Disinfecting Naturally

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When I wrote my last post on lathering action, I felt compelled to write another piece on disinfecting your home. Many critics of natural cleaning methods always seem to come back to one point – “So how do you make sure you kill bacteria and viruses in your home?” Well, the solutions are, in keeping with tradition here, pretty darn simple.

First of all, I want to start off with a bit of a plea to the public. Can we give up on the idea that our homes need to be 100% “free of germs”? I really think we need to let go of that one. Yes, I know, we have endured years of advertising that claims we need to eliminate “99.9%” of the bacteria on our household surfaces. But you know what? Modern science is telling us that this may NOT, in fact, be a wise decision. We need to be more realistic, and look at the facts more closely.

You may have heard about “superbugs”, and antibiotic resistance. This has been a pretty hot topic over the last few years. Explained simply, this basically means that, through years and years of persistent and excessive antibiotic use, many bacteria have become tolerant of them and have been surviving better despite antibiotic treatment. The “germs” are getting stronger, and resisting the tough methods we are using to eliminate them. Why is that?

Well, when you treat bacteria with an antibiotic, it does not necessarily kill off every organism. And the ones that remain are generally the strongest, most resilient ones. Eventually, more and more of these resilient strains start to reproduce, and you are left with tougher and tougher bacteria that require stronger and stronger methods of elimination.

And guess what – medical professionals are running out of options faster than these superbugs are growing. It is a definite area of concern, especially within hospital environments where sterilization is necessary and mandatory for successful surgeries and invasive procedures.

Now let’s apply this same theory to your home. When you bleach or apply alcohol or sanitizing, antibacterial wipes, and other very potent disinfectants to your surfaces, guess which bacteria remain behind? That stronger “0.01%” that your product is not killing off are the ones who are left to reproduce. And those are the ones that are least likely to be affected by your disinfecting solutions. See where this is going? By applying unnecessarily strong disinfectants in your home, you actually may be breeding stronger bacteria. At the very best, you are leaving the strongest behind.

Not to mention the fact that bleach and other antibacterial chemicals can be very dangerous for children and pets, and are generally disconcerting for me to have in my home at all. Fumes from bleach are harmful to the respiratory tract, and ingestion of it can be deadly. And these substances negatively impact the environment when they go into the groundwater (bleach especially so).

Furthermore, there are lots of bacteria and microorganisms that may be of benefit to our bodies and immune system that live in our environment (not to mention within and on our own bodies). We need a healthy amount of “gut flora”, and even our skin has a layer of protective microbes that are undesirably killed off by things such as hand sanitizer and cleaning with bleach.

All of that being said, it leads me to this. How do I eliminate ALL of the bacteria in our home? I don’t. That’s right, you heard me! I don’t. I clean my home to an acceptable standard that eliminates health concerns, but I don’t make it a personal goal to just kill off all of the microorganisms in my house. My goal is to keep my home healthy and disease free. Can you do that with natural cleaning methods? Absolutely. How do I do that? Read along!

First, hand washing is a must in my home. Whenever we come in from being out in the community, or from playing in the dirt, we wash our hands. With regular soap. Using soap has been widely demonstrated as the best method for eliminating harmful bacteria and viruses from your hands (and body). Why? Because you are scrubbing them and physically removing the germs rather than just ‘killing’ them. It is this physical, mechanical removal of microorganisms that is the most effective method of cleaning.

Second, when I want to do more of a disinfecting type job (cutting boards, countertops, doorknobs, bathroom surfaces), I use vinegar and tea tree oil. These two are my best germ busting buddies. The natural acids in vinegar actually cause about 80% of bacteria and viruses to become inert. And tea tree has natural antimicrobial properties. Plus, it smells nice. I also use baking / washing soda and borax to clean things like toilets and bathtubs. For further reading on these methods, check out my article and recipes HERE.

Do I kill off 100% of the bacteria with these? No. But the sodas and borax, being naturally abrasive, physically remove most anything of concern. And I use soap, get in a good scrub, and physically remove bacteria and viruses on the surfaces that really count, like dishes.

