Monday, December 2, 2013

Green recipes for a chemical-free home


By Joanna Greenfield, author of The Lions Eye: Seeing in the Wild and “Hyena (The New Yorker Magazine, Nov. 11th, 1996) ”

We can save thousands of dollars a year using simpler, healthier ingredients for cleaning, pet care, pest control, toiletries, and food.


Many household cleansers contain chemicals that are harmful to the health of the manufacturers, the users, and to the environment.  Here are some ways to make simpler, healthier, and cheaper cleaning supplies and toiletries.

Basic ingredient list  : 

Gallon of white vinegar, a few boxes of baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, and soap nuts. 
Essential oils of clove, rosemary, citronella, lavender, tea tree oil, euculapytus, orange and frankincense.

Tools : 

Large spray bottles and several small dark glass spray bottles from a recycle bin, health food store, dollar store or supermarket. Torn up towels as rags (tag sales are good sources).  Stiff bristle brushes for dishes and bathrooms. Stainless steel flea comb.  Three buckets and a machine washable cotton mop. Toilet brush.


BASIC CLEANSER- In a sink, pour about two inches of vinegar in a large spray bottle, fill the bottle three quarters full of clean water.  Pour baking soda into your hand and drop into the bottle until the solution foams over the top. Fill the bottle again with water.  This is a natural degreaser and very powerful, so test on wood surfaces before use – it can strip off wax. Use on stoves, countertops, to polish silver and brass, on tough laundry dirt, to deodorize furniture, kill fleas and ticks, and remove smells from air.

Soap – Almost unknown in the U.S., soap nuts, which can be bought through Maggie’s organics, or online, are dried berries that can be put directly into the washing machine, and boiled in water to make shampoo and dishwashing soap at a fraction of the cost of regular detergents. 
Put two of the soap nuts in a sock or the linen bag that comes with them, into the washing machine for either warm or cold wash, and re-use them up to ten times, depending on the hardness of the water.  The soap nuts are great for travel too; throw a few in a sock and they’re still good by the end of the trip. There are two kinds of soap nuts, and one is much higher in saponin, so try a few varieties.  I like the ones from Maggie’s organics from Nepal. 

Most soaps sold in stores contain toxins. Even laundry and dish soaps in health food stores can have toxins in them (look for a label that says all ingredients are listed, because formaldehyde is a common preservative for fragrances and does not have to be listed).  

DRYER SHEETS AND FABRIC SOFTENER REPLACEMENT - Tie organic lavender in a sock and put it in the dryer.  It makes clothes smell good, prevents static cling, and repels stains. Conventional dryer sheets can be flammable and filled with toxins such as mercury.  

Stain removal- hydrogen peroxide takes out most animal-based stains like blood, dog saliva, etc. Use soda water when stain is fresh. Or pretreat with the basic cleanser.

DISH WASHING - Sponges are allowed to contain mercury.  A hard bristle plastic dish brush with a long handle can last for a decade, be washed in the dishwasher, and save one from dishpan hands.  

BATHROOMS - Wet the brush, add a drop of soap, and dip it into baking soda for a great bathroom scrub.  

disinfectant – Fifty percent of a standard hydrogen peroxide mix or alcohol in a spray bottle of water.  Don’t use often.  If you leave a surface sterile, it provides a much better home for invading bacteria.

Toilet cleaner – Spray with basic cleanser. Put baking soda or peroxide in toilet bowl.  If bowl is discolored, leave baking soda to soak overnight, then brush clean. Add a drop of rosemary when done to deodorize the whole house.

FLOORS – you can mop floors with a half cup of white vinegar in a gallon of warm water.  Add a drop of orange oil if you like the scent, or if you have an incontinent pet. Wash the cotton mop in the clothes washer with any dirty rags from dusting, and dry well.  The mop should last much longer than sponge mops because it’s not being put away wet. You shouldn’t need to wax the floors, but can use most oils if you want to protect the wood.

Mold cleaner – Fill large spray bottle with fifty percent rubbing alcohol and fifty percent water.  Spray moldy areas and run if you’re allergic (mold might release spores).  Let sit for an hour or two and then spray and wipe again. If the mold leaves a stain, soak a rag with hydrogen peroxide and fix drape it on the stain. Clean a large area; the mold you see might be the tip of the iceberg. 

MOLD PREVENTATIVE – Let the sunshine in.  Take off the shower curtain and use just the clear liner. Keep the curtains open except when using bathroom.  Get an energy efficient dehumidifier or exhaust fan.  Mold is dangerous.

