How do I thoroughly clean while minimizing my use of tools and commercial or disposable products?
February 10, 2010 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I want to comprehensively clean my apartment (bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen) in the most streamlined and "natural" (e.g. homemade, not commercial products) way possible, and I'm looking for specifics on how to do it.

Two key requirements: I want to minimize the disposable products I use -- no lysol wipes, paper towels, swiffer cloths, etc (exception: sponges, although I'm curious if they can be done away with as well). I also want to stay as close to the vinegar-baking soda spectrum as possible.

My questions:
Which cleaning products to use where? When is a spray mixture of vinegar and water the best bet, versus a baking soda and water mixture, versus ammonia, versus bleach? If I'm dusting or doing general surface cleaning (e.g. on a bedside table) how should my application of the cleaner be different from when I'm doing a more intensive cleaning/disinfecting (like a biweekly thorough shower cleaning, or after cooking a big meal and making a mess of kitchen counter space)?

Which tools to use where (minimizing the type/amount)? Are sponges the best option for cleaning counter and table surfaces in the bathroom and kitchen? Or are hand scrubbing brushes more effective? Or re-usable rags? For floors, I'm distrustful of mops and suspect that a floor scrub brush would be more effective. Is that baseless? If not, what cleaning mixture would be effective with a brush, and would I need to rinse the floor afterwards? Wipe it down with a wet cloth? Let it air dry? Should I fill a bucket with the cleaning mixture and use it for the whole floor space (e.g. a small- to medium-sized kitchen floor), or should I dump the mixture halfway through and refresh?

Finally -- what's some good advice on cleaning your cleaning products? If I'm using rags and dish towels to clean and dry counter and floor surfaces, should I put them in the washing machine as their own load, or can I mix them with gym clothes, or even with bath towels and sheets? Boiling water has also been recommended for dirty rags -- should I have a dedicated boiling pot, or is a regular food pot acceptable because, by nature of the boiling, it'll still be sanitary for cooking use? And do you only throw the rags in after the water boils (and if so for how long) or do you throw them in at the start?

Apologies for the obsessive questions, but the more detailed answers the better. Also, I've already read this and this, both of which were helpful but not quite what I'm looking for.
posted by ohruaidhri to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
I'm on a similar mission, and have found Re-Nest to be really helpful (that link goes straight to their "cleaning" tag). Have you tried there, yet?

The first page of results alone seems to address several of your questions... they often have posts about homemade cleaning products, reusable cleaning things (and sponges), etc.
posted by alphasunhat at 1:27 PM on February 10, 2010

This book may have some good advice. The author is an artist who decided to support himself by becoming a personal cleaner -- and after a couple years of nearly killing himself on various fumes, came up with a way to clean everything using only vinegar, salt, borax, baking soda, and lemons.

The book breaks things down two different ways -- by ingredient (the "borax" chapter has a lot of tips on what Borax can be used for) and by task (the second section has a lot of "to clean your fridge, mix THIS with THAT and do THIS" advice). I followed his advice for my own floors -- rather than using cleaning solution, I just used hot water with vinegar and a splash of a scented essential oil, and a clean sponge mop, and it worked great. No need to rinse anything, because I was just using water.

He doesn't have so much advice in the way of "tools", and how to clean them, but that may be a "use your own best judgement" thing anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:30 PM on February 10, 2010

Dammit, here's the link to the book.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:31 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Microfiber cleaning cloths are fantastic. I use them on my kitchen counters, the bathroom mirror, getting tomato sauce splatters from the stove... I don't wash them separately. I do wash my cloth mop head separately, though.
posted by Ruki at 1:35 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use white distilled vinegar for everything: spray in shower, spray on countertops, spray on mirror. I normally go through my cleaning routine just before doing laundry, so I just use something from the laundry bin to rub down the surfaces, since it's going straight into the washer anyways. Cleaning the toilet is the exception: I use toilet paper.

Tub: once a week (or less often if you're not a germophobe like me) add some bleach to an inch of two of water, let it soak, wipe everything down.

Boiling water seems overkill. Your entire body is covered in the same bacteria that your home is, you know that right?

