My Unpoisoned Cleaning Kit

Do you have any “standard” conversations? The kind where, when you start talking about a particular subject – to anyone – you know how it is going to go and where it is going to wind up?

Every time I get into a conversation about my stance on reducing chemicals in my cleaning routine, it always winds up in the same place. Everyone I talk to seems to understand that my kids and I are very sensitized to several harsh chemicals. Most people “get” that a lot of those chemicals, along with many preservatives and artificial colors and flavorings, make our AD/HD symptoms worse. But virtually everyone I try to explain this to gets stuck on the issue of “So, um, well, how do you clean your house, then?” There’s an almost palpable cultural assumption that if I don’t own a closet full of commercial cleaners, I must live in some sort of health-hazard filth.

Moment of honest: Sometimes I’m tempted to shrug casually and toss off, “Clean my house? Oh, I don’t.” But that would be lying, plus it would reinforce the idea that all of us who are trying to break free of our industriochemical shackles are hippy-dippy fringe slob wacknoodles, and that’s not so helpful. So I don’t do that. I just think about doing it, and giggle on the inside.

More honest: I’m not that great of a housekeeper.  But I do have standards of hygiene and health, and I have learned a lot about maintaining them without the likes of Lauryl Dimethyl Amine Oxide (the listed active cleaning/surfactant agent in fantastik® All Purpose Cleaner With Bleach among others.)

If you click on the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that I linked above in that crazy chemical name, you will find the following totally reassuring information about potential chronic health effects:


See! There aren’t any studies available to prove that it’s dangerous! Therefore it’s obviously totally safe! Right? Oh, sorry, pardon my sarcasm. It just happens, sometimes.

Stage whispered aside: If you are curious about what is known regarding the safety of any chemical on the market, type the name of the chemical or the product into your search engine along with the letters “MSDS.”

Here’s are the tools that I use to keep my house safe, hygenic, and comfortable. I used all of these today, because we finally finished redecorating the upstairs bathroom. Icky but true, it hadn’t been properly cleaned since it became “the boys’ bathroom.” I love my sons, but keeping their bathroom sanitary was not their strong suit. When they moved out, we started painting and stuff, but I got (you guessed it) distracted, so it took a while. Now that it’s finally time to make it usable again … well … it was gross. It is not at all gross now, thanks to my personal arsenal of “Mother’s Little Helpers.” In fact, it is rather nice and shiny.

Cleaning Tools

Clockwise from bottom left: Pumice stone, portable steam cleaner, microfiber cleaning cloth, clog cannon.

Pumice Stone   – This gadget serves only one purpose in my life. I have super-hard water, and no matter how often I clean my toilets, I always wind up with a hard-water ring around the bowl at the water line. A pumice stone scours that ring away without damaging the porcelain, and without resorting to something like Lime-a-Way® or CLR®.  

The Shark portable steam cleaner  – This may be my favorite cleaning tool EVER. I hate cleaning, so you can take that however you choose. But this gadget, with it’s really groovy bag o’ attachments, has cleaned and sanitized every surface I’ve put it to with less effort than anything I have tried before. So far, “every surface I’ve put it to” includes tile and linoleum floors, bathtub/shower enclosures, sliding glass doors, and countertops. This is a heat producing device, so please, if you get one, don’t be like me! Read the directions and all the cautions and warnings thereunto pertaining! Yeah, I didn’t read ’em at first. Yeah, I burned myself. Yeah, I’m just like that. In this instance, I strongly recommend that you do as I say not as I did.

Microfiber cleaning rags – I am not eloquent enough to describe how useful these little babies are. There are several brands and styles out there, I’ve heard good things about a lot of them, the only ones I can really speak for are FlyLady’s Rags in a Bag. They clean everything. Without sprays or powders or anything, mostly – just water. I wipe my counters, clean mirrors and windows and my glasses and electronics, and scrub the inside of my microwave with ’em. I even have one set aside that I use for oil-cleansing my face.

Drain Clog Cannon  – This is an air-pressure gun that has, in the couple of years I’ve owned it, saved me from buying and using Drano® at least a half-dozen times. Including today. It looks like a toy, but it’s a serious tool, so again with the read the directions thing. But it works great!

These tools keep me from needing to use very much in the way of products, but when the need arises I use (in no particular order): vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, soap nuts, lemon juice, and borax. (Borax is controversial – I am comfortable using it in laundry and dishwasher soap, I understand that others aren’t. Not trying to start a fight, here – do what you feel is best for your family!)  I have several cleaning product recipes, including what I use for dishwasher soap, pinned on this board.