AIR Deodorizer- Add six drops of lavender, rosemary, or orange oil to a glass spray bottle of water.  Hold up high and spray to the ceiling while walking around house.  Will help with dust and other allergens, as well as odors. Make sure you’re not sensitive to any of the oils first. 

Furniture polish- Easy version - a touch of cooking oil on a clean rag (check with antique dealer as to which type of oil is appropriate for your furniture).
Extreme version- melt beeswax from local apiary into olive oil and add a few drops of lavender. 

Dusting – You can put a cotton sock on your hand, spray it with the basic cleanser, and gently wipe surfaces. Don’t use on waxed surfaces; it will take off the wax. Or use a washable lambswool duster; it holds the dust well instead of spreading it.


Our pets can live cleaner, healthier lives without toxic chemicals.

Pet accidents – Clean with the basic cleanser to remove odors and enzymes, then spray with six drops of citrus oil and water in small glass bottle (or rub with citrus peel); most pets hate the smell and usually won’t mark the place again.

PET ALLERGIES – It’s not healthy to shampoo pets too often.  If you’re allergic, make a cup of green tea, put it in a glass spray bottle when cool, spray your pet thoroughly, and brush the tea into their coat.  It should make the pet hypoallergenic for at least a week.  Give the pet treats and love so they won’t run when they see the bottle coming. Spray furniture and carpets regularly with basic cleanser, and vacuum often.  The flea and tick preventative also removes most allergens. The flea and tick preventative spray combination also seems to make most dogs less allergenic.

PET ODORS – Spray pet lightly with basic cleanser, but not near eyes. I also used the flea and tick preventative on my dog when he got too old for baths.  

FLEA  AND TICK PREVENTATIVE – A combination of essential oils sprayed on pets before they go outside, and combed through their fur at night once a week is a marvelous flea and tick preventative.  I put one drop of lavender, patchouli, frankincense, and rosemary in a bowl of water and comb it through my dogs’ fur with a flea comb, removing hair from the comb and putting it in another bowl of water as I go to kill any pests or their eggs. In extreme cases, you can use eucalyptus and citronella as well. Make sure you spray yourself too before hiking, but check for sensitivity first.
I also feed pets a teaspoon of brewer’s yeast and garlic for a month before the flea and tick season, and continue through until a few weeks after it’s over.

PET FOOD - Pet  foods can be filled with pesticides, genetically modified foods, and preservatives.  Organic rice, meat and vegetables with supplements and the occasional bone (carefully monitored) can keep a pet healthy longer.  Several brands of raw food are available in freeze-dried form.



Mice – Spray every surface with basic cleanser to remove scent trails and the scent of food.  Add six drops of clove oil to glass spray bottle. Spray every night for two weeks.  Afterward spray once a week or so.
Clean your house thoroughly. Put clutter in containers, pull containers away from walls; mice like hiding places.

Ants- Drop chili powder by their entrance holes or rub a lemon by their paths. You can also put a few drops of orange oil in water and spray countertops and bathrooms. Search for the cause of the infestation.  Most species need moisture for their eggs.  Check for leaks, often under a dishwasher or shower.

Fleas- spray furniture, beds, carpets and dogs with the basic cleanser. The Shakers used to grind salt and sprinkle it on carpets and furniture. Both techniques work almost immediately.  Spray up in the air around the whole house to kill fleas in floorboards or in carpets. Vacuum often. Wash bedding with baking soda and put bags of lavender in dryer.

FRUIT FLIES – Put a few drops of lavender on a towel next to fruit. This worked almost immediately at a worm farm with infested compost.

MOSQUITOES – Six drops of citronella, three drops of lavender, and a few of citrus in a glass bottle filled with water.  Spray on clothing and air to repel mosquitoes.  (Don’t slap yourself; you bring the blood to the surface). Make sure you’re not allergic to any of the oils before use.

DUST MITES – Spray bedding and bed with basic cleanser once a week; spray mattress once a week.  Wash bedding with a sprinkle of baking soda and vinegar in washing machine. An organic cotton, rubber, and wool mattress seems to repel them.

MOTHS –Put dried lemon balm in with clothes in storage. You can buy lemon balm tea.  Place the tea bags in with all clothes.

COCKROACHES – I was staying in an apartment when the tenants below sprayed pesticides.  A flood of poisoned cockroaches came up to my floor.  I poured baking soda under the kitchen appliances, in the dishwasher, the sink, and on a towel in front of the door, and they disappeared again.
Always remove all clutter, put all food in air-tight containers, and clean regularly. In extreme cases, keep garbage in the refrigerator and throw away daily.
FLEAS AND TICKS: - Birds are the answer.  Lawn sprays chase away or sicken the animals that eat pests, making the situation worse.  Keep a bird feeder well stocked for the maximum variety of species, try to get neighbors to stop spraying, and encourage wild turkeys to forage nearby.  Chickens and guinea fowl are wonderful eaters of pest insects.  



