Homemade vs. Store-Bought Cleaners: Which is More Effective?

Some homemade cleaners perform better than commercial products. Find out what works — and what does not.

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

The good and green news is that such products allow you to clean your home effectively, killing germs and bacteria while protecting your health and caring for the environment, for about half of what you’re probably paying now.

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

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. multisurface 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.

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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, according to some estimates.

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 that studies indicate vinegar (typically combined with table salt or hydrogen peroxide) fights the growth of some strains of E. coli and kills mold.

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.

However, the NPR report also stated that researchers at the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University found that “water can remove 98 percent of bacteria when it’s used to rinse and soak produce.” Rubbing or brushing helps in cleaning.

Testing household products

Not everyone agrees that homemade products are as effective as commercial varieties.

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 of soapy ammonia, water and rubbing alcohol. (You will find the recipe in the article.)

Homemade cleaners may not always beat commercial products for effectiveness, but they are better overall because they are safer for human health and for the environment, Kellner says.

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. 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. 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.
  • Castile soap. Castile is an olive oil-based soap. Dr. Bronner’s is one popular brand. Castile 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. 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.
  • Borax. 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 and brighten grout. It also deodorizes carpets, pet beds and dishwashers; removes soap scum and hard water deposits; and can be used as an all-purpose cleaner.

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  • Sherrie Ludwig

    I clean my copper bowls and pans with either a squeezed lemon rind dipped in salt or a vinegar-soaked paper towel dipped in salt. Amazing clean, totally non-toxic.

  • Ann Stone

    I started cleaning my home (& hair & body) with some of the ingredients listed, out of a desire to avoid making purchases from companies, which test on animals or use animal products, and my home, hair & skin have all benefited from this change. And the bonus is, I’m not poisoning my family every time I clean!

  • Y2KJillian

    Borax is surprisingly effective against ants, too. Take a little corn syrup and mix about 1/4 as much borax into it. Mix well and put daubs outside near where the ants are crawling…they will take it back to the nest where they’ll eat it and it will kill all of them. Make sure your pets don’t eat it; and don’t do what we did the first year, which was to put it indoors along an ant trail…put it OUTside! You can then sprinkle dry borax around your house perimeter and sweep it in well; it’s also good for fleas in carpeting if you brush it in very well (sprinkle lightly–a little dab’ll do ya).

    • Jcatz4

      You say “make sure your pets don’t eat it” but what about the critters outside that might eat it?? I have kitties that come to visit (one I know belongs to a neighbor) and there’s a bunny, opossum, a ground hog and I have sometimes seen a skunk. Of course, there is also the squirrels and birds. I am an animal lover and do not wish to hurt any animal.

  • speaksthetruth

    I have tried. I mean really tried these earth saving cleaners but they are not great. They don’t clean well. Stains are still there and it’s just doesn’t have the clean after feel. I went back to the store brands. Sorry mother earth!

  • pennyhammack

    Castile soap used to mean “made with olive oil” but no longer. Dr Bronner’s lists coconut oil as the main ingredient. Still acceptable soap but just not olive oil. There are other, less expensive, soaps that are made with coconut oil on the market. Just don’t expect olive oil.

  • Casey

    I looked into using newspapers for cleaning glass and would not recommend this option. It originally is supposed to look great but it gets dirty quicker. I did however get a tip on scratches in wood furniture that I do recommend; applying a mixture of mayonnaise and ash to the scratch and letting it sit overnight then polishing it up. The scratch is now invisible. I have made up homemade laundry soap several times. It can be tricky but it saves a fortune and works as well as other green laundry soap. I personally can’t stand the smell of regular detergents that just cover up the smell of less than clean clothes. White vinegar, and lemon can clean most everything but I am almost 100% sure that you should never use it on rock countertops.

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