The Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Without Chemicals

Amy Beal

Cleaning without chemicals is easy with our green tips for every room in the house.



A happy fridge is one that’s clean inside, outside, and behind. To clean inside: Wipe down shelves with a mix of one quart warm water—hot water can crack glass shelves—and 1⁄2 cup of white vinegar, says Mary Findley, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Cleaning. Dampen a cloth with more vinegar to clean the door seals to kill mold and mildew, and then wipe the top of the fridge, which accumulates grease and debris. If you can get behind the fridge (try removing the front panel near the floor), clean the fan blades and vacuum the coils—that can extend your fridge’s life by 5 to 6 years and cut your energy bills, since dirt and dust buildup means your fridge has to work harder.


Zap 1⁄4 cup white vinegar in 1 cup water for several minutes until boiling, says Melissa Westemeier, a blogger for The steam will help loosen caked-on food, and the vinegar kicks out lingering odors. When it cools, wipe down the insides with the same vinegar-water solution.


Empty out the food trap (the plastic filter on the bottom of the dishwasher) with a spoon, says Steve Ash, senior repairman for, a DIY resource for home repair. Next, clean your dishwasher by running it empty with 1 cup of vinegar in a shallow dish on the top rack, and 1 Tablespoon of baking soda in the soap dispenser.


Waste cans collect garbage—and smelly germs and bacteria, says Matthew Ricketts, co-founder of Better Life Maids, a green cleaning service in St. Louis. Outside, put small cans in big ones, and soak them in water with a few squirts of all-purpose spray (see instructions to make your own here). Rinse, and let dry in the sun.



Airtight homes are really good at conserving energy. Unfortunately, they’re also really good at keeping harmful air inside. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the air inside your home can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air, thanks to conventional cleaning products, mildew, pet dander, dust mites, and pollen. Your best tool in the fight to cleanse your air: Open the windows, says Morris Nejat, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Then, put plants to work. English ivy, bamboo palm, asparagus fern, and spider plants have all been shown to help reduce levels of common household volatile organic compounds (VOCs, which can cause health issues like headaches, asthma, and even cancer, according to the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute). Place plants in the rooms where you spend the most time, and keep them free of dust. Also, get rid of air fresheners—many contain VOCs and phthalates.


Carpets are reservoirs for dust, allergens, and odors. Skip rug shampoos in favor of sprinkling cornstarch or baking soda over the whole rug. Let it sit for at least an hour and then vacuum, says Norma Lehmeier Hartie, author of Harmonious Environment. (For deep stains and grime, use a steam cleaner with only water, she says; that’ll remove grime without toxic chemicals.) As for the vacuum itself, experts agree that one with a HEPA filter is best. Vacuums without these filters simply suck dust up in one end and spit microscopic particles out the other, says Marilyn Black, Ph.D., founder of the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute.


“Your shoes pick up a wide array of detritus, mud, dust, and general schmutz during any given outing,” says Debra Baida, owner of the San Francisco–based organizing company Liberated Spaces. So set up a shoe storage system by the door, and avoid being overrun by footwear by limiting the shoes to ones that are in season and most frequently worn, she says.



Fill a bucket—or the wastebasket—with hot water and 1⁄2 cup vinegar to use on baseboards, fixtures, cabinet doors, and the floor, says Westemeier. (Use baking soda anywhere else.) Run shower curtains and bath mats through the wash, and put toothbrush holders and soap dishes in the dishwasher. Scrub the toilet with 1⁄4 cup baking soda and several drops of vinegar. Let sit a half hour before flushing.


Drains need a little encouragement in the form of residue removal, says Zissu. Put 1⁄2 cup baking soda down the drain (shove it in with chopsticks if need be), and then pour down 1⁄2 cup white vinegar. Let it bubble for 15 minutes, and then pour several cups of boiling water down the drain.


Your number one enemy in the shower? Soap scum, says Findley. Run your thumbnail along the bottom of the shower; if you see gray stuff under your nail, you’ve got soap scum. It softens the sealant on tiles, fiberglass, and stone, making them more porous and harder to clean. Dampen a cloth with water and apply the Easy Shower Scrub (see instructions to make your own here).



Dusting works best from the ceiling down. Run a cloth dampened with water or a vinegar-water combo over blinds, windowsills, and other surfaces like dressers, baseboards, and picture frames. Vacuum vents, fans, and lampshades, as well as under furniture, says Westemeier.


Strip down the bed to wash all your linens (in hot water, to kill dust mites). For the mattress itself, the ideal thing to do is to borrow a page from our ancestors and drag it outside to beat it with a broom, says Findley. But if that’s not feasible, have kids help by bouncing on the mattress to bring dust up to the surface, and then thoroughly vacuum it.


Closets can be full of dander from skin, plus fibers and lint from clothes, says Ricketts. Empty the closet, then wipe down the baseboards and vacuum the floor. Before you put clothes back in, make sure you really wear each item, then bag up castoffs to be donated, and turn stained items into dust rags.


Conventional cleaners frequently contain toxic ingredients, but manufacturers aren’t required to list every one. Watch out for those on this list, says Findley. You can also refer to Whole Foods Market’s Eco-Scale rating system at, or look for products that are Green Seal Certified at Call companies, too—if their products are safe, they’ll want you to know.


2-butoxyethanol or butyl cellusolve, alcohols, ammonia, anionic surfactant, ethanolamine, ethylene glycol butyl ether (EGBE), isobutane, naphtha, phosphoric acid, and synthetic dyes and scents


Ammonia, bleach, 2-butoxyethanol or butyl cellusolve, chlorides, diethanolamine, ethers, ethylene glycol, hydroxyacetic acid, hydroxides, limonene (includes d-limonene, 4-isopropenyl-1-methylcyclohexene), morpholine, naphtha, perchloroethylene (includes tetrachloroethylene, ethylene tretrachloride petroleum), petroleum distillates, phenols, phosphoric acid, trisodium phosphate (TSP), and VOCs


Ammonia and ammonia chlorides, chlorine bleach, diethylene glycol monobutyl ether, glycosides, hydrochloric acid, hydroxides, hypochlorite, limonene (includes d-limonene, 4-isopropenyl-1-methylcyclohexene), naphtha, petroleum distillates, phenols, phosphoric acid, trisodium phosphate (TSP)

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