LEBANON, Pa. — Have you looked at the labels on your household cleaning products lately? If so, you’ve likely seen a list of lengthy, hard-to-pronounce words. The bad news is that many of these ingredients are chemicals that may be harsh or even dangerous to you and the environment. The good news is that you can use herbal products to make your own cleaning solutions that are simpler, cheaper and safer — and work just as well, or better, than their commercial counterparts.

Three master gardeners who are part of Penn State Extension’s Lebanon County Amateur Herbalists group recently presented a program on “Do-It-Yourself Herbal Cleaning Supplies.” The large number of attendees at this session showed that there is great interest in safer, more natural cleaning products using readily available and relatively inexpensive supplies.

On display at the event were commonly available ingredients such as white vinegar, baking soda, cornstarch, olive oil, washing soda, aloe vera gel, Ivory soap, rubbing alcohol and 20 Mule Team Borax that had everyone guessing what was to come.

Ellen Lawrence kicked off the evening by demonstrating how to make soap powder laundry detergent using the following recipe, which she said is safe for use even in newer HE, or high-efficiency, washing machines.

Lemon-Lavender Soap Powder Laundry Detergent

4-pound box Borax

4-pound box Arm & Hammer baking soda

3-pound box Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda

3 bars of Ivory soap (Castile soap or Fels Naptha laundry soap may be substituted)

3-pound container of Oxi-Clean

30 drops of essential oils, such as 15 drops each of lemon and lavender

A 5-gallon bucket

Using a cheese grater, grate all three bars of soap and set aside.

Mix all the dry ingredients together in the 5-gallon pail.

Put the grated soap and 1/2 scoop of the powder ingredients, along with the essential oils, in a blender or food processor. Mix until grated soap is like powder; add more dry ingredients, if necessary, to make the soap more powdery. Add powdery soap mixture to the dry ingredients remaining in 5-gallon bucket and mix well. Store in tightly closed glass jar.

Use 1-2 tablespoons per load of laundry.

Lawrence reported that she has used this product with good success in her own home and prefers it to the leading laundry powder. However, since a little goes a long way, she said smaller households might want to make only half a batch. Its ingredients are gentle and less likely to irritate the skin than typical products containing harsher chemicals. She said the baking soda whitens laundry, while the washing soda lifts stains, and the borax acts as a softener. The Oxi-Clean is environmentally friendly, yet removes stains, sanitizes and disinfects.

Lawrence next showed how to prepare homemade dryer sheets, saying that this is “the easiest project ever.” Ease is not the only reason for using for these fabric dryer sheets. According to her, research has shown that regular commercial dryer sheets can be harmful to the respiratory system.

Lawrence coordinated the fragrant herbal oil scents of this recipe for dryer sheets with those of her laundry powder project (preceding), so they would work well together.

Non-Toxic Lemon-Lavender Fabric Dryer Sheets

4 (8x8-inch) cloths, such as clean rags, cut-up old T-shirts, flannel or washcloths

1 cup white vinegar

15 drops each, lemon and lavender essential oils (or other essential oils of your choice)

A 32-ounce canning jar

Place four cloths into the canning jar. Separately, mix white vinegar and essential oils in a small bowl; blend well with a whisk. Pour liquid from bowl over cloths in canning jar and allow to soak in until moistened. Use one sheet per load of laundry. Fabric sheets can be washed and reused to make dryer sheets again.

Lawrence then demonstrated the making of what she called, “the best window cleaner you’ll ever use.” She pointed out her personal preference is for using rosemary and lavender essential oils because they’re “relaxing, soothing and uplift your spirits.”

“You’ll want to clean your whole house,” she joked.

Streak-Free Rosemary and Lavender Window Cleaner

1/2 cup white vinegar

1/2 cup rubbing alcohol

2 tablespoons cornstarch

5 drops each of rosemary and lavender essential oils (or other essential oils you prefer)

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl with a whisk. Use a funnel to transfer mixture into a spray bottle. Shake well before using.

Lawrence said that adding cornstarch to the mixture gives it a milky white appearance, which helps put a haze on the glass being cleaned so it’s easy to see where the window has been wiped. This solution can be used on window glass, mirrors, shower doors and similar surfaces.

To make glass cleaning even more environmentally friendly, Lawrence reminded her audience that using newspaper to wipe off the window cleaner works great, too.

Cathy Boltz took center stage next. She pointed out that homemade cleaning products avoid the harsh chemicals in commercially produced cleaners. And, in addition, when it comes to making your own cleaners, “it’s safer, it’s cost effective and it’s fun,” she told her audience.

Boltz then gave directions for making a cleaning potion that is long-lasting, quick to make and suitable for use on sinks, countertops, stoves, or even pots and pans.

Organic tea tree essential oil has natural disinfectant, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties that enhance this cleaner’s functionality.

Homemade Soft Scrub Cleaner

1/2 cup baking soda

1/2 cup liquid Castile soap (a vegetable-based non-toxic soap)

15 drops organic rosemary or organic tea tree essential oils

1 teaspoon organic vegetable glycerin or Non-GMO Project Verified aloe vera gel (optional)

Mix all ingredients well in a small bowl, adding vegetable glycerin or aloe vera gel, if desired, to keep moist. Transfer mixture to a well-sealed container. Use as a multipurpose cleaner for bathtubs, sinks, faucets, countertops, stove, tiles, etc.

Boltz also provided this favorite recipe from blog.mountainroseherbs.com to keep furniture shining like new.

Natural LemonOil Furniture Polish

1 cup organic olive oil

25 drops organic lemon essential oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

Mix all ingredients together in a 16-ounce spray bottle and shake well before each use. Spray onto a soft rag or directly onto wood furniture to clean and condition wood surfaces. Buff area dry immediately.

Boltz said that the olive oil nourishes the wood, while the lemon oil has antiseptic qualities and the white vinegar is a disinfectant and anti-viral — providing more than just a shiny finish.

Speaker Suzanne Fry provided a recipe from The Prairie Homestead for a spray that is used to maintain cleanliness and prevent soap build-up in shower enclosures made from ceramic tile or fiberglass (granite or marble are too porous and could be pitted by this formula, so it should not be used on those surfaces). Fry said the lemon essential oil included in the recipe is excellent for removing grease and grime, while the tea tree oil is a good cleanser.

Soap Scum Prevention

1-1/2 cups water

1 cup white vinegar (should have 5% acidity)

1/2 cup rubbing alcohol (use one with a 70% concentration)

1 teaspoon liquid dish soap (Dawn dishwashing liquid works well because it is mild, but effective and doesn’t have much fragrance)

15 drops lemon essential oil

15 drops tea tree essential oil

Mix all ingredients together in a quart-size spray bottle. Shake mixture well and spray onto shower surfaces every day after use. Store bottle out of direct sunlight. (Note: This is a maintenance spray, not a heavy-duty cleaning product, so it should be first used on a clean shower.)

Fry said that other essential oil combinations may also be used to suit one’s personal preferences. Some possible alternatives might include: rosemary, orange, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, thyme or cinnamon, among others.

Master gardeners Lawrence, Boltz and Fry all emphasized the same message — start saving money and keep your family safer from unnecessary harsh chemicals by making your own herbal cleaning products to get the job done around your home.

Here is a last tip they gave — for a holiday idea, put these mixtures in pretty, appropriately labeled bottles or jars to make great little gifts.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.