How To

Use Baking Soda, Vinegar, and Other Pantry Staples to Fix and Clean Your Whole House

Image by Aqua Mechanical / Flickr

Take a look in the cupboard under your kitchen sink. See all those cleaning products in overly elaborate plastic bottles? You probably don’t need most of them, except the bleach.

Pretty much any regular cleaning job around the home can be done with a handful of pantry staples. Baking soda and vinegar are the MVPs, but even rye flour and a walnut (yes, a walnut) can be viable substitutes for commercial cleaning products. In many cases they do the job better.

Baking Soda: Toilets, Grease Stains, Scratches, and Odors

Baking soda, a.k.a. bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate, is a household wonder. At a very basic level, you can, as kids know, mix it with an acid like vinegar to create an explosion of CO2 that can raise a cake, unblock a toilet, or propel a rocket.

Because baking soda is an alkaline salt, it breaks down grease. You can use it as a make-do alternative to dishwashing detergent. More practically, it can remove grease stains from clothes. In fact, pretty much any time you need to use detergent for cleaning, you can substitute baking soda. You can even use it as a replacement for hair shampoo, but there’s an even better option for that, as we’ll see later.

Baking soda is also slightly abrasive, so you can use it to polish out shallow scratches (though test on a small area first, especially on shiny metal, to check for discoloration first). Another use for baking soda is as a deodorizer. It can soak up and neutralize smells, so some folks leave an open cup of it in the refrigerator. And even if you use commercial cleaners elsewhere, baking soda  is good for cleaning the fridge because it leaves no odors of its own. Who wants their meat to smell like grapefruit, or their milk to smell like lemons?

What else can baking soda do? The applications are endless, to be honest—just Google for baking soda and whatever thing for which you lack the “proper” cleaning solution. But here’s a good one to remember, in terms of what baking soda does. To freshen up a carpet, sprinkle it with baking soda, leave it for a while, then vacuum it. Commercial carpet-cleaning powders—like Shake n Vac in the UK—are pretty much just sodium bicarbonate with a fragrance, and some filler.

A few other baking soda fixes from our iFixit community: cleaning hair irons and baking sheets, unclogging a sink, fixing plastic chair cracks.

Vinegar and Lemon Juice: Grout, Rusty Kitchen Knives, and Descaling Everything

Vinegar and lemon juice are both very strong acids, which makes them excellent for one common household task: descaling stuff. Unless you have very soft water, eventually limescale deposits will build up in your kettle, your faucet, your Brita filter jug, your glass shower door, the tiled bathroom floor where your glass shower door drips, and so on. Wherever water has left its mark, that’s when you call in these tangy helpers. 

For the electric kettle, I like to use lemon juice, because even if it leaves a residue, my tea will still taste delicious. For everything else, I use white or “distilled” vinegar (fact: not actually distilled), because it’s a lot cheaper than lemon juice. Apple cider vinegar will do the job in a pinch, but you may as well just buy the strongest vinegar sold at the store, and then water it down if you need to. I recently descaled the lid and lips of my filtered water jug by diluting vinegar into a shallow bath (in a Pyrex baking dish), then leaving everything to soak for several hours. Just be patient, and maybe brush or swirl things around occasionally.

The biggest problem with vinegar and lemon juice is in the application: It just won’t stick. For a glass shower screen, you’ll just have to persevere, and lay things flat if you can. You might think of using a trigger spray bottle to apply it, but that puts an acid mist into the air. Neat vinegar might taste great on French fries, but it’s a very potent acid, with a typical pH of around 2.2. For comparison, lemon juice has a pH of 2.0, and sulfuric acid of 1.0. The scale runs from 0-14, with 0 being the most acid, 14 the most alkaline, and 7 being neutral (pure water). So, you do not want to breath in vinegar mist.

Also, you should never, ever mix any acid with bleach. Do that, and you’ll produce chlorine gas, which is very bad for you, especially in an enclosed, poorly-ventilated space like a shower cubicle.

Back to clever applications. To descale the opening of a faucet, you can use an actual lemon, cut in half and held under the opening with a rubber band. In other gravity-challenged cases, soaking a sponge with vinegar and letting it sit on the target area can work well.

While we’re in the bathroom, you might try applying vinegar to your tile, then working baking soda and water into a paste and working it into tile grout with an old toothbrush. It will come up lovely and white. If your paste is not spread-able enough, you can mix in a bit of dish soap (see, it’s good for something!).

One other great use for a lemon is to removing the rust from a carbon steel knife. Actually, it stabilizes the rust into a protective patina. Just stick the rusty knife into a lemon, covering the rust spots, and leave it for a while. Any acid will work, but a lemon is extremely convenient, as long as the knife blade isn’t too long. Years ago, I used this trick on a carbon steel Opinel folding knife, and it rarely rusts any more.

Image via WikiMedia

Another good use for vinegar is to deep clean your humidifier. Venta, the manufacture of the excellent Airwasher humidifier, even recommends using diluted white vinegar [PDF] in place of its own proprietary Venta Cleaner product.

One common use for vinegar should probably be avoided: cleaning windows. The quickest and easiest way to clean a window is to use soapy water, scrub it with a sponge, and then use a rubber squeegee to remove it. This is how professional window cleaners do it. Rubbing a window with vinegar and newspaper might eventually give the same results, but it’ll take forever.

More vinegar and lemon juice fixes: cleaning shower head buildup, http://stripping a cast-iron pan for re-seasoning, restoring dried-out water-based markers, de-clogging a steam mop, removing stains from cashmere, and, of course, descaling a coffee maker.

Walnuts and Oils: Wood Repair, Appliance Protection, and More

Got a scratch on that beautiful old wooden table/credenza/etc.? If it’s just a surface scratch, and not a deep gouge, you can rub it lightly with a walnut. Use the actual nut, not the shell. If you’ve never done this before, you’re going to be amazed at how well it works. The scratch disappears, and stays gone. The oils in the walnut darken the scratch, and the rubbing action smooths everything over. You could probably just dab on a little oil, but this seems to work better.

Another oil-based tip is for maintaining your fancy stainless steel refrigerator, microwave, or other smudge-attracting appliances. Wet a rag with oil—olive oil works well, but go with neutral mineral oil if your fridge is in direct sunlight. Rub the rag over the steel. You don’t need much, just a thin film, so wipe up any excess slicks. This will leave the steel looking beautifully clear and clean, with none of the fingermarks or soapy stains that are otherwise impossible to remove or hide.

One or two more strange oily tricks from our iFixit guides: using olive oil to realign a sliding closet door, mineral oil to fix a squeaky door hinge.

Who needs commercial cleaners?

Pretty much all store-bought kitchen and bathroom cleaners are based on vinegar or bicarbonate of soda, beyond their scents and fillers and packaging. Few of them work much better than their raw materials, and almost all of them are more expensive, add unpleasant fragrances, and come in wasteful plastic containers. By stocking up and using your own pantry supplies, you eliminate all that plastic waste, and get the same or better results.

Also, and this is important: you will always have cake and cookie ingredients on hand.