habit shift: natural cleaners.

October 2, 2017

natural cleaning products | reading my tea leavesI’ll begin by stating the obvious which is that I have neither a degree in chemistry, nor a desire to wax poetic about the joys of house cleaning. I have a house that often needs cleaning and I like the stuff that we use to clean it to be, well, as clean as possible, too. I write quite a bit about simple cleaning habits in my book, so I won’t rehash all of that here, but it occurred to me that it’s been awhile since I talked about cleaning in this place. Here’s a current peek into my natural cleaning habit in case anyone else is inspired to make a shift.

When it comes to so-called natural household cleaners, I find that the conversation can evoke strong reactions (brb). There are those who embrace a simplified, DIY approach wholeheartedly and those who are unconvinced that anything whipped together in the ktichen instead of in a laboratory won’t be up to snuff. Whenever I’ve written about this before there’s always been a handful of folks who get huffy about the word natural, a handful of folks who don’t think I go far enough to rid my house of toxins, and a handful of people who seem baffled that anything beyond the most conventional grocery store aisle cleaning products could do any good.

No surprise! We’ve got generations of marketing to tell us that we need specialized cleaning products to make our counters gleam, our toilets glisten, and our floors shine. And we have a new deluge of awareness about harmful chemicals that has us worried that anything that’s not crystal clear spring water might have hidden dangers and troublesome side effects. Fear mongers and skeptics abound and sometimes they live inside the very same person.

There’s nothing wrong with some healthy skepticism about cleaning products. There are chemicals in many products that are not terrific for indoor air quality, not great for our bodies, and plain old bad for our ecosystems. The good news is that it’s also possible to find or make perfectly satisfactory products with ingredients that I don’t have to worry about. This is not to say that there’s not a place for science and surfactants and experts in the field working to make better products—just the opposite! But it’s to offer a boost of confidence that homes can be cleaned sufficiently well with very little. Besides, it’s kind of nice to develop a frugal and homegrown approach to keeping your place clean.

For my part, I’m always interested in storing as few products as possible. When I have the time or the need, I use old standbys like lemon juice and vinegar and baking soda for scrubbing and scouring. I keep a bar of Savon de Marseille on my counter for regular kitchen cleanup. For the last few years, I’ve also been mixing up my own all-purpose cleaner in a spray bottle. With little guys around, our need for a quick clean up solution tripled and even though this favorite cleaner is available for refilling at our local grocery store, I was finding it hard to keep up with the frequent refills we needed in a house with tiny guys. Instead, I mix my own simple spray at home: a combination of a teaspoon or so of Castile soap + a pint or so of water + a few drops of essential oil (I usually use lavender and sweet orange oil). Lately I’ve been replacing the Castile soap with Dr. Bonner’s Sal SudsWhen I went out to Oregon in August, my sister introduced me to the pine-scented detergent. It’s more clean-rinsing than Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap and can be used in about a hundred different ways around the house. I’ve been loving it and thought you guys might too. (You can read more about it here and here.)


+ For the all-purpose spray I make a very rough estimate of approximately 1 teaspoon of soap or “suds” to 1 pint of water. (At this rate, this 32-ounce bottle is gonna last us a good long while.)

+ After sending our second glass bottle crashing onto the tiles in our tiny kitchen, I invested in a stainless steel bottle with sprayer nozzle, which was a good idea gone wrong. It leaked. Everywhere. Instead, I’ve attached our old sprayer to a plastic 16-ounce soap bottle. Inoffensive, and more importantly, unbreakable.

Other things:

+ On the subject of cleaning, it seems fair to mention that since Silas was born we’ve enlisted the occasional help of a professional to help us to maintain a clean home in a household with two parents who work full time. Si Se Puede is a New York City based women-owned and women-run cooperative, committed to paying their workers a living wage, in case you’re local and in need of support. 

