June 01, 2011

Homemade cleaners reduce chemical burden

As published in The Erin Advocate

After a lifetime of buying commercial products with flashy graphics on the labels, it seemed very strange to be mixing my own in a plain bottle. Not quite like being a mad scientist. More like being a cook, or conducting a chemistry experiment.

I decided to give it a try after seeing Chemerical, at the Fast Forward Environmental Film Festival, sponsored by the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) and Credit Valley Conservation.

The documentary follows a family that takes up a challenge to purge commercial chemical products from their household cupboards. It is part of a movement to reduce the stresses on the human body caused by the thousands of petrochemicals and toxins we bring into our homes – and to spend considerably less money on our obsession with cleanliness.

Getting out the measuring cups, I had to get over the feeling that I should be leaving this to the experts at Procter & Gamble. But then, if you can prepare your own food, you should be able to follow a recipe to make your own cleaners. And you don't have to be a hippie to do it (not that there's anything wrong with that).

My big bottle of Cascade dishwasher detergent was almost empty. It comes complete with lemon scent, shine shield, sodium hydroxide, sodium silicate, chlorine bleach and a warning that dangerous fumes form if mixed with other products. So I tried the dishwasher soap recipe I had picked up at the film night:

White Vinegar - 1/3 cup (75 ml)
Liquid Castile Soap - 1/2 cup (125 ml)
Tea Tree Oil - 4 drops
Water - 1/2 cup (125 ml)
Lemon Juice - 2 tsp (10 ml)
Stir it all up, put it in a bottle and use 2-3 tablespoons per load.

The other feeling to overcome is that of excessive frugality. Will guests think I can't afford basic supplies? Am I in training for an economic collapse? This passed fairly quickly, especially when I went to buy the supplies at a health food store.

An 8-ounce (236 ml) bottle of low-suds Castile Soap, made with fair trade coconut and olive oil, cost $7.25. If I keep doing this, I will save money by buying larger quantities. And I may have to continue, now that I have invested $22.35 in a 1.8 ounce (50 ml) bottle of Tea Tree Oil, an antibacterial-antifungal agent. It should last for years at 4 drops per batch, if I don't lose it.

I ran two test dishwasher loads, with dishes that were not too messy. The results were good, though not excellent. The first had 2.5 tablespoons of the mix, and while most of the dishes rinsed clean, some had traces of soap residue that had to be wiped off. For the second load, I used half as much soap, and there was virtually no residue on the dishes. There was some soap foam around the drain to be wiped up.

The dishes were clean, and smooth to the touch. The exceptions were a pan with cooked-on bits of food, and a utensil with something sticky on it, which needed to be re-washed by hand. Overall, the homemade solution was not as powerful a cleaner, but then there always seem to be some dishes that even the commercial products cannot clean thoroughly.

We are already in the habit of pre-rinsing and scrubbing off the worst of the mess, so the new mix should do us fine. Like many aspects of choosing a lower-tech lifestyle, making your own cleaners requires more manual labour, and more discipline.

There are lots of interesting concoctions out there to try, including window cleaner, laundry soap, body lotion, hand cream, aftershave and even lipstick. You can watch a short version of the Chemerical film and download a sample "cookbook" at www.chemicalnation.com. It sings the praises of soap flakes, baking soda, vinegar, borax, soda ash and isopropyl alcohol. Also check the information from the Environmental Working Group at www.cosmeticdatabase.com. And for a wide overview of the many lifestyle changes that could help the environment, go to the CCAGE site, www.anythingittakes.ca.

For more advice and training on homemade products, there is a Healthy Cleaning workshop being held this Saturday, June 4 at Everdale Farm, 10 am to 2:30 pm, with Anne Stewart of Environmental Health Consulting. The cost is $65, and you'll get to make some less-toxic cleaners to take home. Go to workshops.everdale.org or call 519.855.4859, ext. 101 to register or get more details.