Should you eat lunch off of my toilet seat? Mix up a batch of chicken soup in my bathtub? Prrrobbbbably not. There might be a few stragglers on there, and I certainly don’t clean them after each use. And seriously, ew. But you aren’t going to die of a staph infection because you didn’t chemically destroy all of the bacteria on your toilet. As long as you aren’t scratching your bare butt and then eating a sandwich, you are probably good to go.

I am also a firm believer in the fact that our immune systems need practice to become effective. If you lived your whole life in a completely sterile environment, and then tried to function in the real world, your body would probably react incredibly negatively to even very mild strains of bacteria and viruses.

If you have items of concern that you really think need a thorough disinfecting, first, scrub them well with soap to physically remove microorganisms, and then allow them to soak in a sink full of full strength white vinegar, or just spray them down with it and let sit. Hydrogen peroxide is also a beneficial disinfectant – I don’t use it much because I am satisfied with my vinegar, but I have researched that wiping with vinegar, and then following with hydrogen peroxide (NOT both together), kills off most microorganisms of concern. If you own a dishwasher, it also likely has a setting to sterilize – using your detergent and super hot water as active agents. You can also boil things that are heat tolerant (do NOT boil plastics).

So, long story short, I think it is time to rethink what “disinfecting” means in your home. We really don’t need to kill everything off – we can live in harmony with a few microorganisms and be perfectly healthy (in my opinion, more so). Here’s to hoping we can collectively reach a new level of comfort with what constitutes “clean enough” 🙂

For further reading on the topic, check out these links:
Does vinegar kill germs? – David Suzuki Foundation
Non-toxic Disinfecting – David Suzuki’s Queen of Green
Does vinegar really kill household germs? – ABC Health & Wellbeing
What is bleach and why is it dangerous? – Sustainable Baby Steps

Cleaning your mirrors

I often get asked how I clean my mirrors and windows without leaving streaks or using harsh chemicals / alcohol based cleaners. Back in my ‘chemical days’, I never had much luck with Windex – I found this left extreme streaks, no matter how much or little I tried to use. I couldn’t understand how this was such a popular product, as it never seemed to work for me!

Well, in my natural cleaning days, I started to use two tools to clean my mirror – my All Purpose Vinegar Spray – which is basically just half water, half vinegar, with some tea tree if desired – and a great window cleaning micro fibre cloth, like this one:

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These cloths are AMAZING – you can even use them with straight water, but I find the vinegar solution gives it an edge. There is something about the weave on these particular cloths that make them work so well. I can’t vouch for all mirror cleaning cloths, only these in particular! They are super durable. I also use them to shine up my faucets! You can buy one here – I also have them available for purchase at my DIY parties.

And there you have it – mirror and window cleaning without chemicals! Gotta love it 🙂

Cleaning with acids and bases

imageSomething 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:

ACIDS
Vinegar
Lemon / Citric acid

BASES
Soap
Baking & washing sodas
Borax

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!

Two Basic Cleaners

So let’s start with cleaning your home. I find people are more comfortable making the initial switch to DIY with basic cleaners, as these are both the simplest and cheapest recipes.

These are also the most toxic products in your home, and therefore are in my opinion the most important to replace. If you have small children around, family members with respiratory issues or allergies, you may find making the switch to natural cleaning products gives you peace of mind.

Let’s get started with the two basic cleaners that do almost all the general cleaning jobs in my home! Get ready for the simplest recipe of them all, my…..

ALL PURPOSE CLEANER:

Find yourself an empty spray bottle. Fill with:

1 Part White vinegar
1 Part Water
10 Drops Tea Tree essential oil

Shake well, and spray away! The vinegar and tea tree are both antimicrobial agents, the vinegar being acidic, and the tea tree working naturally to eliminate bacteria. Worried about your home smelling like vinegar? Don’t! The smell absolutely does not linger, and you will get more and more used to it during use. I add citronella to my cleaner sometimes which I find masks the vinegar smell very well during use.

What can you use it for? Spills in the kitchen, a tile or laminate cleaner, surface cleaner for your bathroom, mirror cleaner, and a disinfectant for toys. You name it! Stuck on mess? Spray and let it soak. Need a more abrasive cleaner? Coming up!

