Household recipe books served as homemaking survival guides in the old days. Often passed on from mothers to daughters, these well-thumbed volumes told readers how to make everything from scrambled eggs to laundry-stain remover, bath soap and house paint. Based on herbal lore, the household and personal-care recipes of yesterday mostly relied on natural ingredients for green cleaners found in everyone's kitchen cupboard, garden or nearby field. Today, they still can provide safe, effective and inexpensive alternatives to the mostly chemical-based products that line our supermarket shelves.
In 1980, I was exposed to a gas leak at work and then, one month later, an insecticide that has since been taken off the market because of its toxicity was used by exterminators on my apartment building. After this one-two punch to my central nervous system, I became supersensitive to environmental chemicals, and began to research the startling extent to which chemicals are used in commercial cleaning and personal products — from hair spray and floor wax to dandelion killers and shower curtains. Many everyday products contain ingredients that cause environmental pollution that damages the ozone layer, disrupts wildlife's hormones and increases our risks of cancer and central nervous system disorders.
In the natural world, though, we can find an astonishing abundance of safe ingredients to make alternative products, many of which can be traced to the old recipe books. In my book, Better Basics for the Home, I have retrieved some of the old-time know-how that was abandoned with the arrival of the chemical age. If we can establish healthier homes, we'll go a long way toward establishing a healthier planet. By using our own recipes or purchasing less-toxic commercially made products, we can simplify our lives, feel empowered by our "potions" and save ourselves a bundle of money over time.
And yes, these less-toxic products really do work because they're based on simple chemistry: folk recipes were predicated on the pH scale of acid and alkaline. On this scale, 7 is neutral; anything greater than 7 is alkaline (examples include baking soda, washing soda, borax and lye) and anything less than 7 is acidic (including vinegar and lemon juice). Alkaline substances are effective cleaners of acidic materials, and acidic substances clean alkalines.
My daughter learned about acids and alkalines in third grade in an easy way, and you can try this, too: Simply cut a red cabbage into wedges and boil in just enough water to cover. Let cool, then strain the juice into a jar. Cabbage juice has a neutral pH — when added to acids, it turns pink; when added to alkalines, it turns yellowish green. If you want to neutralize an odor or a stain but don't know its pH, try this test, then use an alkaline cleaner on acidic stains and an acidic cleaner on alkaline stains.
To help you get started with your own less-toxic cleaners, see below for a selection of recipes. The recipe ingredients can be found in grocery, drug and health food stores.
Adapted from Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond, © 1999 by Annie Berthold-Bond. Used by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
5 Ingredients for Less-Toxic Cleaning
With five ingredients — baking soda, washing soda, liquid soap or detergent, distilled vinegar and an antiseptic essential oil — you can clean everything in your house.
Baking Soda and Washing Soda. The magic of these minerals is that they neutralize many stains and odors. They are alkaline, cut grease and can even dissolve wax. Baking soda also serves as a mild abrasive. Washing soda is the best heavy-duty scourer, but it is slightly caustic, so you need to wear gloves when using it.
Liquid Soap or Detergent. Soap is better for your health and the environment than detergents, but because water reacts with minerals in soap, washing clothes with it can leave an insoluble film and turn clothes grayish. If you wash your clothes with detergent, select the most biodegradable brand.
Vinegar and Essential Oils. Vinegar neutralizes many stains and odors, dissolves scale and pulls dirt out of wood. Use only white distilled vinegar for cleaning; apple cider vinegar could stain some materials, such as upholstery. Antiseptic essential oils — such as tea tree, sweet orange, lemon-grass, rose, clove, eucalyptus, cinnamon, birch or lavender — kill bacteria and mold.
Bring Home the Best Brands
At times, all of us need to buys readymade household cleaning product; following are a few recommendations for commercial products that work effectively and are considered environmentally safe. This listing is based on my 20 years of learning to live without toxins by reading labels and studying reports from reputable organizations. A primary resource is Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that gives a "seal of approval" to products that meet its high standards. Carefully choosing the safest commercially available cleaning products to supplement homemade cleaners considerably reduces the use of toxic cleaners in our homes. You can find these products in health food stores, some supermarkets and online.
Dr. Bronner's Peppermint
Pure Castile Soap
Granny's Old Fashioned Products
Infinity Heavenly Horsetail liquid detergents
Infinity Heavenly Horsetail
Life Tree Home Soap
Murphy Oil Soap Sodasan All-purpose Cleaner
Power Herbal Disinfectant and Deodorizer
Automatic Dish Detergents
Life Tree Seventh
Hand Dish-Washing Soap
Earth Friendly Products