Friday, 13 January 2017

Cleaning up without mystery chemicals

"No nasty chemicals in my shower, please!"
In an earlier post, I looked at the easily achievable benefits to be had from making your own body care products. There's no need to stop there! The same principles apply to the household in general.

I suppose for us this really started to come into focus during the years we spent living on a small boat at sea. The connection between your living space and the surrounding environment is very apparent in that situation. In urban life, as a house or flat dweller, it's easy to assume (if you think about it at all) that whatever you put down the drain will go through some sort of treatment/purification process and be removed or rendered safe before being released back into the wider environment. Not so. Run 'environmental impact household cleaning products' through your favourite search engine and you'll discover that this is a very active field.

Here on the homestead, we're at least as sensitive to our environmental impact as we were on the boat. Maybe even more so, since we aren't shifting our location and are producing our food from the land we live on.

The septic tank is a prime example. A surprisingly delicate ecosystem is running in there. When it's healthy the tank should rarely, if ever, need to be pumped out. Perhaps the main threat to the health of the tank is harsh chemicals in household cleaners, like bleach.

In former times, I was quite a fan of bleach for cleaning and sterilising. It is just so very effective. Any quantity of bleach entering the septic tank, however, will wreak havoc amongst the microorganisms that maintain the balance in that vital, delicate ecosystem. So we basically ruled out bleach from the very beginning here.

It's only a small step from there to thinking about other things that go down the drain, like washing powder (laundry detergent) and washing-up liquid (dish soap). All of these things, in their standard commercially available forms, contain nasties.
Clean and fresh, without toxicity

Of course, there are companies that have recognised the emerging public consciousness and concern about this problem as a commercial opportunity in itself, so you won't have to look far to find an array of 'green' or 'eco' cleaners. Oh, but wait. Can you be sure they're as environmentally friendly as is claimed? Oh, and yes, they're super expensive. So, if you're prepared to go the extra mile to look into their ingredients (and believe that you have access to a comprehensive list) and have enough lolly that you don't need to consider the extra spend, there's a convenient option.

For the rest of us, as with the body care products, you can make these things at home, both cheaper and at least as good as the commercial stuff.

Simple general cleaning agents

First up, there are a few great old-school household cleaners that don't need any making and yet are cheap, effective and easy on the environment. Try steam, vinegar, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and soda crystals (washing soda) for starters!

Steam, yes good old heat-vaporised H2O, is a terrific cleaner and steriliser. Decent steam cleaners aren't too expensive to buy and come with a range of attachments for different cleaning jobs.

Vinegar cuts through grease and grime and kills odours and sterilises as well. I use it for cleaning sinks, the shower cubicle (it absolutely destroys soap residue) and toilets.

Sodium bicarbonate is mildly abrasive (so makes an excellent scouring agent) and a first-rate deodoriser. It's a great general cleaning agent that can even be used for cleaning teeth and as a personal deodorant!

Soda crystals are also good for general cleaning and make a very powerful degreaser. A strong solution in very hot water is a first line of attack on a blocked drain. (Be careful with this in strong solution, it's quite caustic.)

At only a slightly increased level of complexity, we can start combining ingredients to make things like washing up liquid and laundry detergent.

Washing-up liquid

There are several more or less similar washing up liquid recipes floating around online. Here's my version:
Plenty bubbly: homemade washing-up liquid

Makes about 1 litre
  • 1 L freshly boiled water
  • 20 g (vegetable) soap flakes
  • 2 heaped tsp soda crystals
  • 2 tsp white vinegar
  • 2-3 drops tea tree oil
  1. Dissolve the soap flakes and soda crystals in the hot water.
  2. Add the vinegar and tea tree oil.
  3. Allow to cool before transferring into a bottle or dispenser.
Don't expect something that looks like Fairy Liquid. This is a thinner solution, but it's cheap and easy to make, works extremely well, smells nice, is kind to hands and doesn't need to come with a 'causes lasting harm to the aquatic environment' label. This stuff is great. Seriously - try it!

Laundry detergent

Simple homemade washing powder
I'd had it in mind for several years to try making laundry detergent, but the impetus to finally get on and do it came when Sonja suddenly developed an acute allergic reaction to the traces of washing powder left in clothes after the wash. This took the form of an extremely unpleasant lumpy, itchy skin reaction that took us some time to trace to its source. It got worse as time went on, so when we realised what was the problem, a quick solution was needed.

There's a very good recipe and method description to be found at this site. I'll give it in outline here, with translations and available alternatives for non-American readers!
An example of a laundry soap bar
  • 500g box soda crystals (washing soda)
  • 500g box borax substitute
  • 1 bar of soap (this can be a 'laundry soap' or just a regular hand soap)
  1. Grate, or chop up and blend, your bar of soap.
  2. Mix it all together.
  3. Store in an airtight tub.
Can it be that easy? Yes.
This stuff works brilliantly. With unscented soap, it leaves the washing smelling simply fresh. If you prefer a bit of perfume, you can use a scented soap or add a few drops of essential oil. You'll only need from 1 to 3 heaped tbsp (1 generally does it, but more may be needed for heavy soiling) of this for a normal sized load of laundry, so it lasts for ages! 

Next on the agenda will be homemade dishwasher detergent. I'll get back to you on that one after some trials.


  1. Hi guys, i really enjoy your posts...I am a big fan of tea tree oil for all sorts of things as we live in the land of eucalypts! hope you are snug & warm and Happy 2017! X

    1. Yes, the land of eucalypts. We even swam in a tea tree lake when we were there! Pretty snug here. Hope all is well in Oz!


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