Toothpaste- Put a dab of all natural baking soda on toothbrush and add water. Brush, rinse toothbrush, and brush with water to rinse.

TOOTH WHITENER – Pour a little hydrogen peroxide on the toothbrush and brush normally. 

HANDKERCHIEFS – Facial tissue is often bleached with chemicals toxic both to the environment and to the humans who use them.  Handkerchiefs can save hundreds of dollars by replacing years worth of tissue boxes. Many thrift stores have beautiful vintage or antique handkerchiefs.  Or cut a thin cotton shirt into squares.

Moisturizer -Look at your favorite brand and identify the real moisturizer in it.  Many of the ingredients are useless and harmful, like artificial fragrances that could be preserved with formaldehyde. Many moisturizers and lip balms dry out your skin to make you use more.  If it contains shea butter, cocoa butter, almond oil, or coconut butter, find the ingredient in its pure and organic form at a health food store. It will probably last much longer than your regular moisturizer. Try different oils as well.  I’ve found that organic almond oil with a drop of lavender and a few teaspoonfuls of sea salt is my favorite moisturizer and scrub. Just put it on at the beginning of the shower so that the oil dissolves and doesn’t leave the tub slippery, and watch your step. And don’t use your best towel.

SHAMPOO – Look for a brand which says it lists all its ingredients, and has no chemicals, or try soap nuts. Boil them in a few quarts of water until the mixture is dark and thick, then add your favorite essential oils to preserve it.

MAKE UP – Most commercially sold make up has artificial fragrances, preservatives and dyes.  It can legally include mercury and lead, which are absorbed through the skin. Check ingredients with health food store. Or use rice powder as base and add your favorite spices to create colors.

RAZORS – Buy nondisposable razors; all that plastic adds up.

NAIL POLISH – Most nail polish contains toxins.  If you can, just buff your fingernails to a shine.

PERFUME – Most perfume is made with artificial fragrances, and preservatives like formaldehyde. The great perfumes of past centuries were made with essential oils of flowers.  Experiment with rose oil, lavender, orange, juniper, rosemary or ylang ylang by adding a drop to a glass spray bottle filled with distilled water, and spraying your wrist. 

Eye drops and nasal sprays - They often contain preservatives and possibly mercury.  Ask a doctor for recipes suitable for your condition. Usually iodine-free salt with distilled water is a safe mixture.

WOMEN’S CYCLES – Women can save a great deal of money by buying organic cotton re-usable pads and a Diva cup.


Modern food is filled with toxins (see the movies “FoodInc” or “Fresh”), from pesticides, toxic fertilizers, and coal ash, to shipping preparations, ripening sprays and preservatives like wax with additives.  Most prepared foods contain genetically modified ingredients which can affect health.

GARDEN – The best way to eat clean food is to test your soil, add compost and mercury free manure (grazing animals might be eating hay sprayed with mercury), and buy organic heirloom seeds.  Heirloom plants usually produce better tasting, more pest resistant crops.  Dishwashing soap mixed with water repels many insects, and some soaps repel deer.    A bowl full of beer buried flat with the ground attracts slugs. I use bird netting over the garden, and feed birds nearby to encourage them to eat pests on the property. Check with the local master gardeners association nearby, the state organic farmer’s association, or a permaculture expert on soil and pest treatment.
The last year of my dog’s life, I gave him a choice every morning of what he wanted to do.  Sometimes he wanted to swim, but usually, he took me to the garden and we ate cherry tomatoes and basil and blackberries in the sunshine.  I couldn’t have bought anything anywhere that gave us as much pleasure.

FARM MEMBERSHIP – Join an organic sustainable CSA.  It costs about 500 dollars a year and, depending on the farm, you can get as much as three times that in value, fresher and better tasting than from a store. lists a lot of them, or just computer search for one nearby. Usually they are attached to other CSAs that can give memberships for meat, bread and handmade cheeses. I picked my own vegetables in addition and made vegetable soups that I froze for the winter so that I could eat local and organic year round.

