Don't eat that!

Updated: Jun 17

Know your home cleaning products

Making your own cleaning products at home is becoming increasingly popular, as these are not only more eco-friendly but usually much cheaper than buying their commercial counterparts. However, it’s important to understand the components that you are working with.

Reading a recent online conversation about using sodium percarbonate (also known as percarbonate of soda, and sometimes called oxygen bleach or natural bleach) to remove stains from clothes, it was rather worrying to see the number of people who said things like “So that’s just salt then?” and “Is this the same as baking soda?” While some of the common home cleaning products are safe to eat (in small quantities) others are harmful if ingested, so you need to be clear about which is which.

Worried man holding a teaspoon of white powder

So here’s a quick run down of some common home cleaning ingredients:

Sodium chloride (aka table salt)

We’re all familiar with this in our homes. You can use it in cooking, in simple home remedies (eg salt water gargles for a sore throat), and for food preservation.

Due to its anti-bacterial properties, salt is also good for some home cleaning applications, for example as a scrub to clean chopping boards. If you sprinkle salt on half a lemon, and then use the lemon as the scrubber, you get the additional benefit of the bleaching effect of lemon to get rid of any stains on the surface, as well as the abrasive and disinfecting effect of the salt itself.

Sodium bicarbonate (aka bicarbonate of soda, aka baking soda)

Bicarbonate of soda (or ‘bicarb’) is a well-known ingredient in any home baker’s larder, acting as a raising agent in cakes, batters and doughs.

But due to its absorbent properties, it also has many other applications around the home. You can use it as a deodorizer in your fridge: just fill a cup or small bowl with bicarbonate of soda and keep it on a shelf in your fridge where it will neutralize unpleasant smells. Similarly, you can sprinkle it liberally inside stinky trainers or sweaty shoes between wears to soak up any moisture and pongs. (Shake it out before putting them on again, or else you could put the bicarb in a little muslin bag first before popping it inside the shoe.)

As well as absorbing smells, bicarbonate of soda is also really good at soaking up oil or grease. This makes it an excellent cleaner in the kitchen. For example, to clean the oven: mix the bicarb up into a paste with some water and spread it over the inside of your oven, then spray with white vinegar. It will fizz up. Leave it to work for 5-10 minutes then wipe off the grease and dirt which should now be softened.

You can also use bicarb as an easy way to clean silver. See our article ‘Jewellery cleaning the eco-friendly way’ for detailed instructions.

Sodium percarbonate (aka oxygen or nATURAL bleach, aka percarbonate of soda)

Sodium percarbonate is a product of sodium carbonate (soda ash) and hydrogen peroxide. When mixed with water it gives off oxygen bleach (hydrogen peroxide) and then harmlessly breaks down into water, oxygen and sodium. It is used as a powerful yet safe bleach and cleaning agent and is the main ingredient in many of the commercially available oxygen bleaches.

Unlike chlorine bleach, it does not remove colour from clothes through bleaching, nor does it weaken the structure of the fabric. Instead, it removes stains, brightens colours and prevents yellowing of whites. For heavily soiled items a pre-soak in sodium percarbonate is most effective, but for general use you can just add a scoop to your regular laundry to boost its cleaning power.

Sodium percarbonate breaks down harmlessly after use, leaving no toxic residues, so unlike chlorine bleach not only is it safe for the environment it is also food safe. This means that you can use it as a cleaning agent in home brewing and also for cleaning fish tanks. (But make sure you read the manufacturer’s instructions first, and always rinse well.)

To summarise the sodiums

  • Sodium chloride = table salt – safe to eat in small quantities; anti-bacterial effects for home remedies and also for cleaning surfaces

  • Sodium bicarbonate = bicarbonate of soda/baking soda – safe to eat in small quantities; excellent absorber of odours and grease; many home cleaning applications

  • Sodium percarbonate = percarbonate of soda = oxygen bleach – DO NOT EAT THIS – effective stain remover and brightener of fabrics; breaks down harmlessly after use

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