Delving deeper than decor to explore the power of home as a path to wellbeing #happyinside

December 31, 2021

Clean: a dirty business

Some people have laundry liquids for whites and separate ones for colours, scented fabric conditioners, specialist silk and wool washes, even distilled lavender water to pour into deluxe steam irons. Not to forget fragrant polishes for wood, more for stainless steel and pretty microfibre cloths for glass.

These are my people. For I’m not remotely ashamed to admit that I love to clean. The hum of the washing machine and converting tangled dirtiness into soft stacks of neatly folded clothing is my kind of happy.

After all, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best ways to appreciate your home is to touch it. Because, through the gleam of shiny stainless steel and the sparkle of clear windows you can begin the all-important journey of emotionally engaging with your home. Putting my house in order feels like putting myself in order, it grants me solace. I choose to view it as a form of walking meditation.

In other words, cleaning is the act of tending myself through the medium of my possessions. It acknowledges the importance of my home as my sanctuary and is my pathway to a state of mindful contentment.

Quite the conversion then to see me relinquish all my beloved fancy unguents for five fantastically mundane items in rather ugly packaging: liquid soap, washing soda, Citric acid, white vinegar and eco bleach (a plant-based oxidising whitener not to be confused with chlorine bleach). After all you have to use different products for different surfaces and fabric softener is a must, right? Wrong. So very wrong, as I soon discovered.

Liquid soap and washing soda are all I’ve used for my laundry since my epiphany (details on ow to use in my #cleancleaning Highlights on Instagram) . And my washing has never been cleaner or softer. And the run off is 100% safe and clean too. White rubber gloves from Lakeland.

It all began two years ago when I was writing Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness, a lifestyle guide based on my belief that your home environment is as fundamental to your wellbeing as good food and exercise. It is the third pillar for a balanced life. Albeit one often overlooked despite the following statistics: 1. We spend 90% of our time indoors; 2. the average home is more polluted inside, than a busy street corner outside due to the build-up of toxins therein.

Pollutants like the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released by some household paints, MDF and new carpets (plus the adhesives used to fix them). Throw in domestic cleaning sprays, artificial air fresheners and perfume, the particles given off by paraffin-wax based candles and the nitrogen dioxide emitted by gas hobs and wood burners. Plus, pollen, mould, viruses, general dust, cigarette smoke or pet dander.

It’s a situation that’s exacerbated in the winter when the heating goes on and windows are rarely opened. In fact, according to the Royal College of Physicians in London, the passive inhalation of contaminated indoor air in Europe has been linked to 40,000 deaths a year. The quality of our indoor air is thus more important than ever, especially as society shifts towards increased working from home. Quite simply, you are what you breathe.

Let’s start with bleach, cheap and sat on every supermarket shelf. I’d thought it was pretty anodyne suff. But inadvertently combine it with other cleaning products and the effect can be lethal. It can even make the highly toxic Chlorine gas (used as a weapon in World War 1) if you mix it with ammonia, as found in your wee! Yet many happily tip it down the loo thinking they’re being hygienic.

clean cleaning

Plant-based dish washing cleaning bar from EcoLiving; Ecover washing liquid. Wooden brush from local hardware store.

Nonetheless, it was only in 2002 that the United Nations introduced the “Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals” aka the hazard graphics displayed on the back of such products. But do you look at them? Check the ingredients? Or heed the recommendations to ventilate and wear gloves or eye protection as is often suggested in small print beneath those shouty symbols?

Of course, you don’t. No-one does. Which is what the brands are banking on. Literally. These safety claxons are nothing more than an industry liability waiver, like the horrific warning pictures on cigarette boxes. Buy at your own peril, they simper, we’re being open about the dangers. Except, most people do not expect common household products to potentially increase their vulnerability to everything from headaches and allergies to chronic respiratory problems, diabetes and cancer.

Think I’m being unduly alarmist? In 2019 Breast Cancer UK submitted a paper to UK Parliament on the daily health risks posed by the hormone disrupting chemicals commonly found in cleaners and other products. It subsequently published a list of chemicals to avoid on its website.

