Changing the Smell of Clean

“It smells like vinegar in here,” my son said after I had been cleaning mirrors.

I assured him that the smell would soon dissipate.

He said, “I like it. It smells clean.”

And herein lies the difference. He has grown up with vinegar and Sal Suds and tea tree and peppermint. All of these say, “Clean!” to him. When I started down the green road, I had to grow accustomed to the new smell of clean.

Changing the smell of clean by Lisa Bronner

To me, growing up, the smell of clean was sharp, pungent, and nose scouring. It didn’t smell like any naturally occurring substance I knew of. When I smelled it, I felt reassured that everything was dirt and germ-free.

However, the lack of scent in many homemade cleaning recipes, and especially the lack of a lingering scent, can be a real roadblock to someone’s adoption of safer cleaners. Consumers like the smell of Pledge and Tide and Febreze. And they’re supposed to. The manufacturers spend loads of time and money to sell consumers on their products’ smell. Can’t you picture the commercial with the stylishly dressed and made up woman sniffing her house’s air with satisfaction? It must smell clean. And don’t we all want our house to smell clean like hers?

So what makes those nearly addictive smells? It is certainly not lemon essential oil, or any other essential oil. If it were, that fact would be well broadcast across their labels and advertising. And the products would also be a good deal more expensive. The fragrance is made up of synthetic substances, including phthalates, sensitizers, and allergens. Phthalates (pronounced without the initial “p”) are widely acknowledged as endocrine (hormone) disrupters and a cause of birth defects in boys. Sensitizers are chemicals that cause a substantial proportion of repeatedly exposed people or animals to develop an allergic reaction in normal tissue.

However, the troubling part is that there is no required ingredient disclosure for cleaning products. The closest they come is the required Hazard labels. There’s actually a large loophole in personal care products around “fragrance” as well. “Fragrance” is considered proprietary information. It is a blend of chemicals that could contain anything.

The fragrance can be the most toxic part about conventional cleaning products. Other aspects of them can be dangerous, but only if you touch or ingest them. Three-year-olds notwithstanding, the adults who do most of the cleaning aren’t likely to gulp them down. They take precautions to make sure little ones and furry friends don’t have access to them (still safer not to have them around at all). But what about breathing? It’s rather unavoidable. Every being in the room during and after the cleaning will be absorbing these fragrances. The fragrances added to these products are designed to be airborne. Their target: your sensory receptors then your lungs and your bloodstream. And the worst of it is, these fragrances don’t have to be there – they add nothing to the effectiveness of these products. They are added to the product for a variety of reasons: to mask unpleasant chemical smells, to create product loyalty, to leave lingering “clean” connotations, and to imply that the solutions are closely derived from nature.

It is for this reason that the Environmental Working Group (EWG, www.ewg.org ), an independent consumer advocacy group, gives “Fragrance” very high hazard ratings of 8 and 10, http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/search.php?query=fragrance&h=Go. (They focus on personal care products, but their overview of “fragrance” applies to house cleaning products as well.) Although ingredient disclosure is not required, bear in mind that if a product has a smell, then it has a fragrance. And to pop any remaining bubbles, “unscented” products can contain masking fragrances, too. If that fragrance were healthily derived, such as essential oil directly from lemons, the manufacturer would certainly make sure you knew.

According to the EWG, “Fragrance”:

  • represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.

They go on to say:

  • “Fragrance” is usually a chemical cocktail, often containing individual chemicals associated with allergic reactions and hormone disruption. Some fragrance chemicals have not been assessed for safety. Until all fragrance ingredients are disclosed on the label, consumers cannot know what is in a particular fragrance.

There is one exception to my ranting: listed “fragrance” that is approved by independent third party organic certifiers. Not all fragrances are created equal, and there are some good naturally occurring fragrances. A fragrance house may not want to share the specifics of its blend with a purchaser, but it will share the details with an independent certifier. With the certifier’s OK, customers and consumers have the trust and confidence they need. As always, read the labels, and follow the asterisks.

