"Grandma's recipes" for home cleaning have been a part of household lore for years. Lately, these recipes have been promoted as a "safer" alternative to commercially formulated cleaning products. While we may feel comfortable using these ingredients in cleaning applications, perhaps because some are edible, there are important facts about these recipes to consider. Ignoring these considerations may mean missing some safety assurances, spending more, getting less performance, and even losing the important health benefits of cleaning.
All cleaners, whether commercially formulated products or mix-at-home recipes, are composed of chemicals - whether they contain food ingredients extracted directly from a plant or chemicals synthesized in a laboratory.
All chemicals, including common table salt (NaCl), are toxic at some exposure. Toxicity is the level of exposure at which something can be harmful. Commercially formulated cleaning products are evaluated for both intended and unintended exposures, so that non-toxic levels of exposure can be clearly identified. Labels provide use directions and safety information that contribute to the safe use of the product.
Before mixing at home, consumers should have equally clear information so that levels of exposure to a mixture's chemicals are kept low enough to be non-toxic.
Nostalgia for "the good old days" shouldn't take precedence over the important assurances that come with today's commercially formulated cleaning products. These products undergo extensive safety and performance evaluations before they are marketed. The data from these evaluations enable manufacturers to stand confidently behind their products. That's why their names, and often a toll-free phone number, are printed on cleaning product packages.
The individuals or organizations promoting "alternative" recipes should be able to support their recommendations. Consumers should be able to ask them, for example, whether the recipe has been tested under conditions where it will be mixed with the other "chemical" products used for cleaning; what treatment is advised if the mixture is accidentally splashed in the eye or swallowed; and whether the effect of the recipe on surfaces to be cleaned has been evaluated.
The manufacturers of commercially formulated cleaning products can answer such questions. Consumers should expect no less from promoters of mix-at-home products.
Things to Consider About Choosing a Mix-at-Home Cleaner
- Has the recipe been tested for cleaning purposes?
- Do you have complete directions for safe and effective use?
- Are you aware of any safety precautions for mixing the recipe or combining with other products?
- Do you know how to treat accidental exposures?
- Are there any special instructions for safe disposal?
- Is the recipe as cost effective as a commercially formulated cleaning product?
Considerations of safety and performance should come first when thinking about using homemade mixtures.
Know the Safety Guidelines
Commercially formulated cleaning products are tested, packaged and labeled in accordance with standards set by such government agencies as the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. Besides directions on how to use and store the product, the label typically provides the consumer with instructions on how to treat accidental exposures. Precautions about mixing certain products together are also given when appropriate. Some labels carry disposal instructions. And toll-free phone numbers enable the consumer to get additional information from the manufacturer.
Such safety assurances may not exist for mix-at-home recipes. For example, while the effects of "alternative" ingredients are known for their intended exposures, there may not be information on unintended uses of these chemicals or their combination with other chemicals in homemade cleaning products. If the promoter of the recipe doesn't have this information, it's best to check with the manufacturers of the individual ingredients to see if they recommend the mixture.
With mix-at-home recipes, responsibility for product label information falls on the person following the recipe. That means that the consumer should prepare a label that includes the names and amounts of ingredients; emergency treatment guidelines; safety procedures for mixing, combining with other products, usage, etc.; and complete directions for use. Poison control centers have extensive data on commercially formulated cleaning products, but may have difficulty handling accidental exposures to homemade mixtures unless they have information on the formula.
One final word on safety: Some recipes suggest that boiling water be used in combination with "alternative" ingredients. The practice of carrying quantities of boiling water from one location to another in a home, especially a home with young children, raises serious safety concerns.
The Importance of Packaging
Manufacturers of cleaning products select packages that are designed to ensure safety and preserve the shelf life of their contents. With mix-at-home recipes, safe packaging is another responsibility for the consumer. Old food or beverage containers shouldn't be used, since the contents could be mistaken as edible by young children, the elderly and people with impaired vision. And empty cleaning product bottles could contain product residue that may react with the mixture. Plus, unless the original label were removed and replaced with the appropriate label, it wouldn't reflect accurate information about the mixture.