For me, the health effects are my primary reason for eliminating commercial cleansers from my home. Honestly, I count myself lucky that I do have obvious and immediate acute effects (blistering headaches and respiratory distress, mostly). They got my attention and helped me get serious about change much earlier than many people do, and hopefully they have saved me from any serious long-term chronic effects. My secondary reasons are ecological and economical. Okay, economical needs a word of explanation – steam cleaners are not cheap, so that is a long-term effect. Sad but true, I will have to not buy a lot of bottles of cleanser before that one pays for itself. But it will, eventually. Baking soda and lemon juice? CHEAP! Pumice stone? CHEAP! The rags – not disposable! I’ve had one set for over two years, they still work as well as brand new. And I’ve not bought a lot of paper towels and magic erasers in that time. I mean, a LOT.

Do any commercial cleaning products bother you – ecologically, medically, or economically? Other concerns? If they do, what do you use instead?

New gadgets that I love

Okay, I’ve posted some negative stuff on here. Honestly it is more likely to occur to me to blog when I am mad as heck about something than when everything is peachykeen… I do like to rant, after all. So, now that we’ve established that Chan doesn’t like: misinformation campaigns, spreading of unsubstantiated fear rumors, or child labor slavery in the chocolate industry – well, maybe it would be nice if I took time to mention some things that I do like, very much.

Oh, and I should get some geek points for this. It’s pretty gadget heavy 🙂

My iPod. Yeah, I know, everyone loves their iPod. Honestly I loved both of my Zunes, too. But when I had a Zune, I never ever looked at iTunes for anything. I downloaded music and other stuff from all kinds of other sites, but never iTunes. So when I got the Pod, and iTunes installed itself on my computer for the first time ever, I finally understood the concept of…..
<drum roll>


I know, I know, people have known about iTunesU for years now, right? Big deal. Hey, yeah, it is a big deal, because NOBODY EVER TOLD ME!!!! How could you not tell me that you can listen to entire semesters’ worth of university courses FOR FREE? Seriously. Coolest thing ever! I am going through a course right now on The Prophets from Dallas Theological Seminary. Yes, folks, a full semester of a theology professor’s lectures on Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Obadiah, Joel, Habbakuk, and all their friends – FREE!  Wow. WowWowWowWowWow!!!!!!!!!

And that’s without even getting into podcasts.

And then there is my Griddler.

It’s a grill. It’s a griddle. It heats fast. It cooks beautifully. I honestly think we have eaten as much grilled food in the past three weeks as we did in the whole seven years we owned the outdoor gas grill. It’s just so EASY!

Oster BLSTPB-WOR My Blend - White Base/Orange Vessel

The Oster MyBlend blender.
Smoothies. Blender pitcher converts to a sport bottle. Dishwasher safe. Do I need to say more?

The Shark steam cleaner. I have sons. I love them. They have now all moved out. I have to clean their bathroom, after 5 years of use. I will be nice and NOT describe this in detail. Let’s just say that a) I forgot my grout was white until I went after it with the Shark, and b) the “tigers in the rainforest” wallpaper border came right off, no trouble at all.

How green is my dishrag?

I wish there was a trustworthy list somewhere on the big magical information-net of all the cleaning products and what chemicals they contain. There is not. And cleaning products are not required to list their ingredients.  “Green” cleaners are, generally speaking, more “greenish.” There’s a spectrum, not a black-and-white roster. I don’t know everything about green housecleaning and I won’t pretend to. Here’s what I do know.

As a general rule, most of the stuff that you can buy in the cleaning products aisle is safe – if you use it exactly as directed and don’t mix it with anything else. As an equally general rule, a lot of it is potentially very dangerous if you use too much of it, too concentrated, in an area with bad ventilation, or mixed with other products. As far as how it impacts the environment – well, phosphate is pretty darn bad, bleach is less bad but still not great, and most stuff honestly has not been studied or cataloged for long term impact.

I am really interested in using the gentlest chemicals that work for me mostly because my youngest son and I are super-sensitive to chemical smells. Using perfectly ordinary cleaners (409 or Fantastik, for example) will give us horrible headaches. I can’t even stay in my office when the Marines in my building go all crazy with the floor-wax stripper and the high-speed pine cleaner. (Another good reason for me to not be a photographer – walking into my husband’s darkroom makes me sick. Literally.)

So let’s be honest, if we all really wanted to be “all the way” green and totally safe with our cleaning products, we could use vinegar, plain bar soap, baking soda, and salt for almost every last one of our cleaning needs. It would work fine. Hot soapy water kills bacteria just as well as anti-bacterial specialty products, and it doesn’t have the extra chemical (triclosan) that makes normal germs want to mutate into superbugs, and “may or may not” be a carcinogen. I could scrub my dishes with baking soda, sterilize them with boiling water, and they would be restaurant health-code safe to eat off of. Plain cheap vinegar works better than any window cleaner I’ve ever tried.  But I’ll confess, I’m spoiled. If I’m going to put effort into cleaning my house, I don’t just want it “acceptably hygenic,” I want it to smell pretty and look sparkly. That means at least some measure of specially-designed cleaning products.

