Thursday, June 9, 2011


Ask a Clean Person: Green Cleaning Alternatives

You screamed, I cried, I asked, you answered! So! Without further ado, here are some of the best tips for green alternatives to commercial cleaning products, random foodstuffs that will get your things clean, and landfill-saving tricks that will cut down on your shopping bill. Know of items I missed? Leave ‘em in the comments!

What for: Polishing copper.

What for: Cut in half, sprinkle with kosher salt and use it to clean the tub (or sink! Or toilet!).

What for: Getting the smell out of cookware, hands.

White Vinegar
What for: White vinegar mixed with water can replace Windex and other commercial glass cleaners. Pour some into a bowl to get the stink out of a smoky room. Use it with a low-lint cloth to clean your patent leather shoes.

Baking Soda
What for: EVERYTHING. Seriously, have you not been reading this column?  

OK sorry, what for: Baking soda mixed with white vinegar will create a volcano effect that can be used to get stuck-on guck off of surfaces, open up a stopped drain, and get hard water stains off of glass shower doors.

Baking soda on its own is aces on anything stinky. Use it as a soak for bedding, pillows, clothing, etc. etc.; dump it in your laundry machine to freshen things up; mix it with a little water to make a paste to apply to stenches on carpeting, furniture, stuffed animals (who among us hasn’t barfed on a lambie?); sprinkle it inside shoes and Tupperware to eliminate stank; add a few drops of lavender oil for DIY carpet deodorizer.

Got something stuck on your favorite pot? Sprinkle more baking soda than you think you need over the offending surface and pour boiling water over it. Let it sit for 30 minutes-up to overnight and pour off — the stuck-on substance will come right off.

Have a red wine stain on a counter- or table-top? Wipe down the surface with a vinegar solution, sprinkle a goodly amount of baking soda onto stain, and get after it with a plastic mesh sponge.

Murphy’s Oil Soap
What for: Wooden items, including and especially floors and furniture. Dilute with water and use when mopping or dip a rag in, wring it out well and go over wood surfaces. Also excellent for cleaning crew shells, for those of you who might have that need.

Bon Ami
What for: Use in place of other abrasive cleaners such as Comet, Soft Scrub, etc. to clean stovetops, bathtubs, mildew-y grout, stainless steel, etc.

What for: Killing ants and roaches. (Bug rights activists, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to help you.)

Hydrogen Peroxide
What for: Removes blood stains, mold, and dirt.

Tea Tree Oil
What for: Dilute with water and use to clean bathrooms, marble, and granite — tea tree oil is an anti-fungal agent and won’t wear out marble and granite the way vinegar solution will over time.

DIY Laundry Detergent
Mix together:
1 cup borax (found in the laundry detergent aisle of any large grocery store)
1 cup washing soda (also found in the laundry detergent aisle)
1 bar of castille or Fels Naptha soap, finely grated with a cheese grater (found with the regular hand/body soap or with laundry detergent)
Add 2 tablespoons of the above mixture to a large load of laundry.  It works well in cold water.
Use 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle instead of fabric softener.

DIY Antibacterial Countertop Cleaner
Put 10 drops tea tree oil and 10 drops rosemary oil into an old spray bottle, fill with water.

Green Product Lines
BioKleen, CitraSolv, J.R. Watkins, Method, Mrs. Meyer’s (I love Mrs. Meyer’s so much that I’m plotting to steal her away from Mr. Meyer’s so that I can do dirty things to her and then clean her up), and Seventh Generation.

Cleaning Tools
Old towels, t-shirts, socks can be cut up and used in place of paper towels; old toothbrushes for getting into corners, polishing intricate metalwork; microfiber towels to wipe up dust and spills; terrycloth sponges to wipe counters between cleanings.

Previously: Smelly, Scuffy, and Dirty Shoes.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you looking for a green alternative to the suggestions found here? Because we’ve got some! More importantly: Is anything you own dirty?

99 Comments / Post A Comment


If you have a sewing machine and can do straight seams, old sheets and pillowcases are fantastic as cleaning cloths. They are also low/no-lint if you've washed them enough. Or if you still like the pattern, they make good placemats and curtains. Am I Maria von Trapp? Maybe!


