Photo: Some dirt on green cleaning

McGill students host a Queen of Green DIY green cleaning workshop

A recent blog post by the Environmental Working Group challenges the long-standing and widespread green cleaning image of borax. Bottom-line, EWG no longer recommends cleaning your home with borax.

Like me, EWG recommended using borax in recipes for homemade cleaners in the past because it's effective, versatile, affordable, and eco-friendly compared to petroleum-based ingredients and chemicals in conventional cleaning products. Alternatives are less toxic, but they are rarely totally benign.

Anything that cleans, kills. Ever treated dandelions with a dose of vinegar? Sterilized canning jars with boiling water? Under many municipal bans on pesticide use, borax is often allowed as a low-risk pesticide. The Georgia Strait Alliance's Toxic Smart Solutions factsheet says "while borax is also one of the least hazardous domestic cleaning products, it is not without an environmental impact. It contains a higher level of arsenic that most other products (30 parts per million) which is why it's also an effective ant killer."

Doing the best I can to clean up my act, I'm testing a new borax-free recipe of my all time favorite liquid laundry soap (I'll let you know if it works). For everything else, I can think of borax-free alternatives. (I was revising my old green cleaning recipes anyway.)

Here are some green cleaning ingredients, listed from least- to less-toxic:

Least-toxic green cleaning ingredients


Baking soda: is well-known for its deodorizing properties — you probably have a box in your fridge. But baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, not only deodorizes, it also tackles dirt and grease. Use it on its own or boost its cleaning power with a little liquid castile soap and vinegar to tackle everything from everyday spills to grimy build-up. Baking soda is also non-abrasive, which is great to scrub sinks, tubs, and toilets.

White vinegar: also known as acetic acid, is a great disinfectant and deodorizer. The strong smell disappears once it dries. It's also my favourite addition to the dishwasher rinse dispenser. (Check out 1001 uses for white vinegar.)

Lemon: a mild acid, lemon juice is known for its bleaching properties. It also has natural disinfectant and antibacterial properties. Cut a lemon in half and rub it onto a wooden cutting board, then wipe clean. Take the other half, place it in a bowl and microwave for one minute. Use this lemon-half to rub down the inside of your microwave. Let sit for a few minutes and wipe clean!

Olive oil: obtained from the olive tree. For furniture polish, add two tablespoons of olive oil and one tablespoon of white vinegar to a spray bottle of warm water. Shake, spray on furniture, and wipe. (Learn more ways to clean with olive oil.)

Less-toxic green cleaning ingredients

(use with caution, less frequently, or only for heavy-duty jobs)

Washing soda: also known as sodium carbonate, washing soda is more caustic, with a higher pH than its cousin, baking soda. But it's just as versatile: softening water, removing stains and cutting grease-the only downside is it can be hard to find. Check your local health food store or organic grocer.

Borax: also known as sodium borate is an alkaline mineral salt. It's a naturally occurring compound, but even things from nature can be harmful (like asbestos or mercury). Handled with respect, borax can be added to your cleaning arsenal. Mix solutions in your kitchen, away from food, and clearly label your finished product.

Not unlike conventional cleaning products, homemade or store bought green cleaning solutions should be stored safely away from children and pets.

What are your favourite green cleaning recipes?

P.S. Read more FAQs about green cleaning

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

March 7, 2011

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Jun 07, 2016
12:04 AM

Such a great post. I love to use backing soda and vinegar for cleaning the house. I have found some useful tips here and I will definitely try them. Thank you for sharing this with us!

Jun 07, 2016
12:03 AM

Such a great post. I love to use backing soda and vinegar for cleaning the house. I have found some useful tips here and I will definitely try them. Thank you for sharing this with us!

Apr 20, 2016
5:04 AM

I know this is an old article, but shouldn’t your recipe be removed from this site if Borax is harmful? My friend found your old recipe and said “If David Suzuki uses it so am I” However there is no mention of this link in that article. It’s still in the recipes section and Borax is listed as a safe ingredient. Thank you.

Sep 07, 2015
6:43 AM

I haven’t tried borax, yet! But I will do it! I mainly use baking soda, vinegar and salt for plenty of purposes. Maybe I need to use essential oils for polishing, it sounds great! Thank you for this useful information!

