Earth Day Smackdown: Homemade vs. Store-Bought Cleaners

Money Talks News

You’ve probably heard that you can make your own cleaning products from ingredients found around the house. But how do they stack up against commercial cleaners?

Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson finds that you can clean your home effectively — killing germs and bacteria while protecting your health and caring for the environment (Tuesday, April 22, is Earth Day!) — and for about half of what you’re probably paying now. In the video below he explains more. Watch it, then read on to learn how to use these cleaners and see tests of their effectiveness.

Watch the video of ‘Earth Day Smackdown: Homemade vs. Store-Bought Cleaners’ on

Save on supplies

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ survey of consumer expenditures says U.S. households spent an average of $610 on housekeeping supplies in 2012.

Not only do homemade cleaners cut that cost in half, they’re also safer because many commercial cleaning products contain toxic ingredients, Jessica Kellner, editor-in-chief of Mother Earth Living, tells Money Talks News.

Head-to-head comparisons

Few tests can be found online pitting commercial cleaners against homemade. Most of the ones we did find involve vinegar, the go-to natural cleaner.

Lifehacker’s Annie Hauser compared homemade cleaners with commercial products. She says she was skeptical at first.

The idea that you can clean your house or apartment and dress your salad with many of the same products seems a little weird – and mixing up a fresh batch of furniture polish seems a little “Little House on the Prairie.”

But her results were “surprising.” Here are her four tests and conclusions:

  • Test 1. Mixture of liquid dish soap and baking soda vs. multi-surface cleaner. Winner : Dish soap and baking soda.
  • Test 2. A mix of one part olive oil and one part vinegar vs. wood polish spray. Winner : Wood polish spray.
  • Test 3. Solution of one part rubbing alcohol, one part white vinegar and two parts water vs. glass cleaner. Winner : Rubbing alcohol mix.
  • Test 4. One cup vinegar in a gallon of water vs. wood floor polish. Winner : Tied.

Vinegar: Queen of green clean

Vinegar ($2 to $3 for a gallon of white vinegar) is an “incredibly effective” cleaner, Kellner says. It will “kill about 90 percent of household germs.”

Look for vinegar with a label that says 5 percent acidity. White vinegar often is used for cleaning.

Rodale News compares vinegar with bleach:

[Vinegar] is probably strong enough to handle most germy tasks, and when it doesn’t work, resort to hot soapy water. Use bleach as a last resort, use it sparingly (follow the 1:4 ratio), and make sure the room is well-ventilated so you don’t hurt your lungs.

Rodale adds:

Various studies have found that vinegar, usually in combination with table salt or hydrogen peroxide, can inhibit the growth of some strains of E. coli. It’s also an effective mold killer.

Don’t mix vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, however. Mixing reduces the effectiveness of both. Instead, spray or wash first with vinegar, then peroxide, letting the last spray air dry.

In a separate test, by Cook’s Illustrated magazine, a vinegar solution of one part vinegar to three parts water removed 98 percent of bacteria from the surface of fruits and vegetables, National Public Radio reported.

Houselogic compared five homemade dishwasher detergents and one commercial product. Conclusion: None got an oatmeal-encrusted pot lid perfectly clean, but the most effective was a recipe of borax, washing soda, kosher salt and unsweetened lemonade mix.

The winning recipe (on the site) costs about 2 cents a load, says houselogic, a National Association of Realtors publication. Commercial detergents cost as much as 40 cents per load, the article says — $146 a year for running your dishwasher daily.


Not everyone agrees that homemade products are as effective as commercial ones. NPR added that, although Cook’s Illustrated found that vinegar was excellent for removing bacteria on fruits and vegetables, researchers at the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University also found that “water can remove 98 percent of bacteria when it’s used to rinse and soak produce.” Rubbing or brushing helps in cleaning — with vinegar or plain water.

Homemade cleaning products didn’t earn the highest marks in a Consumer Reports test. “Most made-at-home brews often are effective, though they don’t perform as well as the products you’ll find in stores,” CR says.

