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DIY spring cleaning solutions

I’ve been buying natural, non-toxic cleaning products for years, but I also know labels can be misleading. And I have plastic-guilt every time I toss a bottle. This spring, I decided it was time for DIY cleaning products and reusable containers, so I turned to some local experts.

About as environmentally friendly as possible, this spray works well and leaves a good scent, courtesy of whatever citrus peels you’ve got on hand. Mix and match and make your own scent.

Claire Weinberg and her daughter Carly own Dulse & Rugosa, a “sea to skin” and “farm to face” skin care company based in Gouldsboro. She is committed to natural products not just for her skin, but throughout her home. “The ingredients you use in your house make a difference,” Weinberg says. “Even when ingredients are tested we can’t always know the long-term effects.”

According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. government doesn’t regulate most cleaning products, and the Environmental Protection Agency only tests the safety of cleaners that include registered pesticides. And yet, the EPA identifies “products for household cleaning” as one of seven main causes of indoor air pollution. Pollutants can hang around in the air or on surfaces for long periods of time, and some have immediate negative health effects (Ever felt light-headed, allergic or asthmatic after cleaning? Like that.) These reactions subside, but the EPA also warns that the long-term effects of exposure can be severe, including respiratory illness, heart disease and cancer. Beyond the possible toll on our bodies, there’s the environment to consider. The EPA says Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are the worst environmental hazards in household cleaners, and they’re extremely common.

Here’s the good news: Most of what you need for a spic-and-span, non-toxic house is probably already in your cabinet. “My go-to cleaners are literally what’s in my kitchen cupboards,” Weinberg says.

Pam Jones, a professional cleaner for over 40 years who has owned Bath-based Green Maids of Maine for nearly two decades, agrees. Jones makes all of her own cleaners and believes they work better than commercial products. Even many natural products sold commercially don’t do their job, she says. Cleaners made specifically for floors, for example, often strip the finish and leave a dull film. Her solution: “I use little organic dish soap with water in a spray bottle. It works for maintaining most surfaces.”

Jones uses other well-known natural dirt-busters like baking soda, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and Borax to make her sprays and powers. Because some of her customers don’t like those smells, Jones infuses her cleaning products with botanically-derived extracts like citrus (for the kitchen) and lavender (for the bedroom).

Asked if there are any stains natural cleaners just can’t handle, Jones says, “Rust. It cannot be cleaned without a terrible chemical.” Mold is tough, too. “You have to keep on top of mold,” she says. “If it gets really bad, bleach is the only way to kill it.”

The real key, Jones says, is maintenance. “My mom used to say, clean your bathroom every day for five minutes instead of waiting a week and taking an hour.” Manage the bathroom and kitchen by keeping a natural scrubber by the sink and tub with a bottle of all-purpose spray, and do a quick wipe daily.

Weinberg believes cleaning tools should be as environmentally-friendly as the cleaners themselves. She suggests cutting up old t-shirts for rags, opting for plant-based scrubbers and using Swedish dishcloths, which can be laundered and composted when they wear out. Cleaning, she says, is an area of our lives where we can easily make choices to live more sustainably.

SPRING SPRITZ
DIY Citrus Vinegar All-Purpose Spray

1. Fill a mason jar with citrus peels.
2. Cover peels with white vinegar.
3. Let it steep in a dark, cool place for a few weeks.
4. Strain and return vinegar to the jar.
5. In a spray bottle, make a 50-50 mix of water and vinegar.
—Courtesy of Dulse & Rugosa

STICKING TO STORE-BOUGHT?

Check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide for searching the health and environmental safety scores of over 2500 cleaning products (ewg.org/guides/cleaners).

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.