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  • Reply Kelly October 2, 2017 at 9:26 am

    I’ve been cleaning wth a vinegar and water (with a squirt of soap and some essential oils) mixture for years – I love it! I used to make my own dishwasher detergent but it was never up to snuff so I am buying that again. I do make laundry soap and we’ve used that for 7 years now with no issues 🙂

    I’m intrigued by the Sal Suds so I’ll have to check it out. Also – Bon Ami works wonders on my sink.

  • Reply Sally October 2, 2017 at 9:57 am

    Very into this! Thanks for the tip.

  • Reply Christine October 2, 2017 at 10:47 am

    I have been looking for a spray (homemade) to replace my chemical one when it runs out. This “recipe” seems easy. I will have to try. Can you use it on Quartz counter tops?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 2, 2017 at 10:53 am

      Yup! Just checked out the “cheat sheet” link above. When diluted should be just fine!

  • Reply sadie October 2, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Thanks for the tip! Do you have to rinse this off after using it on counters, for example, to get rid of soap residue, or are you able to just spray and wipe with a cloth? Any suggestions for a good window cleaner?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

      It’s really clean-rinsing and if properly diluted then no need to rinse after use! I never do. You can use it on windows, too! If it seems streaky, just try a less concentrated mix (more water, less suds!).

  • Reply Helen October 2, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    My shared commitment to nontoxic cleaners leads to me to ask a genuine question about outside cleaning help. I have eschewed this option (for a number of reasons, including the products typically used) but have found that more and more people in my life are now hiring cleaning services. What have others found valuable in this? We tend to lightly clean over the course of the week, and have not really found it to be an impediment to our work or family lives, but perhaps there is some holy grail experience I’m missing out on. Are there particular things that get especially clean? Is it just nicer to have it done at once? Do you now feel like you have more time you didn’t know was otherwise occupied? Inquiring minds!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 2, 2017 at 5:32 pm

      Just one of the reasons why we love the Si Se Puede coop so much is that they’re also committed to using non-toxic cleaners. James and I both work full-time and commute to our offices and while we still do plenty of light cleaning over the course of the week, it’s been so helpful to know that the apartment also gets a semi-regular deep-clean of places that are harder to reach with two small kids in the mix.

      • Reply MA October 4, 2017 at 10:38 am

        This is a great question. And I second Erin’s reasons for why we get outside help every other week. We still of course have to clean daily. But the price of outside help is totally worth the peace of mind knowing that our house will eventually get a good cleaning. Also, and in our case more importantly, it frees up time for the weekends for bigger maintenance jobs (stacking wood, painting the stairwell, raking the leaves, etc, etc).

    • Reply Mary Kate October 5, 2017 at 4:43 pm

      I personally hate cleaning, am not very good at it, and don’t have time to do it, so having someone else do it once a week is WELL worth the time and irritation I save . On top of that, all the cleaning people I’ve had are women who are usually immigrants, speak little to no English, and therefore don’t have a lot of options in terms of employment. For example the one I have now worked for a friend of mine and she was really in need of more work, so I hired her and pay her well and always tip. Win-win for everyone.

      Also our cleaning lady doesn’t bring her own products, she uses whatever we have, so no sketchy stuff.

    • Reply Helen October 7, 2017 at 3:22 pm

      Thanks for the responses! Also full-time parents, small kids, so I think in the same boat. Maybe I’m just a bit more comfortable with dirt than the rest of you 🙂 The possibility of exchanging cleaning with bigger maintenance jobs, however, is the most compelling reason to consider this option.

  • Reply Alexandra October 2, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Sal Suds is the bomb. You know what is really awesome natural cleanser is that is made from plant surfactants and smells great. It’s a concentrate that you add water to and reasonably priced. It’s call Frosch Natural pH Neutral Universal All Purpose Cleaner! I use it on counters, cabinets, windows. they make a whole line of cleansers. German products are the best! had to share!

