Simplifying cleaning to be streamlined, natural, and low waste was one of the most satisfying parts of shifting to a sustainable lifestyle for me. Cleaning is an obviously necessary but not necessarily looked forward to task we must all do. Having a small kit of natural products that multitask to clean everything in my home means that not only do I save money, I actually enjoy cleaning much more than I used to. It feels wonderful to use the same food and body safe ingredients to clean as you would when cooking or bathing. I don’t have to worry about lacing my home with fumes, and I can clean effectively in the most sustainable way possible.

why switch?

i. companies are not required by law in most states (except CA and NY) to disclose ingredients in household cleaners. In the states where the legislation has recently passed in favor of disclosure, the American Chemistry Council, an organization representing US chemical manufacturers, is attempting to push against these new policies. Money + corruption. Fishy business here. These cleaners are toxic to human, animal, and environmental health (it all gets washed down the drain and ends up in our water, soil, air). For example, the Environmental Working Group found that the cleaner Comet emitted 146 different chemicals, with the most toxic chemicals detected- formaldehyde, chloroform, benzene, and toluene- not disclosed on the label. Scary stuff.

ii. natural alternatives save money. My main cleaning products that I use heavily are old rags, hot water, soap, kosher salt, vinegar, and leftover used lemon halves. All very common and inexpensive.

iii. natural products clean effectively. We have been indoctrinated to fear things not being “clean” or “sterilized” if we don’t use bleach/can’t smell the lingering chemical smells after cleaning. This is a fear put out and kept alive by the same companies that want to sell you their products, surprise surprise. In a household setting, bleach and other harsh antibacterial chemicals are unnecessary. Vinegar, soap, and manual scrubbing is more than effective enough at removing bacteria and viruses. As Ariana of the blog Paris To Go mentions, “Vinegar is not a registered disinfectant. However, given the choice, I would use vinegar over bleach, and I don't think it's dangerous to do so. For most household applications, bleach isn't necessary. Immunologists say that except for in natural disaster situations, we don't need bleach because we can coexist peacefully with microorganisms. The way bleach is manufactured unequivocally poses a greater public health threat than bacteria. I grew up on the Great Lakes, where organochlorine pollution lead to 200 compounds detected in water, soil, animals, and breast milk (only the amounts in breast milk were trace). These take centuries to decompose.”

iv. it’s much more pleasant. No stinging fumes making your eyes water and your lungs seize, no worries about letting your child help clean, no gaudy cheap plastic bottles cluttering up cabinets.

simple cleaning products

i. white vinegar. Cheap, effective + safe. Combine with baking soda as described below for cleaning drains and mold. Use undiluted to clean windows and mirrors. Infuse with citrus peels to make infused vinegar. The citrus peels add extra grease cutting power and disinfecting properties. I use this to wipe down greasy surfaces (like the stove + kitchen cabinets), bathroom counters (sort use on marble/stone), wiping down the inside of my washing machine, and to pour in the bowl of toilets along with some castile soap to scrub with.

ii. kosher salt. An excellent gentle abrasive agent that is cheap, food safe, and comes packed in recyclable/compostable paper. I use it in conjunction with a used lemon half to scrub out sinks, deep clean my cutting board, and restore copper and brass back to their natural luster. I pour a generous amount it into my cast iron pan after use to gently scour it out with an old rag (no water) and sprinkle on fresh stains to lift them out. You can also use salt to lift sweat stains.

iii. baking soda. Another cheap + safe ingredient- use to unclog drains (pack into the drain, pour vinegar in, use a stopper to keep bubbles inside the drain, wait, and follow by pouring a pot of boiling hot water down it). I make a paste of it with salt and castile soap and use it to clean the oven. Restore silver by sprinkling baking soda over, then pouring in boiling water and letting it soak. Deodorize the fridge by leaving an open bowl of it on a shelf. Deodorize carpets, couches, shoes by sprinkling it over and letting it sit for an hour or more before vacuuming it off. Kill mold by scrubbing with a paste of baking soda and water and then spraying undiluted vinegar liberally over the area and letting it sit for at least an hour.

iv. savon de marseille. This type of soap is based on olive oil and is gentle, safe and effective. I use it in conjunction with a natural bristle brush to wash dishes. Apply wet brush directly to soap and then wash dishes as usual. Also excellent to remove stains from laundry. Wet the spot bit and rub liberally and directly on stains as a pretreatment. Use it to hand wash delicate pieces like underwear, bras, swimwear, silk camisoles.

v. liquid castile soap. Easy to use, gentle, and safe. You can use it to do laundry, mop the floors, pour directly into the toilet bowl to scrub it clean, dilute with water in a spray bottle to use as all purpose cleaner. It’s very concentrated, so a little goes a long way, making it cost effective, too. Castile soap is also greywater safe, meaning that you can use the water from washing dishes to water your plants or dump into the bushes when camping.