CR did give high marks to a glass-cleaning solution (you’ll find the recipe in the article) of soapy ammonia, water and rubbing alcohol. (Buy soapy ammonia in stores or make your own.)

While not all homemade cleaners are more effective than commercial ones, they are better overall because they’re safer for health and because of environmental reasons, Kellner says. What counts most is your own experience. For users like Kellner, satisfaction with their homemade cleaners is test enough.

9 other powerful ingredients

Here are nine more ingredients used in safe, effective green cleaning, along with a few of their many uses. Some can be used alone. Often, they’re combined. You’ll find links to recipes and more uses at the end of this article.

  • Lemons (about 49 cents each). Lemon juice cuts grease, removes stains, brightens laundry, cleans surfaces (including tile grout) and neutralizes odors. Grind a half lemon in your kitchen sink disposal to deodorize it.
  • Salt (4 pounds of table salt for about $1.19). Some prefer coarse sea salt, but table salt also is used for scrubbing. It is abrasive but doesn’t scratch surfaces. Salt can remove red wine stains, as this Real Simple video demonstrates.
  • Castille soap (about $1.26 for a 4-ounce bar). Castille is an olive oil-based soap. Dr. Bronner’s is one popular brand. Castille soap is gentle but effective (in a solution with warm or hot water) at removing grease. Use it for cleaning floors and cars.
  • Pure essential oils (most range between $2.50 and $10 for a half-ounce bottle). Extracted from plants, these oils are powerful, so research first and use carefully. Extracts of thyme, origanum, mint, cinnamon, salvia and clove “were found to possess the strongest antimicrobial properties among many tested,” according to research by the Technical University of Lodz, Poland. Some users like lemon, tea tree and orange oils for their cleansing properties. Still other oils are used for fragrance.
  • Borax (about $12.95 for 1.5 pounds). Household borax is sodium tetraborate, “a naturally occurring substance produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes,” says the website of 20 Mule Team Borax. Among other things, it’s used to boost detergents, control odors, clean toilet bowls, brighten grout, deodorize carpets, pet beds and dishwashers, remove soap scum and hard water deposits, and as an all-purpose cleaner.
  • Baking soda (as little as $2.24 for 4 pounds). An effective odor neutralizer, sodium bicarbonate — and its stronger relative, washing soda (sodium carbonate) also cut grease. Wear gloves using washing soda. Unlike baking soda, washing soda is not edible.
  • Rubbing alcohol (about $2.80 for a 16-ounce bottle). Reader’s Digest recommends rubbing alcohol for cleaning blinds, windows, ink stains and bathroom fixtures, removing ticks, and melting windshield frost. In a 1-to-1 mixture with water, it prevents ice bags from freezing completely, so you can mold them around the surface you want to chill.
  • Cooking oil (about $17.50 a gallon). Vegetable and other plant-based oils can bring moisture back to dried-out wood, rattan and wicker. It moisturizes skin and leather, and polishes wood, stainless steel, pots and pans.
  • Hydrogen peroxide (about $1.80 for a 32-ounce bottle of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide). After cleaning a sink, disinfect it by misting separately with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, says Again: Don’t mix vinegar and hydrogen peroxide; it reduces the effectiveness of both.

Now, get started

If you’re ready to give homemade cleaners a try, here are tips and resources for getting started:

  • Start simple by experimenting with using vinegar and baking soda, Kellner suggests. Here are Mother Earth News magazine’s all-purpose cleaning solution and tips for using vinegar and baking soda.
  • Expensive “produce wash” products are unnecessary. “Don’t use soap, detergent, bleach, or commercial produce washes,” says This Colorado State University Extension guide gives instructions for washing individual types of produce.
  • Real Simple magazine has uses and recipes for household cleaners.
  • Here are 18 cheap stain removers you can make at home.
  • Check out how to make dishwasher detergent and more.

Share your successes (and failures) making your own cleaning products by posting a comment below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

This article was originally published on as 'Earth Day Smackdown: Homemade vs. Store-Bought Cleaners'.

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