By SUSAN CARPENTER
January 31, 2009
But buyer, beware. Like so many other green products these days, home cleansers that fly the enviro flag can be difficult to analyze. Sometimes the "green" in question is merely a ploy: It's the color of the liquid or just part of the name. Other times, the chemical nature of the products really has changed; instead of employing sodium dichloro s-triazinetrione dihydrate and other multisyllabic, tongue-twister chemicals to shine a sink to Martha Stewart standards, they use idyllic-sounding ingredients derived from the land -- coconuts, lemons and oranges.
It's confusing. Sure, it feels better on a soul level to support a product using ingredients one can recognize and pronounce. That's why I, like so many other consumers, had stopped buying mass-market chemicals with extensive first aid instructions and switched to less widely available green brands that lighten the conscience -- and, unfortunately, the pocketbook. They promised to degrease stove tops and sanitize toilets with only the gentlest of touches to the planet.
Although both types of products -- traditional and green -- are considered by the U.S. government to be safe for use, each has its issues. First, they can be expensive. Second, they suffer from frustratingly vague labeling. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees home-cleaning products, doesn't require a comprehensive ingredient list, so few companies provide them.
Like a lot of consumers, I'm simultaneously pleased and wary of corporate America's adoption of green thinking. Specialty brands such as Method and Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day have established large followings as alternatives to traditional cleaners, while the Green Works line from Clorox and the new Nature's Source products from the makers of Windex and Scrubbing Bubbles demonstrate how chemical giants have jumped on the "natural" bandwagon.
Although new plant-based formulations are, in many ways, better for the environment than traditional products using bleach and other harsh chemicals that affect aquatic life, the ingredient lists on packaging are ambiguous enough to raise suspicion.
The label for Arm & Hammer Essentials Cleaner & Degreaser, for example, says only that it's a "plant-based cleaner derived from coconuts and palm kernel oil" and "contains anionic and nonionic surfactants." For anything more specific, consumers need to go online or request a more detailed ingredients list, which a spokeswoman said the company will gladly provide.
The best source of specifics is something called a Material Safety Data Sheet, or MSDS. Required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the data sheets often -- but not always -- include a more thorough accounting of ingredients and their health implications. These data frequently are included on product websites.
Still wary? A lot of people are, apparently, and that's given rise to a trend: homemade cleaners. Concocted from vinegar, baking soda and other ingredients from the cupboard, mix-it-yourself cleaners are nothing new. But like so many other aspects of the Depression era, they're coming back in a big way, especially among Pollyannas, paranoiacs, penny pinchers, back-to-the-landers and greenies.
Sounds good. But do these cleaners actually work? And do they really save money? Being something of a paranoid, penny-pinching, back-to-the-land greenie myself, I tried them out.
My first stop was the Internet, which is bubbling with recipes for homemade cleaners. "The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City," a book written by Echo Park residents Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, is another excellent resource, as is Kimberly Delaney's "Knack Clean Home Green Home," the bible for green housekeeping that served as my guide.
Regardless of the source, all of the information pointed to the same core ingredients: white distilled vinegar (a disinfectant and deodorant), baking soda (a deodorant and mild abrasive), castile soap (made of 100% vegetable oil) and water. Using these four ingredients, I was able to scrub my windows, toilets, tubs, floors and sinks.
Adding a squeeze of lemon juice (a disinfectant) here and a dash of olive oil (a lubricant) there, I was able to shine my dining room table into something Narcissus would have admired. And with a sprinkle of Borax (an abrasive mineral salt that isn't entirely accepted by some green-cleaning folks because it's toxic if swallowed), I could really go to town on the tub scum generated by my often-filthy 5-year-old.
Mixing ingredients was fast and easy. As for containers: I embraced the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra, re-purposing various bottles and sprayers from the clutter under my sink. I just needed to make sure I rinsed them thoroughly so trace chemicals didn't react with any of the new stuff and I didn't accidentally blow the granite counter off my kitchen cabinets.
Reusing the old containers had additional benefits I wasn't anticipating. The familiar bottles helped my Spanish-speaking housecleaner match each concoction to its appropriate use. It also disguised the look of some of these homemade products, most of which are lumpy. Castile soap is an oil, so when added to water and vinegar, it floats to the top. Shake it all you like. It still will separate and end up looking like chicken grease in a cooled vat of broth. After a lifetime of pastel- colored store-bought cleaners, you'll need time to adjust to these homemade mixtures.
Then there's the smell. Like many Americans, I was raised in a Cloroxed and Windexed household and have come to associate the odors of bleach, ammonia and other chemicals with "clean." Use homemades, and suddenly vinegar, in all its odoriferous glory, is the new smell of clean, which may explain why the scented essential oils of tea tree, lemon and lavender are so popular with the homemade cleaner crowd.
I found that homemades as a whole worked almost as well as the commercially available products I'd been using. I say "almost" because the baking soda and castile soap paste I use to scour my bathroom sink doesn't yield the same gleam as it did with my former pal Bon Ami. Nor do my wood and cork floors look nearly as shiny after a mopping with water, vinegar and castile soap as they did with Murphy Oil Soap. And my stone kitchen counter could be destroyed with an all-purpose cleaner mixed from vinegar.
Even so, I was pleased enough with the results that I've been using homemades for about two months and plan to continue. "Transparency" may be an overused political buzzword these days, but it's just as applicable to the products we're buying and flushing down the drain. I like knowing exactly what's in the cleansers I'm using. I'm comforted by the fact that I could eat some of them.
I'm also impressed by the prices. I spent about $30 on raw ingredients, the most expensive of which were Dr. Bronner's castile soap (about $10), Borax ($5) and tea tree oil ($5). That's more money than I expected, but the most expensive ingredients are used in the smallest quantities, and the castile soap has other purposes -- it's my daily hand and body soap as well. The ingredients I needed the most are the cheapest: The gallon of distilled white vinegar was $2, and the box of baking soda was $1.
Clean. And transparently green. Yes, it's possible.
For Carpenter's past columns on green home improvement and sustainable living, go to latimes.com/realist.
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