I think the key to cleaning without the need for industrial (toxic) chemicals and disposables is to do it often. If you adopt a weekly cleaning routine, it only take you a few minutes -- and an old rag and some vinegar will do the job.
posted by whiskeyspider at 1:42 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually wash my kitchen and bathroom countertops with dishwashing detergent (for hand washing, not automatic dishwashers). I think that was recommended here. Works pretty well.
posted by grouse at 1:50 PM on February 10, 2010

I personally dislike sponges as I believe they're prone to harbor bacteria (all those little nooks and crannies, so difficult to thoroughly clean). We use cloths made from towels destined for the rag bag and wash them by themselves in the washer with hot water, soap and a good dollop of bleach. Of course, do not use the same cleaning rags from the bathroom in the kitchen and vice versa.

Clean the microwave by putting a bowl of water with lemon slices in, heating for 4-5 minutes and let stand, then wipe. The steam loosens all the baked on bits and the lemon smells nice. I run the lemon slices through the garbage disposal with some ice cubes to clean and deodorize that little odor trap.

Soap and water cleans stove and counter tops better than any fancy spray, just wash, rinse and dry. Same with floors. I use a rag mop because it gets into the corners and crevices much better.

Try dusting with a barely damp cloth to pick up dust, eradicate sticky spots and avoid scattering dust motes to the four corners of the house.

Soap and water cleans stove and counter tops better than any fancy spray, just wash, rinse and dry. Same with floors. I use a rag mop because it gets into the corners and crevices much better.

Scotch tape is wonderful to remove dust from lampshades, just wrap some sticky side out around your hand and run it over the shades.

Wow, all this and you'd think my house would be a lot cleaner! It's those three dogs and two birds that are wreaking havoc and foiling my plans for cleanliness.
posted by Allee Katze at 1:51 PM on February 10, 2010

I use a lot of rags -- cloth diapers are great for these and last forever -- and then I generally wash them with a load of towels. Unless the rags got really, really dirty doing some hard cleanup work, and then I just wash them on your own. I think the washing machine is fine if you have one, and there's really no need to boil.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:54 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding sponges, I stick wet sponges in the microwave for a couple of minutes. Works better than bleach for disinfection.
posted by grouse at 1:55 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know you said you don't want to use swiffer cloths, but I just have to say that the swiffer tool itself is a great thing. YOu can use a regular cloth rag with it, or a washable microfiber towel.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:56 PM on February 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is some discussion -- not a lot of authoritative information, though, unfortunately -- about commercial vinegar being a by-product of petroleum. Sounds like Heinz has guaranteed theirs isn't. For food-grade vinegars I use wine vinegar anyway, but my cleaning-grade vinegar does not indicate if it's grain-based or synthetic. Apparently some store brands and other non-Heinz brands do specifically mention it, too, though.
posted by librarina at 2:45 PM on February 10, 2010

For floors, consider a Cuban mop, which is basically a mop handle with a piece of wood across the bottom. You use it to push damp rags around on hard-surface floors. We picked ours up a local grocery story, but you could probably make one pretty easily. We bust ours out about every other day for taking care of the wood floors in the kitchen.
posted by jquinby at 2:56 PM on February 10, 2010

I use a mixture of dish detergent and vinegar in a spray bottle to clean my bathroom now, because with couple of rewettings, it actually handles soap scum better than the crazy-toxic stuff.

I'll spray very dilute bleach on the problem spots in the shower for mildew about once a month or two, which keeps it at bay.

I use a sponge until it disintegrates, zapping it in the microwave occasionally to keep it from getting manky.
posted by desuetude at 3:02 PM on February 10, 2010

I read this book many years ago, but I don't think it used a single specialized cleaning product: Is There Life After Housework by Don Aslett. The author was a professional house cleaner.
posted by smackfu at 3:10 PM on February 10, 2010

I use mostly white vinegar and baking soda to clean everything in my house. I read this book Organic Housekeeping which has lots of good ideas (there was a bit of a holier-than-thou tone to the book, but it's a really good resource). I think there she suggests using rags and even old (clean!) underwear and socks that have holes -- before you throw them out, put them to use one last time.

I understand not wanting to use Swiffers -- if you're a knitter or have a knitter in your life, there are patterns for knit washable cotton Swiffer covers.

Alternatively, I also have a cheap-o microfiber broom/mop that I got at Walmart -- dry, it picks up dirt and hair, etc; wet, it acts like a mop without having to use any chemicals, and then the microfiber cloth comes off and gets thrown into the wash.
posted by pised at 7:28 PM on February 10, 2010

Best answer: Oh, I realize that there's a lot of talk about products and less about some of your other questions:

I'm a little confused about your concern about scrubbing counters. As long as you wipe food spills up before they get crusty, what needs such vigorous scrubbing beyond a wipe-up with a sponge and minimal elbow grease?