  • Reply Hannah October 2, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    hi erin! thank you for sharing that you sometimes hire someone to help keep your place tidy! while i know it must be very commonplace, especially here in nyc where i also live, i grew up in the midwest where hiring domestic help wasn’t widely practiced nor talked about (at least in my family and circles!) so it’s refreshing to see it publicly acknowledged. i don’t know how else i could “do it all” in the future if i continue to work full time and have kids at some point. i’m sure this is something others are quite open about, but to me it still feels slightly revolutionary to share, even as a millennial…

    anyway, just my perspective 🙂 happy cleaning!

  • Reply Tina Lemna October 2, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    I have been a big fan of Dr Bronner Sal Suds for years. I use it everywhere in my house. One tablespoon for a load of laundry, I also make the same spray you do and clean my bathroom and kitchen with it. It’s also a great stain remover.

  • Reply Kari October 2, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks for, as always, keeping it real.

  • Reply Elizabeth October 2, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    I love this! Going to add a squirt of soap to my next batch of cleaning spray. I do a mix of white vinegar and water in a spray bottle, and (inspired by you!) I use a stack of cloth napkins for most of my cleaning too. Still gotta work on my bathroom cleaning products – drain unclogging and gross shower wall scrubbing in particular – but it feels good to have the food areas under control. I love knowing that the surfaces closest to food are just getting a little vinegary when I clean it, nothing else. 🙂

    • Reply SLG October 2, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      I recently discovered a way to clean my gross shower wall that changed my life, no joke. Make a cleaning solution out of equal parts white distilled vinegar and dish soap — I usually microwave it for about 1 minute to combine the two liquids. Put it in a spray bottle, spray on your shower, leave it there for 2-3 mins, and wipe off with a cloth. Clean shower with no scrubbing! I have an acrylic tub that can’t be scrubbed with anything abrasive, so this has really helped.

      If my shower’s really bad, it sometimes takes a few extra sprays and wipe-downs. And I usually add a few drops of lavender or lemon essential oils just to help with the vinegary smell.

      I seriously will be forever indebted to the gal who writes homesongblog.com, which is where I found this recipe. So now I pass it along whenever I can!

      • Reply Elizabeth October 3, 2017 at 2:08 pm

        Wow, that sounds awesome (and exactly what I’m looking for but something I’d never just come up with on my own, hah). I’m gonna try it right away! Thank you so much for the tip!

      • Reply Ali October 4, 2017 at 1:49 pm

        What kind of vinegar do you use? Can you just use the kind from the grocery store or do I need a more concentrated/higher % version?

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 4, 2017 at 2:23 pm

          Plain old white vinegar is great for cleaning purposes!

  • Reply Caitlin Jones October 2, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    Not sure if anyone has mentioned this already, but the larger Bragg’s ACV bottle (once you are done with it) makes a terrific all-purpose spray bottle, and you can use just about any plastic spray top you can find! I make a very similar AP cleaner to the one you’ve described Erin, and it works nicely in this bottle. I plan to make a vinegar glass cleaner once I finish the next bottle of ACV 😉 Thanks for all the great cleaning tips!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 2, 2017 at 9:55 pm

      Oh yes! Love all sorts of glass bottles and I’ve written before about reusing vinegar bottles for this purpose! We’ve smashed two of them on the kitchen floor in the past month so I’m taking a little break from glass 😉

  • Reply Mun October 2, 2017 at 11:19 pm

    I’ve been making a couple of really simple glass and all purpose cleaners for a year now and i love it! Can’t go back to the chemically ones now!

  • Reply Traci Barr Segal October 3, 2017 at 12:20 am

    Mrs. Myers is my go to because I like the fresh smell (geranium). I purchase the multi-surface concentrated jug, which lasts about a year, and add 3 tablespoons to a plastic spray bottle with water. I live in a 2100 square foot house and have a lot of counters to clean! We also try to use less plastic in our home, but I been using this same spray bottle for about 6 years now and the color matches my kitchen.

