My seven month old kicked excitedly as she grasped the tiny pieces of food I’d served for lunch and shoved them in her mouth. I could barely keep up with her demand for more as she sloppily handled her meal, dropping half of it on the floor in the midst of her enthusiasm to feed herself. Her sticky hair, bright eyes, and grabby hands made me smile as I tossed a few rice puffs on her tray. Her enthusiasm to feed herself made our mealtimes enjoyable. Watching her discover new flavors and textures proved to be entertaining, and messy, for both of us.
I wiped down her slimy baby hands, brushed off the collection of food pieces that collected in her lap, and plopped her down on the floor so she could go after the puffs she dropped during lunchtime. This is what all moms do, right? It’s good for her immune system, I thought. Not only was Olivia eager to feed herself these days, she was also quite eager to put her crawling skills to use and find anything she could as she meandered around the floor. I had to become extra diligent about keeping things clean and picked up. Our apartment was only 850 square feet, and if I didn’t keep it clean, Olivia would surely find the sticky spot, the crumbs, or the rogue blueberry that was dropped at breakfast time.
My curious girl stayed occupied long enough for me to clean up her high-chair. I reached for the spray bottle of the multi-purpose cleaner I regularly used to wipe down our kitchen surfaces, and turned it around to do something I had literally never done before. I read the label. In fine print, the last step of the cleaning instructions read: “Wipe surfaces that come into contact with food with a clean water rinse after using product.” Cool. I thought, I have definitely been doing this ALL wrong. My bad for not cleaning my counters, my table, and my kid’s high chair TWICE. I thought that bottle of cleaner was a great choice for a home with young children. It had the word “green” in it, it had cute pictures of daisies on the label, and the fluid itself was green for crying out loud! The last thing I wanted to do was to use a product all over my home that apparently left behind a residue that wasn’t safe for food to come into contact with—let alone my baby’s hands that constantly went into her mouth. Since I wasn’t about to start double cleaning my kitchen anytime soon, I pitched that bottle and promptly bought a new brand of kitchen cleaner made with lavender oils and did not require “clean water rinses.”
Realizing I had unintentionally used a product in my home that did not serve our family well, I decided to switch out a few other cleaning products. I became Mary Kate, Resident Research and Development Specialist. I was thrilled to discover I wasn’t the only mom to jump on the “green cleaning” bandwagon. I enthusiastically read through blog posts from women who appeared to have achieved a level of domestic authority I was nowhere near myself. I needed to learn their ways, and one of their ways was homemade laundry detergent. What could be cleaner and more pure than washing my baby’s clothes in a non-commercially produced, dye- and fragrance-free laundry soap? I bought all of the ingredients—the soap bars, the powders, and a large tub to store it in. About twenty dollars, a couple of hours, and a cheese grater that had seen better days later (the bars of soap had to be grated into flakes), our family had made another step in our journey toward becoming green cleaning people.
I pursued this journey with zeal, and it wasn’t long before Facebook started recommending cleaning groups to me. Yes, groups dedicated to cleaning your home, with tens of thousands of members in them. Surely these people were domestic authorities too. I joined with no hesitation and became a dedicated group lurker. To my horror, these people did not at all agree with the other mommy bloggers who made their own laundry detergent. Nope. In fact, they had files crammed with facts, science, photos, and personal testimonies as to why homemade laundry detergent could not and would never clean clothing. Eww. Apparently, actual laundry detergent requires ingredients like enzymes and surfactants to break up dirt, stains, oils, and other filth from clothing fiber. Homemade laundry detergent contained none of those things, and after prolonged use would actually start to build up in fabrics and cause clothing to smell putrid. Cool, I thought, yet another thing I got wrong. I’m a mom, not a chemist, why does this have to be so difficult? Before my husband, myself, and our daughter started to have smelly, perpetually unclean clothing, I pitched my tub of homemade “detergent,” along with my cheese grater.
