Grandma's 7 Favorite Household Cleansers: Cheaper, and Greener Too

Alamy Grandma's cleanersStrolling through the household cleansers section of a grocery store can sometimes seem like a trip through a chemical wonderland, a cross between Willy Wonka's factory and a high school science lab. Multicolored potions peek from hundreds of bottles and lurid labels advertise the latest miracle cleansers. Bizarre and beautiful brands abound: Some claim to be they're easier on the environment, others promise that they won't harm your family. All seem to guarantee that they will make even your toughest stains disappear.

It would be natural to yearn for something simpler -- a few household cleaners that are effective, not too expensive, and not too rough on the environment. The wonderful thing is, these cleaners exist, and have existed for decades. They are, in short, the tried-and-true brands that your mother and grandmother used.

In the search for cleaner, healthier homes, it's easy to dismiss the harsh chemicals of the past. Yet, it's also worth noting that the active ingredients in many popular cleaners -- things like ammonia and borax, alcohol and vinegar -- are basically the same things that grandma used, albeit with the addition of lots of water and a little food coloring.

And therein lies one of grandma's secrets: Filling bottles with water and shipping them across the country is expensive, and the manufacturers charge you for the extra gas. If you add the water from your tap, instead of relying on Windex and Mr. Clean to do so, you can save a lot of money. As an added plus, you're also cutting down on the gas used to ship your products around and the number of harsh chemicals that you're adding to the environment.

The Household Cleaners Grandma Used to Use
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Grandma's 7 Favorite Household Cleansers: Cheaper, and Greener Too
There are only five ingredients in Bon Ami:  limestone, feldspar, soda ash, baking soda, and a biodegradable cleaner made from starch and fat. But those few ingredients can do a heck of a lot in the kitchen. Bon Ami is famous for its soft scrubbing power, and it works well on most surfaces. The older mix, which isn't as widely available, is especially prized for its impressive ability to clean windows.

If you'd like something with a little more kick, try Bar Keeper's Friend. Like Bon Ami, it's been around for more than 125 years, works wonders in the kitchen, and has just a few simple ingredients. The difference is its active ingredient, oxalic acid, which is a little harsher, but does wonders on metal.
It's hard to get more old fashioned than 20 Mule Team Borax. The company has been around since 1883, when William Tell Coleman began using mule teams to drag loads of borax out of Death Valley, California, where he was mining the mineral.

It isn't hard to see why Borax has stayed around. Sodium tetraborate is a great cleanser and laundry booster, and is one of the best tools for killing ants. It works well for cleaning heavily-stained pots, pans and almost any surface. Just be sure to heavily dilute it, and wear gloves while using it.
Windex is one of the world's most popular brands, and it owes most of its cleaning power to a single ingredient: ammonia. But if you aren't interested in paying top dollar for a relatively simple mix of alcohol, ammonia, soap and food coloring, you're in luck. Numerous sites, including this one, offer recipes for Windex knock-offs that will do a great job on your windows at a fraction of the price.

The Windex recipe only uses a little ammonia. If you wish, you can use the rest of the bottle for cleaning your carpets, degreasing your stove, cleaning your oven, and numerous other uses. Just be sure to use it in a well-ventilated area, never ever mix it with chlorine bleach, and wear a pair of gloves.
Everybody knows that baking soda is great for keeping your fridge smelling fresh, and most people know that it makes a good toothpaste. What's lesser known is that its gentle abrasion, chemical reactivity, and ability to absorb odors make it a great household cleanser. It can be used for dozens of purposes, from cleaning toilets to clearing drains, washing laundry to scrubbing grout. This site has a few suggestions to get you started.
Speaking of safe household compounds, it's hard to come up with anything safer than vinegar. Yet basic white vinegar is also a heck of a cleanser. Its acidity makes it a great disinfectant, and it reacts nicely with baking soda, which can help you when it comes to cleaning your bathroom. Perhaps the best use, though, is on old cast iron: A paste made of white vinegar and table salt quickly breaks down rust deposits.
While I was researching this piece, I came across a great tip that I had to put in. The traditional recipe for silver cleaner is wood or cigarette ash, mixed with water and scrubbed on the tarnished metal. The method works reasonably well, but I found an even better one: toothpaste. Both my Crest toothpaste and my wife's Tom's of Maine made short work of the stains on an old, tarnished mug that I own. By comparison, the Tarnex I had previously tried had taken forever, done a lackluster job, and left my kitchen smelling like eggs.
Okay, this is a cheat: chances are that your grandmother never heard of Dr. Bronner's. But, if she had, she probably would have loved the stuff. It's cheap, versatile, comes in a bunch of different scents, and doesn't contain any ingredients that you can't pronounce. And, while she might have turned up her nose at the fact that it uses hemp oil, your grandma might have liked the fact that it's basically Castile soap, an oil-based compound that has been manufactured for thousands of years.

Did You Know: Cheapest Cleaning Solution

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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