How much of acid and germicides must a natural floor cleaner or detergent have? Here is a simple framework to help you with your own concoctions

I re-purpose a favourite movie title for the theme of this article, “How I stopped worrying and started loving natural ingredients”. In my last column, I wrote about a must-have list of natural ingredients for the home and simple recommendations for your laundry, which also helped save water. I was inundated with reader responses asking how they could implement this in their homes. A transition from using chemical products for several years to switching over to plant-based herbs requires patience and confidence. In order to help the process, I have created a simple framework describing the four essential components of house-hold cleaning products along with suggested natural herbs and ingredients.

The Surfactant

A surfactant will form the core of any cleaning product you create. A typical cleaning formulation would contain 70 to 80 per cent by weight of the surfactant. In simple terms a surfactant helps reduce surface tension between two entities like a liquid and a solid. In a laundry detergent, the surfactant helps remove the dirt from the clothes which cannot be achieved with plain water. Another property of surfactants is emulsification. In the laundry example, emulsification is the process by which dirt removed from clothes is prevented from again re-depositing on the clothes. In nature Soapberries, Shikakkai and even papaya leaf have surfactant properties. Surfactants added to water and agitated produce some foam.

The foaming property is a quick and easy test of the surfactant and in my experience soapberry powder is the most potent naturally-occurring surfactant. Soapberry powder is recommended for laundry as it does not dye the clothes like Shikakkai.

The Acid

An acidic component is a great booster in many cleaning applications. Lemon juice is a terrific acid and is of course safe and abundant in our homes. The acid helps remove stubborn grease around the home on clothes, dishes, tiles and glass surfaces. Lemon juice has bleaching properties and can be judiciously used to make white clothes whiter. It is a natural alternative to chlorine-based bleaches used in many household chemical products. The juice of Indian gooseberry (Nellikkai) is another natural acid. It has several unique properties although it could be more expensive or difficult to procure throughout the year. Vinegar is another mild acidic liquid readily available but I would not qualify it as a natural ingredient in the strict sense of the term. Peels of citric fruits like lemon, orange can also be used in place of juice. For any cleaning product you concoct, about 5 per cent of the formulation by weight can be acidic.

Germ Kill

Bugs, insects, germs, microbes, bacteria, viruses and fungi are all around our homes. A safe broad-spectrum natural germicide or insect –repellant is needed on a daily basis. For thousands of years, neem leaf powder or neem oil has helped Indians ward off germs. It is safe, economical, abundant and effective. A pinch of neem leaf powder in a dishwash mixture or floor cleaner will provide protection from germs. Neem oil is a very potent extract and should be used with some caution and in very small dosages. Between 10 to 15 per cent of your product can contain the germicidal ingredient.

De-odorising / Fragrance

Cleaning dishes or removing dirt in unused corners is a smelly activity and a pleasant fragrance at the end is highly appreciated. A few drops of essential oils are ideal natural fragrances and can be added to any cleaning product. Citronella or Eucalyptus oil for floor cleaning, lavender for laundry are time-tested suggestions. Do remember that essential oils are very concentrated extracts and use only a few drops at a time.

Test before you leap

As a general rule natural products are very safe and easy to use although I recommend that you always do a simple patch test and ingredient-specific research before trying a new combination. For example, if you have created a batch of tile and floor cleaner test it out on one small corner of a room and proceed after you are happy with the results.

I believe that sustainable urban living is within everyone’s reach. I hope that this simple framework will help you embrace natural products and grow to love them as much as I do.