Pitching name-brand cleaner for nature's own disinfectant. Photos by Andy Kroll

I thought the ingredients in a box of cereal were obscure. Then, after reading about the dangers of store-bought cleaners in the book “Ready, Set, Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-living,” I did a little research on the bottle of 409 All-Purpose Cleaner sitting underneath our kitchen sink. Ingredients include “2-Butoxyethanol” and “Alkyl(C12-16)dimethylbenzylammonium chloride,” the latter of which I can’t even begin to try to pronounce. That alone is reason enough to green up my cleaning products.

Despite our best intentions, commonly used store-brand cleaning products can be quite dangerous and damaging to our health, not to mention harmful to the environment. “Many historically accepted practice, products, and ingredients are now known to be extremely dangerous,” said Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation in “Ready, Set, Green.” “Household chemicals may not be much different than cigarettes—many are carcinogenic, likely to disrupt our hormonal system, and likely to have adverse effects on children.”

Fortunately, the problem of finding eco-friendly, harmless cleaning products is easy and instructive. A simple and easy way to get rid of dangerous glass-cleaning sprays or grease cutters is to make your own cleaning mixture, which I recently did using the old 409 bottle mentioned above.

First, I went to the grocery store and purchased a bottle of white distilled vinegar—32 fl. oz. of nature’s own grease-cutting disinfectant for only $1.50. Next, I looked up a few recipes for making your own cleaning solution, which led me to a number of different sites. The constant answer I found on each site involved some simple mixture of the vinegar I’d bought and water. Easy enough, right?

The only discrepancy among all these different green cleaning sites was how much vinegar I should mix with

Making my very own all-purpose cleaner.

water. One site said 1 part water for every 1 part vinegar; “Ready, Set, Green” suggested 1 part vinegar for every 5 parts water; and many others. So I decided to go with the safe, happy middle ground—a 3:1 water to vinegar ratio.

Mixing the solution was easy; then it was time to test my new concoction. Much to my excitement, my new water-and-vinegar solution proved effective on some nasty, sticky stains on our Formica kitchen countertop. A couple of sprays, a wipe of the washcloth—problem solved.

Before reusing an emptied 409 or Windex bottle to mix your own all-purpose cleaner, be sure to thoroughly clean the bottle first. I haven’t read anywhere saying it’s dangerous to use an old bottle after cleaning it, so I think it’s safe. Also be sure to understand all of the ingredients you’re using, and don’t haphazardly throw things together—safety first, always. I’d also recommend labeling a clear, reused Windex bottle with the words “CLEANING SPRAY” so your roommates, girlfriend/boyfriend, etc., don’t try to water the plants or anything with your new cleaner.

Unlike some store-brand solutions, this homemade spray doesn’t have much of a smell, other than that of vinegar. My guess is that if you really want a scent of some kind, you could probably mix it into your solution. But I’d do a bit of Google searching before throwing some scents blindly into the mix.

Now, if you don’t feel like going through the effort of making your own homemade all-purpose cleaner, you can always buy one of the more “green” products at the store. They’ll be more expensive, and you should also read the label of these kinds of products closely—sometimes green is nothing more than a gimmick and a reason to hike the price.

Dish soap for the roomies and I.

When it comes to products like dish soaps—Dawn, Dial, etc.—it can be a bit more difficult to create your own homemade version. Luckily, there are plenty of eco-friendly, biodegradable options at most grocery stores. They cost a bit more, but if you’re trying to live a more green lifestyle, they’re a worthwhile purchase. I figure that the amount of money saved by making my own disinfectant spray will help me to break even by spending more on eco-friendly dish soap, which I think is more than worth it.

Here are a few other housekeeping tips from the authors of “Ready, Set, Green” to keep in mind when cleaning up around the dorm room, apartment, house and so on. They may seem insignificant or pointless, but remember that lots of small changes add up to a major difference.

· Open windows and ventilate, even in wintertime, especially when you are cleaning or using glues, paints, or solvents. Wear gloves and goggles and even a mask if you detect any sensitivities.

· Use a reusable microfiber cloth instead of paper towels to clean. These create less dust and less waste.

· Don’t use hot water with toxic chemicals; it can cause them to off-gas more easily, releasing VOCs (carbon-based chemicals that vaporize and travel through the air at room temperature). Dilute cleaners with tepid water whenever possible.

· Rinse surfaces with water after you clean them, which removes toxic residues. Avoid synthetic waxes and polishes, which leave residue behind.

· Avoid spray cleaners that create fine mists, which disperse tiny particles into the air and spread around your home more readily.