In recent years, the popularity of homemade natural cleaners has reached a fever pitch. There are dozens of books on the topic, legions of blog posts and Pinterest pins. But I’m about to make a shocking statement: making your own cleaning products may be a huge waste of time and may not save you any money!
Here are the dirty little secrets about homemade cleaners:
Homemade natural cleaners may not work
Sorry, but that complicated vinegar and baking soda mixture renders itself into little more than… carbon dioxide. I have to snicker when I see recipes for homemade cleaning products that, even with my very limited chemistry education, I know couldn’t possibly work.
That baking soda/vinegar/boiling water trick for unclogging drains? Sorry, but not only is it just an optical illusion (and it’s the boiling water that does the unclogging), but you may have just damaged your plumbing! Read more.
Have you ever spilled lemon juice on your countertops, say, when juicing lemons for a recipe? I have, and it’s a hot mess to clean up. Therefore I would never mix up a recipe that called for sticky lemon juice that would only clog up my spray bottles and draw gnats (who seem to love anything juicy). One does not intentionally apply a sticky-sweet solution to areas one intends to clean up.
The truth is that many of these recipes aren’t really cleaning anything. It’s the action of water and elbow grease that does the cleaning. In order to clean, you need a surfactant that lifts the dirt and suspends it in water so that the water can do its job of washing it away.
Homemade cleaning products may not be frugal
Sometimes we justify the time spent researching, buying ingredients, and mixing up homebrew concoctions with the supposed savings. But are we really saving money?
I’ve seen recipes for homemade cleaners that were ridiculously long on ingredients, with an accompanying price tag.
Organic lemons? Really? Those are $5 a bag, and I’m going to eat them, not spray them on my toilets. My toilets don’t vote with their fork or their dollars, and pee splatters don’t deserve organic-y goodness, nor do they justify a line item on the budget.
And essential oils? Those are pricey. I do use essential oils, but for my health, not for cleaning. Why? Because they cling to your cleaning cloths and become impossible to remove without multiple stripping washes. What good are microfiber cloths and cleaning towels that repel water?
I can buy effective, non-toxic spray cleaner for around $3 a bottle, with free shipping, from Grove. And by doing so, I save time (hello, autoship and reminder emails) and money (not tempted by impulse purchases) and hassle (shopping with several kids in tow). To save even more, I use concentrates like Mrs. Meyer’s that only take a teaspoon or two diluted in water to fill my glass spray bottles.
Another cheap recipe that actually works? A few drops of dishwashing liquid in a spray bottle of water. Done. Now you can finish that Jane Austen novel.
The ultimate in frugal cleaning? Microfiber cloths and just water. I love FlyLady’s purple rags. Been using the same set for years, and they clean like nobody’s business. Eco-friendly and frugal.
I must point out here that dishwashing liquid is not soap! Soap is what made our grandmothers and great-grandmothers cry over their washboards. Soap is horrible for cleaning anything with texture (like cloth).
God gave people intelligence and with it, they invented detergents, which revolutionized laundry and cleaning for a bajillion homemakers ever since. (You already know this. What is it you spend hours each year scrubbing off your tub and shower? SOAP scum.)
Baking soda is also cheap, but then again it’s often used incorrectly. Baking soda is a mild abrasive making it good for scrubbing. But if you mix it with water, the abrasive quality disappears. (This is why brushing your teeth with baking soda is safe: because your mouth is wet and so is your toothbrush.)
So sprinkle baking soda in places that stink (your refrigerator, bottoms of trash cans) and leave for a few minutes, then wipe away with water. Or sprinkle it on your carpets, leave for awhile, and vacuum up.
Making homemade cleaning products take time from your busy day
And what is my time worth? If I spend an hour researching recipes, buying ingredients, and mixing stuff up, what could I have done with that hour that I spend to save a buck? (More thoughts on practical sustainable frugality here.)
Time calculations must also include the time spent on failed recipes. The homemade oxy-clean I tried was an utter failure. Homemade laundry detergent flat doesn’t work, and many frugal bloggers admit this. See Butter Believer’s post about why you should stop using homemade laundry detergent because it doesn’t work and it also damages your washing machine. Ditto for The Frugal Girl.
