Whether you’re a newer or a more seasoned vegan, you’ll doubtless at some point have opened up your household cleaning cupboard and pondered its contents. These days, as when I first started to remove animal products from my life and home, there are a number of cleaning products that contain no animal-derived ingredients and that aren’t tested on animals. Old reliable brands like Astonish offer a huge array of labeled-vegan products; everything from dishwasher tabs to laundry liquid to car engine degreaser. Astonish was -and is- available at plenty of budget and pound-stores and once helped me keep my wee one-bedroomed flat clean during a few years on an extremely tight budget. In our house we’re now big fans of Bio-D and Ecoleaf washing up liquid and laundry products, particularly as we’re lucky enough to live a 5-minute bike ride from a community co-op that offers re-fills.
In the past couple of years, as I’ve started to take my (albeit vegan) environmental impact more seriously, and as N and I have endeavoured to reduce our plastic use, I’ve spent more than a few hours idly pinning recipes for ‘green’ household cleaners on Pinterest, and no doubt wiled away an equal amount of time guiltily viewing Minimalist YouTubers urging me to abandon any and all kitchen/bathroom cleaning accoutrements in favour of a bottle of Dr Bronner’s, a litre of white vinegar, and a wholesale tub of baking soda.
But does it actually make any sense to eschew traditional cleaning products, even if they’re suitable for vegans? Is there any mileage in switching to homemade vinegar concoctions, and are they any better for us or for the environment? And what the heck is castile soap anyway? Friends, I have researched the answers for you so that you don’t have to. I speak not as a YouTube-perfect bastion of minimalist restraint, but as a perfectly normal average vegan who is wondering what else they can do to be a little kinder to the environment. If that interests you, then please grab a hot beverage of your choosing and read on!
Are chemicals actually bad?
It’s been nearly 22 years since I took my chemistry G.C.S.E. (uhhh) and I only got a B, but here goes:
What are chemicals?
EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS!
Any substance (I’m going to call this stuff) with a definite composition (i.e. the elements that make up the stuff) is a chemical substance. It can’t be broken down any further without it turning into something else.
Some stuff is pure (like pure water or baking soda) and some stuff is a mixture of other stuff (like blood or shampoo or cake). You can see, then, how flapping uncritically about “chemicals” might not be particularly helpful. Right? I mean, flap all you like about chemicals but no-one is taking cake away from me. I suspect you feel the same. Consider this….
Chemicals is everything! Chemicals is also everywhere. So if we’re considering how ‘safe’ certain household products are for both us and for the environment, we need to dig a little deeper than simply rejecting store-bought cleaners and reaching for the baking soda (which is, after all, a chemical too).
So, are there good and bad chemicals (or doses of chemicals)?
Some chemicals are really obviously bad in certain doses. Those shown in the image above are harmless in tiny doses. Other substances less so (like Novichok, for example). So how can we wade through all the scaremongering and misinformation and meaningfully decipher product labels? How can we make informed decisions about the products we’re using in our homes and flushing down the drain?
Personally, I am a big fan of the Environmental Working Group‘s product database. The EWG provides information on cleaning product ingredients from published scientific literature to supplement the (often incomplete data) provided by companies. The ratings from A (good) to F (bad) indicate the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in a product compared to alternatively available products. This is a useful benchmark for the potential harm that products or ingredients may do to your own health or the environment, and it’s based on solid science (you can read more about EWG’s methodology here.)
It’s important to remember that individual susceptibility plays a big part too; if you or your family have severe asthma or allergies, for example, this stuff is likely to be much more critical for you. On the flip side, even if you are individually in great health, ingredients may score very high on potential environmental damage. And if you spend some time perusing the list of products you’ll notice that plenty brand themselves as ‘green’ or ‘organic’ and yet find themselves with the worst possible rating. (The main drawback to the EWG database is that the majority of products are from the US, and so you’ll need to look up individual ingredients of some UK brands.)
If a focus on ethical consumption is important to you, the ever-wonderful Ethical Consumer Magazine can be trusted to highlight concerns related to parent company ethics and product safety, as well as animal ingredients and testing.
So let’s say you’ve considered the toxicity of ingredients, the ethics of the parent company, and confirmed that a household cleaner is vegan-friendly. Are you wasting your money on expensive products encased in plastic when baking soda and vinegar could be all you really need?
So what is soap really?
You’ll be thrilled to hear that I now know (more or less) all there is to know about the origins of soap and soap-making. I think it’s useful to understand how soap works in order that we can make choices about what cleaning products to use.
Soap is a simply a salt that forms from the reaction between a fatty acid and an alkali. The soap we’re talking about here (for household and personal cleaning) is technically called a TOILET SOAP.
Toilet soap makes particles and muck soluble so that both can be easily separated from whatever is being cleaned. The insoluble particles/muck come together inside teeny spheres called micelles, which have a water-attracting outer coating, and that means the muck can wash away easily along with water.
(This is also where micellar water comes from – the idea being that the water is full of micelles attracting dirt and other particles. As you can now see, any face-appropriate soap will produce its own micelles so there’s really little need for fancypants micellar water unless you want to wash without water, which is a fair thing to want depending on the circumstances.)
This is how ‘toilet soap’ (i.e. anything in the household that cleans) is produced:
- A fatty acid (e.g. animal fat, plant or vegetable fat) is mixed with an alkali (e.g. lye).
- The fatty acid is made up of fats and glycerol. The alkali acts as a catalyst for a reaction (called saponification) wherein the fats and glycerol separate, and the fats react with the alkali to produce crude soap. Sometimes the glycerol is removed and retained; sometimes it’s left in for softness.
Different types of fats produce different types of soaps, as do different alkalis. Some are softer, some are gentler, some make hard soap, others liquid.
