Category Archives: Cleaning

Unrecipes: Chemical-Free Cleaning and Personal Care

I am not this fancy!
Image Credit: Becky Wetherington on Flickr.

When I wrote about how we keep a balance with the ol’ budget around here, I mentioned that there are a whole lot of cleaning and toiletry products that I no longer buy. Several readers inquired about our alternatives, so I promised to write up a post detailing them. I also mentioned that those of you who were impressed probably shouldn’t be. I worry that I have you all picturing me in the kitchen pouring luxurious bars of soap in various shapes and scents and putting pretty labels on bottles of homemade moisturizer. It’s definitely not like that, and if I made myself out to be some guru that was not my intent. Anyhow, I’ll shush now and get on with it.

First, a rundown of the ingredients I use for personal care and household cleaning, since most of them will appear more than once. In bold are the items I really feel that I need. The rest I could live without, but they add a little something and I had them on hand, so I use them. If you’re familiar with this sort of stuff already, you may want to skip to the next section.

  • Castile Soap: Traditionally, the name Castile soap refers to a product made from olive oil in the Castile region of Spain. These days, however, it refers to any soap whose base is purely from vegetable oils rather than animal tallow. These soaps are pure and simple, without harsh detergents, animal based ingredients, and the like. Popular brands include Dr. Bronner’s and Dr. Woods. These soaps can be found in health food stores, but are becoming more readily available elsewhere. We typically use Dr. Bronner’s. I like to buy the Baby Mild variety since it contains no essential oils, but I can divvy it up and add my own depending on what I’m in the mood for.
  • Vinegar: Vinegar requires little explanation, as I’m sure it is not a foreign product to any of you. I tend to use white vinegar most often, as it is inexpensive and I can purchase it in much larger quantities and a recyclable container. Another popular option, especially for hair rinses, however, is Apple Cider Vinegar. I use Bragg’s ACV here and there as well.
  • Baking Soda: This also needs little explanation, but I suppose I’ll mention that in many countries it is referred to as Sodium Bicarbonate. It’s also important to note that due to the way they are processed, many popular brands contain aluminum, so you may wish to look for one that does not. I use Bob’s Red Mill, which is labeled aluminum free.
  • Extra Virgin Coconut Oil: Oil from coconuts also needs little explanation. When cold, the oil is solid, but slight warming causes it to liquefy. You can buy any old type, but the unrefined (virgin) oil retains all of its beneficial properties, while the refining process destroys some. One difference that you will notice, however, is that unrefined oil smells strongly of coconuts whereas the refined oil is virtually odorless, so if you don’t enjoy the smell you can certainly purchase the refined oil. Just be aware of the difference. The brand I purchase is called Spectrum, but that’s just because it’s the only brand my local stores carry.
  • Essential Oils: Essential oils are used for fragrance as well as for certain therapeutic or medicinal properties. They are extracted, usually by distillation, from various plants. They differ from fragrance oils in that they are derived from plants themselves and do not contain synthetic fragrances, which can have negative effects on human health. Most essential oils are not to be used undiluted on the skin, but are perfectly safe when used with a “carrier” oil like olive or coconut. I use only a few essential oils, and really I could live without them, but they add a nice touch and I do enjoy them. If you’re new to the world of EOs, you may enjoy Dionna’s article on Essential Oil Remedies for Children over at the Natural Parents Network.
  • Grapefruit Seed Extract: GSE is, in fact, made from grapefruit and is useful as a natural preservative as well as an antimicrobial agent. I took it, diluted in water, when I had Mastitis and avoided a trip to the doctor, but I also use it in some household products. It is available in health food stores.
  • Stevia: Made from a plant of the same name, Stevia is found in powdered and liquid forms and used as a sweetener. I use it in one product only, and that’s Annabelle’s toothpaste. You can find it in health food stores. It is becoming rather controversial, however, especially since becoming available as an ultra-processed white powder under the name “Truvia.” Definitely do your research and decide how you feel about using it. Certainly the less processed the better – if you can grow it yourself or get your hands on the actual leaves, that’s fantastic. If you buy it in powdered form, it should be green. Another popular alternative is Xylitol, but it’s just as controversial and personally I don’t wish to use it. Crunchy Betty has a great article on the topic -> Xylitol: Should We Stop Calling it Natural?
  • Xanthan Gum: This is another controversial product, and unless you have it on hand, you probably have no reason to buy it. It is a fermented corn sugar derived from a particular bacteria (Xanthomonas campestris). It is used in food products, especially gluten free specialty foods, and cosmetics. Most of the issues with it are based on the fact that it’s corn-derived and therefore usually GMO, but you’ll certainly uncover quite a bit of information if you look around. I won’t use it for food any longer, but in cosmetics it’s nice because it keeps things that would otherwise separate, mixed.

