Cleaning dissected

At the core of any cleaning product is the surfactant. It can be any chemical, such as soap, which has the ability to lower the surface tension of water. Instead of forming round drops on the surface of materials, the surfactant will make water spread out and wet the material more efficiently so it can dissolve water soluble soils faster. Surfactants have schizophrenic molecules: one side of the molecule hates oil and loves water (hydrophilic), the other hates water and loves oil (lipophilic). This property allows surfactants to emulsify a solution, or to break down the water and oil molecules into small drops so they appear to be combined. When you add a drop of liquid soap to a pan filled with greasy water you can see how quickly the oil floating on the surface breaks into tiny droplets… so you can imagine the same grease spot on a dish or a favorite shirt. Since one side of the soap molecule is holding onto the oil and the other won’t let go of the water, all it takes is a little mechanical action such as scrubbing, the rotation of the washing machine drum, or the pressurized jets of water in the dishwasher, to dislodge the grease. All? Well, not quite.

Tap water is never pure H2O. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium are present to varying degrees. Water with a high mineral content is called “hard,” and for a surfactant to work properly water must be “softened.” The minerals must be rendered harmless either by sequestering them within the solution (by surrounding them) by precipitating them (transforming them into insoluble particles which drop out of the solution) or by ion exchange (swapping electrically charged ions to prevent the minerals from interfering with the surfactant). Traditional soap, defined as animal or vegetable fat saponified with sodium or potassium hydroxide, is particularly sensitive to hard water. This is why, despite the plethora of DIY recipes calling for soap, I will not use it in a machine. More on this later.

Detergents are much less sensitive to minerals than soap, but they still need soft water to work efficiently. The minerals tend to latch on to the surfactant molecules, preventing them from grabbing onto soils. There is a dizzying selection of surfactants made by the chemical giants of the industrialized world. Often these are skin irritants, but for most people only in much higher concentrations than those used in the end product.

“Builders” are chemicals added to enhance a surfactant’s cleaning power, primarily by softening the water. They include many types of phosphates, EDTA (a persistent organic pollutant because it does not biodegrade easily and it is widely used) but also less harmful chemicals like sodium carbonate (washing soda, which precipitates the minerals), borax and citric acid. Zeolite, a volcanic or man-made mineral with a honeycomb structure and a negative electrical charge, is used for ion exchange.

After the minerals have been dealt with and the soils have been lifted, the next step is to prevent everything from redepositing on clothes, dishes, or the machine. The white haze visible on clear glasses comes from the calcium settling back into place after the water has been rinsed off. Different chemicals are used to prevent redeposition, but the one I use is called methyl cellulose (or CMC for carboxy methyl cellulose) because it can also be used to make very pretty slime, marbleize paper and even delicious food.

Two more elements for proper cleaning don’t necessarily require a chemical solution: time and heat. A burnt pot of rice is impossible to clean, but if you soak it overnight the crust comes off effortlessly. Even with soap, bacon fat will stick to the pan till hot water is used to dissolve the grease. The problem is we often don’t have enough time to soak everything overnight, and we don’t want to use hot water either (to save energy or the color on delicate fabrics). The solution? More chemicals. Triethanolamine (aka TEA) is used as a low temperature activator and doubles as an anti soil redeposition agent but it is caustic and needs to be handled with great care.

Commercial cleaners then throw in a few extra features: enzymes break down certain molecules which helps remove stains, blue dye or optical brighteners are added to make white appear brighter (a bluish white seems brighter to our eyes than a yellowish white), and finally anti corrosion chemicals are added to protect not only the machines, but metal finishes on dishes and the paint on fine porcelain). Sodium metalsilicate is commonly used to protect metals from corrosion, but boric acid, sold in hardware stores as a cockroach killer, is a possible substitute. I prefer to use enzymes in pre-wash sprays, because they work much better when applied directly to stains, and when given time to work before being diluted and washed away. As for optical brighteners, putting a small amount of old fashioned bluing into the bleach compartment of the machine works just as well.

Scent does not effect cleanliness in any way, but it does influence the perception of cleanliness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV ad for a detergent which did not include a shot of someone ecstatically sniffing laundry. Removing scent is a big advantage of making your own detergent, because it is often responsible for irritating sensitive skin.  If you really can’t get used to neutral smelling laundry, you can mix 1/4 tsp essential oil with a drop of soap in a cup of water and spritz your clean, dry clothes with it.


