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Sparkling Green with DIY Household Cleaners


Photo: Cleaning Shouldn’t Require Protective Gear

A while back, my wife Emma and I made the switch to DIY hygiene products. We were trying to avoid toxic stuff like fluoride, formaldehyde, and many a varied assortment of unsavory uglies found in toothpastes, deodorants, shampoos, and so on. We started this because we didn’t want to damage our health by taking a shower or brushing our teeth. The move also made sense because we were volunteering on eco-farms, many of which asked visitors not to use chemical soaps and such. It seemed another good reason to change. We didn’t want to harm the environment either.

Eventually, we found a home (Panama), at least for a while, and our next logical step was to consider how to clean the kitchen, bathroom, our clothing, rugs, floors, windows, and so on. It was no big shock that most household cleaning products were a collection of chemicals harmful to both the environment and us. So, it was back to the drawing board, otherwise known as Google and YouTube! to find some all-natural solutions for keeping the house in order.

Much the same as DIY toiletries, we discovered that most household cleaners can be made with just a few natural ingredients and easy-to-follow instructions. What’s more, all-natural DIY cleaners were cheaper than the damaging store-bought products, the ingredients came from sustainable (or more sustainable) sources that we already had onsite, and none of our stuff needed massive warning labels with skull-and-crossbones. So, we thought our findings might be worth sharing.

As promised, cleaning the house doesn’t require a lot of ingredients. Even better, if you are making your own hygiene products, you’ll likely have baking soda, vinegar and essential oils, so you are already over half the way there anyway. We have long used all-natural castile soap in bathroom, so we had it, knew where to get it, and already had favorites. The only other product we added was borax. Here are a few asides about each of these before we continue:

1. Baking soda: One reader commented on my article about DIY hygiene products that baking soda is mined and processed; thus, it is not exactly natural and certainly not sustainable. I did a little more research and found this interesting, if not slightly off-topic, article on aluminum-free baking soda that will help you with how far you’d like to push the ethics of your baking soda purchases. However, I do want to note that it is mined, which means not the ultimate sustainable solution, but it still represents a better alternative than buying normal cleaning products. Also, sometimes recipes call for washing soda, which can be made from baking soda.

2. Vinegar: Vinegar is the be-all and end-all of all-natural cleaning, both for people and for places. Often a good wipe-down with vinegar is good enough to clean something up all on its own. You can buy it for cheap or make your own vinegar for even cheaper (and for the fun of it). Regular white distilled is just fine, but other vinegars work as well.

3. Essential oils: The same concerned reader who was worried about baking soda also noted that prepared essential oils aren’t sustainable as they are processed, use energy to produce, and don’t’ come from plants in your own garden eco-system. Well, if buying essential oils bothers you, again, make your own, or it’s possible to just substitute lemon juice and peppermint leaves in most of these recipes, and truthfully, we often do, as we have these growing onsite.

4. Castile soap: I know that it is possible to make your own castile soap, but there are so many hours in a day and we’re already making our own laundry detergent and dishwashing detergent. So, we buy it. I love Dr. Bonner’s, which seems to go about the whole process the right way: naturally, organically, ethically, fair-traded-ly, and apparently magically as well. But, there are plenty of companies making good, true castile soap these days.

5. Borax: Not to be confused with boric acid, which is a bit more dangerous, borax is a naturally occurring mixture of boron and salt. Some green DIYers use it in shampoos and lotions, but we stick to cleaning products for things like clothing or carpets. You’ll have to judge for yourself, but it’s a classic all-natural thing to help with laundry.

Now, to get to the nitty-gritty, here’s what we make to keep the place clean, as well as a few other household tasks we’ve needed to address along the way. Remember, all of these can be create with just the five ingredients (or less) listed above, and they do a great job to boot.

Dishwashing soap & detergent

Homemade Dish Soap

Our first DIY cleaner was dishwashing soap, which is super simple and something we obviously use on a daily basis. Our recipe is castile soap (two parts), baking soda (one part) and essential oil (a few drops), which we mince in a food processor and use as a powder beside the sink. However, there are loads of recipes to choose from, equally simple, including liquid soap if that’s preferable. You can also make dishwashing detergent for machine washers by adding a little citric acid and salt.

