Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Love Vinegar

Over the last two-and-a-half years - since the birth of my son - I have been "greening" our household cleaning products.

I had all of those very specific cleaners - the toilet bowl cleaner, the all-purpose spray, the scrub for pots and pans, the scrub for the bathtub and sink, a dusting spray, an antibacterial spray...

And after using any of them, my hands smelled of bleach and chemicals for hours (even if I wore rubber gloves while cleaning) and I was nervous to hold my infant son - and especially in the days when he wanted to suck or nibble my fingers!

My initial plan was to gradually replace all of these cleaners one-by-one as I ran out of each.  I ran out of multi-purpose spray first and, after some research, replaced it with a spray bottle of this:
  • equal parts white vinegar and water
  • a squirt of liquid castille soap (Dr. Bronner's is the easiest to come by)
  • a few drops of tea tree oil
  • a few drops of grapefruit essential oil (mainly because I love the smell of grapefruit - it makes me happy!)
It worked really well.  And the spray bottle collapsed within a week.  What the heck?!?

A little more research, and I discovered that essential oils can damage plastics, and that I needed to make sure I was using a PET plastic bottle.  Problem solved - I haven't had an issue since!

As I started replacing more of my cleaners, I noticed something - every homemade cleaner shared the same base:  diluted vinegar.

In fact, the only areas where my initial all-purpose cleaner didn't work were cleaning glass (the essential oil and soap leave streaks), and scrubbing the toilet and bathtub.

I am all about doing things the simplest way - I desire the fewest bottles of cleaner and the smallest amount of thought when making them.  Also, I'm not necessarily set on things smelling wonderful every time I clean them - I think I get conditioned to not even notice the lovely scents after awhile anyway.

So I looked into what all those ingredients do, in the context of cleaning.
  • vinegar: "effective for killing most mold, bacteria, and germs, due to its level of acidity. Cleaning with white distilled vinegar is a smart way to avoid using harsh chemicals. You’ll also be glad to know that it is environmentally friendly and very economical."  (follow that link to more uses for vinegar, too!)  Vinegar is also a solvent, meaning it will help dissolve dirt, minerals, and muck!  Not to's completely edible.
  • soap:  If I understand and phrase this all correctly (I am not, by any means, a chemist!)...soap is an emulsifier, meaning it makes things mix that don't normally mix - like oil and water.  I think a lot of us have ended up eating soap after having our mouths washed with we know it won't kill you...but it's not food.
  • tea tree oil:  this stuff is pretty powerful.  It has antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral actions.  It has been shown to kill staphylococcus aureus, including MRSA (although there is evidence that it acts like any other antibacterial agent and causes antibiotic resistance).  Tea tree oil should not be ingested, though it can be applied topically (it should be diluted, and can still cause irritation when diluted).
  • grapefruit essential oil: I used grapefruit mainly because I love the smell, but it is also antiseptic and disinfectant (as are all citrus oils and juices, by my understanding).  I'm not sure if grapefruit essential oil is edible, though it is described as "non-toxic."  Also, it listed as non-phototoxic, but it can irritate the skin if exposed to strong sunlight after treatment.

The upshot:  I now have two large (PET) spray bottles of just diluted vinegar that I use to clean almost everything.  I don't worry even a little if my "helpful" 2-year-old sprays himself in the face, or if, right after I've cleaned up, he starts licking or biting the tables and chairs (toddlers are bizarre).

If there is an oil spill in the kitchen, a squirt of Dr. Bronners (or dish soap) right on the spill (or on a wet rag) followed by my trusty spray works well.  And I save tea tree oil for things like the toilet (where I put in several drops directly).  I don't want my 2-year-old to end up lapping it up (that's really not too far off from the truth), and I don't want to create super-bacteria in my home a la antibiotic resistance.

My perspective is that I want my home clean, not sterile.  We've got some bacteria lying around, and I'm ok with that.

A quick list of the things I use vinegar for around the house:
  • all-purpose cleaner (counters, sinks, windows, tables, etc)
  • After-shower spray (helps keep mildew and soap scum to a minimum between cleanings of the tub and shower)
  • Cleaning the toilet - throw in a little baking soda and a few drops of tea tree oil, add a pour of vinegar,  then scrub.  I wipe the rest of the toilet with my vinegar spray, but add a few drops of tea tree oil on my wet rag.  If I think of it he next time I flush, I add a few drops of grapefruit essential oil for scent.
  • haircare (I started out using white vinegar, but now use apple cider vinegar)
  • Cooking - example:  I'm still working out a ketchup recipe...but the most basic ingredients of ketchup are tomato paste, vinegar, and spices.  I'm still working out which type of vinegar I like, and exactly which spices.
  • Laundry - I use white vinegar occasionally as a fabric softener (I've stopped using fabric softeners or dryer sheets), and I also use it to treat stains.  I've also used vinegar when washing our shower curtain in the washer.

This post brings up one of my many works in progress.  I'm a bit of a nerd, so I would like to learn more about essential oils.  More specifically, I'd like find out what information out there (and now in this post) is lore, and what is backed by reliable research and studies.  And, with that, I'd like to know more about the effective uses of essential oil.  So far, tea tree oil seems the most studied and "legitimate" of all the essential oils, but it's still in need of more controlled studies.  If anyone out there has any books or websites or journal articles they'd recommend, I'd love to hear 'em!

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