Personal Care
I’m the type of gal who likes to keep things as simple as possible, so I try to find solutions for personal care products that are not only chemical-free, but that don’t require any difficult to find ingredients. I don’t really follow recipes, as that requires extra time and, you know, writing stuff down. I wing it. You can, too. I trust you on this.

  • Hair
    • ShampooI tried going no ‘poo for some months, and after the initial transition it worked great. Eventually, however, I started to feel like I had some residue that just plain never went away completely, so I jumped ship. I think this has a lot to do with the extremely harsh water we have here. In any case, I started using a small amount of liquid castile soap when I need a good wash, and I add a bit of lavender essential oil when I want my hair to smell pretty. I do the same for Annabelle, though she needs a good wash far less often than I.
    • Conditioner: I have stuck with the vinegar rinse. It’s inexpensive, and it works. I keep a spray bottle in my shower that contains half vinegar and half water and I use this to spray my hair. This method means I’m much less likely to get vinegar in my eyes, which stings. A lot. I follow each wash with a vinegar rinse, but even when I don’t wash my hair with soap, I do a hot water and vinegar rinse.
      For Annabelle, I spray vinegar only on the curly back of her hair, taking care that I don’t accidentally get any in her eyes.
    • Styling: I do have a gel (Alba Botanica) and a hairspray (Aubrey Organics)1 that I use when I really want to get fancy, but for the most part all I do is use a small amount of coconut oil on my ends and as far up my hair as seems to need moisturizer. Just a touch adds moisture and shine without making the hair look oily.
      Where I have really gotten frustrated is with Annabelle’s super curly hair that becomes a giant tangle in the back the moment it makes contact with anything. For awhile, I was just using coconut oil and brushing it out, but coconut oil is expensive, and when you use enough to help detangle it also makes the hair greasy. I have come up with (gasp!) an actual recipe for a detangling spray that I now use for her. It also helps tame flyaways for me. Here it is:
      • 2 Tbsp Coconut Oil
      • 1/4 tsp Xanthan Gum
      • 1 cup water
        I use a funnel to pour the coconut oil into a spray bottle, then add the xanthan gum and mix. Finally, I add the water and the lid, and shake vigorously. The xanthan gum keeps the oil and water from separating and also adds a bit of thickness to the mixture. You can also add a drop or two of essential oil for fragrance. This does not work as beautifully as the “No More Tangles” I remember as a kid, but it does make it easier to comb Annabelle’s curls out and it helps them keep their shape. If you use conditioner, I also hear good things about diluting a bit in water and simply using that.
  • Face: I wash with castile soap and use coconut oil as a moisturizer. Coconut oil also works wonderfully to remove makeup from under the eyes, and it has a natural SPF so it provides a bit of protection from the sun as well.
    I do wear makeup, most of which I order online from Coastal Classic Creations, whose products are about as pure as they come. They even use BPA free containers. I am not a fan of their mascara, however, so I use ZuZu Luxe, which you can buy at Whole Foods if you have such a thing near you, and probably some other health food stores as well.
  • Teeth: This is where you’re going to think I’m really crazy. I researched toothpaste recipes until I wanted to scream, and there was virtually nothing that some sources didn’t advise against. Baking soda is a popular choice, but some say it is too abrasive and damages your enamel. Glycerine is commonly used, but some sources say it coats the teeth and actually does more harm than good. I couldn’t find anything I felt completely and totally comfortable with, so finally I threw up my hands and started using Peppermint Dr. Bronner’s, or Dr. Bronner’s Baby Mild with Peppermint Essential Oil added. It lathers beautifully, tastes minty fresh, and leaves my teeth feeling cleaner than ever, so I think I’ll stick with it unless my next visit to the dentist gives me a reason to do otherwise.
    I have tried it with Annabelle and she scrunches up her face and declares the stuff, “hot!” I made a different concoction for her using about two tablespoons of coconut oil to one tsp Dr. Bronner’s and several drops of Stevia to make it pleasant to the taste. The soap is what actually does the cleaning – the rest just makes it palatable.
    I have gone back and forth on rinses, and I’ll report back when I find something I want to stick with. For now, I’m finishing off a bottle of Tom’s while I decide what to do next.
  • Body: I wash myself and Annabelle with castile soap. Easy, peasy. Going soap free seems to be increasingly popular. I’m not ready. As a moisturizer, I use coconut oil. Olive oil is wonderful, too, but the smell is too much for me. Coconut oil works fine as a deodorant if I’m not doing anything terribly active, but when I need something heavier duty, I use Crystal deodorant spray.
Yes, I grabbed the camera before helping.
You may now question what kind of
mother I am anyway.