We know that back in Sumeria 5,000 years ago, soap was produced by boiling ashes (alkali) together with animal and vegetable fats to make a slurry that was used for cleaning. (We know this because they helpfully wrote the recipe down on olde stone tablets. How on earth anyone thought to put those ingredients together with the purpose of cleaning anything is a mystery.) Similarly, Ancient Egyptian papyri have shown that recipes for soap made using alkaline salts and oils were in use from around 1,500 B.C..
(There is an old tale about Mount Sapo, a sacrificial mountain, and the rain washing wood ashes and animal fat into the Tiber River where women were doing their laundry. This is mostly considered to be untrue now; Mount Sapo doesn’t seem to exist in record and ‘sapo’ is simply the word for soap.)
One of the most popular vegetable soaps you’ve almost certainly heard of is castile soap, which is made using olive oil and an old recipe from Syria. Prior to the 11th century, soap-makers in Aleppo used laurel oil and lye to make hard soap bars. Laurel oil is from the bay tree, and it wasn’t easily available to soap-makers in Europe, and so they used olive oil instead.
So, although soap is made from chemical substances and involves a chemical reaction, it’s actually completely natural in its purest form (by most definitions of the word) and none of its core ingredients pose particular risks either to humans or to the environment.
Nowadays, castile soap is more or less shorthand for vegetable-based soaps (both bars and liquid) and it’s frequently touted as the soap to end all soaps when in its liquid form. Castile soap is an ingredient in almost every ‘green’ DIY cleaner recipe on Pinterest and YouTube, along with baking (bicarbonate of) soda and vinegar. But can such a basic soap really tackle every job in the house? And how does it actually behave when mixed with other ingredients like baking soda and vinegar?
DIY and ‘green’ cleaning
Personally, I’ve never quite managed to make the switch to castile soap, bicarb, and vinegar. As mentioned at the top of this post, I am currently enjoying both Ecoleaf and Bio-D products, and both score fairly highly in Ethical Consumer’s league table of household cleaners. However, they don’t score the highest; that spot goes to Greenscents who produce all-purpose castile as well as a number of other products. (There’s always ol’ Dr Bronner as well of course.)
But if you don’t want to buy fancy organic products or don’t want to use the extra plastic, are DIY cleaners actually any good? Certainly it’s easy enough to buy baking soda and vinegar in fairly large quantities, as well as castile soap (where a little goes a long way). But do they actually work?
There are so many recipes out there that it’s difficult to dismiss them outright; liquid castile soap has an excellent reputation all on its own, and is almost certainly suitable for cleaning your kitchen or bathroom surfaces. So what’s with all the baking soda and vinegar?
The truth is that mixing baking soda and vinegar will definitely result in a very exciting fizzpop moment – the acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the sodium bicarbonate in the baking soda and carbonic acid is formed. Carbonic acid is unstable and so then it immediately decomposes into carbon dioxide and water, and the FIZZ you see is the carbon dioxide escaping the water. Fun times! Whilst this reaction may be mildly useful for displacing muck or grime, the reactions don’t last very long and what you’re left with is basically water with some salt in it (in the form of sodium acetate). And that’s not particularly any good for cleaning.
In fact, vinegar is much more effective as an acid-based cleaner on its own. You simply need to make a solution of vinegar and water, and feel free to add some essential oil or actual herbs/citrus peel or similar if you want to tackle that delightful eau-de-chip-shop. Here’s a couple of handy links for you, no baking soda required:
Vinegar mixed with a soap like castile actually causes the soap to “de-saponify” and turn back into its gunky constituent parts. Your best bet is to use the soap to clean and the vinegar to rinse (this also helps to prevent soap scum). And any recipe that is using castile, vinegar, AND/OR soda in the same mix? Well, you pretty much may as well be cleaning with water and olive oil I guess.
Baking soda alone also has some handy uses: it’s pretty well known to absorb odours. You can sit a wee plate of it in your fridge, or sprinkle some onto carpets and leave for a while before hoovering up. Baking soda also has a good texture for creating a thick and abrasive cleaning paste (with water) and as an alkali, it can be good for dissolving some kinds of muck. A mix of baking soda and water can also be a great way to soak unclean things like tea-stained mugs or toothbrushes.
Castile soap, of course, is an excellent all-purpose household soap and can be used in all sorts of ways. A full-blooded Bronner has even produced a handy cheat sheet for diluting castile soap depending on what you want to clean.
I sure hope you’ve enjoyed taking this science journey with me, folks. I certainly went down a rabbit hole when I started examining my own household cleaning products and researching the alternatives, and I’m frankly SHOOK at how many Pinterest posts and YouTube videos advise creating a DIY cleaner that contains both vinegar and baking soda thereby producing some (no doubt delightfully scented but useless) saltwater and not much else.
Personally, I’d like to eventually move towards using vinegar, baking soda, and a ‘natural’ soap like castile around the house. Right now we even have some old Astonish to work our way through (that stuff lasts forever) but I think I’ve become convinced that maybe I should eventually replace all those other products with a bottle of Dr Bronner’s, a litre of white vinegar, and a wholesale tub of baking soda after all….
This is simply because I don’t much like the idea of flushing/rinsing all manner of potentially nasty chemicals down the drains, it would be nice to save a wee bit of money, and it might be possible to eliminate a bit more plastic. I dunno, I also just like the idea of using basic household/pantry items to tackle the muck.
I guess the most important lesson here is to…..not believe everything you read on Pinterest? As always, definitely do your own research and make informed choices.
Some further handy links and resources:
- Lisa Bronner’s Green Cleaning starter kit
- Green cleaning ingredients you should never mix
- Natural cleaning ingredients you should never mix
- Where to buy white vinegar in bulk
- A sense check: The truth about DIY cleaners
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