@cuminafterall sewing machines be damned. just chop em up and go for it. these miracle cloths are called "rags"

mademoiselle cait

I've yet to find a green dish soap that works, including Mrs. Meyer's. Has anyone found one that successfully cleans greasy dishes?

Anita Ham Sandwich

@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook I use Biokleen's powder, and haven't noticed any dishes that didn't get clean.

Jolie Kerr

@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook Try the CitraSolv dishwashing soap. This is cute: My best friend from high school, who is kind of a total hippie, emailed a whole bunch of suggestions in response to the column asking for input including the CitraSolv one. She said the dishwashing soap gets right through grease, so give that a whirl!


@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook Lye Soap. I assume it's green because people have been using it forever, and it's kind of made from recycled/reused stuff (or it used to be when people slaughtered their own hogs, and cooked in the fireplace...) Just shave some off the block, pour boiling hot water over it. This is all we ever used when I dressed up as an oldy timey person at a museum. Bonus: Corncobs will scrub off all kinds of things. One of their many many many uses.


@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook I am really happy with the Method kind. Also, there's a kid that comes in a giant yellow jug that looks like a dumbbell that is fantastic. I don't remember what it's called, it's just yellow and weirdly shaped. It's not marketed to be "green," it's just old school and phosphate-free.

EDIT: You can also pretend like you're camping every day and use Dr. Bronner's.

Don't Panic

@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook: I've been using the 7th Generation dish soap for years now and never had a problem. And I cook a lot so there are plenty of greasy things to clean. Haven't found any green dishwasher tabs yet, though. Suggestions on those are welcome.


@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook
Ack! I just used a green dishwasher tab this morning! But I can't think of the brand...it's in a white box with little punch-out dispenser on the side. 7th Gen also makes one but they are more expensive so I've never tried it. They are AWESOME because you don't have to pour the powder in little thing and then spill it everywhere and then it won't latch and you spend 10 minutes with a butter knife trying to get it out of the gap so you can just start the stupid dishes. I'm not the only person with this problem, right? Anyway, this is why I love the tabs!

raised amongst catalogs

@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook I have to agree with Don't Panic -- 7th Gen is great, whether you use the liquid for handwashing or the powder for your dishwasher.

Emma K@twitter

@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook As others have said, Seventh Generation is excellent - it works like other concentrated dish soaps without stripping all the moisture out of your hands. Their floor cleaner (all-purpose cleaner?) also smells delicious.


@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook
But also, wear gloves when you wash the dishes or clean anything! OMG my old housemate had eczema so she had to and now I'm a total ninny and can't touch anyting even slightly dirty without them! But keep seperate pairs in your kitchen and cleaning kits, duh.


@Caitlin Osbahr@facebook Ok, so I am not trying to be that girl, but seriously, my parents sell Amway (I know) and all of their products are chemical-free and GOOD. I cannot recommend the dish soap enough. I grew up with it and spent a lot of time being embarrassed that my parents sell Amway, so I don't use it, but every time I do dishes at my parents, I think I should just get over it. Or use a different dispenser and hide the big jug under the sink. In fact, I like a lot of the Amway products except the dishwasher detergent, because I have used both that and Cascade in the same dishwasher with the same dishes and the Amway-washed dishes definitely had little food particle stuck to the bottom of glasses and the Cascade did not.

Meredith L.

Yesterday I was looking at my countertops ("Oh no, three day old scraps of pie crust are the new Gorilla Glue! What do I do?!???!") and recalled this column and baking soda and white viniger and that shit just got blasted off. I was squealing and yelling for my roommate to come look at the science with every sponge-off. THANK YOU, JOLIE KERR.

(PS, No I never made a volcano for a science fair. I prefered to stick snapdragons in Dixie cups of food dye.)


I like using old t-shirts that don't fit anymore but will make you smile when you see them (like old camp t-shirts) for rags - they make cleaning a much happier process!

no way

Additional recommendations: olive oil and lemon is a great way to clean/brighten wood. Wet newspaper is The Best way to clean glass surfaces. It's easy, and leaves a beautiful streak free surface. Just try to grab a sheet with less ink.

