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What you need to know about basic chemistry before making DIY natural cleaners

Updated: Mar 27, 2018

Disclaimer: Except for some lavender-water fabric freshener which I use daily to make my home smell pretty, I have never actually made my own DIY natural cleaners. For years I’ve relied on store-bought cleaners with eco-friendly labels and accreditation. Until now.

I’ve decided to give DIY natural cleaners a go for a number of reasons:

  • Instead of trying to figure out if the unpronounceable ingredients in the store bought products I’m buying contain baby-orangutan-killing-palm-oil (despite the green labels), I’d rather just make my own so that I really know what’s in them. As I’ve stated elsewhere, don’t nobody wanna be killin’ no baby orangutans.

  • I’m trying to switch to a growth mindset by trying things I’ve never been good at (i.e., understanding basic chemical reactions in things like DIY natural cleaners).

  • It see like a good idea for a blog post. I could read what other, more knowledgeable, people have written about the topic and sum it up so you don’t have to do that research yourself.

  • It’s cheaper. Based on my very rough estimate of eight household cleaners that I replace about every two months, I came up with a savings of $240 a year. But I also came across these more thorough calculations which worked out to be $803 dollars a year. For the sake of this experiment, let’s take the average of those two numbers and say it’s around $500 a year.

What follows are some quick and dirty chemistry-based tips for more effective green cleaning, plus a list of the five most common ingredients that are used in natural DIY cleaning recipes, how to use them, and common misconceptions. For example, did you know that for all the fun fizz, white vinegar and baking soda don’t actually clean that well together? Wait, what? Apparently, there are a lot of bad DIY cleaning recipes online which I’m guessing have proliferated because they were written by people who, like me, don’t know the first thing about chemistry.

I’ll soon be publishing a related post with a round-up of the best natural DIY cleaning recipes that I find online. We’ll finally be able to identify these by arming ourselves with (just) enough scientific reasoning to separate fact from internet-propagated myth.

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll switch to using 100% homemade products. I spend enough time cleaning as it is, so what I’m looking for are just the ones that are really easy to make with ingredients I already have or can get locally, and that work as well, or nearly as well, as their commercial eco-friendly alternatives.

The pH Scale as it relates to cleaning

When cleaning a hard surface it helps to know if what you’re trying to remove is alkaline or acidic in nature. Acid neutralizes alkaline, and alkaline neutralizes acid.

Fat-based soils and stains, such as greasy floors, dirty walls, ovens, and cooking oils are acidic, so to get rid of them you’ll want to use alkaline cleaners.

Mineral deposits like rust or water spots from limescale in your shower stalls, sinks and toilet bowls are alkaline, so for these it’s best to use acidic cleaners.


White Vinegar pH 3

Lemons pH 3


Baking Soda pH 8-9

Castille Soap pH 9

  • White Vinegar: Despite its reputation as the ninja of your green-cleaning arsenal, the most rigorously-tested recipes I found all concur that vinegar is not great at removing dirt and grime. It is good for cleaning glass or metal surfaces to make them shiny. It’s also decent as a disinfectant and for tackling mold. Not as effective as bleach, but not toxic either. Just be careful not to use it on surfaces that can be damaged by acids, such as stone or grout.

  • Baking Soda: Baking soda’s mild alkalinity and abrasiveness make it a great choice for safely scrubbing acid-based stains without being corrosive. It also absorbs and neutralizes odors from your refrigerator or carpet, as opposed to many synthetic fragrances which simply mask them. Don’t mix baking soda with vinegar, as this acid-alkaline combo is likely to neutralize the cleaning power of both ingredients and isn’t as effective as other natural cleaning duos.

  • Castille Soap: Straight outta Wikipedia: soap is a surfactant (surface-active agent), which emulsifies oils and enables them to be carried away by water. Unlike conventional soaps, which may use animal fats as their fatty acid base, Castille soap uses vegetable oil. It’s versatile and safe, so you can use it on anything from a dirty kid to a greasy oven. We’re partial to Dr. Bronners who take their sustainability efforts a big step further than just RSPO certification by sourcing palm oil from their own plantation in Ghana. With a pH similar to baking soda, Castile soap is alkaline and shouldn’t be mixed with vinegar. Mis-matching this pair results in a slimy goop that can leave stubborn white film stains on the surfaces you’re trying to clean.

  • Lemons: The natural cleaning power of lemons comes from their acidity, in the form of citric acid, and lemon oil which is an antibacterial disinfectant. Lemons can be used to tackle a wide range of household cleaning tasks, from polishing and conditioning wood furniture, to bleaching toilet bowls, to mildly disinfecting kitchen counters. Once again, you’re likely to find many otherwise great DIY cleaner recipes which cancel out the acid-based potency of lemons by mixing them with alkaline ingredients.

  • Essential Oils: Though certain essences have mild cleaning abilities, these oils are usually added to natural DIY cleaning recipes for their disinfecting properties. Depending on the plant, they can be anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, or all three as in the case of tea tree oil. They also smell great naturally, unlike synthetic fragrances which often contain toxic ingredients. Commonly used oils in DIY cleaners include lavender, tea tree, peppermint, lemon, wild orange and rosemary.

Wow. I had no idea what a rabbit hole this article was going to be. I had to run about 50 searches to get through all the conflicting information on natural cleaning ingredients so that I could curate it into some basic rules of thumb. I hope I've managed to help you make a little more sense of the mess in DIY cleaners!


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