vi. the sun. free, natural, safe- the sun naturally bleaches stains, sanitizes, and deodorizes. Instead of bleaching, set litterboxes, trash cans, turmeric stained blenders, stinky lunchboxes or backpacks, shoes, cloth diapers etc in the sunshine for a few hours.

vii. cheap vodka. Alcohol is a natural disinfectant and works effectively on mold and mildew. Simply spray on (undiluted) and let sit before scrubbing it off. Spray undiluted vodka onto glass or mirrors and wipe away with bunched newspaper for streak free cleaning. Polish water stains off glasses with it. Mist diluted vodka onto fabrics to freshen without washing. Rub a vodka soaked rag on surfaces to clean off sticky adhesives, like labels and stickers.

viii. hydrogen peroxide. safe, effective, multi-use. Simply unscrew the cap and screw on a spray nozzle. Disinfects/sanitizes surfaces and kills mold/mildew. Spray onto laundry stains or sweaty collar/armpit stains as a pretreatment.

simple cleaning tools

i. wood handled brushes with natural fibers. To replace sponges, use a wooden/natural bristle dish brush such as the Redecker pot scrubber model. Same goes for replacing other plastic brushes in you home- for the tub, toilet, grout- there’s always a natural fiber option. They last a good while and are fully compostable at the end of their lives. Save your old toothbrushes to use for cleaning tight spaces, too.

ii. wooden cuban mop + cotton mop cloths. The handle is all wood and the cotton pads you just throw into the washer afterwards.

iii. cotton/knit rags to use for wiping, scrubbing, cleaning and in place of paper towels. Simple rinse and throw in the wash afterwards.

iv. newspaper. To bunch up and clean glass and mirrors with.

quick reference

  • dishes: savon de marseille

  • mirrors + glass: undiluted vinegar or vodka + bunched up newspaper

  • toilets: spray the seat + bowl down with undiluted vinegar + pour a bit in the bowl. Let sit. Pour some castile soap in, scrub well and flush.

  • laundry: grate savon marseille into the washer (or liquid castile soap) with vinegar in the softener rinse. Add a scoop of washing soda for extra power. Or use bulk powdered detergent.

  • floors: depending on the material, mop with water + vinegar, or water + castile soap.

  • surfaces: depending on the material, wipe down with water + vinegar or water + castile soap

  • bathtubs: homemade tub scrub

  • mold/mildew: scrub with baking soda, then spray liberally with undiluted vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, or vodka and let sit before wiping down.

  • oven: make a paste with baking soda, water, and a bit of castile soap- apply and let sit before wiping clean with a rag wrung out with hot water.

actionable steps

Get out your journal and write out all the cleaning products that you use right now. Next to each one, write out the alternative that you’ll try when your current one needs replacing. If something you use regularly is almost ready to be replaced, make sure to gather whatever supplies you’ll need for the alternative so that you have it on hand to seamlessly transition.

This week, I’d also like you to get started making your own citrus vinegar (recipe follows) to get a start with natural cleaning.


citrus infused vinegar

Take a quart sized mason jar and pack in citrus peels (try to get only the skin/pith and none or very little of the actual juicy “flesh”- the part we eat)- usually 4 or so large citrus. If you don’t eat that many at a time, you can also save them in the freezer until you have enough. You can use orange, tangerine/clementine, grapefruit, pomelo, lemon etc. Pour white or apple cider vinegar over the peels, enough to cover. Place a small piece of parchment paper on top and screw the lid on (the parchment creates a barrier between the vinegar and the metal so the lid doesn’t rust) and let it sit a few days in a cabinet or other cool, dark place. Unscrew the lid and check to make sure the peels are submerged- the peels can soak up a lot of the liquid, so top it off again with more vinegar as needed. Replace the parchment and then the lid and put back in the cabinet. Let sit at least 2 weeks or up to a month or more. Strain out the vinegar and compost the spent peels. Bottle it up by taking a narrow necked glass bottle (I like to use old Health Ade kombucha bottles, they have a screw top that fits a spray nozzle perfectly- vinegar bottles also work great) and pouring in the infused vinegar halfway full. Pour in water the rest of the way, screw an old/upcycled spray nozzle on top (ask family or friends to save their for you if you don’t have one already) and spray away. Save the rest of the vinegar undiluted, diluting more as needed. It will keep indefinitely.

tub scrub

In a bowl right before you’re going to clean the tub, mix together the following, then use a rag to buff the mixture onto all surfaces. Let sit 15 minutes or longer, then turn on the shower or tub to get everything wet, and using the same cloth, scrub it all away. Mix fresh each time you’re ready to use it as it doesn’t keep well.

  • 3/4 cup baking soda

  • 3 tbsp liquid castile soap

  • 3 tbsp hydrogen peroxide