Why do bloggers so often promote homemade laundry detergent recipes?
Because they’re click bait. People love them, and those recipes drive traffic to their blogs. Traffic = more income for blogger. Being honest here, folks.
Homemade cleaners can be dangerous
Go ahead and strip me of my natural mom card, but I don’t use vinegar for cleaning. I thought I was the only crunchy mama on the planet who doesn’t want to put a ring on vinegar’s finger, until I read this post by (no-nonsense mom of 11) Dyno-Mom. To quote her:
“I am so over all the stupid posts on the internet about the things you can clean with vinegar. Your house will smell strangely pee-like, everything will be smeary, there will still be grime and a massive number of fingerprints all over the stainless steel. Vinegar is not a surfactant, it leaves the dirt there.”
(Emphasis mine. I would link to her site, but it’s no longer online.)
See what I mean by no-nonsense? I couldn’t have put it better myself. The Wikipedia page for vinegar mentions some of the specific cleaning uses for vinegar that actually work here. (Shining stainless steel, de-scaling coffee pots, removing mineral spots from glass, shining rusty cast iron pots, and a few others.)
Another reason I won’t clean with vinegar is because gnats love the stuff. In fact, you can make a very effective gnat trap by putting a little vinegar in the bottom of a jar, covering with plastic wrap, and making tiny holes with a toothpick (the gnats get in, and can’t fly back out).
Why would I cover my countertops with something that gnats and ants are eager to eat up? Makes no sense. I might as well pour Trader Joe’s two buck chuck all over my kitchen. After all, it’s cheaper than most cleaning products.
Lastly, I convinced myself that the lung and throat irritation I often felt after prolonged exposure to vinegar as a cleaning product (for instance, while cleaning the bathtub) was all in my head.
Read this. A little digging with Dr. Google revealed multiple sources that said yes, indeedy, inhaling vinegar (which is an acid) fumes can irritate your lungs. And I am not even close to asthmatic.
Let’s give a hand to our friend Don Aslett, whose books I have recently re-read. Don was popular in the 80?s, but he was really before his time because he focused on getting rid of clutter and spending as little time as possible cleaning. (Like a male, white-guy version of Marie Kondo!)
He ran a multi-million dollar cleaning business so he know the art and science of cleaning, and how to do it very efficiently, and he encouraged women to never mix up their own cleaners.
He basically inferred that doing so was disempowering. The ingredients just weren’t as effective, and sometimes dangerous… not to mention time-consuming and pointless.
Caroline Ingalls would probably have been thrilled to buy effective cleaning products for a couple of bucks at the store! Perhaps we create these pseudo-tasks to try to feel creative and earthy, but really our time is probably better spent elsewhere.
Don Aslett also urged men to help their wives with housekeeping even if she stayed at home full-time, because everyone who lives in a space is responsible for cleaning that space. A breath of fresh air!
Yesterday I couldn’t get the image of Caroline Ingalls out of my mind. I recalled that Caroline and Charles were very much in favor of progress and technology. Anything that could help them save time and maximize their efforts was a win.
Remember when Charles hired a man and a machine to help him process grain? (Or was it hay? Doesn’t really matter.) He waxed poetic to Caroline about progress and how some folks are ‘agin it – but not him.
My suspicion is that the real reason making your own homemade cleaners is so popular is because women today long to have a creative outlet. I came across a fascinating series of posts on this topic: Why Caroline Ingalls Was Happier Than You.
(I know this post is getting long. Stay with me for a minute!)
The gist of the articles is this: women today, especially stay at home moms, spend most of their time in “maintenance” tasks, versus creating. This is a recipe for depression. Caroline Ingalls, on the other hand, spent more time creating things. Quilts, clothing, an attic full of sausage and headcheese. There is an important difference, psychologically speaking.
When we create something, we can point to it and say: “I did that.” Especially if it’s something truly meaningful (like a quilt that’s beautiful and that keeps your family warm and therefore alive during the winter), it increases your self-worth.
I would urge women to figure out what their “thing” is, their creative outlet, and make time for that. What say you?
(If this post was entertaining and/or informative, would you please pin it? Thanks!)