Commercially formulated cleaning product labels include directions for the right amount to use for maximum effectiveness. If this information isn't available on mix-at-home recipes, consumers may use more than is needed, increasing the chances for misuse or damage to the surface being cleaned. Less than the right amount means that the job will have to be repeated sooner than should be necessary.
Finally, food products such as mayonnaise or yogurt are sometimes recommended as "alternative" cleaners. These products may be harmful to wood surfaces if misused. In addition, food product residues left on surfaces can breed bacteria.
Probably not. The vast majority of commercially formulated cleaning products are water soluble, are disposed of safely down the drain into a municipal or home wastewater treatment system, and cause no harm to the environment. Extensive lab testing and "real world" monitoring, as well as compliance with applicable government regulations, ensure the environmental safety of cleaning products.
Furthermore, judgments about the environmental superiority of one formulation over another require that all impacts of a product and its package be considered.
Mix-at-home recipes can have a surprising impact on the overall use of resources and energy over time. For instance, even a seemingly simple ingredient like vinegar is highly processed: it is produced from corn and typically grown with the aid of substantial quantities of fertilizers and pesticides, which in turn must be produced and have their own environmental impact during and after use. The corn is harvested, processed into corn syrup, then fermented, first into alcohol and then into acetic acid. Measuring the total energy used and wastes produced from the harvesting of ingredients to product disposal is known as "life-cycle inventory" (LCI). This assessment can reveal that "alternative" cleaners cost the environment much more in energy consumption and waste production than one might assume.
Of course, commercially formulated cleaners have impacts as well. These should also be considered. Just remember that the comparison is never as simple as it may seem.
Another factor to weigh in: because using homemade mixtures often requires extra "elbow grease," consumers tend to use more for each cleaning job. Using more product may mean greater environmental impacts. If consumers choose to follow a mix-at-home recipe, they should gauge whether the perceived environmental benefit is offset by having to use several ingredients rather than one product, using more or hotter water, or cleaning more frequently.
Some suggested "alternatives" may actually be more expensive to use than commercially formulated cleaning products. This is particularly true for food items, which must be manufactured to a high level of purity. For example, cream of tartar, which is sometimes recommended as a metal cleaner, is 12 times more expensive per unit weight than aluminum cleaner. Consumers should compare unit prices, figuring the cost per job, and also note how often the job must be repeated. Something else to remember: some homemade mixtures may leave a residue that attracts new soil, so the job has to be done more frequently, adding to the cost.
Because "alternatives" are generally not as efficient as commercially formulated cleaning products, using them often requires extra effort. In addition to spending more time on cleaning, consumers may use more product and more hot water to get the job done, which can also mean extra costs. Food for thought when figuring the ultimate costs of recipes.
Cleaning products help remove dirt and germs from surfaces, but only disinfectants actually kill disease-causing microorganisms.
The use of the term disinfectant is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Any product labeled as a disinfectant has undergone extensive testing of its germicidal properties. It must be registered with EPA and display the EPA registration number on the label.
Studies have shown that mix-at-home recipes that are suggested as alternatives to disinfectants are less effective than commercially formulated disinfectant cleaners, both in reducing microbial contamination and in removing soil. In fact, most mix-at-home recipes have no disinfectant properties at all. Particularly when there are health-related reasons for using a disinfectant, such as on a cutting board that might be contaminated with Salmonella, or on a surface that has been in contact with someone who is sick, consumers should recognize that only EPA-registered disinfectants have been tested for their ability to kill germs.
In areas vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases, such as kitchens, bathrooms and children's play areas, it's especially important to disinfect properly. The use of a registered disinfectant according to the label instructions will ensure that germs are eliminated.