Aside from the garage, some of the most toxic chemicals can probably be found right in the heart of your home: under the kitchen sink. All those different cleaners we love to use (and one for every surface: tiles, bathroom, oven spray, window cleaner, shower cleaner, the list goes on) are packed full of chemicals, perfumes and nasties that can be quite detrimental to our health, not to mention bad for the environment.
Non-toxic cleaning is no new kid on the block. A quick Google search will yield endless recipes containing baking soda, vinegar, borax, castile soap, hydrogen peroxide and even vodka. The recipes typically react vinegar (an acid) with baking soda (a base) to make a cleaning ‘volcano’ of steam and bubbles which will hopefully blast away dirt and grime. Because these reactions are so powerful they actually have the potential to damage plumbing, silicon, grouting and even natural surfaces such as wood if used too frequently. Castile soap is great at natural cleaning but won’t work so well in hard water areas, and is unsurprisingly also very sudsy, leaving a soapy residue on surfaces that you will need to rinse several times to remove - not something you necessarily want when surfaces are used for food preparation. While these green cleaning solutions definitely do the trick, if you want something a bit more hard working that won’t do any damage, you may want to consider surfactants.
Natural surfactants are designed to clean and require no chemical reactions to work. They cut through dirt and grease like a hot knife through butter and are gentle, fully biodegradable and eco-friendly. Before working with surfactants, I do recommend that you read A Beginner’s Guide to Surfactants as this gives a good background to anyone unfamiliar with them.
The surfactants we have access to in SA are the glucosides (decyl-, coco- and lauryl-), betaines and sodium lauroyl sarcosinate. Because of their chemistry structure, the glucosides unfortunately can’t be thickened with salt like anionic surfactants. So if you want to thicken any of your glucoside-based surfactant products, use xanthan gum gel (see recipe here). Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate is an anionic surfactant and therefore can be thickened with salt. It interestingly also thickens up at pH 5. So using this surfactant in your formula will cut out the need for xanthan gum.
We love the cleansing power of lemon, orange, lemongrass and rosemary essential oils, so adding these to your cleaning formula will help boost it and provide a pleasant scent. You can also add abrasive cleaners such as baking soda or borax if you need to get rid of some tough dirt.
Here is a balanced surfactant blend mixed with water and citrus oils for their additional cleaning power. This liquid cleaner can be used on any surface.
740ml distilled water
150ml lauryl glucoside
50ml coco betaine
30ml decyl glucoside
Citric acid solution (pH adjuster)
10ml potassium sorbate (preservative)
Xanthan gum gel (if you want to thicken)
This recipe makes just over a litre, so halve it if you don’t want so much. Make up a citric acid solution by dissolving ½ tsp citric acid in a small amount of water.
Blend the decyl and lauryl glucoside with the coco betaine to form a paste, then add in the water and gently mix with a whisk or blender. Try not to make too many bubbles as you go. Add in the potassium sorbate, essential oils and finally adjust the pH down with a dash of citric acid, testing with pH strips to around 6 or 7. If you want a thicker formula, simply blend in a portion (half a cup should do it) of xanthan gum gel. Pour into a pump dispenser bottle and use to clean all kinds of surfaces.
This formula is a bit milder for general use in the kitchen such as wiping down appliances and surfaces and keeping things fresh and sparkly clean.
500ml distilled water
50ml coco glucoside
50ml coco betaine
Citric acid solution (pH adjuster)
7g potassium sorbate (preservative)
Blend the surfactants together and add to the water, stirring gently to not create too many bubbles. Add the potassium sorbate and essential oils. Test with pH strips and adjust the pH down to around 7 with the citric acid solution. To use, spray on surfaces then wipe with a damp cloth.
Baking soda and borax boost the cleansing power of other cleaners. Try this hard working scrub paste for stubborn dirt spots, bathrooms and tiles.
Essential oils (optional)
Mix enough decyl glucoside with the baking soda to form a thick paste. Decant into a jar and use sparingly on a cloth to scrub stubborn surfaces such as in the bathroom or tiles. Wear gloves to protect your skin as this formula can feel a bit harsh.
Yoga mats put up with a lot - dirty floors, sweaty hands, feet and bodies - so make sure you disinfect your mat often to prevent picking up germs. Not a surfactant recipe but still relevant, try this easy cleansing spray, plus it will leave your mat smelling great!
50ml spritzer bottle
20 drops lavender essential oil
8 drops patchouli
12 drops bergamot
1 T vodka
1 T white vinegar
Add the essential oils to the bottle and swirl around to meld them together. Then add the vodka and leave to sit for 5 minutes. Finally add the white vinegar and top up the bottle with water. Shake up and cap. Spritz your yoga mat after a class to disinfect it.
Switch out the chemical cleaners for eco-friendly and nontoxic alternatives.
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