  • Dishes and Laundry
    There are many wonderful recipes out there for homemade dish and laundry soaps, but most call for ingredients that are not easy to come by here. For now, I am happy using products that I can buy locally. I would like to experiment with making my own when we move, but I’ll take it slowly. My favorite brand for dish and laundry soaps is Biokleen. When I can’t find it, I go for other relatively safe brands. My current hand dish washing soap is Meyer’s Clean Day. I’m definitely not the super green poster child in this department, but I’m working on it.
    I do use a lot of vinegar, both as a rinse agent in the dishwasher and as a fabric softener. I was skeptical about using it for these purposes, but the results are undeniable. Our harsh water used to leave a thick white coating on dishes, but when I add a cup of vinegar to the wash, everything comes our sparkly clean.
  • Floors and Surfaces
    My basic “all-purpose cleaner” is a small amount of castile soap and a couple of drops of essential oil for fragrance diluted in a spray bottle with water. This works beautifully on our counters and tile floors as well as on bathroom surfaces. I always keep a spray bottle of vinegar on hand as well, and use that to sanitize counter tops and kill bacteria in other areas – especially the bathroom.
    For wood, I am still trying recipes and working to find something I love. I was using a combination of olive oil and lemon juice, but in the end I decided this was leaving a build-up on my wood. For now, I use warm, soapy water.
  • Glass
    Vinegar works wonderfully. In the old days, we used it with newspaper, but I have found that a cotton cleaning cloth actually works wonderfully. For a long time this was the one purpose I reserved paper towels for. Boy did I feel silly when I saw how well a regular old, washable cloth works!
  • Fruit and Veggie Wash
    I wish I could remember where I found recipes for fruit and veggie washes, but that’s tricky since I don’t follow any one exactly anyway. I suggest that you find an exact recipe that you like and trust, but if you want to know what I use, it’s a combination of grapefruit seed extract, vinegar, water, and a bit of baking soda. It’s not very scientific, and I may actually measure one of these days.
  • Toilets
    Our crazy harsh water tends to leave a mineral buildup on toilet bowls. To combat this and generally clean, I sprinkle baking soda on the dry part of the bowl (a repurposed spice jar with a shaker top works wonderfully for this) and then gently spray it with vinegar. I leave this to sit for a few minutes and then scrub all of the residue away.
  • ScouringAnnabelle has free access to her art materials and this sometimes leads to a bit of exploratory drawing. Fortunately, her pencils and crayons wipe off most surfaces easily, but for some this is not the case. For tough jobs, I create a paste with baking soda and a very small amount of water. I use a soft cloth or simply my fingertip to scrub crayon, pencil, and other types of marks away. Baking soda is quite abrasive, however, so test it on a small part of your surfaces before going all out.

And that’s that. Overall, my goals are to minimize our environmental impact and keep toxins out of our home. Many times, however, I have been thankful that we use the types of products that we do because they give me peace of mind around our busy toddler. When Annabelle licks the tabletop or rubs her hand in the table I have just sprayed, I can stay calm, knowing that nothing in these products will harm her.

Do you have any recipes or ideas for alternatives to homemade household or personal care products? Could you ever go soap free? Would you brush your teeth with soap? What’s the “line” for you? I would love to hear your thoughts on toxin-free products for the home and body.

