Cleaning + chemistry: Where do you find your reliable DIY cleaner recipes?

Updated Oct 12 2015
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Are you a little gun shy about your DIY cleaners' chemical reactions? That's why reliable sources are necessary. (Photo by: Kate Ter HaarCC BY 2.0)
I've seen all the usual DIY eco-friendly cleaning recipes floating around the great wide Interwebs — like making your own dishwasher detergent, and enzyme cleaners — and tried out most of them.

Nothing, for example, beats the baking soda + vinegar + castile soap combo for defeating soap scum. I've cleaned the nastiest stovetops with a baking soda paste, and vodka is my mildew killer and fabric deodorizer of choice.

But I'm wondering… are they all really safe? For example, I'm kind of suspicious of the baking soda, vinegar, and castile soap chemical reaction that takes place.

What are some reliable resources with DIY cleaning recipes that rely on real research about the actual safety and effectiveness of the recipes and explain the science behind how they work? -Sunny

  1. I'm guessing it's safer than the commercial chemical cleaners out there. You could always clean with one or the other. Like just use vinegar and distilled water or just use castille soap and distilled water.

    Quick question though, doesn't vinegar (acid) and castille soap (base) react and cancel each other out in the end? http://lisa.drbronner.com/?p=292

    Personally, I use an all purpose cleaner that's 1/4 castille soap, 3/4 distilled water and 15 drops of tea tree oil. If it's something that needs to be sanitized (like my nebulizer), I use 1/4 vinegar and the rest water.

    For foaming hand soap/dish washing soap, I use 1/3 castille soap, 2/3 distilled water and 6 drops tea tree oil (in a foaming dispenser).

    Still looking for a great glass cleaner recipe. If anyone has one, please share. =)

    • So you shouldn't mix baking soda and vinegar together if you want just a cleaning solution. What's good is that baking soda is great for being slightly abrasive, and vinegar is good at releasing things. So use one at a time – not both together – or you'll just get useless cleaning products.

      • Unless you specifically need to remove crud or clean out a drain. Then have fun making "volcanoes" and letting the chemical reaction do it's work!

        …until all the bubbles disappear and it becomes useless, as noted. 🙂

    • Vinegar and water make a great glass cleaner. You can use vinegar as a finisher in dishwashers (I don't know what it's called, we don't have a dishwasher) to remove the spots from hard water build-up. I think it's just 1:1 water & vinegar in a spray bottle, plus use newspaper or soft rags that don't leave treads/dust behind for flat glass.

      • Even better glass cleaner (bizarre, I had my doubts, but it worked and didn't streak) is vinegar, water, and a bit of corn starch!

    • Yeah, I really wish a chemistry person would tell me why, but the baking soda / vinegar / castile soap thing WORKS. (Hmm, my castile soap has lemon in it – does that matter?)

      Baking soda + vinegar alone I believe creates something similar to nail polish remover (didn't really work on soap scum for me), but combined with soap first it totally works. Vinegar alone has an effect for sure, but not the same, dramatic, easy scrub.

      And if any of you stick to fairly natural cleaners (non-soap shampoo, for example), you know that they can create a LOT of soap scum.

    • Just use vodka on your glass, alchohol evaporates super fast, so no streaks and if you combine that with wiping with newspaper which is super-absorbant you get super-no streaks, and the newspaper doesn't leave fluff like paper-towel does.

      Clean microfiber cloths work well too if you want a re-usuable option, but they do have to be relegated to dusting after 3 or 4 uses cuz they start leaving fluff, and make sure to give them a good check-over first to make sure they don't have anything stuck in them that will scratch your glass.

    • I use rubbing alcohol with a few drops of lavender oil in a spray bottle for glass surfaces. it works really well for me.

  2. Anything acidic is great for cleaning soap scum, since soap is basic. But you normally need some abrasive power from somewhere. I've seen (and used) scrubbing your tub with a baking soda paste, followed by rinsing with vinegar. If you use them together, they react like a science fair volcano, but what they give off isn't dangerous. Unlike bleach and acids, which is dangerous.

    Also- not science, but- the more often you clean, the less harsh chemicals you need. Sorry to spoil ALL. THE. FUN.

    I think that this is an important question, even one that I was considering with the natural deodorant post a couple weeks ago. You decide that you don't want exposure to X, so you look into ways to replace X in your life. However, how do you know that those replacements are safe? They aren't automatically safe just because they AREN'T X.

    Has anyone bought this: http://www.drbronner.com/DBMS/SAL.htm
    I would like to know what is in it. The page that Chrissy posted above says you can mix it with vinegar.

    Also, here's a handy page with some info on what NOT to mix:
    http://chemistry.about.com/od/healthsafety/a/dangeousmix.htm

    • "The more often you clean, the less harsh chemical you need." I know, I know! Sigh. I'd totally rather read about cleaning than actually do it! But I don't ever use bleach, or other things I already know are super toxic.

      I started out on this quest, actually, after I discovered that my favorite (but expensive) supposedly eco-friendly cleaners, by Biokleen, mostly received failing grades at the Environmental Working Group. They have great guides to cosmetic products and Cleaning Products. But I decided I would try to DIY as many as I can manage.