As I was getting ready for work this morning - steaming my clothes(!) thanks hairpin! - I was hoping for another Ask a Clean Person column. Delivered.


@no way I love cleaning windows with newspaper, but am less enamored of the way it totally leaves your hands covered in black ink afterwards.

no way

@FMoss3 Yeah - as one of the previous AaCP columns noted, we should probably be using gloves. But rubber gloves are so yucky. Eh, I just look for a blank-ish area to hold and wash up afterwards. It's worth it.
For those who haven't tried this method, it's like magic eraser level satisfaction when cleaning mirrors/windows.

Corinne Haxton Pavlovic

@no way Coffee Filters are also great lint free glass cleaners!


Lavender has antimicrobial properties, so adding drops of lavender essential oil to water in a spray bottle is a good way to clean counter tops, etc. And it smells nice.
Was there no mention of Dr. Bronner's soap? The ultimate safe and gentle all-purpose cleaner?

Jolie Kerr

@Mere I love Dr. Bronner's for many reasons but not so much for household cleaning, other than as a dish soap, because it gets very, very sudsy and can be sort of a bitch in that regard, which is why I don't generally recommend it. YMMV.


@Jolie Kerr Dr. Bronner's makes a product called Sal Suds that is meant for household cleaning: http://www.drbronner.com/DBMS/SAL.htm

Also, just want to mention (sorry) that Mrs. Meyer's products are not necessarily eco- or skin-friendly. I recently checked the labels of a few of their products, which had sulfates in them- not so good. http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17156.cfm


@Jolie Kerr You gotta go homeopathic and dilute Dr. Bronner's to get rid of the suds effect. Seriously, like a 1:5 ratio of Dr. B's and water is still really good for cleaning and it's not gonna leave a huge mess.


@notjenny Dr. B is super spendy for cleaning purposes though...


@Mere Yeah, I am wondering why there was not mention of Ecover. Their lemon dish soap smells SO clean and SO good. Mmmm...

You can find Ecover at Whole Foods.

Jolie Kerr

@wee_ramekin Because no one wrote in suggesting them. Just, you know.


I am totally threadjacking (Sorry Jolie, but I knew this would be a popular post) so, if you're coming to the DC Hairpin Meetup tonight, I look like this: http://cherrispryteaintsobrite.tumblr.com/post/6353298595/hey-hairpinners-this-is-what-i-look-like-and-what and am quite loud. FIND ME. 7pm, Marvin.


@cherrispryte yeah hijack it!! see you tonight, girl!


@cherrispryte I *really* hope I can make it!


@empem me too! Also, based on the obscene heat, looks like we'll be inside, but upstairs.


@cherrispryte Threadjack! Woot. I look like my picture. But without the helmet. So good luck everyone.


@fierce_pierce I'm pretty sure you're going to need to wear the helmet so we'll all recognize you. :)


Jolie, I'm glad you're back. Last Thursday was totally ruined for me with no clean person.


But bleach kills everythang... No seriously, I've cut way back on the toxic cleaning products - anyone use the Clorox Green Products? I use the toilet cleanser, I have to wait though until my other products run out - why do cleaning products last for like a billion years? Maybe I am not a very clean person. Also making your own laundry soap? I am not that committed, to anything. Sorry.


I've made the homemade detergent before, and not only was it was a pain in the ass, it just didn't get my clothes clean enough. What can I say? I spill on myself a lot. I hate all the chemicals they use in regular detergent (and stain removers) but I just couldn't make it work.


@nancydrew Yea this sounds like the time I decided I'd be all eco friendly so I didn't dry my clothes and instead hung them up outside. Well, 15 minutes later it's pouring and then I had to dry everything inside and had moldy smelling towels...


@nancydrew Method actually makes a pretty darn good laundry detergent - and if you live in a tiny apt, it's also super-concentrated, so the bottles are smaller and fit nicely crammed behind a bunch of crap under the sink.


@Ophelia Mrs. Meyers also makes laundry detergent that works and is awesome-smelling.


@nancydrew trader joe's makes a pretty good laundry detergent, and it's cheap!


