Sustainable household cleaning: natural alternatives to try in your cleaning routine
- Natural vs synthetic cleaners
- What supplies do you need for sustainable cleaning?
- How to make natural cleaning products
- How long do DIY products last?
- Are natural products safe to use around pets?
Love it or hate it, we all need to clean our homes to keep them hygienic and looking good. Keeping on top of essential tasks can also ensure that your home remains in good condition and means that you don’t have to deal with a bigger mess further down the line. From everyday jobs like wiping down surfaces, to more thorough spring cleaning, these chores can take up a lot of our time. In fact, keeping things spick and span takes the average UK adult 10 whole day, or 237 hours per year, according to research. That’s a lot of time dedicated to one cleaning – especially when many of us also need to balance work, social lives and often the needs of our family members as well.
But the popularity of cleaning is ever increasing, due to a rise in ‘influencers’ within the home cleaning category. Favourites like Mrs Hinch, Clean Mama and Lynsey Queen of Clean have thousands of dedicated followers, and share their top tips in bitesize chunks, accompanied by pristine photos when the job is done.
For good or bad, these accounts encourage followers to copy their techniques and products, aiming for a dream aesthetic that undeniably takes more work than simply wiping a damp cloth around and doing a quick vacuum. Interestingly, research suggests that this might actually be reframing the way that we look at housework. Instead of being a dull, mundane task ‘cleanfluencers’ have managed to re-invent cleaning into a fun routine that leaves the home looking glamorous, with special displays for each season – not dissimilar to interior design. This allows them to inject some personality into their space and take pride in their work.
Additionally, these researchers argue that the desire to tidy goes deeper than simply needing to get the task done for some people. Creating something clean and spending time slowly working through tasks can offer a form of mindfulness, allowing a chance to relax and destress that is more task-oriented than simply reading or watching TV.
So, whether you keep your home clean purely from necessity or as a semi-hobby, you’ll need to have some reliable cleaning products in your cupboard. But what type of cleaners are right for you and your home? There’s plenty of factors to consider when purchasing cleaning products, from ease of purchase, cost, and sustainability. In this guide, we explore why your choice of cleaning product matters, and what you can create yourself with just a few ingredients.
Natural vs synthetic cleaners
Chemical cleaners became mainstream during World War One, when the animal fats that made up traditional soap became hard to get hold of. As an alternative, manufacturers replaced them with synthetic ingredients. This then progressed into readily available laundry detergents in the 1950s, which have evolved and become more widespread until they’ve turned into the variety of cleaning products we know today.
However, while these chemicals are undeniably effective at getting rid of dirt, they also contain several ingredients that can be harmful to both humans and the planet. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), fragrances, flammables and irritants are commonly found in standard household cleaners, but research has shown that these can have a detrimental effect on health, even if they’re only used weekly.
Additionally, chemical cleaners can be harmful to animal and plant life, especially if they get into our water systems. They reduce the quality of the water, which can have a negative effect on aquatic life. Furthermore, they can affect air quality, and contribute to smog formation.
In contrast, natural cleaners are ones that primarily use natural components as the active ingredient. Confusingly, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have synthetics added to them – especially as some companies will use naturally-occurring chemicals, like citric acid, or plant-based versions of manmade chemicals.
It’s important to recognise that the term ‘natural’ is not regulated, so consumers should read up on products before purchasing them to fully understand a brand’s sustainability credentials. Some companies openly acknowledge that they have reduced manmade chemicals as much as possible but are still not 100% synthetic free.
In this guide, we’re going to cover how to make your own natural cleaners, so you can be sure what’s going into the products you use in your home. Not only can these cleaners produce good results, but they also tend to be inexpensive and reduce the amount of plastic you use in your cleaning routine.
What supplies do you need for sustainable cleaning?
For those who are concerned about the environment, sustainable cleaning goes further than simply the product inside the bottle. It can be difficult to imagine an alternative to simply picking up your cleaning products during your weekly food shop, but moving away from plastic will make a significant difference to your carbon footprint. Additionally, streamlining your routine to simply use a few products rather than a different type of cleaner for each room or surface will also make an impact.
What’s the problem with plastic?
Plastic is a common sight in cleaning aisles, due to being inexpensive, easy to mass produce and having hygienic qualities. While some types of plastic can be recycled, many people simply throw them away. Or, they don’t get recycled correctly, meaning that they end up in landfills despite being separated.
