If you watch much late-night television, you've probably seen ads hawking some amazing, all-in-one cleanser that vanquishes everything from muddy paw prints to baked-on pasta sauce -- but that's available for a limited time only!
The next time you see one of these ads, relax. There's a cleanser that's just as impressive and ridiculously inexpensive, but you'll find it in any supermarket. It's also nontoxic, meaning it won't introduce any potentially hazardous substances to the home, water supply or hands of curious children. In fact, you've probably eaten this stuff, although mixed with other ingredients. It might be in your kitchen even now.
If you haven't guessed, we're talking about baking soda, also called bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate. This product that raises cakes and calms heartburn also has a number of cleaning applications. Although it's mild enough to use on most household surfaces, this article focuses on uses in the bathroom -- which covers a lot of ground, metaphorically speaking.
If there's one drawback, it's that it may take more elbow grease to clean with baking soda than commercial cleansers. On the other hand, cleaning the bathroom may count toward the 30 minutes of daily exercise recommended by the American Heart Association [source: Blackburn].
We'll start, as many people do, with the least pleasant task on the list: cleaning the toilet.
Although some toilets are made with a stain-resistant finish, the bowl is still at risk of staining. The minerals in standing water can discolor the porcelain. Brown- and rust-colored rings can be a particular problem in areas that have mineral-rich water, also known as hard water. If allowed to build, such stains require strongly acidic cleansers to remove. These products can slowly erode the porcelain, not to mention the immediate damage they can do to the skin, eyes, nose and throat.
It's worthwhile, then, to practice preventive maintenance. First, make "flush" a family rule. Also, make a simple routine part of your weekly cleaning: Sprinkle the toilet with cup of baking soda. Let it sit for 30 minutes, then spray or squirt with vinegar (a mild acid) to moisten. Scrub with a bowl brush and flush away [source: Niagara County].
Minerals contribute to another common bathroom cleaning problem. Read on to learn how baking soda can clean up the scum of the earth.
Bathtubs and Sinks
That chalky ring around the tub isn't (necessarily) a sign that the last person who took a bath was particularly dirty. Even in the most hygienic households, soap scum can strike. Soap scum is the residue that results from body oils and the fats in soap reacting with the mineral salts in water. Bathtubs, showers and sinks are prone to soap scum. Again, hard water aggravates the problem.
Wipe down tubs and sinks after using them to prevent soap scum from forming. If soap scum does show up, sponge it off with a paste of baking soda and dishwashing detergent. Unlike soaps, detergents don't react with salts, so they don't contribute to the build up [source: Ophardt].
To treat stubborn cases, add 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) baking soda, 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) vinegar and 1 cup (235 milliliters) ammonia to 1 gallon (3.8 liters) warm water. Douse the area and rinse it well. Wear rubber gloves and make sure the room is well ventilated when mixing and using this solution: Ammonia is a caustic. It burns tissue on contact and the fumes can damage your lungs.
But porcelain isn't the only target for baking soda. Our next tip makes the point crystal clear.
Glass shower doors add an elegant touch in a bathroom. But soapy water spots and stray flecks of toothpaste or shaving cream add an unattractive touch to glass doors. Most professionals discourage using common scouring powders to clean shower doors [source: Bath Enclosure Manufacturers Association].The tiny, gritty granules that scrub off strains can also leave tiny scratches.
Baking soda, in contrast, is a salt that dissolves in water. And at a mere 65 microns (0.0026 inches, or 0.0065 centimeters) in diameter, its granules aren't going to hurt anything [source: Natrium]. Sprinkle a little on a damp sponge and wipe down the glass. Rinse well and dry. For a really sharp finish, use a squeegee to avoid leaving lint and to minimize streaks.
Next, we look at lime -- not of the pie variety, but the kind that shows up in bathrooms -- and at how baking soda helps get rid of it.
Drains and Faucets
As with toilets, standing water can mar the shine of chrome. The result isn't a stain, but mineral build up. As water pools around faucets and drains, the minerals settle to the bottom and eventually landscape the sink or tub with a rocky little ridge of calcium carbonate, also known as limescale or simply lime.
Commercial cleansers that are formulated specifically to dissolve lime and other mineral deposits have a drawback, besides toxicity concerns. They can discolor and damage chrome and stainless steel, as well as brass, bronze and nickel finishes. Vinegar, on the other hand, dissolves lime without harming metal. It works more slowly, however, and must be applied continuously. To keep vinegar from drying up or running off before it can do its work, mix it with baking soda to form a paste. Thoroughly coat the lime. Let it sit for a few hours, then rinse off [source: Sian]. Heavy deposits may take several applications to get rid of.
Next, baking soda takes on a hidden aspect of the world of bathroom cleaning.
Drains and Showerheads
Unlike stains and lime deposits, clogs form hidden from view inside plumbing fixtures. You don't notice them until your drain isn't draining and your shower isn't showering you.
To keep a drain open, pour in 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) baking soda, followed by 1 cup (235 milliliters) vinegar. Let sit for 10 to 20 minutes and then flush the drain with very hot water. This helps break up soap, hair, grime and other bathroom debris that slows the flow. Never try this treatment on clogged drains that you've treated with a commercial drain opener. The kickback from the soda-vinegar reaction may spew caustic fumes and liquid back into the sink.
Mineral deposits are sometimes the cause of sluggish showers. A simple fix: Detach the showerhead and soak for an hour in 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) baking soda mixed with 1 cup (235 milliliters) vinegar. Reattach and run very hot water through the showerhead for several minutes.
