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September 13, 2007

Clean and non-toxic(ish)

There are a lot of reasons to green up your cleaning supplies ... better for the environment, less toxic for you to touch and smell, cheaper, and so on. The main reason I am making the switch from my chemical cleaning arsenal to plain old natural cleaning stuff is uh, well, because of the cats.

This summer I read an article somewhere that talked about the things we buy (bleach, ammonia, chemical cleansers, that sort of thing) and how these cleaning products sit silently on the shelves of our homes giving off fumes. This had never occurred to me. Could my stockpile of cleaning products be off-gassing in the air? And I thought about my little gatos who never go outdoors and live inside the house all day long, 24 hours a day, and they're so close to the ground what with their short, furry legs and all ... and I started to wonder how hard it would be to clean without Windex.

Was it even possible? I mean, I love Windex! I love Scrubbing Bubbles! I love bleaching the sink! Who are these hippieass granola-lovin' clean green people anyway? Are they crazy? And most importantly, if I give up Windex and go au natural, DO I HAVE TO START WEARING BIRKENSTOCKS?

(Oh calm down... I jest, I jest.) (Kind of.)

Mostly I wanted to know if I could get the same level of cleaning out of natural or "green" cleaners as I do with my heavy duty chemical cleansers. Then I started to think back to my great-grandma and her little farmhouse out in Blanco, Texas. She used white vinegar on windows and plain soapy water on everything else. Her house smelled like lemon and fresh air, it was spic 'n span with never a trace of dust anywhere. I don't remember a single cleaning product in her house, aside from soap flakes and vinegar and no one ever got sick from not having enough antibacterial cleaning chemicals.

So, yeah, I guess it's possible. Somehow, someway people once lived without the awesomeness of Formula 409.

I would love to tell you I immediately ditched all my chemicals and went straight to the baking soda, but this is a process. I am not one who is easily swayed from her long-held list of Products To Love And Buy. I started using Shaklee cleansers a while back, but Lord that gets expensive. So slowly, and I do mean sloooowly, I started experimenting here and there to see how clean and non-toxic I could go before ... you know. Having to buy Birkenstocks.

The first step has been creating an arsenal of clean.

The space between the fridge and the wall previously housed a GINORMOUS mountain of plastic and paper grocery bags and some cobwebs. A few weekends ago I re-purposed a wire rack from the back patio, scrubbed it off and brought it inside. Fits perfectly! The mountain of plastic bags went to a recycle bin at Whole Foods. I kept a small supply of plastic bags for cat pan cleanup and some paper bags for hauling out the household recyling, but I did not really need 75,000 bags. Really.

At Target I found a cleaning caddy and bucket hold my everyday cleaning supplies:


The set is from the "Real Simple" cleaning line and I think they cost me about $12. Inside I have spray bottles with my homemade cleaning concoctions, a shaker jar full of baking soda, a jar of white vinegar (I buy the bigger gallon size jars and refill the portable one as needed) and various scrubbers, sponges and gloves. I also have magic erasers in there because I love my magic erasers.

My favorite duster is there, too, it's some kind of fluffy animal fiber and I wash it as soon as it gets dirty. The telescoping rod means I can get the cobwebs in the corners of the ceilings!

The little wire storage rack houses bulk supplies, too. I am and will always be a Cancer gal, so you will not see me running out of toilet paper, paper towels, or cleaning supplies. It's a fine line between being prepared and being a hoarder, and I walk it very carefully. That's where I store my have backup cleaners -- baking soda, lemon juice (opened lemon juice is in the fridge) and various sponges and cleaners, including a small box of Ecover enzymatic laundry powder that I use for household scrubbing.

I do a lot of laundry. While I loved my Shaklee laundry detergent, it was just way out of my budget. I switched to Seventh Generation laundry detergent, and now I'm using Ecover brand laundry liquid because I like the scent. Both work just great. I have bleach for sheets and whites (Drew says bleach is a natural chemical, but it isn't non-toxic so I use it with more restraint now). For dishes I use my Shaklee dish soap or Seventh Generation.

