By Mary Hickcox, RN
We are addicted to chemicals: bleach, ammonia, window cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, drain cleaner, shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent, fabric softener, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste, body creams, shave gel, dish soap, antibacterial spray, deodorizer, mildew remover, and the list goes on and on. We have been convinced that we need these products in order to keep natural odors and bacteria, mold, and germs at bay.
But the cost is staggering in many ways. They cause environmental damage, personal harm from an incredible amount of toxic chemicals combined in a day, and finally there’s the actual financial cost. Consequently, in the long run we spend all this money unnecessarily, given our access to easy and natural alternatives.
I’m as guilty as the next person, having spent loads of money on all these products over the years without considering the impact they had. Admittedly, I even thought people were downright strange for some of the alternative products they were using. I have slowly been awoken!
Having concerns about the chemicals that we exposed our children to was really the spark for us to investigate further. We knew what we were doing was not great, but it took some research to really get on board with living more naturally. I suppose the first step for me was deciding to use cloth diapers for my youngest son. It was far easier than I thought it would be and it made me feel terrific about saving money and reducing our rubbish. I began to wonder where else I could simplify our needs.
This year I saw The Story of Cosmetics, which had a major impact on me. I was shocked by the abundance of chemicals we expose ourselves to unnecessarily. It really forced me to question what we were doing to ourselves, our children, and the planet. When talking to a good friend about how we could change our ways, she said to me, “well you just do the best you can do.” At that moment, I realized that I may tell myself I’m doing my best, but I knew that I wasn’t, and I knew I could do more. Most importantly, it gave me the the desire to do better.
The following are simple ways that anyone can minimize household chemicals and save money. Come on — you know you can do better:
1. Vinegar and more vinegar
It’s easy: just stop buying all those products to clean your home and replace them all with plain white vinegar and you’ll see a huge savings on your grocery bill. Does it really work though? I know that it seems crazy, because if it were true surely everyone would already be doing it, right? Well, I have a very messy family of 5 including 3 boys under 12, two dogs, the occasional free-range chicken roaming in the kitchen, and vinegar still does the trick every time. It is inexpensive, natural, safe, and kills 99% of bacteria and 85% of molds and germs. Vinegar works great on windows, floors, ceramic, counters, toilets, as a fabric softener, as an ant deterrent, and so much more.
One common concern is if it leaves that sour odor behind — I can assure you it does not. We use a 50/50 (water/vinegar) mix to keep it easy, and within 10 minutes after cleaning any surface the smell has dissipated. It is easy, better for you and the environment, and you’ll save a fortune. I spend about $4 per month on vinegar, compared to over $30 that I was spending on various products it has replaced. Buying natural (green) products may be a better option, chemically (if you can believe the label), but they typically come with an astronomically high price tag attached. Plain white vinegar is your best bet.
2. Baking Soda
What cannot be accomplished using vinegar can most likely be accomplished using another safe, cost effective item: baking soda. It is a great odor eliminator and fire extinguisher, so many of us already have some in the house. The simple ways that our family benefits from baking soda is as a deodorant and as an abrasive cleaner.
For deodorant, simply put some in a Tupperware container with dried lavender, dip a powder puff in and apply after your shower. My husband was a skeptic and hesitant to try it at first, but after the first day he could not deny its effectiveness. It’s far safer than any deodorant on the market (you can also use a crystal stick, but we prefer baking soda). At less than a dollar for a two-person month’s worth, you will save big by swapping your deoderant for baking soda.
As an abrasive cleaner you can make a paste with a small amount of water, dip a sponge in and scrub away. Effective, easy, and safe! To live a more chemical-free lifestyle be sure to keep lots of this stuff on hand; it has many uses.
3. Make your own laundry detergent
Laundry detergent is one of the things that can greatly affect us; it covers most things that touch us and it is one of the more expensive items on any grocery list. I make over 300 ounces of detergent in 10 minutes and it costs around $4, while Tide would cost $45-$50 for a comparable amount. I use about the same amount as I would with a normal detergent, so clearly the savings is incredible.
To make an easy, effective detergent I grate a bar of soap (biodegradable, safe, and neutral bar of soap), throw it in a saucepan with a small amount of water, and cook until it is melted (about 5 minutes). Take 2 gallons of hot, not boiling, water and add the soap to it. Stir until dissolved, add 2 cups of baking soda and a few drops of tea tree oil or your preferred blend of essential oils, stir and pour into adequate containers. I find that shaking the detergent before using ½ cup per large load is most effective.
It literally takes under 10 minutes to make, works wonderfully, and not only is safer for my family and the Earth, it also saves me at least $250-$300 per year. There are many recipes out there on the Web, but I find this to be the easiest and most cost effective.
4. Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap
There are many brands of castile soap out there, but I find Dr. Bronner’s to be a great value for an exceptional product. It is all vegetable based, fair trade, organic and completely biodegradable. It’s very easy to get as it can be ordered online or found at popular stores like Target. Castile soap can be used for many things, but we primarily use it for showering. It can be used as shave gel, body wash, shampoo and even toothpaste.
I re-use an old 32-ounce shampoo bottle and put ¼ cup of castile soap and the rest water. This combination seems to work well, but again, you can add various essential oils depending on taste and effectiveness as well. It will be a bit more watery then you may be accustomed to, but believe me it works delightfully. It also has an oil base, so I find that even with my thick hair I usually do not need any conditioner. The diversity of uses is amazing and at $10-$15 per 32-ounce bottle, figured with conservative dilution levels, it is far more cost effective than most shampoos or body washes, regular or green.
These days we all spend a lot of time on the Internet, so why not spend some extra time researching what you can do to keep your family and the planet healthy? There are numerous blogs and sites that can offer a wealth of knowledge on all types of natural, easy-to-make and use products. If one thing you try doesn’t seem to work, then just look up a different recipe and try that; the information is out there we just need to be willing to seek it out and apply it.
All in all, these really are simple changes to make; it is just a matter of setting your mind to it. I have continually been amazed at how easy it has been to make these changes, and how rewarding it feels to know I really am doing my best to make a difference in my household. The information may feel overwhelming at times, especially when you see how toxic most commercial products are for you. But if you start simply and have faith that even one change can make a difference, you’re on your way.
Change can be a challenge, especially when you are initiating it for the entire family. Explain to them why it is so important and ensure them it will work and hopefully they will be accepting of your choices. In my case, as the homemaker, I just implemented them by force — ultimately to the approval of the clan. If you’re a skeptic, then try changing just one product a month as an experiment. Within six months, you will be able to look what you have done with pride that you saved money and created a healthier household and environment.
Author Mary Hickcox is a Registered Nurse, unschooling advocate, mother, and life guide to three sons aged 11, 7, and 3.