Adjusting to new norms
With green cleaning there is a different smell of clean. The upside is that you get to decide what that smell is. If you want, you can have no smell; that could be your smell of clean. In that case, add no essential oils to your cleaning solutions. The smell of vinegar or Sal Suds will dissipate when they dry. If you want your clean smell to be oranges, add essential orange oil. If you prefer lemon, add essential lemon oil. If you prefer patchouli with a twist of cinnamon and lime, you can do that, too. That’s the great thing here: you are in control. You make the products; you can add anything you want to them. Have fun! Match your mood, the weather, your guests, your dinner.

Also realize that essential oils have beneficial properties of their own. For example, lavender oil is very calming; peppermint oil is invigorating and a deterrent to animals and insects; tea tree oil is antibacterial.

I purchase my essential oils from Frontier Natural Products. I am part of a buying co-op that is large enough to order wholesale. Perhaps you could also start one in your community. Check out https://wholesale.frontiercoop.com/ for more details on that. Essential oils are also widely available online or in health stores. Be sure you are buying pure essential oils, and not scented carrier oils. Do a little online research before you buy. (Frontier’s Simply Organic line and Aura Cacia line are reliable, but certainly aren’t the only good options.) The bottles are small and pricey, but a little goes a long way, so don’t be deterred by the price. One bottle can last for a couple years. Five drops goes into a quart solution, 20 into a mop bucket.

So instead of being waylaid by the different smells, turn this into an opportunity for personal expression.

23 thoughts on “Changing the Smell of Clean

  1. I completely agree ! My husband and son are getting used to no smells and smells of vinegar — I have been changing the way I clean our home — it started off as me looking for frugal ideas to clean house and making my own cleaners and just went from there — I use vinegar and baking soda cooking and cleaning — I get my essential oils from Plant life — they sell multi paks — they have one that has all basic oils — My husband is addicted to the smells — he loves febreeze and all those heavy smelling things — he is having hard time with the changes — things are cleaned but they don’t have a smelly clean — or they smell like vinegar and he doesn’t like it – I won’t buy any of those room deodorizers — I have been using cut up lemons or oranges or vanilla bean –

  2. Lisa,
    This is a great post. I have been cleaning with vinegar and baking soda for over a year now, and I would never turn back. It all started when I walked into a friend’s house and was amazed at how spotless it was, but I could smell any overwhelming cleanser scents. So, I asked her what she used,and she told me vinegar and water.
    About four months ago, I started adding Sal Suds and Dr. Bronner’s Tea Tree Liquid Soap to my cleaning regimen. I even have a small bottle with the Tea Tree Liquid Soap mixture that you recommend that I keep at work.
    Now, when I go somewhere and they use commercial cleaners, I just do not like the smell at all. I almost feel sick when around that overwhelming scent. I am sooo happy with these results. Thank you for all of your help and suggestions.
    I have also started using The Dr. Bronner’s line of products for all of my beauty needs, but I will post those responses in their prospective places. ;-)

    Thanks for the link to the site for essential oils. I have started making my own toners and etc, and they have containers I could use for those items. Thanks for helping us all get healthier. 

    • Hi Jeanette and Julie – Glad you both shared! I’m happy this is helping. REgarding natural room scents, I love the smell of apple cider, so I sometimes put apple juice with a couple sticks of cinnamon and an orange slice in my little miniature crockpot. That works really well for a cold weather scent. And there’s no flame. I like the idea of cut up lemons and oranges and vanilla, too.

      What else are you (as in all readers) using for natural room scents?

      Lisa

  3. That is a great idea, using the mini crock pot. I always here of simmering things on the stove, but I hate that idea with small children in the house. A mini crock placed out of the way seems like a great alternative. Also, I have noticed that cleaning with Dr Bronner’s castile soaps, they leave a slight lingering smell. My bathroom always smells of almonds since my 4 year old gets homemade foam soap all over the counter when she washes her hands.