FOOD STORAGE – Make vegetable soup or stew in the summer with organic foods, and freeze it in glass jars with glass lids (the liner of some bottle tops can be toxic). Leave some room for expansion.  Or freeze vegetables in re-used plastic bags for winter use.  You can dry many foods in the oven, in the sun, or in a dehydrator until they are ready for storage. Many root vegetables and some fruits can be stored in paper in a cool dry place through the winter. Some foods can be stored in oil for long periods of time in the refrigerator.  Check for info online or at the library.  Instead of storing food short term in aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or sandwich bags, buy glass storage containers with lids.  They are easy to wash and re-usable.

BUYING ORGANIC - It is unfortunate that toxic food is well subsidized with tax dollars, and that organic farmers have to spend time and money for certification, so that organic food tends to cost more. It is worth it though. We are one of the richest, and sickest, populations in the world.  

AVOIDING GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS - Also crucial.  According to the movie “Genetic Roulette” many other countries have declared GM foods to have been tested as dangerous to human health, possible affecting digestion, child development, and cancer rates. So far, corn, sugar from beets, cotton and soy are almost entirely GM in the USA.  Almost every food in a supermarket has corn syrup, starch, or sugar in it.  



EFFICIENCY – Most states have a very cheap, free, or rewarding energy efficiency audit program.  Check at “your state”.gov.  Find someone highly qualified in the program to check your house.  They should check and seal all drafts, and for those qualify, will often provide free insulation, energy efficient light bulbs, and even major appliances like water heaters and furnaces.

LIGHTING -  LED light bulbs are the most efficient and are coming down in price.  Check their color in the store because some are a harsh white and others a warmer tone. I don’t like CFLs because of the mercury in them and their fragility, but I’m using some of them until LEDs drop further in price. 

HEATING – Geothermal is among the most efficient if done well, especially if run on solar panels. Solar thermal panels, if provided with a heat sink for summer, work well too. Passive solar additions to a house, like a glass paneled entry on the south side of the house are useful, and so is a well made clay wood stove. Federal and state subsidies change often but can provide more than 70% of the cost in tax rebates.  Check with

ELECTRICITY – Depending on the site, wind, water, and solar energy can be highly efficient. Subsidies are also listed at

BATTERIES - Rechargeable batteries cost the same as regular batteries but can be re-used around 25 times.

GREEN TRANSPORT – Walking, biking and public transport are the most efficient forms of transportation.  Where a car is needed, the hybrids are currently the most useful, unless one can stay within the range of an electric car. The Prius still seems like the best option for its size and safety and efficiency.   You can transfer an electric engine into almost any vehicle for a few thousand dollars, or change an electric/gas hybrid into a plug-in hybrid (with a sacrifice of some space for the extra batteries needed for storage).  The most efficient and money-saving option is to buy a solar panel to charge a hybrid or electric car in the driveway at home. Depending on the current subsidies, it can cost as little as a few hundred dollars and can provide all one’s fuel needs for decades.  Many employers are willing to put a solar panel in the parking lot for plug-in cars. 



BUY ORGANIC - Organic cotton, hemp, flax, linen, silk, and wool clothing can be found at wonderful prices online now.  Ask in your favorite local stores and they might be able to find good options for you, and be encouraged to stock more healthy options.  Eileen Fisher and many other designers have upscale lines, and many other online stores have very inexpensive well made clothing.

AVOID ARTIFICIAL FIBER CLOTHING - Rayon, polyester, nylon, and others can have chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin.

BUY EASY CARE-CLOTHING - Buy clothes that don’t require dry cleaning.  Dry cleaning is so toxic that stores can become toxic waste clean up sites, and may cause cancer clusters around them. These toxins can be absorbed through the skin or nasal lining by the wearer of the clothing.  

BE AWARE OF YOUR REACTIONS - Notice if your skin burns when you wear certain clothes, or if your eyes sting in certain stores.


Almost anything can have a second or third purpose.  Here are some ideas:

SOCKS – Save used socks as containers for soap nuts in the laundry, as dusting mitts, for potpourri in drawers, and as rags.
TOWELS – no towel is so stained that it can’t make a wonderful rag.  Think of the money you save; one rag can equal hundreds of rolls of paper towels.
STAINED CLOTHING – if the charities won’t take them, use as rags, stuff a pillow with them, throw in the dog crate, make a quilt out of the clean bits, cut off the sleeves and use sweaters as dog coats.  If the fabric is pretty, make pillows or sachet bags out of it.
COMPOST – Your lawn clippings, food waste, and leaves make wonderful compost for a garden, and can help save your town from having to pay for a new landfill. And you won’t have to use toxic pesticides.
JEANS – Cut them in squares and use as napkins, or cut off the legs and sew the bottom to make bags.
FURNITURE - Buy used and find good homes for your cast-offs.