Melanie Hunt looks at the best chemical-free, eco-friendly products and techniques to spruce up your home this season.
Spring cleaning with green, natural products
There’s an Iranian phrase that translates as “shaking the house”, while Tunisians have one that literally means “saving the house”; wherever you are, spring is traditionally the time to tackle those deep-cleaning jobs that you are happy enough to ignore for the rest of the year. When the weather starts to warm, it’s time to fling open the windows and chase away the dust bunnies.
Having strolled the supermarket aisles and been greeted with an array of eco-cleaning products, I wondered whether, with progress, we’d lost a little good sense and know-how along the way. Don’t these (slightly more expensive) products actually just address a problem that we didn’t have back in the day, when we used everyday food items from the kitchen cupboard for household chores?
Surely it’s better to clean your home with a product labelled “for baking and deodorising” rather than one that warns you against swallowing and skin contact, and that should only be used in a fully ventilated area free of pets and small children?
I know which I’d rather use and I’ve happily and rather obsessively been experimenting ever since with various permutations of a cleaning bucket containing white vinegar (it doesn’t smell once it is dry), lemon juice (squeezed or bottled), bicarbonate of soda and olive oil (extra-virgin isn’t necessary – buy cheap here). I’ve found that these basic ingredients will effectively tackle most household cleaning tasks and won’t leave a speck on your eco-footprint either.
I first discovered white vinegar as a cleaning agent after I left my air-con on low power for the duration of a six-week summer holiday. A chronic miscalculation on my part saw me return to a mould garden on clothes, handbags, shoes and even the surfaces of wooden furniture. It was dismal, a potential health hazard and smelled terrible. A couple of time-consuming cleaning sessions got rid of the worst of it, but it kept creeping back. What to do? Online forums discussed the issue in detail and prescribed wiping affected areas with a cloth dampened with white vinegar. And, like magic, it worked. I was hooked.
Polishing the silver (without the benefit of an under butler) is probably the least palatable of spring tasks. My mother has been “secretly” donating her silver-plated pieces to local charity shops for years. Not for particularly altruistic reasons, you understand, but more because she had grown to utterly detest the chore of cleaning it.
It’s unfortunate that a little silver-cleaning piece of genius has come too late to save the Hunt family silver for the next generation. Line a bowl with aluminium foil, fill it with hot water and add a couple of teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda. Dip in your silver items for a few moments (my lightly tarnished cutlery didn’t need more than 30 seconds to a minute), then immediately rinse well in warm soapy water and wipe dry with a soft cloth. Do limit your time in the dip, as it will take off the tarnished layer, which is also a tiny layer of oxidised silver (it’s the same with commercial silver polish). I especially like this method as it gets in the nooks and crannies and doesn’t leave a gunky layer of residue.
There are caveats: don’t allow yourself to become distracted and leave your silver pieces soaking for more than a few minutes. Remember, salt will eat silver if left side by side for extended periods (which is why salt cellars are always lined) and this method may not be suitable for fragile items or a very worn plate. I do confess that I gave my decorative items a wipe with a little silver cloth to finish off, as these contain tarnish inhibitors.
Bicarbonate of soda, with hot water and vinegar, will also work to safely refresh and unclog drains. Just sprinkle a tablespoon of bicarb in your drain, follow with vinegar a minute later, then wash it all away with boiling water a couple of minutes after that. Those industrial chemical products designed for the purpose may be super quick, but their fumes quite literally take your breath away and are certainly an unwelcome addition to storm drains. A similar process minus the hot water will also freshen and brighten a grubby toilet.
My favourite little bit of white vinegar eco-chemistry can be worked on a limescaled kettle. Fill the kettle with just enough water to cover the encrusted elements and set to boil. Once boiled, pour in some vinegar and leave for an hour while the limescale fizzes away. No nasty chemicals – just a nice clean kettle (you can even decant the vinegar and reuse it for other jobs). It works in a similar way for clogged shower heads, taps and dishwasher parts.
Lemon juice is a great one (and makes your hands feel soft) for low-energy oven and microwave cleaning. Cut a lemon in half, squeeze the juice into a bowl of water, drop in the lemon and zap the microwave on high for five minutes. The lemony steam will get to work on the grease inside and all you have to do is use a J-cloth to wipe it all clean a few minutes later.
A similar approach can be used for the oven, but for really deep cleaning, you can sprinkle the inside of the oven, just before you heat it, with bicarbonate of soda (or mix some with a little water in a spray to reach vertical surfaces). The combination cuts right through grease, which can then be easily wiped off. Given that oven cleaning products are the ones that make me shudder most, my preference is to consume food from a place which is green-cleaned, rather than one that I have just blasted with very toxic chemicals.
A cup of white vinegar combined with half a cup of olive oil makes a good wood polish, and you can even add a drop of essential oil for a lingering scent. My dirty windows benefited from a 50/50 mix of distilled water and white vinegar spray, to which I added a little (strained) lemon juice. I used newspaper to wipe the windows, making sure to use absorbent copies (Weekend’s glossy pages aren’t designed for this), finishing with a cotton cloth for a smear-free shine.
I’ve found that cleaning in a way that gives me food for thought has been something of a personal epiphany. Tried, tested and proven; these simple recipes from the past will now form a staple of my cleaning future.
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