Three kids and seven years later, I am still learning the best ways our family can cut down on our everyday exposure to potentially harmful substances, without falling prey to clever “greenwashing” marketing tactics. I don’t buy a product simply because it has the word “green,” “pure,” or “eco” in the name. I later learned that my lavender oil kitchen cleaner still contained ingredients that probably weren’t great for any of us to be breathing in. With as many hiccups as I encountered in this process to implement eco and health-friendly cleaning practices in our home, the mistakes and effort have been worth it. Did you know that it’s not necessary or healthy to feel like you’re choking on air when you clean the tub or shower? I remember many occasions running out of the bathroom to take a deep breath of fresh air before going back in to scrub the shower walls for another 30 seconds before I ran out of breath. Finding safe and effective products for our home has simplified our cleaning routines, and it allows me to involve my children in housework. We’re not perfect, but not choking while cleaning the tub, or pulling loads of soft laundry from our dryer without using capfuls of fabric softener is not only friendly to our bodies, but our wallet too.
If you find yourself befuddled by the greenwashing marketing tactics used by many companies or if you simply want to be able to get your toddler involved in the process of cleaning house, then read on for our family’s room by room cleaning tips and product recommendations.
Laundry: Once I said no to my homemade detergent, I consulted with people who knew better than me over on the Facebook group Laundry Love & Cleaning Science for their eco-friendly laundry detergent recommendations. Over the years, these have changed, and we’ve tried a few. Currently, we use an environmentally friendly brand we can pick up at Costco because three kids = lots of laundry. We have forgone fabric softener in favor of wool dryer balls. When possible, we take advantage of nice weather, and line dry our laundry. Sunshine helps fade stains and freshens fabrics; particularly sheets, blankets, and towels. (A 20 minute toss in the dryer with wool dryer balls after helps break up any stiffness.)
TIP: make sure you use the recommended water temperature for the detergent you use to get the max cleaning power. Find a detergent with enzymes to help break up tough stains.
Kitchen: No more “rinse after cleaning” products are in our home. I still don’t have time for double cleaning. My favorite all-around cleaning spray is Force of Nature (referral link: get $40 off + free shipping on starter kits.)This product is a rockstar in our kitchen. It’s made from water + vinegar + salt, and cleans just as effectively as bleach without noxious fumes, harmful chemicals, or a vinegar smell. It picks up grease, disinfects cutting boards and sinks, eliminates stubborn odors, and is safe to use on all surfaces- including high chairs and sippy cups. If you’re looking for something a bit simpler, but still effective for typical everyday germs, I learned from Dr. Annie’s Experiments online that hydrogen peroxide is a great option too.
TIP: Microfiber rags are a good choice for picking up dust, absorbing spills, and scrubbing up sticky and greasy messes (like the ones on the stovetop). Cotton, lint-free cleaning rags are great for surface cleaning all around the house, particularly on mirrors and glass.
Bathroom: I will be honest and say that the Force of Nature spray is also my favorite all-purpose bathroom cleaner. I use it to wipe down all surfaces and spray down the shower/tub after scrubbing. I will also frequently give our toothbrushes a quick spray to disinfect them. When the bathtub needs a scrub, I use a green scrubby pad with a soft cleanser like Bar Keepers Friend, and for stubborn stains around the drain, I keep magic erasers on hand. When it comes to the toilet, I don’t particularly care to be gentle, so we use plain old Clorox toilet bowl cleaner.
TIP: A soft cleanser not only performs beautifully on sinks and tubs but will also get stainless steel appliances looking new again.
Floors: When it comes to surfaces that require rag + bucket cleaning, like floors, my go-to is Amway Home L.O.C Multi-Purpose Cleaner. It’s a coconut-based cleaner with no fragrances, no dyes, and no weird or sticky films left behind. No product I’ve tried holds a candle to this multi-purpose cleaner. If you’re wanting to go really minimal, this could be the only cleaning product you use because it is so versatile. It can be diluted with water in a spray bottle for quick surface wiping or dusting. It can be used not only on floors, but for washing cars, home exteriors, outdoor toys, and tools, and it is gentle on skin. The 1L bottle is extremely concentrated and lasts forever, so you definitely get a bang for your buck.
TIP: For a convenient + effective mopping system, look into a Sh-Mop. The terry cloth pads get up stuck-on dirt and come out clean and dry in the wash, so you don’t get that mildew smell.
Disinfecting: While we appreciate clean, we try to avoid antibacterial everything since this level of sterility is largely unnecessary and can actually be detrimental to our health. However, there are few times when we need a heavy-duty disinfectant in our home. If we happen to get hit with a really nasty illness and need to soak items or clean large surface areas, we choose Pursue Disinfectant Cleaner Concentrate (Also from Amway.) We prefer this product to bleach because it does not have noxious fumes, but is extremely effective in killing bacteria, viruses, & fungi (it is a hospital-grade disinfectant). When we really need it, we have a bottle of this on hand, and since we need it so infrequently, our 1L bottle has been with us for years. I feel comfortable using this on a strictly as-needed basis only because sometimes we encounter illness we don’t want to mess with.
TIP: If you live on a septic system, limit your regular use of heavy disinfectants. Too much down the drains can disrupt the necessary microbial activity needed to break down septic waste.
Air: I used to have a love for those big three-wick candles, and seasonal scents were my favorite. Not only did having open flames in my home become impractical with young children, but often the ingredients used in scented candles can cause respiratory and hormonal disruptions. We decided to say goodbye to our candle collection, and learned how to safely use essential oils in our home. In addition to creating an ambiance, essential oils have the added benefit of aromatherapeutic properties and can help purify the air. We often diffuse for enjoyment, but sometimes for immune support, or to get rid of funky odors. Every now and then, I will put one drop directly onto the vacuum cleaner filter to lightly scent the air as I vacuum. Or I will put a drop of a deodorizing blend on a cotton ball hidden inside the toilet paper roll to keep the bathroom smelling fresh. We also open our windows as often as possible. There’s no substitute for fresh air, so both in fair weather and on those unseasonably warm winter days, we open our windows. Finally, we try to be diligent in replacing our furnace air filter regularly.
TIP: When choosing essential oils, buy from a company that releases GC/MS reports. While most of us aren’t certified aromatherapists and won’t be interpreting this information, this level of transparency in a company is an easy way to ensure the purity of their oils. Our family uses Plant Therapy (referral link: get $10 off your first $25 order) because of their transparency, purity, convenient kid-safe labeling, and affordability.
My home is not the picture of spotless perfection—having three little ones home all of the time will do that—but it is a safe place for us. All along, my goal hasn’t necessarily been to have a pristine home, but to have a home that serves our overall wellness. How we clean is a small part of that, but it makes a big difference in the quality of our everyday life. Each member of our family assumes some level of responsibility for cleaning the home because very few of our products are unsafe for little hands and noses. I love getting the kids involved in cleaning tasks, and the extra hands do lighten the load. We enjoy the simple pleasure of curling up between sheets that were line-dried in the fresh air and summer sun. I find peace in knowing that I have the resources available to get rid of unsafe germs without sacrificing our family’s well-being. It is also a huge relief (and time saver) to know that I don’t have to hand grate my own soap just to wash our clothes. My new cheese grater thanks me for it.
Mary Kate and her husband Brian are high-school sweethearts who recently left their lifelong home in the Chicago suburbs for a rural property in Western Michigan. Together they homeschool their three daughters, and are making plans for turning their new property into a small-scale homestead. After overcoming numerous health challenges due to autoimmunity, Mary Kate is passionate about helping others find healing and wholeness. She leads an online group teaching the basics of an anti-inflammatory diet, and inspires others to incorporate simple, nourishing, real-food recipes in their own homes. She also writes online at www.choosinggraceblog.com, and you can catch up with her on Instagram @choosinggraceblog