There are a variety common household ingredients you can use to keep your house clean and fresh without stressing your budget. Because they are homemade products, and made from natural ingredients, they will not contain strong-smelling perfumes and chemicals.
(For a complete guide to eco-friendly spring cleaning, take a look at this.)
When you create your own cleaning mixtures, you control the chemicals you use (it is possible to use completely non-toxic cleaning supplies). However, don’t believe just because it is homemade it is necessarily harmless. Ammonia can be purchased cheaply and is often featured in homemade cleaning recipes, but it is not a product you can use carelessly. Bleach and isopropyl alcohol are also common household goods that are toxic.
While many of these homemade cleaning products are safer than those commercially available, they may not work as well as the commercial products. Before you invest a lot of time and money in homemade cleaners, experiment a little. Keep track of the time required to clean, and balance that against your desires for a non-toxic home. It may also require more of a product to get the same kind of clean, which could impact the cost savings. In general, making your own products will be less expensive, but sometimes if you begin adding essential oils and other side ingredients, you may find yourself spending the same amount as on commercial products.
Baking soda is a very simple and effective surface cleaning. It is similar to commercial powdered abrasive cleaners and has the added benefit of being an odor absorber. Baking soda can be used alone with water and a sponge to scrub out tough stains like a scouring powder, or it can be added to a solution to add extra deodorizing power. You can leave baking soda on particularly tough stains (even pots and pans) for 15 – 20 minutes before wiping away. Baking soda also works as a drain cleaner by adding up to a cup to the drain and adding a tiny bit of hot water. Let it stand for as long as overnight before flushing the drain with hot water. It will not work on completely blocked drains, but serves as a prevention method. Combine ¾ cup baking soda with 2 tbsp cornstarch (and a dry scent you favor) to make an inexpensive carpet freshener.
Borax (sodium borate) is a great all-purpose cleaner and can be mixed with water, baking soda or white vinegar. Borax works as laundry soap, and can clean wallpaper, painted walls and painted surfaces.
Cornstarch works well as a window cleaner, furniture polish, and as a carpet cleaner and deodorizer. This mixes with many things without toxic results.
White vinegar is another all-purpose cleaner that most people already have in their homes. When using vinegar for normal cleaning, you will want to dilute vinegar in an equal part water but it can be used straight from the bottle on tough stains and mineral deposits. Vinegar is a deodorizer, like baking soda, and is also a disinfectant. Because it is colorless and contains no colorants, it will not stain. Vinegar does not work well on marble or on grout, and may damage it because of vinegar’s acidity. The vinegar smell will linger while wet, but will quickly dissipate while drying. Vinegar is also an effective stain remover on sinks, floors, stovetops, chrome and countertops and can be used to remove rings from your toilet bowl! If you have family members with sensitive skin, adding half a cup of vinegar to your rinse cycle will quickly break down laundry detergent and act as a natural fabric softener.
Lemon juice, another highly acidic liquid, works extremely well on hard water stains and on built-up soap scum. You can mix lemon juice with vinegar and/or baking soda to make a paste similar to Soft Scrub brand cleaning scrub or mix it with olive oil for a wood furniture polish. Lemon juice left to sit on a rust spot can completely erase the rust and hard water. This may need to be repeated several times before the spot is completely gone.
Salt can be used as an alternative scouring powder and also works as a rust remover when paired with lime juice.
Club soda is a great stain lifter for fabrics and can double as a glass cleaner. When using club soda as a stain lifter, allow it to soak into the stain before blotting. Do not rub the stain or you risk smearing it around.
Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol makes a brilliant window and glass cleaning cleaner. This is, of course, not as safe as the previous cleaners. It is also a powerful disinfectant for chrome and some kinds of ceramic tiles (test it in an inconspicuous area first). Alcohol also works well for cleaning dirty or dusty candles!
Ammonia is a very inexpensive cleaning agent, but can be toxic, so use with care. Ammonia is a strong alkaline and works in situations in which vinegar is not working. Do not ever mix ammonia with bleach as it creates an extremely toxic gas. Ammonia left to stand in the oven over night will loosen grime from the surfaces without the same chemical assault (and cost) commercial oven cleaners. It may be necessary to follow up with some kind of abrasive, such as baking soda or steel wool. Rinse with warm soapy water, as you definitely do not want ammonia residue lingering in your oven.
Chlorine bleach, another potentially dangerous chemical, is an inexpensive disinfectant/mildew remover. Dilute ¾ cups of bleach in one gallon of water to thoroughly clean and disinfect your shower or other areas that attract mold and mildew.
In the end, the decision to use homemade products is an issue of personal preference. If you stick to the non-toxic ingredients, you will be contributing to the health of the environment through not adding those chemicals to the ground water and air. You will probably save money, but the trade off may be a little more elbow grease to get your house clean.