  4. Loved reading this! I have been using the Dr. Bronner’s Magic soap (18 in 1 Hemp peppermint) for about a month now to wipe down counter tops and even with Laundry(I would like to learn more ways to use it though..I’m a stay at home mom to 2 little ones and have used a lot of the “harsher” stuff to sanitize/disinfect..I kind of freak out about germs)…I love the smell my laundry room gets after washing a load of clothes…but, not going to lie, I still do keep lysol/clorox wipes to use on certain things, especially if one of us is sick. I guess I’m under the impression that (maybe I’m wrong) that’s the only way to not just clean but to really sanitize/disinfect. I really want to start using vinegar for cleaning windows/mirrors and baking soda for cleaning as well….I’ve been using the Seventh Generation “natural” glass cleaner, but after reading this article, I’m not too sure how “natural” it is. How do you use vinegar for cleaning windows…do you use it straight or water it down? & baking soda as well…do you make a paste?

    • I’m glad this is getting everyone thinking!

      @ Christina – Sounds like we’re on the same road. It is a process. Althoughy I’ve known others like Misty, above, who can do it all at once (excellent job!), I had to make the conversion gradually, and there are still areas where I’m working on solutions. For windows, equal parts vinegar and water in squirt bottle works well. I wrote about it here: http://lisa.drbronner.com/?p=623, and here: http://lisa.drbronner.com/?p=608. For baking soda, normally I just sprinkle it straight on the surfaces that need scrubbing. I use an old large plastic seasoning shaker. I wrote about that here: http://lisa.drbronner.com/?p=535. Let me know where else I can help!

      @ Misty – I’m impressed! I know few other “all or nothing at all” people, and I am always humbled. Regarding public perception, it sounds like you are a great witness to the power of green cleaning! Let them sniff! They’re the ones that look odd, and what will they find? They’ll find that your methods actually work. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start questioning their own practices and perhaps trying yours – covertly, of course. You could go into the battle of the research with them, but I would opt for letting your clean house and healthy family speak for themselves. You’ll probably never hear it from them, so if you need reassurance that you’re doing the right thing, I’ll tell you! You are! Personally, I find the images this conjures up rather amusing.

      @ Michael – That’s a new one for me, so let me look into it and I’ll tell you what I find.

      All the best!
      Lisa

  5. Thank you! In November, I threw out all of our beauty and artificial cleaning supplies and decided to make my own for both myself and my girls. My reasons were twofold: 1. To keep the harmful chemicals off out bodies and out of our air and 2. To save a substantial amount of $$. Yep, in one day we completely switched…that’s how things work around here.

    My question is how do you get over the public perception that chemicals = clean? Visitors to my home routinely ask what smells “so good” and immediately wrinkle their collective noses at the thought of natural cleaning practices. They thoroughly inspect coffee cups to make sure “homemade” dish detergent works and sniff my windows (this is actually very comical) to see if there is a vinegar-y smell. I can only imagine what they do in the powder room. I’m very vocal and my soapbox is a permanent fixture in my home, maybe that’s my problem…if I don’t say anything, these otherwise wonderful people would not feel the need to educate me on the best cleaners and their favorite Febreeze scent. What’s a lady to do?

  6. Thanks for this post! I always clean with vinegar, baking soda, Dr. Bronner’s, or Sal Suds. After using these products for years, I can’t stand artificial fragrances.

    Lisa, I was hoping you could shed light on one issue. I’ve read that citrus and pine oils can release formaldehyde during warm summer months:

    <>

    http://www.examiner.com/environmental-health-in-san-jose/citrus-cleaning-products-produce-formaldehyde#ixzz1sKIWoVsI

    I’ve switched out the citrus for peppermint, but still use Sal Suds – especially for cloth diapers. Have you seen any other research on this? Thoughts?

    Looking forward to your response!

    Michael

  7. Awesome! Thanks for letting me know! I do many things “naturally” and “green”…we cloth diaper and strictly nurse, but have been trying to change the cleaning stuff slowly but surely to more natural…I don’t want to waste the stuff we have so eventually we will get there…I was also wondering if you know of a natural way to clean our wood furniture…not only is it better for us, but honestly, I can’t stand the smell of the traditional cleaners!

  8. Hi Lisa. Would you please show us what’s in your cleaning supplies cabinet? I’ve read your blog & can tell you have at least 4 spray bottles…one w/ diluted vinegar, one w/ diluted Sal Suds, one w/ diluted Castile soap, and one with straight club soda.

  9. Not only do I use vinegar for windows and other cleaning, but it makes a very effective underarm deodorant. I use your soaps all over the place and wouldn’t be caught without them. Dr. Bronner’s is a longtime highly respected product name, as well as being your family surname.