My biggest struggle has been finding a perfect combination for a cleaning spray to replace Formula 409, Windex and various bathroom cleaners. I've tried plain vinegar (yuck smell), vinegar and water, soap and water, soap and vinegar and water and so on. What seems to be working for me right now is a combination of plain water, a few drops of dish soap, a few drops of essential oil (this week it's citrus, but sometimes I use tea tree oil or eucalyptus oil) and a small amount of vinegar. Sometimes I add a small bit of baking soda. I put it in a spray bottle and it seems to be doing the job. Windows get straight vinegar and I clean them with newspaper and -- shock!!! -- this age-old cleaning tip really works. The vinegar smell goes away pretty quickly and I don't have to worry about the fumes I'm breathing in or worry about Windexing little cat lungs. Now the cats aren't having to wear little gas masks everytime I go on a neurotic cleaning binge.

We have very hard water out here in Encino-Adjacent. It's a menace on fixtures. So last weekend I took a tip from my heroes Kim & Aggie and soaked my limescale-encrusted showerhead in lemon juice like I'd seen on an episode of "How Clean Is Your House?" and it worked! I honestly did not really believe this trick was going to perform any miracles, I sort of half-expected it to be a bit of TV tomfollery but thought it was worth a try.

I just filled a ziploc baggie with enough lemon juice to cover the face plate and then secured it over the showerhead with a hair elastic. Then I let it sit for about five hours. I am also such a nerd that I took before and after pictures:

Showerhead before:

Showerhead after:

In the past I've used massive amounts of CLR Limescale Remover on my bathroom fixtures to get the crud off. CLR is so toxic that you have to wear gloves and fully ventilate the room and hope no one lights a match. I was always terrified I would spill a little somewhere and one of the cats would accidentally step on it (ditto for Scrubbing Bubbles, bleach and Ajax powder).

Lemon juice smells pretty and doesn't require a massive clean-up lest a stray kittycat paw step find a spilled drop. I think I'll try this on the shower doors, too, although that is a bigger job than the showerhead. I'm guessing I'd have to take the doors off and sit them on the back patio with a coating of lemon juice and borax, a combination which is supposed to be great at removing built-up scum and scale. I am also supposing that this may rewuire possibly more gusto than I have to work up over some shower doors. Well, maybe I'll save that one for when I have company. Maybe.

Which brings me to my last toxic-to-nontoxic switch, and it's happening this weekend. Mark your calendars, alert the media. You see, I have been using Ajax with bleach in my bathroom for years and years. (Just think of the powder I have inhaled after 15 years of using Ajax with bleach once a week! I have me some clean nostrils!) (That's gross. Moving on.) But I will not sacrifice toilet bowl cleanliness, yo. I have my limits.

This weekend, I will make my first non-Ajax pass of the bathroom. Using a paste of Borax and lemon juice (another tip from Kim and Aggie, of course, what ya'll think I just sit around at night dreaming this up? No way Jose! I learned it from my best fried, TeeVee.) I plan to scour the bowl and report back. I am skeptical, but it would be really nice to find a cleanser that doesn't require major ventilation. And frankly, every time I have a guest over I have to obsessively check to be sure they've put the lid down or panic about whether or not Bob is drinking Ajax water.

Like I said, these are the concerns of one lady with a lot of cats who has a deep, anxious fear of another one of them dying.

There are a few items I haven't been able to let go of, because I love them and boy do they work! Magic Erasers will always have a place in my arsenal, but according to a scientist friend of mine the main cleaning agent in the basic eraser is a superfine grit that essentially sands your dirt off (cool!) And I love Bounce dryer sheets, so hopefully they aren't super toxic because, well, I love them. I'm not sure I will forever and always let go of the Ajax, but I am trying and that's something.

My slow switch to nontoxic cleaners has saved me more money than I would have ever anticipated. A big box of baking soda, a gallon of vinegar and the Wal-Mart brand bottle of lemon juice on my supply rack cost me less than $2. Borax was about $2, and my spray bottles were 99 cents each. Ecover is expensive (compared to generic or ALL brand of laundry detergent) but I think it's worth it. Mostly I like the peace of mind that comes from knowing my little gatos aren't breathing in toxic fumes while I'm at work breathing in the toxic fumes of downtown. I love that when Al Gore finally takes me on a date I can impress him with my saving of the envoronment of Encino-Adjacent. I love that I can use the same cleanser on almost everything. And it is good for the world, and that can't be too bad, either.

And of course, crazy animal lovers unite... if they're breathing in healthier air, then I am a happier lady. And it can't be a bad thing for me to have healthier air, too!

Posted by laurie at September 13, 2007 7:48 AM