The dreaded phone call

It happened last week. My husband got the dreaded phone call from school, and picked up the boys immediately. When I arrived home, expecting an hour or two of quiet work, I was confronted by all the members of my household, wet, nude, each in very different states of mind. My husband was flustered, my elder son close to hysterics, and my younger son was overjoyed, dancing around and singing, not minding at all the special shampoo which they all had to keep on for ten minutes.

Pediculus humanus. Head lice.

Here I must admit to something shameful: I had been hoping for this day to come, because there were various remedies I wanted to try out. So at first I was a little annoyed that my husband had already bought and applied medicated shampoo which contained pyrethrum extract (the same chemical ancient Roman soldiers rubbed on their heads) and piperonyl butoxide.

Here’s the difference between theory and practice: when you comb your child’s hair and the dandruff which falls out starts to scurry away, the last thing you want to do is start blending an exotic mix of oils and herbs. All rational thoughts about avoiding exposure to poisons fly out the window and you will want to run out and buy anything and everything which will immediately kill, kill, KILL! Still, just because my boys had already been treated with the standard insecticidal soap didn’t mean I couldn’t supplement with my own concoctions.

I had some Neem oil, a dark greenish oil from India, which I’d bought to help relieve eczema symptoms and to make a bug spray for my plants. It repels insects but its strong garlicky smell repels most humans too, which is a plus for lice. Close head to head contact should be avoided, so stinky hair is desirable. But Neem does much more. I couldn’t take the time to mix it up with anything and just rubbed it pure right on both boys scalps. It was a bit itchy at first (it should normally be cut with another oil such as coconut or olive oil) but it went to work quickly: within 20 minutes, the nits, tiny little eggs which female lice glue to the bottom of the hair shaft, were sliding off instead of needing to be yanked out with the hair. By the next day the oil had completely cleared all the dandruff away, which made it much easier to look for the stray louse, the tiny nits and all the teenage nymphs and nymphettes. But there’s more! Neem doesn’t actually kill bugs but it messes with their hormones, preventing them from moulting, which they need to do four times before they can reproduce at the grand old age of 8 to 9 days. This will keep them from making a comeback in case an egg or two escaped notice during the hours spent nit-picking.

Which brings me to the most important line of defense: no matter what chemical you apply there is sure to be one or two resistant bugs, three or four hardy little eggs left. That’s all it takes to start up a new colony. Tie up you own hair, settle down by a good light with a good book, then pick away, checking every single hair on the head, preferably several times in a row, then twice a day for at least a week. The comb above won the gold medal at the 1926 Düsseldorf Health Exhibition, and it’s still the best around. Even so it won’t pull everything out. You’ll need to use your fingernails to pull out nits one at a time. The “gross” factor disappears quickly, replaced by a strange, primal contentment. Nit-picking is a very soothing activity. The little eggs crunched between fingernails give a most satisfying pop. I’m almost sad they’re all gone.

A cute, fuzzy bug

Seems so innocent, right? Well, this bug is responsible for the 1980s look of all my softest sweaters. It has an innate sense for which wools cost the most and will snack on those, leaving all the best sweaters, suits, scarves and rugs riddled with unfashionable holes. This bug is also responsible for my recent silence. I have been too busy (and angry) waging a war against them to do much of anything else. This is the carpet beetle.

What to do when you are under attack? Clean!

It took me three weeks to wash every single item of clothing and piece of fabric in the house. Sweaters are difficult, because to get rid of eggs clothes must go into the dryer on high heat. So after washing them and drying them in the sun and vacuuming them I wrapped them in freezer bags and cooked them in the microwave. I collect fabric and I have a whole lot of yarn, so that all got zapped too. To my dog’s dismay I vacuumed the whole place over and over, moving every single piece of furniture and even turning everything upside down to vacuum underneath. Every single closet, every drawer was emptied, cleaned, then dusted with boric acid and diatomaceous earth. I also blew that powder under furniture, into all the cracks I could find (under moulding, between floorboards) and into electrical boxes.