  10. Hi Lisa
    Just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog and using Dr Bronners products here in New Zealand. It’s great to see that there are more people wanting to use natural products in their homes. I have made a concerted effort to make our home chemical free since my little girl arrived last year. I guess labelling laws in the USA are similar to here in New Zealand – manufacturers don’t have to list the individual ingredients in their cleaning products and it’s only when you have to ring the national poisons center (after your little one may have consumed something) that you find out what you’re dealing with. I look forward to the day governments make detailed product labelling mandatory.
    Back in April you asked what readers were using for natural room scents – I have used this recipe (from a book called Household Cleaning Self Sufficiency by Rachelle Strauss)for a gel air freshener – boil 115ml (I’m not sure of the conversion to US measures so these are metric) of water, dissolve a packet of gelatin (you can also use Agar if you prefer vegetable gelatin) into it, remove from the heat & add another 115ml of cold water to the mix & stir until blended. Add a few drops of vodka (to act as a preservative)& 1/2 teaspoon (more or less if you prefer) of your chosen essential oil and sitr until blended. You can also add a few drops of natural food colouring at this stage if you wish. Pour the mix into glass containers (I recycled small babyfood jars) and allow to set (I put the lids on and placed in the refirgerator for a few hours). I have found these to be great dotted around the house.
    Here are some things I’ve noted:
    -the scent lasts approx 60 days(not much different to the commercial chemical varieties).
    -if you are worried about little hands getting a hold of them, you can leave the lid on and put some holes in it to release the scent.
    -don’t put them in direct sunlight or next to a heat source – they will melt – you can put them back in the fridge to set if this happens.
    -as the weather gets cooler they won’t release as much scent.

    I have used Rose-Geranium essential oil and it just gave the room a great summery feel. Next summer I’m going to make some with peppermint oil as I have read that this is a natural deterrant to house flies.

    Hope this recipe is useful. Kind regards.
    Toni

  11. I like that you put it in perspective of your young son’s understanding of what clean smells like verses what our generation grew up knowing clean to smell like. Now that I use only natural products like Dr. Bronners, and know how harmful artificial fragrances are, I find myself repulsed by the smell of chemical products.

  12. Hi Kari – This is a great idea! Give me a week or two to prepare it for its close-up, and I will post about it. A picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t it? Although knowing me, I will still elaborate a good bit in the caption.

    Hi Toni – I am absolutely going to give your gel room scent a try. When I do, I’ll figure out the conversions, and give you the credit. Is that all right?

    Hi Olivia – I find myself unconsciously holding my breath when I walk into a fumey space. Not that I want to become a snob about it, but it’s hard to forget what I know.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  13. Aromatherapy diffusers are an excellent way to create a natural fragrance in the home. They have the added benefit of reducing microbes in the atmosphere and having a positive effect on respiration and emotions. So they smell pretty but have important health benefits too. Right now I’m putting Tulsi and Palo Santo into my diffuser as a wonderful spring-time blend!

    Floracopeia has extraordinary quality essential oils, and support many fair-trade sustainable projects for endangered species like Frankincense and Palo Santo. They give lots of information about how to use the oils on the site, so you can pick the ones you prefer.

    Here’s their diffuser page: http://www.floracopeia.com/store/categories/Aromatherapy-Diffusers/#a_aid=1313

    Thanks for a great blog!

  14. I love this.

    I started working my way down the all natural bath, body and home cleaning road almost two years ago. It started with making all natural, home made, lip balms and body butters for Christmas one year and escalated into an all out everything green obsession. Essential oils, lemon, vinegar and baking soda. And of course Dr Bronner’s especially became a staple in our home. I even gave some bottles of the peppermint soap last year for Christmas.

    A few months back I had what I’ll refer to as a consumer meltdown and lapsed. At one of the locals stores, upon seeing a bottle of what we’ll call lemon “Pine” cleaner, my mind flipped into commercial switch mode and I had a craving for what I, in that moment, remembered as a lovely “clean” scent from my childhood. Once home I couldn’t wait to tare into the bottle, only to be GAGGED by the smell.. In was absolutely nauseating and my sinuses immediately ached from the scent of it.