This is a problem as traditional plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose in the ground. In water, the situation is even worse – plastic never really decomposes, but instead breaks down into microplastic particles that seriously harm marine life. Our reliance on plastic and the issues around disposing of it properly have led to around 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic currently floating in the world’s oceans, killing 100 million marine animals each year.
Sustainable cleaning tools
Some eco-friendly companies offer their products in a concentrated drop or tablet form, which you can then mix with water to get a full bottle. There are multiple benefits to opting for concentrated refills – not only will you cut down on the amount of plastic bottles that you’re using, but they’re often cheaper per millilitre than buying a new bottle, and the refill supply chain uses fewer lorries, due the smaller packaging.
Whether you opt for buying refills or making your own DIY cleaning solutions, you’ll need something to mix them in. Instead of using plastic spray bottles, consider buying glass ones. Not only will they look beautiful on your shelves, but they can be washed easily, and recycled if they break. In fact, glass can be recycled multiple times, without losing its quality, so you can be reassured that any accidental mishaps by you won’t result in wasted materials. The bottles tend to be made of thick, durable glass, and some even have UV protection, which stops the products stored inside from going off.
Washable cleaning cloths
Many of us rely on single-use cloths to do our cleaning. Especially for cleaning bathrooms or dirty surfaces, it can feel more hygienic to wipe the mess and then throw the cloth away. However, this creates a huge amount of waste over time, and some of these cloths actually contain microplastics – even some multi-use ones release plastic when washed.
To avoid this, make sure to opt for cleaning cloths that are both microplastic-free and multi-use, so that you can wash them safely and reuse them for a longer period of time.
Bamboo mops and scrubbing brushes
As we’ve mentioned, plastic is hugely problematic when it comes to cleaning products. As well as bottles, it’s also present in the handles of washing up brushes, dustpans, mop handles and toilet brushes, to name a few. These products don’t last forever – in fact, plastic can break quite easily with hard use, such as frequently being used for cleaning. Since not all plastic can be recycled, or broken parts easily replaced, this can mean that every year thousands of cleaning tools end up in the landfill.
Ever-more frequently, bamboo is being used as a plastic alternative for those who want to be more eco-friendly. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on planet Earth, meaning that it is ultra-sustainable – any bamboo that’s cut down can simply be replaced. This gives it the edge against traditional wood, which can take a long time to grow back and reach maturity. It’s very durable, and is naturally antimicrobial and antibacterial, which makes it an attractive prospect for cleaning products. One of the advantages of plastic is that it is highly sanitary, so consumers who may be concerned about losing this by switching to wooden handles may feel reassured when using bamboo.
When buying bamboo products, make sure to check that they’re not infused with plastic – there are some mixed material products on the market that do not offer the same sustainability credentials as pure bamboo.
How to make natural cleaning products
It can be hard to start making your own products - you may feel like you need to have lots of complicated ingredients, or a lot of time, and seem simpler to just buy a bottle with your weekly shop. However, DIY cleaning products can be surprisingly easy to whip up. In this section, we show you how.
What’s the benefit of making your own?
As we’ve mentioned, there are many cleaning products readily available on the market. And for those who want to stick to natural brands, the increase in interest in this area means that you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. But even with these ready-made solutions, it’s still worth considering making your own cleaning products.
The main advantage of the DIY approach is that you’ll know exactly what goes into your cleaning routine. For those with sensitive skin or allergies, even some eco-friendly products (particularly scented ones) can cause a reaction. Creating your own products means that you have control over what ingredients you use, allowing you to find alternatives if necessary – and you can choose your favourite scent – bonus!
Additionally, homemade products are often cheaper. Most people tend to use several different sprays or liquids for cleaning their home – one for the kitchen, one for the bathroom, a bleach, and furniture cleaner, for example. The cost of doing this soon adds up, and you may even find that you throw products away as they go off before you finish the whole bottle. By keeping a cupboard of core ingredients, you can mix up cleaning products as and when you need them and opt for recipes that are suitable for a range of rooms and surfaces.
What are the main ingredients?
Whilst there are occasionally a few additional ingredients needed in DIY recipes, there are some consistent ingredients that feature across the board. Keeping these in your cupboard will mean that you can generally whip up some type of cleaner at short notice, without having to make an extra trip to the shop.
- Baking soda. This versatile ingredient is probably be best known for its role in the kitchen, but it’s also one of the key parts of many homemade scrubs. The texture means that it acts as a gentle abrasive, and the dirt dissolves without the need for any hard scrubbing, which could potentially damage your surfaces. It’s also great as a deodoriser, as it soaks up smells. However, it is worth noting that baking soda can’t be used on all surfaces, so make sure you check before you start scrubbing.
