The Complete Guide to DIY Household Cleaners

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My family has four motivations in making our own cleaners.

First, we value thrift as a virtue. Homemade cleaners are generally cheaper.

Second, I and my toddler have a skin sensitivity (perfume allergy). We can control what fragrances are in the product if we make it ourselves.

Third, we like the idea of sustainable, self-sufficient living. The simpler the ingredients, the closer to self-sufficient we are.

Fourth, I was very impacted by my read of The Better Baby Book by Lana Asprey and David Asprey. It is written by a married geneticist (Lana) and nutritionist (Dave) about what helps and hurts the development of humans. The principles can be generalized and expanded to help adults, which Dave Asprey did in his later very popular book as he invented the idea of biohacking.

I began my DIY journey learning about science, so it feels best to start you there as well.

Science of Cleaning

Water is a powerful cleaning agent all by itself. Many things dissolve in water, which is why leaving dirty dishes or clothes to soak in water can sometimes be sufficient to clean them. Water almost always improves the cleanliness of an item.

The goal of additives, such as soap, is to make more things water soluble. The idea is water is so awesome at washing dirt away if we can just get the other sticky, hard, or deep seated undesirables into the water as well they would be washed away as well.

If the soap succeeds, then the things soiling the item will dissolve in the water. Then, all that dissolved in the water can be washed away with the water. Now, we sometimes have other goals as well such as disinfecting or retaining moisture in our skin, but these goals are met by ingredients other than the soap and the water.

Soap is a technical chemistry term.

Chemically, soap is the saponification (chemical reaction) of a fatty acid (triglycerides, the bulk of animal fats and vegetable oils) and an alkali salt (a base that dissolves in water).

The fatty acid and alkali salt react with one another (like baking soda and vinegar). First, the reaction breaks the triglyceride fats into its constituents: three fatty acids and glycerin. Then, the fatty acids combine with the alkali to form soap salts while the glycerin remains as a byproduct.

The resulting soap salts are shaped like a bowl. They have a rim that is attracted to water and a container that is attracted to oil. The oils are pulled out or off of your soiled item because they are attracted to the container and then pulled away with the water as the rim is attracted to the water.

Thus, soap salts are good at removing oil and fat from soiled items.

There are many types of fatty acids which can be used but a limited number of alkali salts. The options for the alkali salt are:

Potassium hydroxide makes a milder soap that requires less water to liquefy and thus is preferred. Now, because lye reacts with fatty acids, of which humans are made, it is very dangerous to work with until the reaction is complete. After the reaction is done, you are left with the safer soap salts.

Beyond just the chemistry, soaps clean with their suds as well. Plain old dirt and debris gets caught in the bubbles and pulled away with the rest of the solution.

Castile soap, the soap I use, is a vegan soap (made with vegetable oil, normally olive oil). Castile soap is a low suds and high moisture. It does not dry out your skin as much as other soaps and normally touts a simple ingredient list.

Beyond just soap and water, there are other common additives or cleaning agents.

Vinegar is a strong antimicrobial (antibacterial and antifungal) disinfectant because of its acidity. It kills or prevents the growth of foodborne pathogens. It dissolves both salts and sugar as well as oils because of its molecular structure and it is attracted to water, helping to wash all it gathers down the drain. Vinegar is such a good cleaner that it cleans off finishes (such as those on hardwood floors) and waxes (such as those used in some vinyl floors), but since you don’t want those things washed off you shouldn’t use vinegar on them.

Baking Soda is a mild antifungal disinfectant. It is also abrasive, making it manually effective at scouring things. It is amphoteric, meaning it reacts with strong pH substances (both acid or base). These substances are often responsible for most bad smelling household vapors making baking soda good at “absorbing odors.”

Hard water is formed when water filters through limestone or chalk. Hard water contains calcium or magnesium ions. These ions react with the fatty acid component of soap and replace the sodium ion with calcium ions to form insoluble compounds. Insoluble substances are bad at cleaning; the whole goal of soap is to make more things water soluble. In this way, hard water can cancel out the effectiveness of your soap.

The harder the water, the less foam or suds you’ll see in your wash.