@DrFeelGood Oh yeah, I was really excited to have a clothes line at my last place. Okay, so it works great for sheets, but try using a towel that's been dried outside. Or jeans. They get really stiff and crusty. Thanks for the recommends on detergent, I'll have to try these!


@nancydrew I am the one who submitted the laundry detergent recipe. Did you use the posted diy detergent or did you use a different recipe? I've never had a problem with dirty or smelly clothes (nor have I had any complaints) and I've been using the stuff for a couple of years. Use what you want, but I just want to make clear to everyone else that the recipe does, in fact, get your clothes clean.


@Jabberwoky I probably misspoke. I used the Fels Naptha version, and my clothes were technically clean I'm sure, but stains didn't come out as well, and my clothes just didn't look as bright. I also hated the smell of Fels Naptha soap.

I know quite a few frugal moms who use it and love it, so everyone should try it for themselves before listening to me. On the plus side, I still love using vinegar instead of dryer sheets or Downy.


@nancydrew @Jabberwoky Perhaps this is a bit overshare... but Fels Naptha works AWESOME on period blood. Something my mom taught me, nothing has ever worked as well.


Mrs Meyer's Lemon Verbena everything.. I want to eat it, it smells so good!

Lemon is also good for cleaning and sanitizing cutting boards. Citric acid is powerful stuff and will get your cutting boards salmonella-free! I rub a wedge or slice all over and rinse.. piece of cake!

Also not making my own detergent.. BUT Borax is great for getting rid of ants and such.. and it's detergent in and of itself, not horrible toxins.. we had ants in a bad way. I sprinkled some Borax and pushed it under the floorboards and voila! Buh-bye!


Ha ha, spit-take at "who among us hasn’t barfed on a lambie?" because I TOTALLY HAVE AS WELL. Many years ago of course, but I still feel bad about it. Kids will barf on anything.


I was thinking "whoa, aren't grapefruits expensive to be using on the tub?" but then I remembered my always ambitious load of grapefruit I usually end up throwing away because my mouth doesn't want to be as healthy as my mind wants it to be. Come to think of it there's a month old grapefruit at home RIGHT NOW with my bathtub's name all over it!


@sockiboos Me too! And with two halves...I'm going to have one clean bathroom...


Is Murphy Oil Soap ok for wood floors with a wax finish? When we bought our house we refinished the floors, stripping up the nasty, yellowed plastic coating and replacing it with beautiful, natural wax. Only now it's trickier to clean. Any suggestions?


@ohyaknow I grew up with wax-finished wood floors and we just used white vinegar and water (in equal parts) to clean it. Spray it on, and then get after it on your hands and knees (or use a dry mop, but the hands and knees are better). Rub with the grain of the wood. Voila!


@notjenny That's what I've been doing, but they're still not up to par. Two dogs and a mechanic boyfriend...


@ohyaknow oh lord. We had two cats, a dog, and a bunch of parties at my old house in grad school, and wood floors...I believe we used Bona. It also fits the parameters of this column and worked really well.


Love the baking soda & lavender carpet freshener idea. I am so doing that tonight.
I just want to say that I went on a major cleaning spree (I'm on steroids for a weird allergy thing....blaming it on that) and as I was cleaning each individual blade on my blinds, I realized I might die if I had to do that every month. So, I took the blinds down and put up some thick cotton curtains that I can throw in the wash. It ain't "greener", but it sure is easier.

Emma K@twitter

@messofme I abhor blinds because even though I enjoy cleaning, I cannot stand the time it takes to clean each blade individually and so my blinds just stay dirty and gross.

elysian fields

@Emma K@twitter ughh I was just thinking about this recently. My blinds are disgusting but I can't bring myself to clean them properly because it would take one million hours. And I can't take them down because I need both curtains and blinds on my windows to establish the level of TOTAL DARKNESS I require for sleeping.


@messofme I wish I could do that. Oh, man! But my rental company won't allow it. *sadface* Getting rid of blinds is perhaps the number one reason I want to be a grown up with a house rather than a graduate student with an apartment. But you have given me hope. I will think of you and your curtains longingly as I continue cleaning blade by effing blade.


