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Inexpensive green cleaning products—both off the shelf and homemade—can be just as effective on your sinks, toilets, and showers as conventional products.
Many sink problems, from leftover toothpaste to stray makeup splotches, can be cleaned with hot water and a natural dish soap. Image: Alex Wilson/Getty Images
Grimy grout. Moldy showers. Smells you’d rather not talk about. Given its frequent exposure to moisture, not to mention calls of nature, the bathroom needs to be one of the most frequently sanitized rooms in the house. But if you rely on conventional commercial products for your lavatory clean-ups, not only are you paying big bucks but you’re also bringing some of the harshest chemicals on the market into this small, often poorly ventilated space. The combination makes the bathroom a prime candidate for a green cleaning products.
Environmentally friendly doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, however. While there are many sustainable off-the-shelf options, safe and effective cleaning solutions also can be mixed at home for pennies from common household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. Here’s a tip sheet for transforming your bathroom from chemically contaminated to green and clean.
Showers & Baths
A serious bathroom-cleaning hazard is the accidental combination of bleach and ammonia, common ingredients in different all-purpose cleaners. On their own, each is unhealthy to breathe in and can seriously irritate skin. Combined, however, they can create a dangerous plume of chlorine gas, says Eric Richter, chemist for the Atlanta-based Ecodiscoveries. You can avoid this toxic reaction by staying away from conventional cleaners, or at the very least carefully scrutinizing labels.
Another harmful chemical found in conventional all-purpose cleaners is 2-butoxyethanol. It belongs to a group of grease-cutting industrial solvents called glycol ethers, which are easily absorbed through the skin and have been linked to reproductive problems and birth defects in animal studies. “It’s just overkill in a bathroom, where your biggest problems are toothpaste in the sink or soap residue in the shower,” says Ali Solomon, director of communications for the environmental organization Women’s Voices for the Earth.
Solomon says you can save the $4-$5 you’d spend buying chemical concoctions at the store by making your own all-purpose cleaner for your shower enclosures or baths. Mix equal parts water and vinegar, then heat in a glass bowl. You can also add several drops of a disinfecting essential oil like orange or lemon, she says, to improve the smell and boost germ-fighting power. Food-grade vinegar runs about $4 for a 64-ounce bottle; that’s $1 per 32-ounce batch of cleaner.
The commercially available cleaners for your porcelain throne contain some of the nastiest stuff you can buy. Mary Findley, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Cleaning,” says you can skip chemicals like bleach, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and naphthalene, and still score a white, clean toilet.
Add about half a cup of a green all-purpose cleaner like Biokleen’s ($5 for 32 ounces) to the toilet, then sprinkle baking soda into the bowl. If you want extra bleaching power, substitute hydrogen peroxide for the all-purpose cleaner. The one-two punch will transform your toilet for pocket change compared to the $3-$6 you’d shell out for a bottle of the conventional stuff.
Put away the $6 you’d spend buying industrial-grade acids when you’re trying to dislodge a hairball. Instead, pour a half-cup of baking soda down the drain, and follow with a half-cup of vinegar. Cover and let it set for at least 30 minutes, then flush with boiling water. If that doesn’t work, try an enzyme-based cleaner like Nature’s Miracle, which contains eco-friendly microbes that eat away at clogs, or buy a $5 plunger and dislodge the clog manually.
Sinks & Vanities
Many sink problems, from leftover toothpaste to stray makeup splotches, can be cleaned with hot water and a natural dishwashing soap like those from Mrs. Meyer’s ($4.50 for 16 ounces). If you want to disinfect, try Women’s Voices for the Earth’s green all-purpose cleaner recipe, or what Solomon calls the “Creamy Soft Scrub.” It’s a mix of baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils that will foam up and clean away dirty sink and vanity problems. Castile soap retails for about $15 for a 32-ounce bottle. You can use the soft-scrub mix all over the house, and castile soap can double as a body wash or shampoo.
Mirrors & Glass
Pour on the vinegar to clean glass and mirrors, Findley says. Add a quarter cup of vinegar to a 32-ounce spray bottle, and fill the rest of the way with distilled water. Spray on and wipe with an old newspaper rather than a cloth or paper towel to prevent stray threads and towel bits from remaining on your glass. Your mirrors will be streak- and particulate-free, and for significantly less money than if you’d shelled out the $5 for a regular glass cleaner.
Tile & Grout
Tile grout’s prickly texture tends to invite dirt, mold, and scum. The soft-scrub mix is a good option, Solomon says. To mop tile floors, whip up a batch of water and vinegar-based all-purpose cleaner. In the shower, if you’re dealing with moldy grout, try borax. A 76-ounce box costs about $6.50. One cup of borax in one gallon of water with a stiff-bristled sponge should help scour mildew from your shower grout.
Very few synthetic fragrances found in cleaners and air fresheners have been tested for human toxicity, Richter says. You can avoid the risk (and the $3 a spray air freshener will cost) by simply using common sense and ventilation. To freshen a stinky bathroom, turn on outside-vented fans or open windows, when possible. Otherwise try the age-old trick of sticking an open box of baking soda in your lavatory. It costs less than $1, and it sucks unpleasant smells right out of the air.
writes regularly about home improvement, decorating, and “green home” tips; her work has appeared in magazines like Pregnancy, Kiwi, and Parenting and on many websites, including BobVila.com and HGTV.com.