Disinfectant (all-purpose) spray

All Purpose Disinfecting Spray-Homemade Natural Cleaner

If I’m honest, I’ve more or less always used the same spray for all areas in need of disinfecting, from the toilet to the kitchen stove. Maybe on good days I used separate bottles, but that is neither here nor there. We needed a disinfectant spray to keep things sanitary, so naturally, we made one. Try water (three) to vinegar (one) to castile soap (a little) with some added essential oil.

Laundry detergent

How to Make Laundry Detergent-DIY Tutorial-ONLY 3 INGREDIENTS

Washing clothes was the only major cleaning agent we really needed, and it was equally as easy to create. Borax, baking soda, and castile soap is blended as finely as possible is what we ultimately settled on using. Most recipes, including the above video, call for washing soda in lieu of baking soda because it softens water better and is much more alkaline. Zote (all-natural) and Fels Naptha seem to be the consensus soaps to use as they are specifically produced for clothing, but we stuck with our regular castile without problem.

• We also made our own hand-washing washing machine, which seemed to be a hit with volunteers and made cleaning lightly soiled clothes much easier. Basically, you need a big container, like a five gallon bucket, and a plunger with holes cut into the suction cup. Check it out.

For us, those were the basics covered. As time went by, we picked up a few other DIY household products to help us stay environmentally friendly, self-made, and cost-efficient.

Floor cleaner: We share an outdoor common area and kitchen with volunteers, so in order to keep things relatively tidy, we mop the floor every morning. I’m lazy enough to be happy with plain tap water, but for a job better done, mix in a little vinegar and a sprinkle of borax.

Scrub cleaner: Sometimes the grit is just a bit much for the average spray, so we usually made an equally parts mixture of soap and baking soda to handle things that require a scrub brush as opposed to a sponge. It cleaned the carport floor and heavily soiled outdoor steps.

Window cleaner: Why the world ever switched to chemical window cleaner is beyond me. Vinegar and water is all you need for a streak-free clean naturally. Some folks suggest newspaper over cloth, but we’re not after window-cleaning prizes here. Just trying to remove some fingerprints and film.

Dusting spray: Again, I’m a bit brutish and would be happy with a damp cloth for dusting, but to up the cleaning power a bit, the appropriate dusting spritz is water, vinegar, and lemon. When working with wood, adding olive oil helps with preserving it.

Drain unclogger: To be honest, this worked for only a very short time as we later discover that tree roots had grown up the pipe. However, the idea behind this DIY drain cleaner seemed sound, and it reminded me of science class. All you need is baking soda, vinegar, and hot water: Remember those volcano experiments.

Bug deterrent: In the tropics, there is no lack of pests to compete with, especially in an outdoor kitchen. Besides staying on top of the dishes, we learned that chalk lines will help to control ants (they won’t cross them) and peppermint oil will repel creepy crawlies like cockroaches. It’s not 100%, but neither are chemical sprays.


Photo: Outdoor Communal Area, Dogs Included

Somehow, with these, we’ve managed to make it through life just fine, with no major cleaning breakdowns, no diseases contracted from unsanitary conditions, and much more money remaining in the budget. The world is a better, greener place, especially in our immediate vicinity. Plus, it’ easy to do and just feels right.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. To make soup you need 2766.91346 grams olive oil – 774.50897177 grams water – 356.07001 grams sodium hydroxide mix them will to be like jell put the soup in models you love the use at after 30 days

  2. Just to add to your list… one “AMAZING” product to wash clothing (using regular laundry machines) is “soap nuts”:

    Since we live in Texas (drought) and try to maximize all water re-use, we wash our clothes with soap nuts (btw, they last much longer than the package claims). We bought the 5 pound bag, vacuum sealed most of it into mason jars (to extend life), and are only through 1 pound in a year. That $35 will last us 5 years, clean clothes really well, and allow us to completely re-use grey water to water our fruit trees.

  3. Have you guys heard about soap nuts…an amazing add to this list, and if you had space you could even grow it yourself. They are good for every cleaning activities around the house, dishes, flors, windows, shampoo or body, pets…etc SOAP NUTS or BERRIES, fruits from the Sapindus genus shrubs…check it out, as it’s easily available online and very cheap. Another one is Coconut oil, for toothpaste, as it naturally fights the bateria causing toothdecay…enjoy

  4. I haven’t tried it as a solution yet but I also have the Soapwort herb growing on my balcony, from what I’ve heard their roots are a great sudsing agent when boiled. If they don’t smell too offputting I’m sure a drop of a few essential oils (or other perfumed things) would make a nice general cleaner.

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