Adding more soap can overcome the effect of hard water, but this expends more soap faster. Instead, people use the addition of what is called builders. Builders things bind with the calcium or magnesium ions so the soap can remain effective in the hard water. Builders are water softeners.

Washing soda is one of the earliest builders.

Washing soda is a dry salt produced from the ash of salty plants such as kelp. It can also be found naturally as mineral deposits from when seasonal lakes evaporate. It has been mined from dry lake bottoms in Egypt since ancient times.

Washing soda can be made from baking soda by baking baking soda in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. This process removes water and carbon dioxide from the baking soda, changing it into the chemically different washing soda.

Unlike baking soda, washing soda is not safe to eat or handle for a long time. It is a mild irritant as it is very absorptive and can dehydrate your skin externally or your mucus membranes internally. The Internet will say to handle with gloves to protect your skin, but I’ve never done that. Just be safe. Don’t intentionally touch, eat, or inhale the washing soda or any product containing it. If you do, you might get an irritation on your skin, cough, or vomit. Water and fresh air are the at-home cure to exposure.

Many other DIY cleaner recipes call for Borax. According to ThoughtCo, the reason people use Borax is because “Borax and other borates clean and bleach by converting some water molecules to hydrogen peroxide (H2O2).” This keeps “ingredients dispersed evenly in a mixture, which maximizes the surface area of active particles to enhance cleaning power.”

Like washing soda, Borax can be found naturally as mineral deposits from when seasonal lakes evaporate.

However unlike washing soda, Borax has been used as an insecticide since 1946. It is considered dangerous when ingested or inhaled by children (such as from playing among a carpet cleaner). In the European Union, mixtures with borax are required to warn that they “may damage fertility” and “may damage the unborn child.” In some mammals, it has been suspected to damage sperm health.

Although there is controversy, many people say it is fine. I have a cautious personality and tend to ask, “Why risk it?” so none of this was convincing for me. As a result, I don’t use Borax in any of my recipes.

Other people, like the ThoughtCo author, say, “If you do a bit of research, you will find risks associated with all cleaning products, natural or man-made.” I disagree with this line of thinking. Some risks are both more likely and worse than others. Vinegar (my favorite cleaner) is so safe you probably use it more in cooking than cleaning. Are there risks? None that really matter.

Now that you know the science of the ingredients, here are my DIY cleaner recipes.

For the ones that include water, you should be careful not to make too much. Water is a desirable resource for all living things, including bacteria. Without a preservative if your water-based cleaner sits for too long it can go rancid.

Sink Dish Soap & Hand Soap

For both, we use Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap in a foaming soap dispenser. The dispenser simplifies the “one part this” math of refilling to a task that any mature child or adult can accomplish without thinking. It has a line for the soap and a line for the water. For dishes, overfill the soap line to retain more cleaning power.

If your dish is particularly greasy, you can sprinkle some baking soda on the dish to add some extra scrubbing action to lift the grease away.

This recipe is effective at oil, fat, and dirt. It is not antibacterial. When we want antibacterial properties, we rinse our hands or dishes in apple cider vinegar. As a vinegar, apple cider vinegar is antimicrobial. Beyond normal white vinegar, apple cider vinegar is a pH balancer for skin, so it does not dry out your hands as much.

Keep the vinegar and soap separate. They react with one another and create a curdled mess.

Dishwasher Detergent & Rinse Aid

Your dishwasher already adds the most important cleaning agent: scalding hot water.

With a respect for that, I use 1 heaping tablespoon of washing soda in the soap compartment as our detergent. Washing soda is abrasive, helping to remove food, and reacts with strong pH substances like some spoiled food.

If you find that your dishes come out cloudy, put a splash of white vinegar in a small upright bowl on the top rack as a rinse aid. Don’t put the vinegar in the rinse aid compartment as the release for these is often made of rubber, which vinegar will wear out faster. During the rinse cycle where water is sprayed everywhere, the vinegar is picked up out of the bowl and reacts with the washing soda to remove any residue that would have otherwise been left behind.

Without enough vinegar, the washing soda can leave a cloudy film on glasses. If you use too much vinegar, your dishwasher will smell like sauerkraut.

Read “The Complete Guide to Your Dishwasher” for more information about cleaning dishes.