Jun 14, 2015
8:29 AM

I bought washing soda at the local Home Hardware.

Apr 26, 2015
12:51 PM

olive oil will go rancid on your wood, I think. I was told by a cabinet maker to to use walnut oil. And beeswax for a more protective finish.

Apr 03, 2015
6:29 AM

Chemical glass cleaners have an unpleasant smell, and they tend to streak. White vinegar, however, is a green class cleaner that is highly effective when used with old newspapers. Spray a little vinegar on the glass with a spray bottle, and then wipe it off using the dry newspaper. You only need two tablespoons of white vinegar mixed with a gallon of water, so this is also a very cost-effective cleaner.


Feb 04, 2015
5:57 AM

I prefer using eco friendly home made detergents because the won’t harm the environment at all. Thank for the interesting article! Regards!Barnes Cray Carpet Cleaners Ltd. Barnes Cray Carpet Cleaners Ltd.

Apr 27, 2014
11:43 AM

Hi — wondering how well the borax free laundry detergent really works? I have 2 young kids so piles of very dirty laundry. I find store bought “green” detergents don’t work so great and have been wanting to try home made for while. But can it really tackle messy kid clothes? I was all set to do the borax version until I started reading more about it. Now I’m not sure which to try — I want something Eco friendly but I still need it to clean well!

Oct 13, 2012
8:39 PM

Have you tried soap berries or soap nuts from India? They were featured on the Dragons Den not sure if they work here, we have very hard water in Alberta. What could be more natural than a berry?. Also I'm confused about Norwex as well, is it bad for the environment? I know the laundry soap their doesn't contain palm oil, that's important to me. I actually just ordered some face clothes for my daughter, I won't give them o her if hey are unsafe or hurt the water.

Aug 06, 2012
3:27 AM

Great article!! I use baking soda and white vinegar for cleaning my carpet and also for getting rid of bad odor. They are really very effective and useful too. emergency water pump out pompano beach Florida

Jul 12, 2012
8:16 PM

Do you know if this work with a HE washing machine?

Apr 18, 2012
5:13 AM

Okay, are you talking about Borax or Boric Acid? I've seen your recipes using Borax but have not heard it's useful as an ant repellent (i read that's what Boric Acid does). They're different, right?

Dec 22, 2011
3:50 PM

hey Lindsay VIP soap granules is made from soap with borax!…..says on the label ive been searching everywhere for soap without to use, i tried an olive oil castile soap, didnt work so great :(…… there is a laundry bar from the Soap Works that seems borax free…….? did you ever come up with something besides liquid castile, its way to expensive

Apr 11, 2011
2:05 PM

I wrote a post abot my fav. borax free laundry detergent last week on my blog, check it out

Apr 11, 2011
12:49 PM

hi. i bought a box of Borax to use from a cleaning book i had but,,i have forgotten who to use it now.

is there any way you can email me with some help on how to use it in a safe and healthy way please…


Mar 31, 2011
5:16 PM

I promised everyone I’d review the e-How borax-free laundry soap recipe of liquid castile soap, salt, baking soda and water. I never follow a recipe so I used their measurements but instead of making 1 gallon, I added it to my 7 L handy laundry soap pail (was once full of cat litter).

I just finished off my first batch, and I have to say it worked well in cold water. And although you’d think baking soda might leave a white powder residue on your clothes, it doesn’t. My sweet orange castile soap filled the laundry closet with a nice, mild essential oil scent too although it didn’t linger on my clothing.

Since castile soap is so expensive ($20/L), I’ve just whipped up a batch using 1 cup of soap granules by VIP (much cheaper). Anyone else try the borax-free version?

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

Mar 17, 2011
5:16 AM

Since 95% of the cleaning products (not to mention food and cosmetics) found in our supermarkets contain palm oil it really is necessary to make your own cleaning stuff, or buy from companies like Earth Friendly Products — no palm oil, toxics etc in any of their range. Remember the rainforest next time you are shopping — it is not the palm oil but the destruction by burning of the forest to plant these palms that will be the death of us — and so many species on the brink already.

Mar 14, 2011
7:07 AM

Hi There, Great article in March’s Canadian Living about the family that you worked with! Thanks! Some great ideas on how to take baby steps to make a difference!

