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Editor’s Note: It being the dog days of August and all, Umbra Fisk has trotted off for a well deserved vacation. In her absence, we’ve decided to dust off some oldies but goodies from the archives. And since we were dusting, we thought we’d start with this timeless green cleaning advice. Enjoy!

Q. Dear Umbra,

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I’d like to start making my own environmentally friendly cleaning products for my home. Are there any books or websites you would recommend for cleaning “recipes”?


A. Dearest Rachel,

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green cleaningNo bleach required.You’ll be disappointed if you were expecting elaborate, paella-like recipes to replace the commercial products we’re told are essential to germ-free living. Turns out the steel wool has been pulled over our eyes. Without even turning to my research stacks, I can tell you that all homebrew cleaning recipes invoke four simple ingredients: white vinegar, castile soap, baking soda, and water.

Baking soda is the scrubber. Abrasive, soluble in water, and anti-fungal (or at least anti-some-fungi), baking soda requires a bit more elbow grease than chlorinated powders, but leaves you with a working windpipe. Vinegar is the deodorizer and sanitizer; its mildly acidic nature is anathema to bacteria and mold. Soap is the … soap. It cleans away dirt. Don’t mix it with vinegar. Castile is a mild cleansing soap, usually liquid in form (one example on the market is Dr. Bronner’s, but there are others). Other components of a good, healthy cleaning regimen include hot water and arm strength.

There are mental aspects, too: Resist the television-induced notion that typhoid fever lurks in every corner of the house. In general, the kitchen is Bacteria Central and is the place that needs special attention. To wit, use common sense when handling meats, change dish rags and sponges often, keep the sink clean, and practice other habits recommended by Karen at the USDA. For most other places — the living room, the bathroom, the porch, etc. — soap, vinegar, and hot water are all fine.

I’m trying to get away from recommending particular internet sites when any decent site will do, so I’m going to dodge and recommend punching “natural cleaning recipes” into your favorite search engine. See what works for you. Forget any site that recommends ammonia. Nasty. And as for books — frankly, simple, common-sense homebrew cleaning recipes don’t merit the cost of an entire book.

I’m duty-bound to report my floor-finishing friend’s admonition against Murphy Oil Soap for cleaning wood floors. He swears it leaves a film that he has had to sand out of many a floor. Instead he recommends that you use … vinegar and water.