Sink, Tub, Shower, & Drain Cleaner

Baking soda makes a great tub cleaner because its abrasiveness easily loosens the dirt and grime. Plus, if your drain gets clogged because of tooth paste, shaving cream, etc, then the fizzing reaction of baking soda and vinegar can do the trick to clear it out.

If your shower drain gets clogged because of matted hair and the baking soda and vinegar does not work, you can buy a drain snake (This is what the plumber would use.) for $25 or so. It is easy and effective at removing hair. It can be gross, depending on how long you let the hair sit in there, but your drain will be like new afterward. Alternatively, you can bend a large paper clip into a fish hook shape, use a screwdriver to remove the drain cap, and then move the paperclip around to catch and pull the hair out of your drain. This is more time consuming, but if you are good at it you can save the $25.

For a bathroom sink with matted hair, you can go under the counter, place a bucket under the pipe, remove the washer to open the pipe, and catch all the icky gunk that falls out in the bucket. Discard and reconnect pipe for a clean drain.

For efficiency in cleaning and declogging, sprinkle baking soda and water onto a bristled cleaning brush and scrub the tub and shower with it until all dirt and grime is loose. Then, wash down drain with scalding hot tap water. Follow it up with vinegar to declog drain.

To prevent your drain from getting clogged in the first place, brush all your hair (head, beard, body) before showering to remove any loose hairs that would have otherwise gone down your drain.

Glass & Mirror Cleaner

White vinegar has been used a natural glass cleaner for years. It removes smudges and films effectively. You can dilute the vinegar one to one with water and use a spray bottle. The key to success is using the right cleaning cloth or tool. You need a lint-free cloth (otherwise little fuzzy bits will be all over your window) or a squeegee. If there is actually something dirty on the window, you can add in soap or use the vinegar undiluted.

Laundry Detergent, Fabric Softener, & Dryer Sheets

Prior to the invention of laundry detergents, Americans used soap flakes to wash clothes. In my household, we use soap flakes to wash clothes.

Our current detergent recipe is:

  • 1 1/2 cups washing soda
  • 1 bar castile soap, grated

We use Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soap for the soap because it is so soft and easy to grate. However, we have found that if you don’t grate the soap right away it gets harder and thus tougher to grate. So either order just what you want to use or don’t procrastinate on making the detergent.

The washing soda does three things: first, it is a builder to remove the effects of hard water. Second, it is abrasive, adding a bit more cleaning power to the agitation. Third, it removes grease and oil stains.

The soap works as described above.

This is a low suds recipe, making it safe for front-loading or high efficiency machines.

For a regular wash, use 2-4 tablespoons of powder per load. I use a 1/4 cup as a scoop (1/4 cup is 4 tablespoons) and fill the scoop as much as my laundry basin seems to be full. For example, if my washing machine is half full of clothes, I use half of the 1/4 cup scoop (which is 2 tablespoons).

For a high efficiency wash that reuses water, you should use half the powder (1-2 tablespoons).

If you have too much soap in the ratio, the soap can build up on clothes and make them water resistant. Resistant means you can “catch” water on a washcloth and it won’t absorb any water for quite some time. This is a deal breaker for cloth diapers, cleaning cloths, or towels, as the whole point is for these is to be absorptive.

Adding more washing soda to the recipe was what finally solved the problem for us (originally we were using 1 cup washing soda), but other things which may have contributed to the solution are: 1) We turned on the extra rinse cycle to wash more soap out and prevent build up. As well as, we 2) used HOT or WARM water instead of COOL and 3) grated the soap flakes really small to help dissolve the soap better.

We use vinegar as a fabric softener. Vinegar is antimicrobial, helping with cleaning. It also dissolves salts, which both washing soda and soap are. This means it helps remove any excess soap build up. To use it, you just fill the fabric softener tray of your washing machine with the vinegar. If you accidentally get vinegar mixed in with your detergent, it will reduce the effectiveness of the detergent, so aim carefully when you pour. You can also put vinegar in your dryer if you’d prefer by soaking a clean wash cloth or rag with vinegar and adding it to the dryer with your other wet clothes.

