Some ingredients turn up again and again in recipes for natural home made cleaning products. This is a quick list (a what’s what) of these common ingredients and how they are used.
Product: Baking soda
What is it? Bicarbonate of soda, sodium bicarbonate, cooking soda NaHCO3. A white, alkaline powder. More familiar as a baking ingredient and as one of the components of baking powder. Non toxic but doesn’t taste all that pleasant on its own.
How it’s used: Baking soda is a good all-purpose cleaner either alone or in combination with other ingredients. It absorbs odours and can scrub hard surfaces (e.g. white ware, china, formica, metal, glass) without scratching. When used with vinegar, it reacts and the resulting effervescence (fizzing) can loosen tough dirt.
What is it? Vinegar is an acid (acetic acid) that can be described as brewing gone wrong – any liquid that is intended to become an alcoholic drink can become vinegar. Vinegar can be made from all sorts of sources, with the most common being white vinegar (from white grapes), cider vinegar (apples), malt vinegar (barley) and wine vinegar (red grapes). White vinegar is the best to use for house cleaning purposes, with malt vinegar running a close second. Other vinegars work but because they are more expensive, they should not be wasted on cleaning. Don’t use balsamic vinegar for cleaning – it is too sticky to clean effectively and too delicious/expensive to waste on cleaning a cupboard. Non toxic.
How it’s used: Vinegar cleans without leaving a residue, making it suitable for window cleaning. Vinegar has anti-bacterial properties when it is used neat or slightly diluted (which is why it is used in pickling and preserving) and can kill mould. It reacts with baking soda to “fizz” off stubborn dirt or to unblock drains. It can also neutralize alkaline substances such as ammonia or soap.
What is it? A liquid produced by fermenting sugars and yeasts, then distilling the results to remove as much water from the fermented brew. Strong spirits are best for cleaning, such as vodka, brandy and whisky. Rubbing alcohol or surgical spirits, and methylated spirits can also be used for cleaning. Mostly non-toxic if taken in small amounts, except for the methylated spirits, which is toxic. Don’t use low-alcohol beverages such as beer and wine, liqueurs or anything sticky for cleaning.
How it’s used: Alcohol kills bacteria, dissolves some substances (e.g. ink) that won’t come off with just water and evaporates without leaving a residue. Suitable for use as a stain remover in the laundry, as a glass cleaner and as a disinfectant.
Product: Lemon juice
What is it? Citric acid squeezed out from the lemon fruit. Citric acid is also present in the juice of other citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, but not in such great quantities. Non toxic and very good for you. Can be a bit on the expensive side to use, unless you grow your own lemons or have access to large quantities of lemons.
How it’s used: Lemon juice is a mild bleach in sunlight and can be used as a stain remover. It acts as a mild disinfectant and can kill mould spores. While it does not absorb odours, the aroma of lemons (juice and peel) freshens the air.
What is it? A blend of strong lye (caustic soda) and fats, usually tallow or palm oil. Often, soaps have other bits and pieces added in to alter the colour, the scent and the texture. Probably non-toxic but highly unpalatable – the old “wash your mouth out with soap after using such filthy language” never killed anyone but was very unpleasant. Must be rinsed off the skin after use. Making your own soap can be a profitable and amusing hobby/craft.
How it’s used: Soap breaks the surface tension of water, which means that water is better able to interact with dirt and lift it away from whatever you want to clean. It works best in the form of foam (lather) or gel (made by pouring boiling water over scraps of soap). It also denatures oils and grease so they can be cleaned off more easily, and is a mild disinfectant.
Product: Essential oils
What is it? Essential oils are the volatile aromatic principles (essences) derived from plants usually via distillation. As they are concentrated, they are toxic, even if they are derived from a non-toxic plant.
How it’s used: For domestic cleaning purposes, essential oils are mostly used to scent other ingredients. Some oils also have antibacterial properties (e.g. lavender, pine, thyme, oregano) and others remove stains (eucalyptus).
Other ingredients that are used in natural cleaning products, though not as frequently, include:
* washing soda