The thing is, we’re busy and if there’s a readymade, inexpensive solution to our limescale, and it comes in a handy squirty bottle, then we’re sold. Add in a nice scent and we’re hooked. Except, there are equally convenient alternatives (plant-derived Citric acid) that do the job quicker, cheaper and contain absolutely nothing that requires PPE to use it. This was my revelation.

clean cleaning

All-purpose cleaning spray made from 1 part white vinegar to 9 parts filtered water. Add a dash of dish soap and I put a few drops of lavender essential oil for natural fragrance. Note: lemon peel previously added to the vinegar to neutralise the fish shop smell! Bottle is a re-used Method product bottle.

In line with this, it behoves us to question our relationship with dirt? You don’t need a sterile toilet bowl, just a clean one. Unless you’re working on a building site, farm or underground, how dirty do your clothes really get? And why are so many of us convinced that ‘clean’ smells exotic like ylang ylang or frangipani flowers? Historically scent was used to mask odour, today it’s added to play on our fear of odour. To me, ‘clean’ smells of nothing, like fresh air.

What’s ironic is that most scented products and air fresheners are anything but the cleansing purifiers they profess to be. If it doesn’t explicitly state that a fragrance is plant-based, then it’s a synthetic by-product of the petroleum industry. Air fumigators would be a more accurate description.

For example, if you look up the data safety sheet for Zoflora, the concentrated disinfectant that claims to “eliminate foul odours with a freshening power that will last all day”, every single one of its scents is qualified as “may produce an allergic reaction”. The liquid and vapour itself is highly flammable, it’s classified as a Class 2 skin and eye irritant and is deemed chronically toxic to aquatic life. And yet, thanks to so-called #cleanfluencers, it’s become fashionable to pour this stuff neat down every sink possible in pursuit of an unnaturally pristine and perfumed home.

Not to forget that constantly bashing bacteria into submission with ever stronger agents claiming to kill 99.9% of all known germs, purportedly gives rise to antibiotic-resistant super bugs, something the World Health Organisation calls “a looming crisis in which common infections are becoming life-threatening.” Besides, washing with soap and warm water works just as well, with no known side effects to human nor fish.

clean cleaning

Filming with Joe Crowley for ITV Tonight, “What’s in Our Water’ Screened 28 October 2021. See a clip in my Instagram #toxiccleaning Highlights

In fact, most bacteria are beneficial; our immune systems need a degree of dirt to make them strong. It’s why playing outside and having pets is good for kids, versus antiseptic environments proven to make them more susceptible to allergies, eczema and asthma. Nevertheless, we’re bombarded with antibacterial sanitiser at every turn ignoring even the age-old advice to clean before you disinfect (disinfection may kill the germs, but it does not remove them), the latter being only really appropriate in a healthcare setting.

It’s a similar story if we look at mainstream laundry detergents: synthetic chemical cocktails designed to keep dirt suspended in water. In truth, your washing machine does most of the work. The detergent just helps it to be more efficient. But that sweet-smelling liquid also contains bleaching agents, enzymes, artificial fragrance, dye and other chemicals to make it all stick together, inhibit corrosion and create bubbles.

All of which (plus the lint and microplastics shed from non-natural fibre clothing) flows into our sewers, ultimately contributing to the persistent bio-accumulative chemical waste destroying our aquatic ecosystem.

In 2009 even DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) commissioned a report into reducing the environmental impact of clothes washing citing “eutrophication and other toxity impacts due to washing detergents” as “significant”. Eutrophication being the name for the murky waters and excess algae that prevents the light penetration and oxygen absorption required for underwater life.

Add in the 150 million bottles of Procter & Gamble’s Fairy Liquid used and flushed each year in the UK alone, and the problem becomes clear. It may be good for dishes but it’s absolutely poisonous to fishes (it says so on the back of every bottle!). Although Fairy claims to be biodegradable, and complies with EU guidelines in this respect, those guidelines request only that a product degrade by between 60-80 per cent in 28 days. That seems like an awful lot of time to do some damage to me. But we don’t know exactly what’s in it, because P&G do not have to tell us.

