Natural and Chemical-Free Cleaning
Natural and chemical-free cleaning tips are rampant online and have been for a few years now. You might even use some of them or at least have given them a whirl. Did you read the title of this post and maybe think about the diluted vinegar you use on the floors? The bicarb mix you clean the sink with? Or the fantastic cloth you bought (via an MLM seller) that allows you to clean things CHEMICAL-FREE? Cleaning your house is something we all have to deal with and there’s nothing wrong with re-examining how you do it and what products you use. There is, however, some serious flaws to what passes for natural and chemical-free cleaning. Not only because labeling that way is disingenuous; it’s also part of a bigger problem.
Vinegar, that’s natural and chemical-free, right?
I love vinegar as a cleaning product. I once stumbled on a recipe that involves mixing vinegar, detergent and water. As a carpet spot cleaner, it out-performed the store-bought stuff in the review I read. I gave it a go and never looked back. We now use this concoction in the bathroom, as a stove cleaner, to wipe the microwave out and even on clothing stains. I have seen various recipes and uses for vinegar, from washing fruit and veg to replacing fabric softener and the overwhelming reason is: NATURAL AND CHEMICAL-FREE. Seriously, it’s like there has been a vinegar renaissance over the last couple of years.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not really natural, is it? I mean, sure, it could be, I guess. The stars would really have to align to provide the right conditions, though. Because the vinegar we buy is manufactured, not found in the wild.
I’m sorry to say that there is no lake of vinegar at the base of the Himalayas or hidden in the Amazon where enlightened beings draw it into organic barrels strapped to the sides of kindly free-range rainbow alpacas who travel to the nearest Costco to drop it off. It’s the result of a fermentation process, which leads me to my next point. Brace yourself.
Vinegar is, quite literally, the result of a chemical reaction. It’s fermented and generally somewhere between 5% and 20% acetic acid. Ethanol and oxygen converted to acetic acid, add some flavouring and other bits and pieces and- BAM- vinegar. Use vinegar to clean stuff, by all means. But not because it’s natural or chemical-free. It totally isn’t. Use it because it’s effective and (best of all) cheap AF. Costco, yo.
What about Essential Oils? They’re totally natural and chemical-free cleaning aids, right?
Alas, they are not located in the wild. Natural, sure, in that they exist within plants. But do they exist in puddles and streams for human harvest? Nope. They are extracted using a mechanical process. They are crushed, pressed or steam-distilled. It’s up to you whether or not that is natural; the word seems to have lost meaning over the last few years!
But chemical-free? Definitely not. The people who say otherwise are usually trying to sell them to you, so keep that in mind.
The oxygen we breathe is a chemical. Same goes for the water we drink and the salt we season our food with. If you mop your floor with nothing but water and essential oils, don’t give yourself a chemical-free pat on the back because you just mopped with a bucket of chemicals. The floor might smell nice. How many germs you did away with could be an issue, because a few drops of oil swirling in a bucket of water have limited germ-killing power. Your floor will definitely be covered in chemicals though, because both water and essential oils are chemicals.
Is there, though??
Do I even want to know about bicarb soda?
Two words: Sodium Bicarbonate. That’s the chemical name. Mix it with water and clean the sink with it. It works and it’s cheap AF. So, that is my criteria met. Natural? It can be. It’s mined as nahcolite but both the mined and synthetic versions are the same, chemically speaking. The main difference is usually the price. “Natural” bicarb tends to cost a little more. Go figure. It’s almost like there’s a profit to be made from this natural and chemical-free cleaning gig?!
Pro-tip: Don’t mix vinegar and bicarb, like many cleaning posts and memes online recommend, thinking it will magically clean stuff. They will literally neutralise each other- that is a science fact, gang!
What about my special (and expensive) cloth?? It’s chemical-free!
Norwex reps will sell you a small pack of microfibre cloths for around $30. I buy something similar (but much cheaper) at the supermarket. Norwex cloths are fine, though, if you want to spend the $$, and they are mostly made from recycled material. They market their cleaning system as “fewer chemicals” which is also fine, but enthusiasts (often those selling the products- it is an MLM, after all) have embraced the all-natural, chemical-free line.
Microfibre is manufactured from plastic. It’s heated and forced through teeny-tiny pipes. The fibres fuse and then split into tiny fibres. MICRO fibres, if you will. Pretty cool! Plastic is obviously chemical in origin and there are (disappointingly) no wild, organic microfibre plants dotting the Australian bushland that kangaroos wrap their joeys in when we aren’t using them to wipe down the toilet seat after spritzing it with vinegar.
Who even cares, though?
You may well be rolling your eyes at me if you’ve made it this far. What does it matter if we say natural and chemical-free cleaning when that isn’t precisely what we mean? Aren’t I being kinda pedantic? It’s cool, I hear that a lot. So I have an answer:
I know when people say chemical-free they generally mean free from HARMFUL chemicals. And natural is the buzz-word of the century and people probably just mean something naturalish, that originates somehow from a plant or the earth, rather than being manufactured in a lab.
I get it. But this is a point I will never stop making, because it’s important:
Everything is chemicals and that is okay. Chemical is not a dirty word. It doesn’t mean something that is harmful or dangerous or undesirable. It’s not a scale where natural is safest and chemical is the opposite of natural and therefore the most dangerous. That’s not how any of this works. Chemicals can be natural. Natural things can be dangerous. Even seemingly harmless chemicals can be harmful in the right amounts. Essential oils can poison you. Vinegar fumes can send you into respiratory distress. So can bi-carb if you inhale enough of it.
What this is is an appeal to nature fallacy and it’s dangerous.
What’s the harm in saying natural and chemical-free?
Pushing the idea that chemicals are bad and nature is safe, even in something as innocuous as housework, contributes to the idea that science is somehow bad. Suspicion, distrust and misinformation propagate online spaces as it is. The more we share the “natural and chemical-free” cleaning posts and memes, the more we imprint this flawed idea on ourselves and other people. If we believe chemicals are bad and nature is good when it comes to washing the tiles and scrubbing the loo, where does it end?
Are chemicals okay if we step on a rusty nail? If we get an infection? Or what if we get seriously ill with cancer or heart disease? Do we refuse medication because it didn’t grow on a tree? If that seems absurd, keep in mind that there are people that do this. They embrace alternative remedies (that don’t work) because they believe them to be more natural and therefore better. The idea that chemicals are bad and nature is benign and wonderful literally kills people. Not to be melodramatic, but it does. These are the people not vaccinating their children, not seeking medical care for serious conditions and it kills people. It’s a voluntary return to the times when we didn’t have preventative medicine, we didn’t have the ability to treat illness to the extent that we do now. We didn’t even have the ability to achieve the level of sanitation that we (here in a first world country) take for granted.
Keep cleaning your house however you see fit
By all means, clean the floor with vinegar, scrub the sink with bicarb, microfibre the shit outta your house and slosh nice-smelling oils around (safely) if that’s your thing. But let’s drop the idea that doing so is somehow the chemical-free way that nature intended for us.
Look at history, when living to old age meant hitting 45 before you died because illness and infection usually carried us off well before then. Relying on nature alone did not work out well for us. Instead, clean this way because it’s cheap, because it’s effective, because maybe it doesn’t stir up your allergies as much as some of the super-scented products you can buy. Do it because you prefer it or want to lessen the impact of cleaning on the environment.