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March 23, 2013

Can green mean clean?

Baking powder, vinegar powerful stuff

By Emily F. Popek
The Daily Star

---- — I’ll be honest — I didn’t start out making my own cleaning products to save the planet. The truth is, I’m cheap and lazy. And when I found myself facing the task of cleaning a very dirty oven, I didn’t want to have to drive to the store and spend money on an oven cleaner. So I did a little poking around online and found several websites that recommended using baking soda instead.  

An hour later, I had a sparkling clean oven, and I never looked at that box of Arm & Hammer the same way again. So I decided to find out what else I could clean using what I already had in my cupboard. It became like a game. And anything that can make scrubbing the toilet seem more fun is good news in my book. Here’s the head-to-head results of my decidedly unscientific study of natural vs. store-bought cleaning products: 


Our living room lives up to its name and gets a lot of use from us, as well as our two dogs and our daughter — which means it’s not always the most sweetly scented room. I tested out a few ways to keep it smelling fresh: 

Test No. 1: Air freshener/fabric spray

The setup: I made an air freshener/fabric spray from a 1:5 solution of vinegar in water, with a squirt of lemon juice for scent. This went up against commercial fabric spray on three different surfaces — some musty drapes I found in the closet; carpet in two different rooms; and the stinkiest thing I could find — the dog’s beds. 

The results: On the smelly dog beds, the homemade spray didn’t make much of a dent, whereas the one sprayed with the store-bought stuff was actually pretty impressive. But my homemade solution did freshen up the drapes very nicely, taking away the musty scent. And it left the carpet smelling lovely, unlike the store-bought spray, which gave me a headache after a while. 

The verdict: My homemade air freshener/room spray may not be able to knock out serious stink, but it’s great for everyday odor removal. (If you use it on fabric, though, test it in an inconspicuous place first, as vinegar can stain.) 

Test No. 2: Carpet cleaner

The setup: I’ll admit it, I had never tried those carpet cleaners that you sprinkle on and then vacuum up. But in the interests of science, I went out and bought one to see how it stacked up against plain old baking soda. 

The results: I stacked the deck on this one, using baking soda on the part of the rug where the dogs always sleep, and commercial cleaner on the other half. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well the baking soda did. The other half of the rug was free of dog odors too, but I was put off by how strong the fragrance was that was left behind. 

The verdict: That was the first and last time I’ll buy commercial carpet cleaner. Score another point for baking soda! And if you are into fragrance, you can add a few drops of essential oil, or even perfume, to the baking soda before putting it on the rug. 


The kitchen probably ties with the bathroom as the place where the most heavy-duty cleaning goes down. So I was curious to see if vinegar and baking soda were up to the task. 

Test No. 1: Sink cleaner

The setup: I decided to tackle the hard-water stains in my double sink. I scrubbed one side with baking soda, and the other with a commercial powdered cleaner. 

The results: The baking soda worked like a dream, completely eradicating the grayish stains from the porcelain. The commercial cleaner did an OK job, but there were a few spots I just couldn’t get out, and it seemed much harder to rinse off. Plus, the fumes were pretty unpleasant. Baking soda is not only scentless, but can actually remove odors from surfaces as you clean!

The verdict: Goodbye, commercial cleaner. 

Test No. 2: Countertops

The setup: We have granite countertops, with a highly reflective surface that makes it easy to see smudges, spills — and streaks from imperfect cleaners. In a fit of annoyance, I bought an overpriced cleaner that said it was “specially designed” for stone countertops. I used the pricey stuff on half the counters, and straight-up white vinegar on the rest. 

The results: The vinegar fragrance was pretty powerful while I was cleaning, which was almost enough to make me sour (no pun intended) on that approach. And it didn’t seem to do a lot to break down some of the caked-on gunk — I still had to scrub pretty hard. But for the parts of the countertop that were just dingy or smudged, it did a fabulous job and left a streak-free finish. The commercial cleaner was more like a detergent, and had an easier job with greasy spills, but the warning label on it was also pretty scary and made me wish I had been wearing gloves while I used it. 

The verdict: Vinegar on its own isn’t great on serious grime, but isn’t bad at lighter cleaning. If I had it to do over, I would tackle the goo first with a baking-soda paste, then wipe everything down with vinegar. 


I’ll be honest, most of the cleaning I do in the bedroom usually amounts to sweeping, vacuuming and changing the sheets. But I tried out a few other things here: 

Test No. 1:  Windows

The setup: My cat loves to sit on the windowsill and look out at the field near our house. This means that the windows are dotted with a multitude of tiny cat-nose prints. I realize this sounds adorable, but it’s actually kind of gross. I tested a 1:1 vinegar:water solution on one window, and a commercial window cleaner on the other. 

The results:My mom always used to clean the windows with vinegar and water, so I knew what to expect here. Again, the smell can be off-putting while you’re cleaning, but when the surface is dry, the fragrance dissipates. Not so with the commercial cleaner — the smell lingered for what seemed like days. But you want to know about the cleaning part, right? This one was pretty much a wash (no pun intended — again). Both products made it easy to wipe away the smudges on the window, and dried to a sparkling clear finish with no streaks. 

The verdict: Fragrance gets the edge again here — and price. Vinegar is cheaper and less smelly than Windex, so I’ll stick with it. 

Test No. 2: Laundry

The setup: I’ve come across many references to people making their own laundry soap, so I looked up a few “recipes” to see if I could give this one a try. 

The results: I don’t have any 20-Mule Team Borax, washing soda or Fels-Naptha soap (no, I am not making these names up). The whole point of trying out these products for me was that I could do them with things I already had in my cupboards. So this was a non-starter for me. 

The verdict: I’m too lazy to go buy Borax, so I’m sticking with commercial laundry soap for now. 


This is where you really need some serious cleaning muscle. Will my homemade alternatives be up to the task?

Test No. 1: Clogged drains

The setup: As if our pets weren’t enough, I shed plenty of hair myself — making unclogging the drain a routine activity in my house. I tested out the reactive powers of baking soda and vinegar combined against a commercial drain cleaner, using one in the upstairs bathroom and one downstairs. 

The results: The logistics of cramming baking soda down my bathtub drain were a little bit unclear to me, but I did my best. After a few doses of vinegar and hot water, the drain did seem to be moving faster, but it wasn’t totally clear. The commercial product made short work of the downstairs clog. 

The verdict: Baking soda and vinegar doesn’t have quite the muscle of the commercial stuff, but it can help clear some gunk out of your drain. It’s worth a try, but may not get you all the way there. 

Test No. 2: Grout stains

The setup: I’m always worried about cleaning grout too aggressively, but my lackluster attempts don’t really get at the stains. I gingerly tried out a commercial cleaner against a baking-soda paste rinsed with a vinegar-water solution. 

The results: To be honest, neither did a great job with the stains. 

The verdict: Since the commercial cleaner didn’t outshine the homemade version, why waste my money?

These examples barely scratch the surface of what you can do with these two wonder ingredients. So the next time you find yourself reaching for a commercial cleaner, reach for your Web browser instead and look for a natural alternative. Chances are good that, whatever you need to clean, you can do it with vinegar and baking soda.