- Vinegar. Whether you choose to use regular white vinegar or apple cider vinegar, this powerful cleaner is great at dissolving dirt. It’s naturally acidic, which means that it eats away at the grime, leaving you with a sparkling surface. Additionally, it’s a natural disinfectant, so you can be assured that your home is clean at a bacterial level, not just to the eye.
- Essential oils. The acidic properties of vinegar might be useful, but unfortunately, they also leave a distasteful smell in your home. By adding essential oils to the mix, you can combat this issue, and leave your home smelling of your favourite scent. Some even offer special properties of their own – lemon, for instance, is antiviral and antibacterial, and lavender can help reduce stress and make you feel relaxed.
- Castile soap. This natural product originates from the Mediterranean, and was traditionally made of olive oil. Today, it is also created using other plant oils, such as castor, coconut, or hemp – but never animal fats. The soap attaches itself to the dirt particles on your surfaces, so that they’re rinsed away when you wipe them clean. It’s even gentle enough to make your own shampoo, so it’s perfect for people who want to clean their homes without any ingredients that might potentially irritate the skin.
- Borax. A compound that’s been in use since the 1800s, borax reacts with acidic substances such as stains and hard water to break them down. Its alkaline components make it particularly good at removing oils and grease, as well as odours.
- Salt. While salt won’t necessarily clean anything alone, it’s great for boosting the cleaning powder of other ingredients.
- Hydrogen peroxide. Perhaps best known as a hair bleaching agent, hydrogen peroxide is a whitening agent that can be used around the house as a form of bleach, amongst other things. It’s naturally antiseptic as well.
Having an all-purpose cleaner in your arsenal means that you can mix up one solution and use it all over the house, which results in less wasted product, and a quicker cleaning routine. The most simple all-purpose cleaner consists of:
- One part vinegar
- One part water
- Lemon rind
- Rosemary sprigs (optional)
Some recipes also advocate for adding borax and hydrogen peroxide, but even just the version with simple ingredients will help you get your surfaces clean and smelling fresh. It’s worth noting that it’s not recommended to use vinegar on granite or stainless steel – if you’re uncertain, test clean an inconspicuous patch before proceeding.
Bathrooms are the place where we wash off the dirt from the day, so it’s no wonder that they need regular cleaning. From showers to sinks, and toilets to taps, there’s plenty to do. However, the number of different materials in a bathroom can mean that we typically buy several cleaning products – one for glass, one for the mirrors, one for the taps, one for the toilet, a bleach, and potentially a shower cleaner too. Creating your own products can make a big difference to the amount that you buy, saving you money and making a positive step forward for the planet.
Glass and mirror cleaner
This DIY cleaner is great for both mirrors and shower glass, meaning that you’re already cutting down the number of bottles you’ll be using. You can spray it directly onto glass, but should spray it onto a soft cloth before using it on a mirror, to stop it streaking – it’s also best used out of direct sunlight. Combine:
- 2 cups of water
- ½ cup of vinegar
- ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol (70% strength)
You can also add a few drops of essential oils to dilute the smell of the alcohol and give your bathroom a pleasant scent.
Bathroom scrub cleaner
A good bathroom scrub is essential for getting rid of the grime that gathers on your shower, bath and other surfaces. This one creates a paste that you can leave to sit for ten minutes, then wipe off with a cloth and hot water. You’ll need:
- ¾ cup of baking soda
- 2-3 tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide
- 2-3 tablespoons of liquid castile soap
Shower head cleaner
Whilst shower heads don’t tend to get too dirty, water residue can build up, covering them in a white coating and making them less effective. This is particularly true in areas with hard water, where there is a high mineral content.
To make the shower head clean and sparkling again, simply fill a bucket white vinegar, remove the shower head and immerse it in the vinegar for up to 12 hours. If your shower head isn’t removable, fill a bag with vinegar instead and tie it around the shower head so it’s submerged. When you take it out, it should be residue-free and ready to go.
If you clean your toilet regularly, the chances are that you won’t need to scrub it to get rid of any stains. Instead, you can use this DIY method to get it back to white. Pour a cup of baking soda into the toilet bowl and leave it to soak for an hour, and follow up with a cup of white vinegar. Leave for five minutes and then flush.
The kitchen is often the hub of the home and gets plenty of use. Removing sticky finger marks on surfaces, cooking grease and dirty drains are all common cleaning tasks in this area of the home, and it is likely to get cleaned more often than other rooms, so in some cases you may want to make up a week’s worth of cleaning product to save you time.