This recipe does not have any extra stain fighting agents. You might find you need to do more pretreatment of any serious stains. We have not had any problems though even though we are washing the cloth diaper wipes used for a toddler.

In the dryer, we use wool dryer balls to reduce static, fluff the clothes for decreased drying time, and soften. They last 3 or so years before they start being less effective and you could consider replacing them.

Read “The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine” or “The Complete Guide to Your Clothes Dryer” for more information about laundry options.

Diaper Wipe Solution

Our current recipe is:

You also need:

To mix, use a funnel or an extremely steady hand to add all the ingredients to your spray bottle. We use 1 tablespoon of each because it is an easy measurement, less would do just as well. If you’re using a harsher soap than Castile soap, you should definitely use less of it.

The soap cleans. If you’re using Castile soap (an oil-based soap), it also moisturizes a little.

The olive oil moisturizes. It also creates a barrier that prevents poop from drying and sticking to your baby the next time. It also can prevent diaper rash, when the rash would have been caused by chaffing on dry skin.

To use, shake the spray bottle to mix the oil back in and spray some around the cloth wipe. Then, wipe and put in hamper. We don’t do any pre-wash for the wipes. For us, they can sit in the hamper for a week with poop on them and still clean to their normal sandy color in one HOT laundry wash.

Adult Shampoo & Conditioner

My husband and I have gone so far as to make our own shampoo and conditioner. He has a dry complexion and thus doesn’t need lots of cleaning power if he cleans his hair daily or every other day. I have an oily complexion and need a really strong cleaner. Both of us have success with this recipe.

Our recipe is baking soda for shampoo and apple cider vinegar for conditioner. Both are diluted in water.

For the baking soda, I find making an imprecise paste in your hand while in the shower is easiest. After mixing the paste, scrub your scalp really well. The baking soda cleans mostly through abrasion, the way toothpaste does, so you will only get the benefits of the baking soda if you really stand there and scrub. My husband often skips this step because he has a dry complexion and the apple cider vinegar technically cleans your hair. With my oily complexion, I need to do this step each time.

For the vinegar, 2-4 Tablespoons of apple cider vinegar per 8 oz of water is best. We premix it in a travel shampoo container. Vinegar doesn’t mix well with metals, so use a plastic or other non-metal container.

The apple cider vinegar works best if you pour it over your head at the start of your shower (after any baking soda scrub) and only rinse it off at the end. It is an acquired smell. To change or soften the smell, you can make an herbal infusion. We do this the lazy way of just putting the herbs directly in our travel shampoo container and rely on the small spout to strain the herbs out and on the shower water to rinse away any that do come out. If you do this, shake the vinegar bottle often.

Ideas for herbs are:

  • Sage (improves blood circulation)
  • Rosemary (improves blood circulation)
  • Marshmallow root (moisturizer)
  • Comfrey (astringent cleanser)
  • Calendula (remedy for dandruff)
  • Rose petals (moisturizer and smell)
  • Lavender (antimicrobial and smell)
  • Peppermint (relaxant, soothes headaches)

You can buy dried herbs in bulk at The Bulk Herb Store or Mountain Rose Herbs.

Baby Shampoo, Conditioner, & Soap

The above adult recipe, although hypoallergenic, is too drying for baby skin. As of my writing of this article, we have not found a DIY recipe for baby shampoo & conditioner that we like. Like 10% of all babies, my daughter has itchy ezcema and dandruff.

We had been using Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap, but that dried her skin our more and made her itchier.

Now, we are using Tree to Tub‘s soapberry shampoo and body wash as well as their Argan oil conditioner for my daughter. The Indian soapberry is neither a soap nor a salt. Its cleaning power comes from the saponin in the skin around the seed of the berry. Saponin literally means a glucoside (a chemistry term that means a sugar bound to a non-sugar) that foams in water. Saponins are thought to be a plant’s protection against microbes and fungi, making soapberries antibacterial and antifungal.

Both my daughter and I are using these cleansers. I get the “Raw Unscented” versions. They work very well for both me (oily skin) and my daughter (dry skin). They clean my hair, and they do not make her skin worse. They also don’t make her skin magically better though. She is slowly progressing to better thanks to this switch to a gentle cleanser and the liberal application of an herbal lotion and healing salve my mother (an herbalist) made for us.

