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Don't eat that!

Updated: May 30

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 comments saying things like “So that’s just salt then?” and “Is this the same as baking soda?”.

While some of the ingredients used in common homemade cleaning applications are safe to eat (in small quantities) others are harmful if ingested, so you need to be clear about which is which. So in this article we've summarised the key features of the different types of sodium commonly used in home cleaning applications:

Worried man holding a teaspoon of white powder

Sodium chloride

(also known as table salt)

We’re all familiar with sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt, 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. It is safe to eat, although consuming too much salt is bad for your health, with 6g per day being the recommended maximum daily intake.

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 of the chopping board, as well as the abrasive and disinfecting effect of the salt itself.

Sodium bicarbonate

(also known as bicarbonate of soda or baking soda)

Bicarbonate of soda (or ‘bicarb’) is a familiar 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. Our article '5 uses for bicarbonate of soda' has further suggestions.

Sodium percarbonate

(also known as natural or oxygen bleach, or percarbonate of soda)

Sodium percarbonate is made up of sodium carbonate (soda ash) and hydrogen peroxide (a bleaching agent). It is supplied as an inert powder which is only activated by water.

When dissolved in water, the sodium percarbonate quickly breaks down and releases oxygen, sodium and water. This makes it great at removing stains, deodorising and disinfecting, whilst still being harmless to the environment. It is also considered safe for use with septic tanks.

Unlike chlorine bleach, sodium percarbonate 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.)

See our article '5 uses for natural bleach' for step-by-step instructions on using sodium percarbonate around the home.

Sodium carbonate

(also known as washing soda, soda crystals, soda ash)

Sodium carbonate is a valuable addition to your natural cleaning repertoire. Like sodium bicarbonate, it is an alkali, however sodium carbonate is much stronger with a pH of 11 compared to bicarb's weaker pH of 9.

Sodium carbonate has a number of properties that make it especially useful around the home. It is particularly effective at:

  • Breaking down acids, oils and grease

  • Softening water

  • Cutting through soap scum

  • Removing stains

This combination of features makes it a clear first choice for laundry applications, but it’s a useful eco-friendly workhorse for all sorts of other household cleaning tasks too. For example you can also use it as a powerful oven cleaner, as a grime-busting bathroom cleaner, to remove ground in stains from plastic chopping boards, as a drain unblocker, and even to kill weeds in your paths and patios.

See our article '5 uses for washing soda' for step-by-step instructions for using sodium carbonate around the home.

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

  • Sodium carbonate = washing soda / soda crystals / soda ash – DO NOT EAT THIS - a strong alkali; effective at removing grime and stains in laundry, and excellent at breaking down grease and grime in household cleaning applications

More information

For ideas and instructions on how to make homemade cleaning solutions using some of the above sodium compounds:

See also our blog posts:

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