Washing soda is similar to baking soda, but not the same – this article will tell you more than you ever wanted to know. But as far as shopping for it goes – washing soda can usually be found in the laundry section of the grocery, near the Borax, and Arm and Hammer is the most popular brand. In can also be found in hardware stores as ‘soda ash’. Oxiclean is powdered hydrogen peroxide, and I usually buy the generic which has worked fine for me. Laundry bar soap can be harder to find, partly because it tends to be stocked with bath soaps because no one knows what it is. Fels-Naptha is one popular brand; Zote is another. I’m currently infatuated with Octagon all-purpose soap, because it’s half the price of Fels-Naptha, I prefer the smell, and it dissolves well, even in a low-water HE washer. Octagon can also be used as a laundry pre-treater, as first aid against poison ivy, and in a pinch, to wash dishes.
Even fewer words about using less detergent. Read this article - a reminder that the people who tell you to use 1/4 cup of laundry soap per load are trying to sell you laundry soap.