Spring Cleaning with Herbal Vinegar

Homemade cleaning products are healthier.

For some of us, day-to-day living is a dirty business, especially in the winter months: pieces of bark, wood, and lichen fall off firewood en route to the woodstove, ash here and there, spider webs in the windows, and our pets’ fur magnetically move to the corners and under furniture. Spring brings muddy foot and paw prints to the decor. When I was younger I kept a rigid cleaning routine, but now, a deeper cleaning occurs under the threat of company coming or when it is more than I can tolerate.

My standards for cleanliness have changed dramatically as I age. It doesn’t take much to move cleaning chores to another day: a long walk in sunny weather, a good book, planting or harvesting the garden, or writing an article.

Has anyone regretted not doing more cleaning in their final days?

I don’t tolerate random clutter, the bathroom is regularly scrubbed, and I can’t function in a messy kitchen. But dirty floors and dusty surfaces are easy to ignore if you squint your eyes enough.

Signage: This house was clean yesterday: we're sorry you missed it
I think I need this sign.
Photo by Jonathan Francisca on Unsplash

But spring cleaning is a tradition that I still follow, though it now takes several days to complete. The activity of spring cleaning – a thorough cleaning of a house or room – has its roots in the days of candlelight, wood fires, and coal heat. Sounds romantic except when the seasonal light returns and you can finally see the walls and furniture laden with the smells and dust of smoke and ash. The first warm day was an opportunity to drag furniture outside and clean it, wash walls and windows, air linens and sweep the dust bunnies out of the corners. This ritual continues today in many homes.

I was curious about historical cleaning practices and found a blog post by a historian who has been reviewing how-to books that were published in the 1500s to assist household workers (staff or wives) in maintaining cleanliness. The author noted that the primary areas of concern were textile care, specifically spot removal, and bugs. Herbs played an important role:

one gets the sense that fumigating and perfuming were the main tasks of “cleaning” in Elizabethan households.  There are many recipes for “sweet bags” containing fragrant herbs that would be spread among the linen, a practice that would both “clean” household textiles and prevent their infestation by moths and other pests. Various herbs boiled down in a “perfuming pot” or cast into the fire would mask annoying household odors.  Instructions were also given for the delousing of both beds and bodies, which must have been a constant occupation.

~ Donna Seger, Streetsofsalem.com

In the pre-industrial days, some of the cleaning products were harsh, homemade, and smelly. They were typically made with a combination of homemade lye and animal fats. The invention of synthetic chemicals and the discovery of germ theory altered our expectations for the once-simple but arduous task of house cleaning.  Now we have an entire grocery store aisle dedicated to cleaning and germ elimination products – almost all made with ingredients developed in a chemistry lab. 

Are your cleaning products toxic?

There’s a dark side to these products: Many produce indoor pollution, allergic reactions, cause skin blisters, and burns, and can be toxic if inhaled or ingested. In fact, according to the U.S. Poison Control, cleaning products are responsible for 11% of reported toxic exposures for children under six years old. The Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning rates over 2500 products and their overall message is that many of the cleaning products contain toxic or dangerous ingredients for both humans and the environment.  

Recent research has indicated that frequent use of scented commercial cleaning products may increase the risk of childhood asthma. The Environmental Working Group recommends the following to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals:

Limit the number of household cleaning products you routinely use. Regular cleaning with soap and water or a kid-friendly DIY formula can remove most household grime, whereas odor-masking air fresheners can be a source of continuous, harmful emissions.

Avoid indiscriminate use of spray cleaners. If you use one, spray it into a cloth rather than directly on the surface to reduce inhalation of the aerosolized liquid and contaminated household dust.

When possible, remove children from rooms being cleaned and safely lock up cleaning supplies to deter accidental poisoning.

Open windows and doors for good ventilation during and after cleaning. Frequent ventilation also inhibits mold growth and odors.

Avoid products with the term “fragrance” on the label. Look for labels that fully disclose all ingredients, including fragrance chemicals. And don’t give “fragrance free” products an automatic pass. They may still contain respiratory irritants, allergens and asthmagens.

~ Environmental Working Group

Safer Cleaning Ingredients

Consider starting your spring cleaning with a purge of those toxic commercial cleaners. It’s easy to replace commercial products with safer homemade ones, which will also save you money and reduce the use of plastic bottles. You can make all of your cleaning products with the following ingredients:

Distilled white vinegar – A natural disinfectant as well as antifungal. Its acidity breaks down mineral deposits, soap scum, grease, and wax build-ups. Use it on counters, windows, and all things in the bathroom.

Castile soap (an oil-based soap) – Unlike commercial products, it does not produce long-lasting suds but that’s not an indicator of effectiveness. A synthetic chemical actually produces those suds and we have been trained to believe that suds equal cleaning strength.

Baking Soda – A mild abrasive that absorbs odors. I grind up lavender buds in the food processor and mix them with baking soda. I sprinkle a generous amount on my area rugs. I let it sit for 15 minutes and then vacuum.

Salt – A tougher abrasive useful for sinks and bathtubs. Make a paste by adding a bit of water and use immediately.

Hydrogen peroxide – A replacement for bleach, stain removal, and used as an antimicrobial. It’s also key to removing skunk smell from dogs who apparently forgot their last encounter with skunks.

Washing soda (sodium carbonate) – Useful for removing grease; slightly caustic so wear gloves when using. Don’t use on fiberglass, aluminum, or wood.

Olive oil – Use as a furniture polish; you can infuse with herbs or lemon peels to add a short-lived scent.

Herbs & Fruits – Several herbs are potent antimicrobials: thyme, sage, lavender, and oregano and produce an abundance of plant material. My herb of choice is thyme; it has strong antimicrobial properties and is useful for cleaning all types of surfaces. Other herbs can be added to the mix. Lavender and lemongrass bring some relaxing scents to the cleaning party. Another aromatic addition: fresh orange or lemon peels.

Essential Oils – I have seen a lot of natural cleaning recipes using EOs but I hesitate to promote them as they are potent, expensive and many use a lot of plant material in the distillation process. Adding 30-50 drops of an inexpensive essential oil like peppermint or eucalyptus can help with the smell of vinegar.

Herbal Vinegar All-Purpose Cleaner

To make a quart of this herbal cleaner add two cups of dried herbs to a glass jar. Cover with distilled vinegar and cap with a plastic lid (vinegar interacts with metal and the results are not pretty). Steep the herbs for 24-72 hours; the vinegar will turn red if using thyme. Strain and add 1-2 tbsp. of castile soap. Pour into recycled spray bottles.  A gallon of this herbal cleaner costs less than $10 and will 6-12 months.

Easy to make, inexpensive, effective
Herbal vinegar for cleaning
two ingredients: thyme and vinegar
Two ingredients: thyme & Vinegar (Photo: SK)

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