And if you think the water treatment plants sort it all out, think again. Overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with growing populations as well as the rising chemical toxicity of our waste, not only can few facilities cope but they’re legally allowed to discharge raw sewage into the sea after heavy rainfall to avoid the system backing up. It’s a loophole that’s been routinely, and blatantly, exploited. According to the Environment Agency, as reported in The Guardian, untreated effluent, including poo, condoms and wet wipes, was released into our waterways more than 400,000 times (or more than three million hours) in 2020 alone.

Photographs from my FT How to Spend It feature. Photographer Chris Brooks.

But here’s the good news. If you use good old-fashioned liquid soap and washing soda (sodium carbonate), the run-off is entirely pollutant free! The soda naturally softens the water which helps the soap to clean. Your machine does the rest. I’ve been cheerfully laundering everything this way since my enlightenment!

And my clothes — colours, wool, delicates — have never been cleaner or softer. PS that commercial softener? It contains emulsifiers (often derived from animal fat) and alcohol ethoxylates, both of which can increase fabric flammability, coating your clothes and cumulatively destroying the fibres. Besides, if you’ve softened your water with soda, it’s entirely unnecessary; tried, tested and personally vouched for.

In the end I concluded that brands make these synthetic and chemically laden products because they can churn them out for pence and sell them to us for pounds. And we buy into it seduced by rabid marketing. The shareholder bottom line is their main motivator, and the claim of proprietary information allows the concentration of allergens or composition of fragrances, to be considered trade secrets, which does little to foster transparency.

To mitigate this there’s been a lot of au courant brand eco speak. However, it mostly concerns the improved recyclability of packaging, or how concentrated laundry pods reduce emissions due to more efficient transportation. There’s been little heard about really green alternatives to lower water pollution. But change must come. A recent US class action lawsuit against SC Johnson, owner of Method, touted as “future-friendly products designed to smell like sunshine and work like magic”, forced it to remove its claims to be non-toxic, and settle damages to consumers to the tune of $2.25m accordingly. Small change to them, but a greenwashing point has been made.

Make no mistake, we are all products of our environment, so anything we use to clean ourselves or our homes ultimately ends up in our water, inadvertently ingested or inhaled. So, while we wait for the pharmaceutical behemoths to develop a conscience, or our governments to tighten lax legislation (don’t hold your breath, pun intended), I figured I’d clean up my own act first and revert to ingredients that have been safely used for centuries.

But perhaps most importantly, my pleasure in keeping my home clean has been heightened considerably by knowing that nothing I use knowingly contributes to pollution, inside or out.

Portrait in my garden. Photographer Marianna Wahlsten.

Next step? Becoming a zerowaste household! I’ve learnt that it’s all very well to recycle but refusing, reducing and reusing is top of the eco tree. Thus far I’ve got a composter for food waste, a wormery for dog poop (who knew!), I buy all my fruit and vegetables loose to avoid single-use plastics, found my local refill stores and tracked down where to properly recycle almost everything else. I’ve even discovered air purifying household paints (Graphenstone)!

And why am I doing all of this? As Shoukei Matsumoto, Zen Buddhist and author of A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, puts it, “Life is a daily training ground, and we are each composed of the very actions we take in life. If you live carelessly your mind will be soiled, but if you try to live conscientiously, it will slowly become pure again. If you heart is pure, the world looks brighter. If your world is bright, you can be kinder to others.”

clean cleaning Hitlist

Citric Acid

Limescale buster extraordinaire! I tbsp dissolved in water in your kettle will have it looking like new. Likewise for clean taps. For your loo: sprinkle, leave 10 mins to soak, quick scrub et voila, pristine bowls. No bleach required.

Liquid soap

The workhorse of the #cleancleaning armoury. Use for everything from laundry and floor and surface cleaning to making your own hand wash and shower gel.  Make sure it’s plant-based though.

Washing soda

Aka soda crystals/Sodium Carbonate. Use to soften laundry water to ‘lift’ dirt from clothes. Amazing as an overnight soak for residue thick oven trays. Just wipe in the morning for instant gleam. Also ace for keeping drains clear, removing algae from paths and cleaning the oven. Use gloves when handling.

