Something I have found that is not necessarily common knowledge – but can be extremely helpful to know when creating and using your own cleaning products – is the different uses and methods for using an acid to clean, vs. using a base to clean – and when to combine and when NOT to combine these kinds of ingredients.
Let’s start off with a simple explanation of pH, which is the scale of measurement for the acidity or alkalinity of something. Most things that we interact with in our daily environment are pretty close to neutral (no acidity or alkalinity). As we move along the scale of more acidic or more basic (alkaline), things will be generally more reactive, and have a more harsh effect on your body and things we are trying to clean. We use acids and bases to create certain reactions that are helpful in the breaking down of certain types of messes, but we generally do not want to apply something too acidic or too alkaline to our body – it is best to keep body products closer to pH neutral.
The cleaning products that we are going to use are close enough to neutral that they are not going to cause any harm to our bodies when using them to clean and disinfect our home. However, it is important to know that a lot of them ARE classified as acids or bases, and to remember where they lie on the pH scale. This is so we know what types of tasks they will be useful for, and when and if to use them in conjunction with another ingredient. If we change the pH of a product too much by combining it with something else, it may lose its effectiveness, or a reaction may occur that may or may not be helpful.
Let’s look at a few of the most common ingredients in homemade cleaners and where they lie on the scale:
Lemon / Citric acid
Baking & washing sodas
Bacteria that thrive in our body generally prefer a relatively pH neutral environment, because that is the pH of our bodies, where they are looking to multiply. So when we are looking to disinfect, we can apply at either side of the scale. The stronger the base or acid, the more disinfecting quality it will have. An acid or a base will also have a preservative effect – if your cleanser is made with an acid or a base, we can be sure it will have a lengthier shelf life.
Generally acids are great for cleaning off dirt and bacteria (and giving things that “squeaky clean” feeling), while bases are good for breaking down grease and fats. Therefore, vinegar makes a great countertop disinfectant, and baking / washing soda and soap are great for cleaning greasy kitchen spills / stains on clothing / oils in our bathtub from our skin.
One thing it is very important to realize, is that if you combine an acid and a base, they will cancel each other out and lead to a neutral substance, generally speaking – at least when we are talking about the ingredients we are using. When we are talking about intense bases and acids that are very high or low on the scale (and therefore dangerous for use), it may not be the case. However, let’s keep our discussion relative for the moment. This neutralizing effect may be helpful or unhelpful. Let’s talk about a few examples.
DESIRED NEUTRALIZATIONS:. When using the “No-poo” method for washing hair, we first use the baking soda (alkaline) mixture to clean our hair. We then add the apple cider vinegar (acid) mixture as a rinse, which effectively balances the pH of your hair. This leaves your hair silky and shiny, at a healthy balance. This is a desired neutralization effect to promote the health of our hair. Anything too basic or acidic will eventually strip our hair and leave it unhealthy. In terms of cleaning – we spray our bathtub down with our vinegar mix after cleaning with our alkaline abrasive cleaner, so as to neutralize the slippery effect of the alkaline sodas. Adding a small amount of vinegar (acid) to your rinse water when handwashing dishes also really helps to remove any residues from your soap (a base).
UNDESIRED NEUTRALIZATIONS: However, when disinfecting our countertop with our vinegar spray, if we combine it with baking soda right away, we are neutralizing the effect of either ingredient, and not doing a great job at sanitizing. And vice versa, if we are trying to clean a greasy mess and we are using baking soda and vinegar together, the grease may remain. We would do better to scour with a paste made of washing soda first to tackle the grease, to wipe the mess clean, and then to apply vinegar afterwards to neutralize any leftover residue. Another common mistake I have seen people make is adding castille soap to a vinegar based spray cleaner. You are effectively neutralizing both ingredients this way, and the mixture may end up being useless. If you want to try an experiment, mix some liquid soap and vinegar and watch what happens. See the white floaties? This is your soap, “de-saponified.” Not functioning as soap anymore!
The important lesson to be learned here is to follow the directions for homebased cleaning and body products carefully or you may be messing with a pH level that is serving a certain function. Feel free to ask me any questions if you are looking for an alteration – better to ask than to end up with a useless product or something that is going to be irritating for your skin!