@messofme I hate cleaning blinds SO MUCH and am debating giving a can of compressed air a try (also for the hard-to-clean basebaords that have a cord painted in place (?) on top of them). So many dusty nooks and crannies. :(


i have used this outdoor method to clean plastic and metal mini blinds before. fill something like a clean plastic kitchen garbage can or storage tub with hot water and cleanser. (i used ammonia but i suppose you could use whatever green cleanser you want.) unclip blinds from the mounts. dip one blind at a time in the water bath, swish around, soak for a few minutes. remove, drape the entire blind over a lawn chair or fence and spray with garden hose. dry in the sun. if the slats are small you might have to unstick them by hand.


I worry that these cleaning products are making me a little hungry.
Burrito time.


Oh! I can't believe you didn't mention natural soft-scrub! Baking soda, few drops of Dr Bronners and maybe a few of your favorite essential oil, or lemon juice. Mix in a dash or so of water until it gets pastey, and CLEAN!


I am going to add course salt to this list - someone spilled red wine on a light colored rug this weekend and another person put a heap of course sald on it and vacuumed it up an hour later--magically gone!


@parallel-lines And if it leaves anything behind, seltzer water will get still-wet stains of carpet lickety-split. (pour a fairly generous amt of seltzer, let fizz, then put down a towel and stand on it to absorb the liquid. Repeat if necessary. If it's an area rug, put a towel underneath, too.)


@parallel-lines Yes! I am a klutz and also love red wine, so my carpets have seen more than their share of wine stains. People who are not in the know think you are totally nuts when you just start drunkenly pouring salt on the floor, but it totally works. It doesn't even have to be coarse salt - the super cheap big containers of table salt work just as well. And I also know from experience that this works on light-colored fabric couch covers too. I should probably drink less.


@FMoss3 Or just buy more salt.

Kristina Hallez@facebook

@parallel-lines YES! So true. Salt mounds on the carpet are an expected part of weekend mornings.


Ok, so, if I want to use hydrogen peroxide to get out bloodstains... what effect will it have on cute colors and patterns and, um, delicate lacey silky materials?

Lily Rowan

@lovelettersinhell It will be no problem!


@lovelettersinhell also, I have found Fels Naptha soap to work awesome on bloodstains. It's an old timey soap, probably the pilgrims invented it or something.

the ghost of amy lee

I love all of the scents from Mrs. Meyer's, but I hate that I'm allergic to scented laundry detergent.

Also, course salt is great for wine stains and for cleaning cutting boards.

Pound of Salt

I don't know about killing ants, but rubbing a clove of garlic at their entry point into the house is excellent at keeping them away.


@Pound of Salt Works for vampires, too.

Pound of Salt

@Ophelia But vampire ants are kind of a double negative for garlic, so it's rendered useless.


@Pound of Salt Oh, damn. I'd better rethink my defense strategy.


@Pound of Salt murphy's oil & water in a spray bottle kills ants too.


I have an all-purpose cleaner I bought at the grocery store called "Green-Way" - it's lemongrass-scented, and every time I use it, I want to lick the counters afterwards.


I love the smell of witch-hazel. Is it considered green? Should I buy some? I never know what to do with it.


@notandersoncooper I don't know about using it as a cleaning product but growing up my mom used it as a toner for her face! She would just put a little on a cotton pad and go to town. I have never heard of anyone else doing it but she looks 10 years younger than she is...


@LauraJ I've been using witch hazel as a facial toner for yeeeeaaaaaars.


My beloved cast iron pan is getting a certain funky aroma (thanks braised fish) about it even though we clean it religiously with bar keepers friend mixed with coarse salt - would lemon work to get rid of that aroma or am I SOL and it's time for a new pan?

What about mold? One of my pillows is smelling a bit musty, toss or is it saveable?


@parallel-lines I thought you weren't supposed to really scrub cast iron pans with much of anything in order to let them "season"? But I don't know because I can't have cast iron because of le cooktop.


@parallel-lines don't scrub your cast iron!! i barely even put water on mine. those things last for a billion years. if you don't like the smell, cook a pound of bacon in it, then rub the grease around the pan and leave it there!