Baking soda

Aka Sodium Bicarbonate. Milder than washing soda. Use to deodorise and clean harder to rinse/more delicate surfaces, eg areas used by pets or children, food prep surfaces, plus silver jewellery, aluminium, chrome and stainless steel. PS baking Powder is Sodium Bicarbonate PLUS an additional raising agent, so don’t get confused and pay a premium buying this from the cooking aisle!

White vinegar

Perfect for a general cleaning spray/window wash (1 part vinegar to 9 parts water, plus a squirt of liquid soap). Ensure your vinegar is pure though; just add lemon peel to neutralise the smell if desired. Great for pet urine stains/any residual odour too.

Eco bleach

Brilliant for stain removal, even on coloured fabrics. Add 2 tbsp to your general whites wash to brighten. Use anywhere else you might previously have used chlorine bleach.

Fast fact

If all UK citizens currently washing their clothes at 40°C instead washed them at
30°C, we’d save 12 percent of the energy consumed by clothes washing per annum. (Defra Report 2009)

A version of this piece first appeared in the Financial Time How to Spend It magazine. Published 23 October 2021. 

Financial Times How to Spend it Magazine. 23 October 2021. The Green Issue.


10 replies »

  1. Excellent piece! I hope it gets traction, too, in the wider media, this stuff is really important. We’ve been usine Ecover for years and with the arrival of a local refil shop do not need a new bottle each time. It is also really important to keep immune systems going; I’m sure that so many people get ill so often because of over-zealous chemical cleaning products. Go Michelle! Gx

  2. Hi Michelle – thank you for a hugely informative and easily digestible piece which has opened my eyes to some new products which I’ll now use….I have been steadily getting rid of toxic cleaning products myself but didn’t know about the detergent and bleach alternatives. Having a clean and tidy home does indeed deliver clarity of thinking and I agree that ‘mindful contentment’ can be the result of engaging emotionally with our homes; getting rid of needless clutter and only having what is ‘both useful and beautiful’ is key – although my young Labrador puppy is only one of those things currently…..but he gets me out of the house on our twice daily walks so I think that works in his favour!
    Thank you for your fresh and interesting perspective – Judy

  3. My mother, who will be 90 in April has always used Soda Crystals, as have I for the last 30 years. My sister has always had a sensitivity to cleaning products, which would cause outbreaks of extreme eczema, & hayfever. So even in the early 70’s, we as a family had to be cautious of which products we used. ‘man-made’ products like ‘shake n Vac’, were totally toxic to have floating through the airways.
    My sister was also sensitive to fabrics & even though mum had very little money, she had to find a way of providing her with cotton blankets & silk gloves, to stop her from scratching & breaking her skin.
    I worked as a civil engineer & left the profession because of the extensive of VOC’s.
    I am am of the ilk that we do need to move away from using fabrications for external & internal infrastructure which depends heavily on VOC’s. But the need to supply quick, cheap accommodation as well as the lack of space & natural raw materials, seem to mean that this will be a steep hill to climb, if we want to reverse the damage this causes as well as address the climate issue.
    Along with the depletion of the quality of the soil we grow our food, there is an even greater depletion in the quality of the environment we live in. The sudden move to sustainability does not always meañ that something is environmentally friendly. Less is definitely more.
    But how do we put an end to the senseless advertising of these harmful products.

    • I think the best we can do is continuously vote with our wallets. Refuse to buy these products. tell everyone we know not to buy these products. And keep the faith that change must come.

  4. Really interesting and thought provoking article. I’d like to know how to use liquid soap in a washing machine as this definitely a change I would like to make.

  5. Enormously helpful. I’m a huge fan of the New York company The Laundress; however given their expense, I use their products judiciously. Your tutorial provides an affordable balance of equally effective, non toxic/destructive products.

    I share with you my 2022 Happy New Year wish: “Let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what is next.” – Amanda Gorman

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Writer, Author, Brand Consultant & TV Presenter

Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as an authority on interiors, trends, wellbeing and style. She is an influencer with expertise and the multi award-winning former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK.