How to use fewer and healthier chemicals in the home


Well, well.  Look what the cat dragged in.  If it isn’t your old pal (nemesis?) FG ROI.  A lot has changed since my last post nearly 6 months ago, but I’m back, at least temporarily (see… I promised to update still from time-to-time).

Most importantly, the big change in my life is that, assuming all goes according to plan, my wife and I are expecting a little girl (!) in early September.

And like most first-time well-to-do western parents, I get a vague sense that we’re hyper-obsessing already.  Along those lines, one of the first things we tried to do after we found out was to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in our household, food, and personal care products.

Portland jokes aside, there is good reason to do this.  For example, one of the first things we heard from our maternity center’s nutritionist (PhD) was that we should try to avoid most all plastic food products.  And it’s not just BPA; the BPA replacements are turning out to be just as bad, especially for babies and kids, where the effects of toxic endocrine disruptors get amplified during development.

glass bottles

glass and stainless steel bottles are the way to go

It is tempting to think that the really toxic chemicals don’t actually make it to our shelves and cupboards, but the reality is that the government isn’t especially effective at regulating this industry, partly because of the sheer breadth of chemicals in use today, many of which haven’t been thoroughly studied.

So with that as background, I’m going to talk about two relevant topics to reducing exposure to unhealthy chemicals:

  1. DIY chemical-free cleaning
  2. Making smart purchasing decisions on home, food, and personal care products with GoodGuide.
DIY Chemical-Free Cleaning:

First, let’s talk about my cleaning philosophy.  Here’s the thing.  A little dirt is good for immunity, allergies, the microbiome, what have you (part of the reason having a dog makes you healthier).

Most germs really only cause problems in high concentration (ex: a puddle of chicken juice on the counter), and in fact, an absences of germs or an especially sterile environment often causes more harm than good (why antibacterial soap is somewhat self-defeating).


the home shouldn’t be an absolutely sterile environment


With that in mind, for me cleaning is less about sterilization and more about maintaining a tidy well-organized home that doesn’t smell or look bad.  Within this limited definition, an optimally clean house could probably be achieved with a minimalist soap, water, and elbow grease cleaning regimen.  We, however, take things a step further ourselves, mostly for convenience.

Our cleaning chemicals:

  • Soap
  • Vinegar
  • Baking Soda
  • Hydrogen Peroxide

Our cleaning supplies

  • Vacuum
  • Broom
  • Steam Mop (admittedly, quite extravagant)
  • Cheap Microfiber Towels (not the expensive antibacterial ones)

Our go-to concoctions:

  • All Purpose Cleanerwe use the classic 50% vinegar/water for almost all our cleaning. It works on windows, mirrors, cooking surfaces, sinks, etc. The smell goes away when it dries,  but you can add a few drops of aromatic essential oils to improve the smell.  This kills molds, disinfects, and neutralizes odors, and it is safer to use on cloth than say, hydrogen peroxide (a natural oxidizing bleach agent).
spray bottle

distilled vinegar and water is where it’s at

  • Upholstery & Carpet Cleaning (dry) – Sprinkle baking soda on cloth, let sit for 30 minutes or so, then vacuum up.
  • Spot Stain Remover – 50% peroxide/water mixture with a drop of castile soap if you’ve got it, but be careful with colored fabrics due to oxidative bleach action. Also, need to store in dark place or peroxide loses effectiveness (just prepare in small, as-needed batches).  Works well with organic stains.
  • Upholstery & Carpet Cleaning (wet) – The all-purpose cleaner should usually work just fine for a gentle scrub + rub. And sometimes a steam mop for the couch if feeling adventurous.
  • Mopping – Water + a little soap or vinegar. If the soap residue bothers you (caused by minerals in water), follow-up with vinegar mixture or just do vinegar + water the first time.

So that’s the low-down on what I’ve learned about chemical free cleaning lately.  Some things to note are that people on the internet don’t always know what they’re talking about (I may have even been guilty of this myself once or twice).

Generally, you want to use soap / vinegar / baking soda / peroxide separately, even though some recipes call for mixing them.  Mixing two harmless chemicals can cause a toxic reaction or, in the case of vinegar and soap for example, they can neutralize each other and make the solution essentially worthless.

lab chemical process

don’t be a lab rat, stick to the basics

Anyway, those are the basics on how we keep our house relatively tidy without nuking it with industrial chemicals.

Making Responsible Purchasing Decisions With GoodGuide:

Buying healthy, sustainable, socially-friendly products can be really overwhelming.  This is where GoodGuide comes in.  They rate thousands of products (soaps, shampoos, cleaners, food, diapers, lotions, health products, etc.) on health, environmental, and social impacts on a lifecycle basis.

All ratings are available for free through their website and their mobile apps.  The apps even provide a UPC scanner to help shoppers make real-time decisions.  The interface can be a little clunky, but GoodGuide has made huge strides over the past few years.

good guide ratings

I’m particularly fond of GoodGuide because it cuts through a lot of the marketing / advertising b.s. out there.

What I’ve found is that some of the companies that promote themselves as healthy and natural turn out to be not that healthy or natural after all.  And some companies that I wrote-off as hardcore greenwashers turn out to actually be pretty sustainable (Seventh Generation for example).

I’ve also noticed that some brands seem to score consistently well across product categories, including but not limited to Meyers, Dr. Bronners, and Seventh Generation.  GoodGuide, if you’re reading, I’d love to have a quicker way to compare / rank brands in the future.

bronners soap

Dr. Bronners Bar Soap. I use the liquid hand soap and dilute with 50% water, buy in gallons and it is cheaper than any other liquid soap refills on Amazon, healthy too.

The price information on the site could be greatly improved, as could the user experience, but overall this is a really valuable resource if you’re at all concerned with the health, environmental, and/or social impacts of your purchases.

In closing:

Modern life is complicated.  Hopefully these healthy cleaning and purchasing resources help make it a little less so.

Keep it 100 with a low-information diet
The importance of narrative
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  1. Magdalena McDude says:

    Holy crap, did I learn the hard way that a single drop of a scented essential oil goes a long way…. they talk about how ants can lift like hundred times their body weight…. well, essential oils can lift like a gajillion times their smell weight. I made the mistake of adding several drops to my vinegar/water concoction… and man, I just typing the word “lavender” pulls on my gag reflex.

    In any case… what, no ROI calculation? 🙂

  2. Update: here’s a great Earth Day Spring Cleaning feature from Good Guide on Amazon =

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