General kitchen cleaner
Baking soda is the hero ingredient in any kitchen cleaner, as it has multiple uses. It can be poured neat into drains and bins, or even placed in a small bowl in your fridge to soak up unpleasant odours. You can also mix it with water to create a basic cleaning spray or mix up a paste to use with a gentle brush on stainless steel.
Regularly cleaning your oven can save you from having to get a professional deep clean further down the line. Over time, dirt build up can get baked onto the oven grills and glass, which can be challenging to get off. Instead, make a paste of baking soda and water, and spread it on the grills, glass and bottom of the oven. Leave it for a few hours, and then wipe off – you’ll be amazed at how much dirt comes off.
If you need more cleaning power, try swapping the water for vinegar, and gently scrub at the dirt. You may need to do this for oven grills, where food may have baked on.
Hob vent cleaner
The vents above your stove get filled with grease, where they’re extracting the air from above your cooking pots and pans. It’s important to clean them, both for hygiene reasons and to keep them working properly. Whilst it might be tempting to put them in the dishwasher to do this, if they’re really dirty, this means you’re simply moving the grease to the dishwasher.
Instead, remove the filters and place them in a bucket or in your sink. Fill it up with boiling water, pour in ¼ cup of baking soda and a generous squirt of washing up liquid and mix (use a brush, so you don’t burn yourself). Leave the filters to soak, then scrub them once the water has cooled using a non-abrasive brush. Rinse and leave them to dry fully before putting them back in your extractor fan.
Muddy shoes, pets, vistiors and the general hustle and bustle of everyday life means that dirt build up is natural in heavy-traffic areas like hallways and living rooms. Most of this can be tackled with a hoover and a duster, but there are a few simple solutions you can use in place of chemical cleaners when it comes to harder-to-clean surfaces.
Hard floor cleaner
Hard floors are great, as they’re generally much easier to clean than carpet when it comes to spills. To keep them looking their best and smelling fresh, you should clean them regularly using a mop or sponge. For a DIY floor cleaning solution, mix:
- 2 cups warm water
- ½ cup of white vinegar
- ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol
- ⅛ tsp washing up liquid
- 5-10 drops of essential oil
Instead of dipping the mop directly into this mixture, put it in a spray bottle and spray each section of floor as you go. This makes the solution go further and stops excess liquid build-up on the surface, which can cause hard flooring to discolour or swell.
It’s easy to throw the windows open in the summer and let the fresh air flow around our homes, but that’s not practical in winter. As a result, our homes can begin to smell musty, especially if you have muddy or wet outdoor gear hanging up, or a pet.
Your choice of natural air freshener will depend on whether you want to remove the offending odour, or simply mask it until it goes by itself. You can create your own essential oil diffuser by pouring boiling water into a container, and adding a few drops of essential oils to fill the air with your chosen scent. Alternatively, coffee grounds actually absorb odours, as well as making the room smell nice. Whilst they might look a little odd scattered in bowls around the house, they act quickly, so they’re a great choice for every day – you can easily remove them if you have guests.
Stains are a part of everyday life – from spilt food and drink to muddy paws, and children accidentally getting colouring pens on the sofa. Luckily, there are several options when it comes to DIY stain removers, including:
- Baking soda
- Hydrogen peroxide
- White vinegar
- Lemon juice
If you’re nervous about whether these will damage your fabric or make the stain worse, do some research on quantities and test on an inconspicuous area first, but generally, natural cleaners are more gentle than synthetic products.
Frequently asked questions
How long do DIY products last?
The shelf life of DIY cleaning products will primarily depend on the ingredients. If they contain lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide, you’re best to just mix up the amount you need for that clean, and no more, or you risk it going off. Concoctions with vinegar tend to last longer, but no more than three months. For the most effective clean, keep the raw ingredients in the cupboard, and blend your homemade cleaners as and when you need them.
Are natural products safe to use around pets?
Responsible owners will know that pets are an integral part of family life. Cats and dogs in particular tend to get free rein over at least part of the house – which means their paws are touching the surfaces you clean, even if that’s just the floor. They then settle down to clean themselves, potentially ingesting at least some particles of cleaning product along the way.
As such, it’s important to be aware of what ingredients are in the products you’re using, and keep anything harmful well out of the way of any animal companions. Even seemingly harmless ingredients like some scented oils can be toxic to pets, so make sure you do your research before you clean. That doesn’t mean that you need to miss them out all together – there are plenty that are still suitable, like lemon and lavender. If in doubt, ask your vet.