@alpelican But how do you clean it when there's goo really, really stuck on and baked in that wont' rinse away? I made baked eggs in a mini cast iron once and had to throw it away after - the egg wouldn't come out and it started stinnking.


@parallel-lines Hmm. Maybe try the baking soda/vinegar combo and then re-season. With a well-seasoned skillet, you shouldn't get the baked-on stuff but that obviously takes a long time.


@alpelican (very quiet voice) I never seasoned it in the first place and it's four years old. Too late now?


@parallel-lines never too late for bacon grease :) or vegetable oil, or whatever.


@parallel-lines It's not too late! My bf saved a pan I neglected and soaped and was awful to for a long time. Now it is his favorite. I don't know how he did it, exactly, and people here probably have better ideas? but here: http://www.curbly.com/chrisjob/posts/1673-salvage-and-season-cast-iron-cookware


@ellbeejay @alpelican Thank you for saving me from feeling like the worst, most pan-ruiningest person on earth!


@parallel-lines Heya, if your pan isn't rusty as described in the link above, you could maybe try sticking it in a hothothot oven for an hour to open up the iron and smoke off (yep it'll smoke, so beware and open a window) the residue and then season it proper. This worked for me after I seasoned my cast-iron improperly and had all sorts of eggs stuck on there. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/476802


@parallel-lines There are some great strategies for cast iron in the comments here: http://www.theawl.com/2011/02/heres-why-you-need-a-cast-iron-skillet

But basically you NEVER need to throw away cast iron. It's always salvageable!

The Widow Muspratt

@parallel-lines You could always throw the cast iron pan into a bonfire. Guaranteed to get those baked-on eggy bits off!

Miss Violet

I'm de-lurking to add that for cleaning silver nothing beats toothpaste. I've been using it for years ever since I read a "Hints from Heloise" column. Jolie you are the nouvelle Heloise!


@Miss Violet Because I am a huge chemistry nerd, my favorite way to clean silver is electrolytically on the stovetop. Line a pan with aluminum foil, place silver items on top (must be in contact with foil), cover with boiling water containing baking soda and table salt,let sit and voila! Clean silver through the magic of redox reactions!


@FMoss3 I saw that method on Mr. Wizard as a kid! My friend and I used it to clean a ring that her mother had given her. It worked!

Miss Violet

@FMoss3 Ooh that IS better living through chemistry! And you can clean many items all at once - thank you for the tip!

Denise Beck@facebook

I do not buy Febreeze, its pricey to me especially as much as I would go through a bottle! Instead, I use this mixture, smells great and works just like Febreeze and at a fraction of the cost. I re-use spray bottles like Windex or something like that, take a cap full of your favorite fabric softener, 1/2 cup rubbing alcohol, mix these two together then fill the bottle with water...and you have "febreeze"....for tough odors you can use more alcohol at first you'll smell the alcohol but when it dries you smell fabric softener.

The Widow Muspratt

@Denise Beck@facebook I just use cheap vodka in a spray bottle instead of Febreeze.

Mlle Mlle

I don't know if they've been mentioned here but I've been using soap nuts (organic & fair trade of course) for my laundry and I really like them. You can just throw them in a little pouch or go the extra mile and soak them in boiling water to get out all the soapy goodness (instant liquid detergeant!). They are great for really sensitive skin...and delicate fabric.

Marz Fraser-Buchanan@facebook

One of the best natural cleaning tips I've ever heard is to use 1tbl of Borax and 1tbl of Baking Soda in your dishwasher.. I actually never really used our dishwasher because the eco-friendly tabs are expensive and I was just like "meh, I'll wash my own dishes" but I have a whole whack of borax and baking soda around! I just take (well I tend to take a heaping tablespoon to be honest) of each and dump them onto the cutlery in my washer (because its old and the little flap for powder really doesn't work. It works REALLY well! and its super cheap. Make sure you put the tablespoon into the baking soda box first.. really don't want traces of borax in your baking soda if you're going to bake with it later! Although, if you were more dedicated than I, you could make mix up equal parts and put it in a jar.

thomas morrison

Now this is in actual fact cooperative. It’s very openhanded of you to share this with us.
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