You needn't rinse after washing, you can let floors and counters air-dry. One bucket per floor space will be absolutely fine, no need to refresh the mixture unless you're cleaning up a really mucky floor that's been tracked all over with mud or the like.

Scrub your floor with a brush a few times a year (once a season, if you're so motivated) and the rest of the time, you'll do fine with rags or sponges.

No reason to wash cleaning cloths separately from your towels, clothes, sheets, etc., unless you've used them to wipe up something very, very greasy. (Enough grease to saturate the cloth. In which case you can soak the cloth in a bucket with dilute ammonia first, then throw it in with your towels or sheets.) Part of the mechanism of a detergent is that it suspends dirt in the water, so it won't reattach to cloth.

As for cleaning efficiently, the easiest way to do this is to clean as you go. Instead of making a BIG DEAL about CLEANING HOUSE, I like to tackle small things while going about my regular business. Breaking down cleaning tasks into things that take 20 min or so means that that task is pfft, practically nothing.
posted by desuetude at 11:00 PM on February 10, 2010

Regarding Swiffer-like tools, here in Europe we have a variation of the "Cuban mop", should be available somewhere in the US (at the very least in hardware / home improvement stores?). It is a broom handle with a threaded end, on which you can screw various different heads. I have a handle and two heads: regular broom, and stiff brush. When I want to sweep, I put on the broom head. When I want to clean my floors, I put on the brush, and use that in tandem with a regular old dish towel that's dedicated to floor cleaning (I wash it every month or so along with bath towels, using hotter water than I do for regular clothes). The brush head pushes around the towel, and if I notice anything that needs scrubbed, I just drop the towel and use the stiff brush on it!

I use vinegar for quite a few things, but for my terracotta floors and wood counters, there's a traditional, natural soap used here, called savon noir à l'huile de lin, "black soap with linseed oil". It's made from olive oil, linseed oil, and sodium hydroxide - that's it! Floors look gorgeous after cleaning with it (and smell wonderful too), no need to rinse, just need to make sure the floor isn't left soaking wet, of course. (I'll push around a bunch of soapy water with my brush-n-towel, wring out the towel, then pick up the excess water with the same handy-dandy towel.) Linseed oil is excellent since it's a natural varnish, has antibacterial properties, and repels insects. No idea if you can get that kind of soap in the US though... Marseilles soap is somewhat similar, and is used for cleaning everything here as well (I do mean everything: floors, counters, clothes...). This linseed oil soap is really cheap, I bought a kilo of it last year for about 2 euros and am still going on that same kilo, washing once every week. It only takes two tablespoons per gallon of water.
posted by fraula at 1:39 AM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have much to add since this is an unrealized goal of mine as well, but if you have a swiffer, you can use reusable rags with it. Just wrap them around and shove the corners in the little holes. I do my routine floor cleaning with that and a spray bottle mixture of water, borax and a dash of castille soap.

I do usually wash my rags separately, but I have young kids, so we end up with a lot of messy rags. I don't have a problem throwing them in with other loads either (unless they're greasy/oily). Boiling is not necessary unless you're hand washing. A washing machine will get rid of the nasty. You can use bleach if you're still concerned. I bleach mine occasionally to reduce the staining and dingyness, but not every time. I do use paper towels on toilets, because ew.

You can find lots of recipes and other suggestions for natural cleaning products and techniques here, here, here, and on a number of other web sites. Google green, organic, or natural cleaning to find more.
posted by Dojie at 6:14 AM on February 11, 2010

I LOVE this microfiber mop. You don't even need cleaning chemicals because it grabs dirt so well, and you can throw it in the washing machine. Nthing microfiber cloths, and vinegar where you need more cleaning power. But really, except where you need disinfecting, microfiber is remarkable at picking up dirt and stains.
posted by walla at 9:09 AM on February 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! The resources and suggestions were very helpful for what to do, how to do it, and a little bit of how I need to calm down.

The microfiber towels seem popular, although it's good to know that others do just fine with regular rags. If I get annoyed with hands-and-knees-ing the floor with rags (and the occasional scrub brush) I'll look into a variation on the "Cuban mop" to make the pushing easier. And not needing to boil my rags certainly simplifies things (the dilute ammonia trick sounds handy after cleaning my bike). Thanks again for the patience and specifics!
posted by ohruaidhri at 9:28 AM on February 11, 2010

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