With spring comes the desire to tidy the nest. Rugs are beat, bookshelves are dusted, and floors, counters, and ceramic surfaces are scoured until they gleam. Bottles of cleaners and detergents are purchased and revered for their ability to remove everything from difficult soap-scum rings and grease to the “toughest stains.” But what, exactly, are the ingredients in those bottles?
Those difficult to pronounce words can appear to be a written incantation, only unlocked by diluting, spraying and scrubbing to “magically” clean surfaces. But a closer look reveals that in place of the dirt and grime, far more harmful things are left. Formaldehyde (a preservative), Organochlorines (used in bleaches and products that degrease), and Styrene (an ingredient in floor polishes and waxes) are all known carcinogens (they cause cancer). Organochlorines, Styrene, and APEs (found in disinfectants, laundry detergents, and all-purpose cleaners) are all endocrine disruptors, which can also cause tumors and birth defects. Furthermore, disinfectants are pesticides in and of themselves, whose ingredients include carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
So why do people continue to use these products? While it’s true that we have had nearly a century to associate the smell of Clorox Bleach with cleanliness rather than toxicity, another reason lies in the belief that the product is only harmful if directly ingested. Often, one does not realize that respiratory exposure and skin contact with the chemicals brings about health hazards as well. If the well-meaning parents who mopped their floors with chemicals knew of these risks, it is doubtful that their babies (who love to put their hands in their mouths) would be allowed to crawl on the “clean” surface anymore. Similarly, if people were informed of the hazards of scrubbing their bathtubs with Ajax or Comet, they would be less inclined to soak their bodies in the same bathtub.
But I would like to take this idea further and suggest yet another reason. Although many have heard that the ingredients found in the big-name, big-chemical cleaners are harmful to the planet, it has not registered what this entails. Instead, there has sprung forth a bifurcation of the term “planet.” For many, the word “planet” has become a reference to massive bodies of water, distant forests, and isolated wildlife. This term encourages the usage of chemicals, the creation of waste, and the depletion of natural resources. I invite a more comprehensive and interrelated definition of “planet,” one that includes us. One that realizes that a chemical that affects the breeding ability of trout will affect our ability to eat trout. One that looks at a chemical being passed into our waterways and acknowledges that it will later be ingested by our children.
A Different Way of Cleaning
So do we sit still while the layer of grease on our stove thickens and our tiles become gray with soap-scum? Absolutely not. Instead, we should turn to natural remedies, many of which were used by our great-grandmothers. Have a stubborn layer of grease on your counter? Squeeze a few slices of lemon on the area and then add some elbow grease – the acid from the lemon will aid in cutting through the grease. Did your cat forget the location of her litter box? Mix a few teaspoons of baking soda in a cup of white vinegar and scrub away. The solution will render your floor/mattress/couch free of any unpleasant urine odors. Use rubbing alcohol and white vinegar for a homemade glass cleaner. Or, you can just make your own all-purpose cleaner using fruit scraps.
That’s right, fruit scraps. By combining fruit scraps with water, brown sugar, and about three months of patience, a fermented liquid full of fruit enzymes appears. Once the liquid is strained and diluted a bit, these enzymes work hard to clean anything from dishes and laundry to toilet bowls and mirrors. It even makes for a lovely mock compost tea when diluted further. Read below for instructions on how to make your own enzyme cleaner.
Basic Recipe for Enzyme Cleaner
3 parts leftover fruit scraps
1 part brown sugar
10 parts water
Any medium to large-sized container for fermentation
Begin by salvaging fruit scraps. Vegetable scraps can also be used, however, I caution you to consider the scent of your finished product. Orange, lemon, and pineapple scraps consistently produce the best smelling cleaner. We are currently using an enzyme cleaner made from a mixture of orange and tomato scraps, which yielded a pleasant earthy-citrus scent. Moldy scraps or scraps nearly spoiled should not be used, as the mold could take over the container and cause less than desirable results.
Once you have gathered enough scraps to fill 1/3 of your container, you may start your enzyme cleaner. For easy measuring, just fill 1/3 of the container with fruit scraps by sight.
Next, fill your container with water until it is almost full. Be sure to measure out the water as you pour, to give yourself a guideline for how much sugar to use.
Measure out 1 part brown sugar for every 10 parts of water used, and pour it into your container.
Seal the lid, and give the container a good shake to combine the ingredients. Set the container in a place with a consistent temperature, away from direct sunlight. It’s a good idea to write the date on your container, so that you can keep track of when it is supposed to finish fermenting. This is especially helpful for when you have many bottles of enzyme cleaner started at different dates (like in my home).
Each day, “burp” your enzyme cleaner by unscrewing the cap to release the gases created by the fermentation. As fruit scraps ferment in your container, gases are produced. I recommend checking them each day at the same time. On certain days, particularly in the beginning, the container may appear bloated. Take extra care when burping these bottles, by stepping back a bit and unscrewing the lid slowly to release the trapped air.
When the three month mark is up, your enzyme cleaner is ready to use. Strain your cleaner through a fine mesh sieve to remove bits of food, and transfer it to a more permanent container.
Enzyme Cleaner Uses
Diluted, this cleaner can be used for just about anything. My husband cleans our whole bathroom (this room is his cleaning responsibility), including the inside of our washer, the tiles, and mirrors, with a 10 parts water:1 part enzyme cleaner solution. In the kitchen, I use it to clean counters and even use it as a dish cleaner by pairing it with a little squirt of regular dish soap to create a lather for better cleaning. For tougher jobs, such as degreasing the stove, I use a 5:1 or 3:1 solution, and let the cleaner sit on the surface for a length of time to allow the enzymes enough time to work. When our sink is clogged, we pour a cup or two of undiluted enzyme cleaner in the drain before we retire to sleep and in the morning the sink is drained. Although my husband and I primarily use enzyme cleaner as just that – a cleaner, others use it for insect repellent and facial toner. While I haven’t tried either of those options yet, I put a few drops in a small spray bottle full of water (or dilute it by 100:1 or more) for an excellent mock compost tea.
I hope you will try making this cleaner at home. Already make a natural home cleaner? I’d love to hear about it below!