  • Reply Lou October 3, 2017 at 4:02 am

    I switched over to bicarb, vinegar, lemon juice and essential oils (with a little castile soap in the mix) last year to clean our home and it works well for us. but (a small b), the only area I am finding tricky to clean (to my standards!) is our glass shower screen, which is full of water marks. I’ve sprayed the screen to death with vinegar, and added a bicarb/vinegar paste mix, but can’t get rid of those marks! Any tips or tricks from anyone would be gratefully received! I am also curious to know if anyone has a good floor cleaner formula that works well for them? I’m just using hot water on our wood and a water/castile soap mix on the bathroom floor but it’s not as effective as the specialist floor cleaner I used to use. Many thanks, from across the pond 🙂

    • Reply Jan-Leanne October 3, 2017 at 12:30 pm

      Try wadding up a piece of aluminum foil and rub it over the icky glass shower door (it doesn’t scratch our glass door).

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 3, 2017 at 1:32 pm

        Aluminum foil! I’ve done with newspaper but never foil!

      • Reply SLG October 4, 2017 at 7:46 am

        Mr. Clean Magic Erasers work too!

      • Reply Lou October 4, 2017 at 1:05 pm

        Thank you for the tip! 🙂

    • Reply Jennifer January 6, 2018 at 9:23 am

      It is possible for water marks to become permanent. If they sat long enough, (say you moved to a place a previous resident let water dry on the glass regularly or never cleaned well) the mineral/chemical components of water in your area can etch glass. At that point, the marks are not buildup, the glass has actually changed and that’s permanent. It’s common in our area; changing the glass is the only option at that point.

  • Reply Nicole October 3, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    THANK YOU for bringing these Suds into my life!

  • Reply Angy October 4, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    Great tips Erin – thank you. If I’m in a hurry I’ll grab a lemon, slice it half and scour the sink with it. The natural turpenes cut through grease and it smells so good. Then I just rinse with hot water.
    My all time favorite diy cleaning solution is half a liter Distilled Water/1 cup White Vinegar/2-3 tablespoons Grated Laundry Soap/10-15 drops Rosemary Essential Oil. Seems to keep everything apart from windows sorted.

    My treat is an eco friendly window cleaning service 🙂

    Here in Australia you can buy a toilet freshener that is pure Orange Oil (also available Lime & Lemon) I have found that it works really well as a cleaner when things are super sticky or smelly and the bonus is it’s already in a spray bottle (which you can repurpose or refill) AND it smells so good!

    BUT!! Always do a test patch first! For example Marble + Citrus = no no no!

  • Reply Lissa October 7, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Norwex clothes have been extremely useful when it comes to cutting back on cleaning supplies / chemicals in general. The microfiber clothes are threaded with silver (a natural anti-bacterial), so all you need is a little water. Their polishing cloth does wonders on windows and stainless steal. From what I can tell, they are a good company – but, I don’t know much about them beyond what their website and products tout.

  • Reply Lissa October 7, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Polishing cloths, not clothes!

  • Reply Amanda October 20, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    So here’s my question. I have three little ones and sometimes the messes get…gross. As in, during potty training my son tracked a poop accident through the hall (carpet!) or several bouts with the stomach bug (or even juice from preparing raw chicken). I LOVE natural cleaners for a million reasons but for messes like I reach for bleach (or other traditional cleaners that make my nose burn…)
    How do you handle germs beyond daily gunk?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 20, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      Oh man, we really just use the same basic stuff—though I’d definitely use cleaner, like the Sal’s Suds and not just lemon juice and fairy dust;) That said, we admittedly we don’t prepare raw meat in the house, so that takes out at least one level of ick factor!

  • Reply Erica Gonzales March 15, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    All of your tips and advice have proven to be so useful, keep em’ coming, and THANK YOU! Love your book to!

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