Mar 14, 2011
5:28 AM

Waiting to see what your results are with your laundry detergent without the borax. I just purchased a big box of both the borax and washing soda, thinking I was doing a good thing….now I’m not so sure.
I’ll also throw out a question about the Norwex cloths. Waiting for my order to arrive, BUT have just been researching the effects of the “silver” in these cloths. From what I’ve found it’s not a good thing as it can get into the water system. Getting rather frustrated at the changes I’m attempting to make and then finding out it still isn’t the best plan. sigh Any info would be great……

Mar 12, 2011
6:29 PM

Wow about fleas

I recently went to check on my rental property,only to discover that the cat had brought in a heap of fleas. The fleas just some how jumped onto my feet an legs an wow, can those little gritties bite .. I was in so much pain, ,my daughter had to come round and let me stay at her place with ice packs on both legs just to relief the pain i was in, i;d say about a 10+ an my legs were bleeding an itching at the same time.

It took several days for the swelling of my legs to go down, and my shortness of breath to come back to normal.

All this was due to the fleas .

We then hadto get the house fumed out by a company , they did say that they used a natural product, but i can’t recall its name .

After the few days were up, we had to vacc all the surface areas,and in doing all that, found many dead black little balls of fleas all over the place.

My fear now is the cat coming back into the home buy the tenant.

the over all cost of it all, and how to stop another out break .

My advice to you all , pets are carries, be very carfull .

If anyone has somemore good advice on this subject. i would love to hear from you

Cheers Davo

Mar 10, 2011
7:59 PM

If you want some good green cleaning recipes you can find them on gorgeously or buy sophie uliano’s books!

Mar 10, 2011
2:36 PM

Michele, You know I did receive a cloth for a gift once. I like to use it on mirrors. Here’s what I say about their role in green cleaning: microfiber cloths can be a great household cleaning tool, helping to reduce the use of toxic chemical cleaners and eliminate the need for paper towels. Although made of petroleum-based products, these microfiber cloths are reusable and only need water. The polyester and polyamide fabric strands are 100 times finer than a human hair. They can lift dirt, grease and dust without the need for cleaning chemicals, because they trap dirt. A good quality cloth can last for several years.

Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green

Mar 10, 2011
9:55 AM

Hi Lindsay,

I’ve been reading your column for awhile now and have really enjoying reading it and learning a lot. We should all be so thankful that David Suzuki exists, is all if have to say.:)

On another note, I joined Norwex Enviro Products (Canadian company based out of Dauphin, MB) in 2009 as a Sales Consultant. I have always been green and loved the products so much I decided to sell it as I was sending so many of my friends to Norwex anyway. Well, in less than 2 yrs, I’m now an Executive Sales Leader with nearly 50 on my team. Needless to say I’m busy. It shows there is a HUGE need for green products and education about it. Have you tried Norwex’s products? The cloths and water are all you need to clean your house as the silver in the cloths kills the bacteria. Based on the European way. Anyway I thought I would mention this as it’s actually way easier than creating your own mixture. If you wanted to try these amazing cloths and more, let me know and I’d be happy to send you some. Try on your toughest cleaning jobs. Check out my website for more info. I thought I would send this to you, not to sell you the products, but I just felt you should know about them. Every day I change people’s lives and the help the planet with my job. Love it! Cheers, Michele.

Mar 10, 2011
9:44 AM

Hi Lindsay — thanks for this! I cannot live without my vinegar and baking soda: I even use vinegar in my dishwasher as it makes my dishes even cleaner. I have also discovered a new great cleaner: water.

At our local water store, I can get electrolyzed water in glass jugs (BYOJ). For cleaning, you use the high acid water (you can get the highly alkaline as well for drinking) and the water kills germs on contact, gets rid of all grime and has no fumes or negative effects. A couple of jugs a week is all I need. All the best! Ann

Mar 10, 2011
9:37 AM

Wow!! What an eye opener. We use borax in our home to kill fleas. We have a cat and a dog and even though we give them their flea meds every month we still get them in house. We dust the carpets and furniture and let it sit for 24 hours before vaccumming. It has always worked. I didn’t know there was arsenic in the product. We have 2 young children and thought using the Borax was safer than using the chemical spray. Scary stuff , thanks for the info.

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