1 I have not thoroughly researched either and there are probably better/more “green” brands. They’re just what my local store carries.

Journey to a Disposable Free Household

Welcome to the First Annual Freedom of Cloth Carnival

This post was written for inclusion in the Freedom of Cloth Carnival hosted at Natural Parents Network by Melissa of The New Mommy Files and Shannon of The Artful Mama. This year’s carnival will run from Sunday, July 3rd through Saturday, July 9th. Participants are sharing everything they know and love about cloth diapering, including how cloth has inspired them.


Photo Credit: Ray King
Used by Creative Commons License

I have been on a journey to be kinder and gentler to the environment since long before my daughter was born, but her birth and the decision to cloth diaper definitely gave me the extra push I needed to take that journey more seriously. I knew from the start that I would use cloth in combination with elimination communication, but as I researched my options and learned how easy it was to use cloth, I took things a bit further.

Using cloth caused me to think more about other single-use items in our home and I have slowly been replacing these with options we can use again and again. The most obvious switch was from disposable to cloth napkins, but later we moved away from our use of paper towels for cleaning. I was surprised to see how easy it was to use cotton cloths in their stead, even for things like mirrors and windows. Making one small change at a time has made the switch to cloth for all of our household needs an easy one. My most recent change has been away from disposable feminine products and it was quite easy thanks to my “Keeper Cup.”
As I gave more thought to the products I was using to wash our diapers, I also began to examine all of our household cleaning products and that has been instrumental in my switch to a chemical-free household. Not only is this safer for my family, but it has me buying fewer products in disposable containers. We do use a large amount of vinegar that comes in plastic gallon jugs, so my current eco conundrum is how to reduce those. The change in our choice of cleaning products in turn made me look at the products I use for my own self care: shampoos, soaps, and other cosmetics. I have slowly made changes in this area as well, switching to products that don’t contain harsh chemicals and that use less packaging and disposable containers.
By no means am I perfect, and I’m sure that my family is not making all of the “right” choices, but the point is – we’re thinking about it, and we’re making changes one at a time as we see a need. Cloth diapering has been a giant stepping stone in our journey toward awareness and conscious, mindful living in our environment. 


freedom of cloth carnivalVisit
Natural Parents Network
for the most up-to-date news on the Freedom of Cloth Carnival!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants on the following themes. Articles will go live on the scheduled theme day:

  • Sunday, July 3rd, 2011: Cloth Related Recipes — Writers share their best cloth-related recipes and tutorials.
  • Monday, July 4th, 2011: Choosing Your Cloth Style — Today’s posts discuss parents’ individual journeys to finding the cloth diapering “style” that best suits their families.
  • Tuesday, July 5th, 2011: Cloth Diapering Must Haves — Parents talk about the most important items in their diapering “stash” and why they love them.
  • Wednesday, July 6th, 2011: Wordless Wednesday, Inspired by Cloth — We asked parents to share their favorite cloth-related photo with us and turned them into a fluffy Wordless Wednesday photo montage on Natural Parents Network. Link up your own Wordless Wednesday post there!
  • Thursday, July 7th, 2011: Cloth Through the Stages: From Infancy to Potty Independence — Today’s participants explain how cloth diapering has served their families throughout one or more stages of their children’s lives.
  • Friday, July 8th, 2011: Cloth Troubleshooting and Laundry Day — Seasoned cloth diapering parents share their best tips and tricks for handling common cloth problems and tackling the diaper laundry.
  • Saturday, July 9th, 2011: Inspired by Cloth — For today’s theme, we’ve asked writers to explore the ways cloth diapering has inspired them to become “greener” overall.