So now my apartment is cleaner than it has EVER been, and I have isolated, under seal, a whole bunch of holy sweaters, which I couldn’t bring myself to throw out. My plan is to learn to felt and turn them into hats, pillows, and blankets. If you have any other ideas for reusing ruined sweaters, let me know!

Note: I take 99% of the photos in this blog — but the featured image on this post comes from Susannah Anderson, who takes some very nice bug pictures.

The Daily Grind

The trouble with making everything yourself is that you’re stuck making stuff whether you feel like it or not… I should have thought of that before I started this project. After messing up this website and loosing all the nice comments people had written I had to drop everything because the kitchen counters were filthy and I had run out of cleaner. Luckily this recipe is easy and quick, and only costs 63 cents for a 32 oz spray bottle:

Dissolve 2 teaspoons of washing soda (sodium carbonate, which is more alkaline than sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda) with 3 cups of warm water, directly in a clean, empty spray bottle. Add 2 tablespoons of liquid soap and mix gently, unless you love bubbles, in which case you should shake it vigorously. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of citric acid in 1 cup of warm water then pour it into your spray bottle. You can use 1 cup of distilled vinegar instead of the citric acid and water mix if you prefer.

Now it’s back to web design for me, as I try to set up without disrupting this site again.

Liquid gold

Urea is a very interesting chemical, widely used in moisturizers and in products ranging from dishwashing detergent (it increases the solubility of protein molecules) to toothpaste (it has whitening properties) chewing gum (not sure what it does there) and even barbiturates (combined with malic acid). It is produced in our liver as a way of eliminating ammonia, then it is filtered out through the kidneys into our pee, or liquid gold as some people call it. The chemical was discovered back in 1773 by Hillaire Rouelle when he observed white crystals left over after all the liquid in urine had evaporated. If he could do it, surely I could too! For some reason I liked the idea of making hand and face cream with my own waste product. This experiment had to remain secret of course, because I was aware that most members of my family would not share my enthusiasm. I very discreetly started to boil down about a half a cup of pee in one of our enameled pots. Unfortunately, although the fresh urine had no odor, the fumes from the evaporation did. When urea breaks down, I soon discovered, it releases toxic fumes. The apartment became unbreathable and there was no way to hide what I’d done. No pretty white crystals for me, only a brownish, malodorous goo that my dog wanted to lick.

In our entire life together, I had never seen my husband so angry. He did not say a word. He just looked at the pot, looked at me, his face turned gray and then he stalked away without saying a word or even slamming the front door. He was gone for several hours. As I nervously flapped towels around to circulate the air, I thought I might have taken the wrong approach. Urea is now produced commercially by combining ammonia with carbon dioxide.

“Would it work if I filled a bottle with ammonia and carbonated it with my seltzer maker?” I wondered. In the interest of my marriage, I decided not to try. Please don’t try either… but if you decide to experiment despite this warning, do let me know the results because I am curious!

Testicular atrophy

I am not the first to try to compile an exhaustive collection of recipes, tricks and formulas for total self-sufficiency and knowledge — in fact these books were quite popular at the turn of the (previous) century, and as part of my research I discovered a very charming one, Henley’s Twentieth Century Formulas, Recipes and Processes, an 800+ page treasury of fascinating cultural and chemical tidbits published in 1914.  The book contains recipes for mysterious concoctions (toilet milk?), and passing, matter of fact allusions to child labor. Then there are descriptions of formulas containing what we know now to be deadly poisons. Although we might chuckle and look down at the ignorance of the past, I find it, on the contrary, to be sobering. What chemicals now in use are hurting us? “New and improved” is advertised on products. “New and untested” would be more accurate. In 70 years our grandchildren will look back in disbelief: “I can’t believe they actually put 2 butoxyethanol in their cleaners!” they’ll shake their heads and cluck their tongues. That is, if they are born…. 2 butoxyethanol causes testicular atrophy… it’s a good thing for men they so rarely clean the toilet!

This is one reason I have become addicted to making everything myself, using only ingredients I trust, and why I’m writing this book. Now “Fantastic” gives me a headache. Even if it didn’t save me hundreds of dollars a year I would make my own products — I like my brain cells, and I want those grandchildren!

I liked this book so much I republished it. After almost 100 years it was naturally out of print and also no longer under copyright. I cut it down a bit (though the hard cover version is unabridged) wrote an introduction, and made it available to all….