Toothpaste / Tooth Powder

I must admit I have not been converted to DIY tooth powder yet, but my husband has. His recipe is:

Technically, everything but the baking soda is optional. The baking soda neutralizes the acids in your mouth that wear your teeth down and produce odors. It is also abrasive, helping you scrub and polish your teeth. And it is a mild antifungal disinfectant. If you are lazy or out of toothpaste and can tolerate the salty flavor, you can easily brush with just baking soda.

If you only add one other ingredient, I would add the clay. The bentonite clay is rich in calcium and potassium which are beneficial for teeth and gums. It also constricts body tissues (as an astringent) which helps clean your gums. Lastly, it is very absorptive which helps draw out unwanted things from your mouth.

Last, there is the activated charcoal. This messy black powder is strangely a teeth whitener. Activated charcoal is charred wood that has had all the oxygen removed in the chamber during processing. This results in a lot of small pores, which make it possible for the charcoal to absorb 21.5 square feet per 1 gram of powder. That is huge. It whitens teeth by absorbing the stains off of them.

(Side note: If some creature (child, dog, cat,…) you love is ever poisoned or takes too much medication, give them activated charcoal in water right away. It will make their bowel movement black, but it will trap the substance before it can affect them.)

Wood Cleaner

My husband loves wood. We have hardwood floors, wood counters and cabinets, and wood tables.

Weirdly, you need to treat each surface differently based on its finishing technique.

If the surface has a common wax, resin, or gum finish, then you should never oil it or apply vinegar to it. Vinegar will wash the finish off and the oil can actually exacerbate the dust. As antique specialist Fred Taylor writes:

The problem with oil – any kind of oil applied to finished surface – is what happens next. There are basically two kinds of oil: drying and non-drying. The non-drying is the least harmful initially since it doesn’t undergo a chemical reaction. The most common non-drying oils are lemon oil, orange oil and mineral oil. These oils have a very slow evaporation rate and remain on the surface in a microscopically thin semi liquid state for days – even weeks – after application. As a result, they produce a surface that smears easily and accumulates every particle of dust, pollen and pollution that passes its way. The build up eventually must be removed.

Drying oils such as tung oil or linseed oil are especially harmful since they actually undergo a chemical change as they dry and attempt to bond chemically with the surface. As they become hard through oxidation, they become difficult to remove and over time the accumulation of layers of dried oil forms a shell over the old finish and eventually turns dark, obscuring the original surface.

The fact is, unless the original finish of a piece of furniture was an oil finish, then oil has no place on a piece of furniture.

Our hardwood floors and tables have a common synthetic wax finish. Ideally for woods you should avoid wet and just dry clean them. However, sometimes you need to loosen dried food or other things from the wood. For these jobs, I use…. a damp rag. I know it sounds lame to have a bit of water be my cleaner, but it really is best for the wood to avoid adding a lot to it.

Our counters and cabinets we finished ourselves with oil. For these, if the damp rag doesn’t work, we use vinegar (white vinegar for light woods or apple cider vinegar for darker woods) diluted in water. Vinegar does wash oils away, so sometimes you might need to follow up with more of the finishing oil.

There are a lot of sites that recommend using olive oil in DIY wood cleaning recipes, but olive oil can go rancid, so it isn’t actually a good finisher. Walnut oil is less likely to go rancid and a better finishing oil. Many DIY wood cleaning recipes also include other things like lemon, orange, or lavender but these are all for smell more than cleaning.

Really with wood, you should stick with a dry or damp cloth.

General Cleaner

When in doubt, I use diluted white vinegar.

Here’s the list where you shouldn’t use it:

  • surfaces with finishes that could be washed off
  • surfaces with unsealed grout
  • stone surfaces

If for some reason I need to use something else instead, I normally use castile soap or baking soda depending on if I need something smooth (soap) or something abrasive (soda).

I never use the these together as the vinegar reduces the soap back to its original oils making a curdled mess while baking soda and vinegar produce a fizzy reaction that neutralizes both.

Photo by Naomi Hébert on Unsplash

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Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management since 2005. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. Her most popular post: The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine