Mine was a childhood of scent. I remember summers spent in the sweet-smelling home of my grandparents: the lingering fragrance of tea-scrubbed floors; wooden furniture polished to a sheen with lemon balm leaves; featherbeds covered with softly worn sheets dried in the sun, draped over lavender bushes.
How times have changed since our grandmothers and great-grandmothers searched anthills for fine grains of sand to scour the kitchen pots with.
Once passed down from generation to generation, secrets for cleaning the household in a natural way have been replaced by manufactured ways of making our environments germ-free.
And while an industrial-strength array of toxins leads the household cleaners list, the health of our families and the world around us is calling for a return to nature’s ways, says Jeffrey Hollender, president of Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation, a leader in the natural products industry.
People will make an effort to buy vitamins and organic produce, but they’ll stop there, says Hollender, whose company has promoted a more ecological approach to household products for the past 10 years.
Chemicals found in many of today’s cleaners cause health and environmental concerns. Some of the ingredients are even carcinogenic, he says.
Natural products use bases such as vegetable oil in place of petroleum, and hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine bleach, Hollender says.
Says Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home, (Putnam, $18.95,  788-6262): Toxic products are “like dropping an atom bomb on your house. They are overkill.
“There’s a widely pervasive myth that if something is harmful, the government won’t allow it to be sold. Cleaning products are governed by the Household Hazardous Waste Act. They are considered hazardous waste and are labeled as dangerous chemicals.
“Companies of cleaning products are not even required by law to list what’s in them. In addition, to keep their ‘trade secrets’ proprietary, companies are exempt from mandatory disclosure.”
Some consumers have experienced the potential dangers of some popular household cleaners.
“I was preparing a house for sale some years ago and wanted everything to be spotless, especially the bathrooms,” says Pat Bertagna of Santa Ana. “I started in the shower with Ajax, then added some bleach. When the stains didn’t come out, I tried other sprays and liquids. I ended up using five or six products. The fumes got so bad, I couldn’t open my eyes.”
Bertagna also found it difficult to breathe.
How are the alternatives?
“Homemade products are not only safer [than some manufactured products], they cost mere pennies,” says Jeanne Wathier, a licensed acupuncturist who works in Santa Ana.
And they’re simpler, she says.
“I take the petals from my roses--red ones are the most fragrant. I crush them between my fingers and rub their oil on the inside of the wastebasket,” she says. “Then I toss the petals into the basket and allow them to continue releasing their delicate fragrance as they dry.”
While you may not be ready to toss out your entire supply of manufactured cleansers, you may want to start replacing the most commonly used ones with homemade alternatives.
But first, beware. Because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t cause an allergic response. Use all preparations with caution, especially around children, and label and store them properly.
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14450 Griffith St.
San Leandro, CA 94577
Fax: (510) 357-7444
A small business of environmentally friendly, soap-based products. Its sampler box of a month’s supply of six items ($9.95, shipping and tax included) is an introduction to natural cleansers. Soapworks also sells through Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
* Seventh Generation Inc.
1 Mill St., Box A26
Burlington, VT 05401-1530
Fax: (802) 658-1771
A national company offering a wide range of environmentally sound products, from household cleansers to 100% recycled paper products.
* Savory Soaps
Yorba Linda, CA 92886
This home-based company creates fine handmade soaps and oils with only natural ingredients.
* Sinan Co.
P. O. Box 857
Davis, CA 95617
This German-owned company makes nontoxic, plant-derived paints, waxes, organic soaps and beeswax floor-care and furniture products.
More Cleaning Tips
* SPOT REMOVERS
* Club soda, the old standard for lifting carpet stains, is still an effective remedy. For difficult stains, sprinkle on a layer of cornmeal, work into the carpet and leave overnight before vacuuming.
* Laundry stains will disappear with borax, a natural substitute for bleach. On white fabrics, apply a solution of 1 part borax and 6 parts water. Use a more diluted solution for colored materials (always spot-test first for colorfastness).
* ROOM AIR FRESHENERS
* In medieval times, herbs were swept beneath rugs or hidden in “sweet bags” under cushions to freshen a room.
Try herbs such as lemon verbena and scented geraniums, blossoms of lavender and rose or dried citrus peels. The herb Sweet Annie, hung in a humid bathroom or near the kitchen stove, will release an especially sweet fragrance.
* To alleviate the mustiness of closets, soak a cotton ball with pure vanilla extract (not artificial vanilla) from your kitchen cabinet. Place in an open container on the top shelf. Re-saturate the cotton once a week.
* Sprinkle dried wood clippings of garden herbs and dried citrus peels on winter fires to fill the room with scent. To sweeten the kitchen, turn off the oven after baking and place fresh sprigs of rosemary or bay on its racks.