Not-So-Good Housekeeping: Ramblings of a Crazy Woman

one particularly cluttered corner
“If you can’t keep your room clean,” my mother used to warn, “this is what your house is going to look like when you’re an adult!” While I am quite certain my housekeeping skills have vastly improved since age ten (I haven’t discovered a months old sandwich under my bed in nearly two decades), I’ll admit this grim warning was not too far from the truth. Keeping a perpetually tidy house is simply not my strong suit.
I’m quite good at getting things clean. I have learned a number of tricks over the years for removing stains, getting into hard to reach spots, and the like. That’s not my problem. It’s efficiency and organization, really. You see, I have a very particular idea in my head of how things ought to be cleaned. It goes in this order:
(1) Picking up and organizing. You know, a place for everything and everything in its place.
(2) Cleaning surfaces. Counter tops are all wiped down, tables and chairs, and anything else that may have collected dirt and dust is freed of such offenders.
(3) Floors. Vacuuming rugs first, cause that can kick up bits of things and send them to the hard surfaces, undoing any sweeping that may have been done. Sweeping is next, and finally mopping.
Everything must be done in this order, because if, for example, the floors are cleaned first, the crumbs from the counter will dirty the floor and all that hard work is wasted! This was fine when I was working outside the house and didn’t have a toddler. I spent most Sundays cleaning everything just like I describe above and we managed to sometimes keep things halfway respectable throughout the week. No problem.
Now, I have a toddler, and finding a chunk of time large enough to do all of the above at once is nearly impossible. Even if I do find the time, a good bit of my work is generally undone as I go along. It’s just not reasonable to continue to try to do things in this way all the time, but old habits die hard, as they say. Until last night, my kitchen stools had been up on the table in anticipation of a good floor scrubbing for, I’m embarrassed to say, two weeks or so, because each time I got the dishes done and the counters cleaned and floor swept, something would come up before I could mop. It would have made a whole heck of a lot more sense to just mop one day, rather than waiting to fit it in to the proper sequence of events, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it that way. I get almost nowhere with my cleaning during the day, because having a busy and risk-taking little lady means I have to work in five to ten minute intervals. I need a new system, and I need it badly. 
So that’s it. No tidy end to this post. I’m off to clean a bit before bed, crossing my fingers that when I return, I’ll be greeted with some tips from you tidy, organized people. This is my cry for help.

Cleaning House

Forgive the photo quality – my subject is too
busy to stand still!
I was thrilled beyond measure on Friday, when a box arrived from Montessori Services. Annabelle has been drawn to the broom, mop, and dust pan for as long as I can remember; and she loves to sweep, so I was overdue in setting her up with some things her own size. I don’t think she has ever focused on any one thing so long as she did on her new broom, just as soon as we finished unpacking the box. As you can see, our floors were due for a good sweeping, too – yikes! We also got a small sweeper and dustpan, which Annabelle also wanted to use right away! 
I am so pleased to be able to involve her more fully in the regular clean-up around here. She’s always eager to jump in, but until now it has been hard for her to do so. Here are a few of the other items we have on the kitchen shelf for cleaning up. These will get to be more and more as she grows older, but at thirteen months, I think this is enough.

The crumb sweeper, for tidying up the tabletop.
This dustpan is made of recycled plastic and wood.
Spray bottle with cleaning solution for wood table.
At Annabelle’s age (13.5 months), I feel it’s best to keep things simple, so I don’t have an elaborate table washing set-up. After each meal and snack, I clean up and welcome Annabelle to join me. Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t. At this point, I don’t feel it’s developmentally appropriate for me to insist that she have a certain level of involvement. Most of all, I’m focused on modeling. Eventually, I suspect she’ll protest any help at all, and I’ll leave all of the cleanup to her. 
Here’s how we do it: 
Put dishes in sink
Use table sweeper to brush bits of food off the table
Spray table and wipe down
Place towels in laundry bin
Use sweeper and dust pan to clean floor
…and we’re done! As Annabelle shows more of an interest in this part of our routine, I’ll set things up so that she can wash her own dishes, too. Right now, I’m just taking my cues from her.
While we’re on the subject, I may as well give you my recipe for the wood cleaner. I use this on all of the wood surfaces in our home and love it. Amounts are approximate, as I’m not big on measuring.
Everyday Wood Cleaner
Spray bottle
1 tbsp. olive oil
1tbsp. lemon juice
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
Combine all of the ingredients in your spray bottle and shake well before each use. Easy, peasy.

I regularly thank my lucky stars that I got into natural cleaning products before becoming mama to a toddler. More than once, Annabelle has used her hand to spread wood cleaner all over the table, and then licked it. Her mouth goes on absolutely everything, so I’m glad to know precisely what’s in it, and that it’s all safe to consume.