    It occurred to me in that very moment just how toxic all those things I had been exposed to over the years really was. Intellectually I understood it before. I mean why else would I have ventured down the all natural lane to begin with. But in that moment it really became corporeal to my senses.

    I have since absolutely sworn off anything with a label I cant read and understand fully. And half of what I can… lol

    The beginning of this post reminded me of something that occurred just a couple of days ago. I have a steam cleaner that I now use to wash my floors. In the well I put water of course and add a few drops of a mixture of lemon essential oil and grapefruit essential oil. Thus making my imagined “fresh lemon clean” smell REALLY come to life in my kitchen. While working my way across the floor, the lovely scent of the essentials oils came permeating up via the coursing steam. My son, Sebastian, comes running in from the living room and goes,

    “MOM! What is that smell? It smells so GOOD!!”
    I said, “It’s essential oils, honey. I put them in my steamer. One because they smell lovely but also because citrus oils are good for cleaning”
    “Oh, ok mom.” back to whatever 10 year old little boys do.

    I stood there for a moment and couldn’t help but smile. When my son is grown up natural cleaning will be what’s natural to him. When he looks back and remembers the good smells of home he’ll think of real, wholesome, all natural scents of the earth.

    I feel good not only with what I’m doing for my family in the moment now but for how it will affect their life long views about caring for themselves, their homes and their families. I’m proud of that.

    I believe everyone who is making this same effort for themselves, their children and the environment should also be proud of that. It’s a wonderful thing we are doing.

    Thank you for your blog. I have found so many invaluable tidbits here. I love every inch of everything I read.

    And just as a side note I ADORE Dr Bronner’s and everything you guys do and stand for. You guys are fantastic!

  15. Hi Mojohito- Great recommendations! Thank you for the site reference.

    Hi Marcie – I’m so glad you shared this. I love the story about your son. It is great to hear that you are establishing in him a “healthy normal”. I’ve had relapses like you mentioned from time to time – with food as well as cleaning products. I start to believe what advertising tells me and then I nearly make myself sick. They make it look so good! I’m glad you’re in sync with all that we’re doing here.

    All the best,
    Lisa

  16. Hi Lisa,

    I was wondering if you had any additional information on the formaldehyde issue with pine essential oils (a comment above mentions it, and the EWG cleaning guide links pine oils to formaldehyde). It is something I recently became aware of, and is concerning since I use Sal Suds to wash dishes by hand (sometimes taking up to an hour at a time!). I’ve been trying to find information online about formaldehyde levels when cleaning with Sal Suds and have haven’t had much luck. Thanks for any information you can provide!

  17. Where was this old blog post when I was looking for an authority to back up my post about the same subject a year later?!? I am going to have to find an excuse to send out this link now.

    Regarding the “smell of clean,” I do most of my scrubbing with Dr. Bronner’s unscented Baby Mild, and I noticed it smells like really clean water. Like fresh water only moreso. It’s really lovely, and nothing like the chemicals companies like to call “spring rain.”

  18. I use a squirt of Dr. Bronner’s in a quart spray bottle to clean everything I use soap for. For other things, I use a damp cloth. The cost is negligible compared to anything else.

    Personally, I don’t want to mask any smells in the bathroom or other areas. Clean smells clean, so if it smells it’s not clean.

  19. I very much apologize for my late responses here!

    Kylene – What we use in the Sal Suds is pine and fir needle oil. This is not the same as the much harsher oils that are extracted for the wood and bark of the tree. It has been tested and is not a formaldehyde releaser, so no worries when you’re washing!

    Excellent points, JustClean and Gershon!

    All the best,
    Lisa

  20. I can clean pretty much anything with sal suds, vinegar, and baking soda. People with whom I live seem to share the same mental pathology requiring loads of bleach, tide, febreeze, and any other cheap smelling toxic chemical concoction they can waste their money on.

    Personally, I’d like to be part of a class action lawsuit to make the manufacturers of these poisons responsible for the constant barrage of poison I, and many others, have to deal with on a daily basis. I can’t even walk down the street without being assaulted by poison from peoples dryer exhaust.

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