TOUGH SCRUB – BATH & TOILET BOWL CLEANER:

Need an abrasive cleaner for that brown ring in your tub, or stubborn stains in your toilet bowl? A really stuck on mess that your all purpose spray can’t handle? Try this recipe on for size.

I find this product dispenses great from one of those large costco size herb / spice shakers with the large holes. Grab one of those, or something similar that you can shake this product out of, and add:

1 Part Washing Soda
1 Part Baking Soda
1 Part Borax*

Mix these ingredients well (if you find you are breathing in a lot of dust from the ingredients, wear a mask or tie a scarf around your face while you are mixing, or mix them on your stove with the exhaust fan running. Although these ingredients are generally benign, it’s not great to be breathing in a large amount of any kind of particulate).

Scrub your toilet or bath with this mixture and they will be clean in no time, with very little elbow grease! If you are cleaning a dry surface, you will want to use a bit of water with this! For your tub, after cleaning, spray down with your all purpose cleaner and rinse well – the sodas can be slippery. The vinegar in the all purpose cleaner will neutralize the sodas so you don’t slip in the shower! For really stuck on messes, scrub with this mixture, and then spray with the vinegar cleaner, and scrub again – this creates a fun foaming reaction that lifts off messes no problem!

*If you would like a borax free recipe, simply replace the borax with an equal part washing soda. I find the borax just gives it that extra kick, but isn’t fully necessary.

Is your laundry toxic?

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There is much discussion online about the toxicity of commercial laundry detergent – and after some research, while my son was still in cloth diapers and developing rashes, I decided to make the switch to a homemade recipe – some of the commercially available “less toxic” alternatives still have some major chemical offenders in them, or at the very least, are super expensive, and usually contain a scent of some kind.

For a thorough discussion of the toxicity of many household products, especially laundry detergent, see this article. Since this guy breaks it down like nobody’s business, rather than discussing the dangers of commercial detergent, and dryer sheets, I am instead going to give you a safe, easy alternative – proven gentle for even my little guy’s tush.

What you need (click on “Sourcing Ingredients” in the page header for links in regards to where to buy these if you have trouble finding them, or click the affiliate links below):

Baking soda
Washing soda
Soap flakes
White Vinegar
OPTIONAL: Borax*

*Disclaimer: There is some controversy as to the relative safety of Borax – I fall on the side of it being safe enough for my family, and definitely much safer than the alternatives in commercial detergent. However, you may choose to do some research first. I have found this article to be amazingly helpful.

So all you are going to need to do is combine your ingredients (I use an old big honey tub – some relatively large plastic or glass container that can live in your laundry room is best!) at the following ratio:

For very sensitive skin, or very dark colours: 2 parts baking soda, 1 part washing soda, 1 part soap flakes. Stir or shake well to evenly distribute. About 3 tbsp per average load – but experiment with quantity if you find it is not enough / or too much (ie. there is residue on your clothes).

For tougher jobs, and lighter colours: (Read: construction clothes, stinky sports gear, tough stains / dirt). Combine 4 parts washing soda, 2 parts soap flakes, 1 part borax. Again, combine and mix well to distribute the ingredients. Three tbsp per load or so. The vinegar rinse, as described below, is especially helpful for these tough jobs.

Add a tablespoon of borax* to a load if you want some extra whitening power and are using the sensitive skin recipe. Add 1/4 cup vinegar to your rinse cycle (when the water is full) if you want to completely strip any residue at all from the clothes. Vinegar also acts as a natural fabric softener / anti-static agent. It won’t leave a scent – if it does, you’ve added too much. You can even add a few drops of the essential oil of your choice to the rinse cycle if you would like a mild scent to your clothes. I add tea tree when dealing with a particularly nasty load (read: poop or puke).

IMPORTANT: DO NOT add the vinegar to your wash cycle, or it will neutralize the cleaning ingredients.
*If someone still develops a sensitivity, remove the borax.

And there you have it! I hope your laundry washing days are a lot less toxic. And dryer sheets? I find I don’t need them at all with this detergent, and the vinegar rinse. Still, if you find things still come out a bit clingy – see this link to make your own felted dryer balls!