  3. This is a totally harmless reaction! (Although I wouldn't drink the byproducts…) It's a simple chemical reaction between the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, or NaHCO3 for the chemistry nerds) and vinegar (acetic acid, CH3COOH). The products of these two reacting together are carbon dioxide (CO2), water, sodium, and acetate (which is really common in nature). No worries at all, these are all "natural" things that are completely safe to you (at small doses, at least; too much CO2 is bad, of course, because of the whole needing oxygen thing).

  4. My favorite degreaser/all purpose kitchen cleaner is a spray bottle filled with vinegar, in which I periodically drop my husband's breakfast orange peels. (Best to scrape off that white stuff, and you don't want any leftover orange, just the peel). It works better than anything I've ever bought, and smells yummy…I add a few drops of tea tree or peppermint oil for some extra sanitizing power. Thyme oil is good, too, but more expensive.

    I clean most everything with baking soda and then vinegar. The combo IS unbeatable on hard water+soap scum. I use it to clear our drains, too. And hydrogen peroxide is fantastic stuff for cleaning fruits and veggies…spray veggies with straight white vinegar and then spray the peroxide on (I buy the peroxide at Target with a spray bottle, but you can also screw a regular sprayer down onto a peroxide bottle…the trick is that the bottle must be dark and opaque). Once peroxide is done oxidizing (the bubbling reaction) it is H2O, plain water. The oxidation reaction that it has kills most nasties on produce and surfaces like the sink and countertop. No need to buy the crazy high grade stuff at the health food store. In fact, that stuff can be dangerous if you don't handle or store it correctly; the cheap diluted peroxide that you can get at any grocery store is just fine.

    I've been cleaning my house with vinegar, baking soda, peroxide, Dr. Bronner's, lemons, and a few other natural things for years…so much cheaper and more effective than the crap you buy in the cleaning section, and I'm so glad I switched.

    • I second the vinegar + orange peel combo! The orange cuts through the toughtest grease. When dealing with stuck on gunk, I sprinkle baking soda down first, then spritz it with the orange vinegar, let the reaction do its thing for a moment, then scrub.

  5. I have a jar full of plain white vinegar stuffed with thyme bunches that I replace every month or so. Sometimes I'll just use plain white vinegar in a spray bottle with water, but we also have a thyme/vinegar/water spray bottle, which has extra antibacterial/antimicrobial cleaning power and smells good (if a bit like salad dressing). It makes an EXCELLENT glass cleaner, wall cleaner, general cleaner, toilet de-stinker, air freshener (well, if you don't mind the air smelling like salad dressing briefly) and Febreeze replacement. Whenever something fabric starts to smell a bit musty, it kills that right off.

    I have a mini-spray bottle of water with a few drops of hinoki (Japanese cypress) oil too, which also works as an air freshener.

    When we need to scrub something harder than that, it's either salt and lemon juice, or it's baking soda paste scrubbed on whatever is giving us problems, left to sit for awhile, then sprayed down with vinegar to get the cool fizzy effect, and rinsed with water.

    I hadn't considered tea tree oil or orange peel in there too, and this is the first I've heard of the Castile soap, but I'll have to try it. It would be good to have a cleaner that has the cleaning and odor neutralizing effects of vinegar, the antibacterial effects of thyme, and the sanitizing/good smelling effects of orange peel, tea tree oil etc.

    I also keep a bottle of ACV stuffed with thyme that I use mixed with water as a facial toner and hair taming spray. I can't do the ACV shampoo thing, my hair just won't take to it, but it loves a bit of it sprayed on there after shampooing. I've been able to almost give up leave-in conditioner!

  6. I actually clean professionally, using all natural products. Some of them I make myself, but only if they actually work. Of all the books I've perused over the years for research, Clean House, Clean Planet, by Karen Logan is my favorite. Cleaning should not be complicated; she uses simple ingredients that are easy to source, the recipes whip up in a snap AND she rates each one for effectiveness when compared to its commercial counterpart. In answer to your questions specifically, she has a chemistry section at the beginning and talks about pH, dirt, and what happens when you mix the basics of vinegar, baking soda, soap, etc.. I usually check books like that out of the library to preview and that was one I was happy to purchase for home reference.

  7. Here I have a finished OPEN SOURCE DIY bathroom and kitchen cleaner product that cleans and gives shiny mirror finish to:

    Bathroom and kitchen floors
    Bathtubs
    Glasses
    Kitchen countertops
    Kitchen sinks
    Kitchen utensils
    Mirrors
    Shower curtains
    Tiles
    Toilet bowls
    Washing basins
    Water taps
    Windows

    "The cleaner is simply excellent!" — Hans Gut, Zurich, Switzerland
    "It works well against limescale, perfect for a bathtub or a washing basin " — M. K., Zurich, Switzerland
    "It works well" — Bunna Chhut (ឈុត ប៊ុណ្ណា), Cambodia

    http://ronja.twibright.com/pling.php

    Karel Kulhavy, MSc.
    DIY Manufacturing Engineer
    Twibright Labs, Zürich, Switzerland

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