The badger favorite is the method line of products. Perfectly green? No, probably not. There is simply no database of all the possibly harmful chemicals out there. And I’m sorry, call me paranoid, but I don’t really buy their claim that you can safely eat any of their products or at least lick any surface you’ve cleaned with them.

Greener than most? For sure. They have a pretty extensive list of “chemicals we will not use no matter how cheap and effective they are” which includes all of the worst known and suspected human and environmental toxins. Their products work really really well, and they smell wonderful.  And they don’t give me headaches at all, even when I use them to clean a tiny bathroom. The main drawback is that they are kind of expensive. On the other hand, I don’t really buy off on the hype that I need one product to clean my kitchen counters, a different one for my bathroom sink, and another one entirely for the top of my appliances. I pretty much only buy their wood for good furniture polish and their multi-surface cleaner, so it isn’t a huge investment every spring cleaning season.

Bonus info you didn’t ask for 😉 – if you want to see how your favorite cleaners stack up in the environmental, social, and toxicity departments, there is a website for that.  The only drawback is that they can only go by chemicals that are already known to be toxic. Still a good resource, though. Check out their “worst household chemicals” page – it’s a bit scary how many of the most poisonous things on that page are hand soaps. If that doesn’t make you stop biting your nails…

Let’s Talk Chocolate!

I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s day, personally. That’s a different rant altogether, though. Fact is, the chocolate is out in force this weekend, so I want to tell everyone about my FAVORITE chocolate. I also want to introduce the Badger, while I’m at it!

The busiest grocery in our little town is the WalMart. I just came from a quick errand there. While I was in, I dropped by the “fancy chocolates” aisle. It was crowded, of course. But I managed to pick up a bar of every single brand that they had for sale there, to check it for a “Fair Trade” seal. Not One. Not one single chocolate bar of their really huge selection carried a fair trade seal.

The good news is that a Fair Trade certification is not the only way to be reasonably confident that your chocolate is not supporting human trafficking. I was concerned about the matter, so I emailed the company that produces my personal favorite chocolate bar, Firecracker by Chuao Chocolatier. This is the response I received:

Dear Chandra Rambo,
Thank you for contacting us, regarding our fair trade status. Our products are not fair trade certified as there is currently no fair trade certification available for Venezuelan cacao. However, our chocolate is responsibly sourced.  Venezuelan cacao trades at 2 – 3 times the price of world cacao, which assures us our farmer’s receive fair price. The Aguasanta Growth Initiative is our vehicle for social responsibility in Venezuela, allowing us to contribute time and funds to La Fundación Proyecto Paria, a local Venezuelan NGO (Non-government organization) devoted to the growers of cacao in the Paria Peninsula (the location of the Aguasanta farm).
I appreciate that you have already taken the time to review our Aguasanta Growth Initiative, and sustainability commitments. I have attached the sustainability link, as well as the link with additional information about the founders, if you are interested in reviewing these again. As natives from Venezuela, and with family still living in the area, our founders are dedicated to revitalizing one of the world’s finest cacao growing regions.
Thank you again for contacting us, we appreciate our customer inquiries and feedback. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can assist you any further.
Nichol Vann
Customer Service Representative

 Chuao Chocolates are sold at WalMart, also at Whole Foods (for those of you lucky enough to have one nearby – I’m jealous), and a variety of other retailers, as well as on their site. They are pricier than your average Hershey bar, but they are amazingly good, rich and full-bodied with no hint of bitterness even in their very  dark varieties. Their flavor combinations are unique; if you aren’t ready for chocolate with chipotle pepper (the Spicy Mayan bar, super yummy) then try something milder, like hazelnuts and almonds (the Caracas). Every variety that I have tried so far is wonderfully good, and I trust this company’s transparency and commitment to both environmental sustainability and slave-free cocoa harvesting.

Enjoy Chocolate!

And welcome to my new category, The Finicky Badger. I thought about making it a whole new blog, but I’m not sure that is necessary just yet. Maybe in the future. The thing is, I am a research FREAK. I love to do research. Is that weird? You don’t have to answer that. I love badgers (one of my top three all time favorite animals, along with barn owls and American Pit Bull Terriers), and I think the image of something tenacious, that will dig until it finds what it is after, suits the kind of research I like best.

I also love to find companies that are socially and environmentally responsible, who produce and sell really good products. So the Finicky Badger is my voice to tell my friends the happy news when I run across such a product. Hope you like it!