Natural Born Cleaners

In ad-land, we all live in squeaky-clean, germ-free, shiny homes and wear whiter-than-white, fresh-smelling, soft-to-the-touch clothes. To achieve this ideal, we are persuaded that we need the most high-tech, up-to-the-minute, ever-more-potent formulations of a whole host of cleaning liquids, powders and potions. So most days, we (or our helpers) might use a multitude of products – sink shiners, oven de-greasers, floor polishers, drain unblockers, bathroom grime removers, toilet blitzers, tile gleamers, air fresheners, washing powders, fabric conditioners … Our homes are under constant chemical attack.

But we all know that many of the ingredients in conventional cleaning products have a nastier side. Every year, millions of gallons of toxic chemicals from cleaning products are dumped down the drain, ending up in rivers or seas and polluting the water and harming the fish and marine life that live in it. Many products release gases called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause skin, eye and airway irritation, headaches, dizziness and nausea, and they also pollute our indoor air quality – as if we didn’t already have enough to contend with with Hong Kong’s outdoor air quality. So, can we keep our homes clean without wreaking havoc on the environment or damaging our health?

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Speaking to some Hong Kong women, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes”.  Mum Laura Paul says that, over the last ten years, she has made a concerted effort to clean her house in a more eco-friendly way. She explains, “I bought an eco-friendly cleaning spray, just to try, and found it worked better than the chemical-based cleaners – and it was much more gentle on my nose and skin when cleaning the house. When cleaning my house now, I mostly use microfibre static cloths with a bit of water if needed. Our family definitely benefits in many ways. Most importantly, there is less exposure to chemicals by using natural cleaning products.” Laura set up a Facebook group, Healthy Living in HK, to discuss all things health-related – natural cleaning products is one topic that has been covered on the site. From the information she has gleaned, Laura adds, “I am hoping to stop buying ‘eco-friendly’ products all together and just start using natural ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.”

Store cupboard solutions

One Hong Kong mum who is fully versed in the use of vinegar and baking soda – plus a few other staples in the natural cleaning store cupboard – is mum-of-two Barbara Ashbrook. You name the household cleaning challenge and, chances are, she will have an effective, natural solution (see Greening your cleaning on page 45).

Barbara explains, “I suppose I have always used eco-friendly products on my home since my parents made it part of their (and our) day-to-day life. When I moved to Hong Kong, I could not find certain products that I was used to from home, and I was not familiar with brands from Asia, so I went back to my grandmother’s recommendations. I now use things like white vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and lemon juice to tackle most jobs. Fanda pharmacy is getting very suspicious about our excessive use of hydrogen peroxide! We don’t exclusively clean our home in an eco-friendly way, but we try to be very conscious about it. We would like to teach our children – the future generation – about keeping the environment clean, and the impact that ‘regular’ products might have on it. We often point out the sewage in Hong Kong’s harbour and the dead fish that we watch while we are floating from atop the Star Ferry.”

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H2O help

Another Hong Kong mum who has changed her cleaning habits is Therese Tee, but unlike Barbara and Laura, she does not use either eco-friendly or home-made cleaning products. Instead, she uses just water. So how can she be sure her home is clean and free from potentially hazardous germs if she is not zapping them with any sort of bug-busting concoction?

Therese, an ENJO (chemical-free cleaning system) consultant, explains, “I have been using ENJO fibres for the past four years – they have all been certified and tested to remove 99.9 per cent of all dirt and bacteria – and just water. It is the only truly green way to clean your home chemical-free because it uses only water. There is no need to rinse any detergents or chemicals. Other so-called ‘environmentally friendly’ cleaners take up to 28 days to break down in the waterways, and, at the end of the day, they are still chemicals. Would you let your kids drink it? Not to mention the ridiculous amount of rubbish generated from these cleaning products.”

Banishing conventional cleaning products from her household has had benefits, says Therese. “I saw how my eldest daughter Brianna’s dry skin improved … Children are so susceptible to all the residue from chemical cleaners and from breathing all the VOCs in these cleaners. Many adults also complain about the smell of bleach and cleaners making them nauseous. Daily exposure to these toxins that many voluntarily buy and bring into their homes really isn’t healthy.” The amount of chemical cleaning products we are all storing in our cupboards is staggering, according to Therese. She says, “With 2.5 million households in Hong Kong, and on average 20 chemical cleaners and bottles in each household, we are living in a very toxic and hazardous environment in the personal space that is so precious to us that we like to call home.”

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Cutting down on – or kicking – our conventional chemical cleaner dependency could have many benefits. It would give a much-needed helping hand to our beleaguered environment and our homes may become healthier spaces. But you don’t have to go completely cold turkey, switching from industrial strength bleach to old-school baking soda overnight. Barbara concludes, “If every family did just a little bit, the future environment for our children would look brighter.”

Greening your cleaning

Barbara Ashbrook offers the following tips to keep things spick-and-span, using just a few simple household ingredients, such as baking soda, white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide.

• To clean windows: put equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Simply spray on, then dry with a soft cloth.
• To remove bathroom mould: put three parts vinegar and two parts water in a spray bottle, spray onto mould, leave for half an hour and rinse off.
• To clean floors: mix half a cup of hydrogen peroxide with five litres of water for a mild floor wash.
• To clean furniture: dust with a damp cloth.
• To polish wood: give it a coat of beeswax when spring cleaning.
• To unblock drains: mix one cup of salt and half a cup of baking soda, pour down the drain, then pour down a kettle full of boiling water.
• To clean burnt baking trays and saucepans: put a layer of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide on the tray and let it sit for half an hour. Add more baking soda over the top, then wait a bit longer. When you scrub it off, it will look like new.
• To clean sterling silver: put a layer of aluminium foil in the bottom of a small bowl, cover with one cup of hot water and one tablespoon each of salt, baking soda and dishwashing detergent. Let the jewellery sit on the foil for ten minutes, then rinse in cool water and dry with a soft cloth.
• To get rid of the “boy bathroom” smell: mix a paste of baking soda and lemon juice (consistency should be like a pancake mix). Spread the paste over the toilet right down to the floor, leave for 15 minutes, then spray with white vinegar and let it fizz. Once it has stopped fizzing, wipe with a damp cloth.
• To soften clothes: use white vinegar instead of fabric conditioner. Barbara says, “It does the same job as shop-bought fabric softener, and it doesn’t clog the washing machine. I was told this by a top maintenance guy years ago, and I have used it ever since. The clothes won’t smell of vinegar.”
• To get stains out of white fabric: soak fabric in three per cent hydrogen peroxide before washing.

Rachel Kenney

Rachel Kenney

Rachel was born on a stormy night in Bristol in the south west of England, and grew into a quirky child who used to clean the bottoms of her shoes and hold her breath until she fainted. Aged three, she said she wanted to be a cow when she grew up (which, hopefully, did not come true!), but later settled for a career in journalism and has since worked for a variety of publications. Rachel loves travelling (which is strange, considering her extreme fear of flying) and has managed to pack a two-and-a-half year backpacking stint, nearly five years of expat living in Hong Kong, and as many holidays as practicable into her life so far. Married with two children, Rachel spends her spare time drinking too many lattes and planning her next escape.