If you can't remove the showerhead, mix the ingredients inside a sturdy plastic bag. Secure the bag around the showerhead with a rubber band to submerge the fixture for an hour, then take the bag off and run the hot water for several minutes.
There may be some minerals in your bathroom that you'll want to preserve and protect. Our next tip will show you how baking soda can help gently clean these precious stones.
Stone tile is popular for bathrooms walls, floors and vanities for its beauty and durability. It stands up to heavy foot traffic and steamy showers. Yet many types of stone are etched or dulled by the acids in commercial cleaners. That includes marble, limestone, porcelain and other unglazed ceramics. Experts recommend pH-neutral cleansers for everyday care and to clean light stains, like mud splatters that don't penetrate the surface. Stone tile sponges up oily stains like lipstick, nail polish and baby oil, however. These require alkaline cleansers [source: Bane-Clene].
With a pH of around 9, baking soda makes a good spot-cleaning poultice. Coat the stain with a thick paste of baking soda and water. Give the poultice 24 to 48 hours to draw out the stain, and then rinse and dry the surface thoroughly.
Baking soda is useful in another tile-related capacity. Read on to see how it can help clean the space in between.
Grout is often overlooked in the cleaning routine. Yet these cracks between stone tiles deserve at least as much attention. Stained grout can spoil the appearance of an expensive wall or floor treatment. Even worse, dirty grout can breed mold, mildew and bacteria, which can lead to more trouble and expense -- and possibly even illness.
Like tile, grout is best cleaned with moderately alkaline cleansers. Make a runny paste with baking soda and water, and gently scrub with an old toothbrush or other soft-bristled brush. If you detect fungus growth, knock it out with a thicker mixture of three parts baking soda to one part bleach. Rinse either mixture with plenty of water and dry well. You might consider using a wet/dry vacuum for large areas of floor.
Next, learn how vinyl wears many faces in the bathroom, and how baking soda helps keep them all clean.
Baking soda has as many cleaning uses for vinyl as there are types of vinyl surfaces.
Start with the floor. A sprinkle of baking soda lightly scrubbed with a wet sponge will take many stains off of a vinyl floor. Be careful to avoid soaking the floor, however, and dry it thoroughly afterward. Water can seep into seams and under edges, loosening the glue and curling the corners.
The same process works for vinyl shower curtains, bath mats and appliqués, which are prone to mildew as well as soapy residue. Curtains can additionally be machine-washed with baking soda. Add 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) with the detergent and choose the gentle cycle. (Toss in a few towels to keep the curtain from sticking to itself and clumping.) For added disinfection, pour in 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) vinegar during the rinse cycle. Let the curtain air dry; it will melt in the dryer. Let the rubbed-in paste stand on appliqués for 20 minutes or so to remove darker stains.
We've touched on just about every material in the bathroom that baking soda can clean. The substance we target on the next page is somewhat less substantial.
Baking soda's well-known ability to absorb odors in the refrigerator works just as well in the bathroom. If the sight of an open box seems unaesthetic, mix the soda into your favorite scented bath salts. Set the mixture in a pretty dish on the back of the toilet tank. Its freshening power should last for about 3 months.
To combat odors that emanate around the sink and drain, add 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) baking soda to the toe of an old pantyhose leg or nylon knee high. Tie it off and knot the leg around the pipes under the sink as a hanging sachet. If you don't happen to have any old pantyhose lying around, you can make a pouch from a large square of cheesecloth or cotton fabric. Place the baking soda in the middle, then gather the excess material up around it and secure the ball of baking soda with a rubber band. Tie on a length of string or twine and hang it under the sink.
When you change the baking soda deodorizing your refrigerator, pour the used box down the bathroom drain. You can also sprinkle baking soda in the bathroom trash can after each emptying [source: Dwight & Church].
With the next page, we come to our last tip. Be prepared to get up close and personal.
We saved baking soda's most important use for last. Baking soda can be the go-to ingredient in your personal care kit. Used straight, it's a basic, mildly abrasive, antibacterial dentifrice -- a tooth scrubber. Apply a bit to a toothbrush and brush as usual. Follow up with a baking soda and water solution as a rinse and gargle.
Like other salts, baking soda helps to reduce swelling and cleanse the skin by drawing out water and any substances dissolved in it. A few tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in a basin of warm water makes a soothing soak for tired feet. Apply a paste of baking soda and water as a facial exfoliant. And when the bug bites or the bee strings, apply the paste to the affected area. In addition to its drawing power, baking soda's alkaline quality neutralizes the acids in insect saliva.
For lots more information about keeping yourself and your home clean, check out the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks finds out how often you should wash your coffee cup or mug to avoid germs.
- Arm & Hammer. "Our Favorite Simple Solutions for Everyday Life." (Dec. 26, 2011) http://www.armandhammer.com/PDF/AnH_Solutions.pdf
- Arm & Hammer. "Deodorizing Drains." (Dec. 26, 2011) http://www.armandhammer.com/solutions/solution-21/Deodorizing-Drains.aspx
- Bane-Clene. "Stonetech Professional for Granite, Limestone, Marble, Mexican Tile, Quartz, Saltillo, Sandstone, Serpentine,Slate, Soapstone, Terra Cotta, Terrazzo, Travertine." (Jan. 8, 2012) http://www.baneclene.com/stonetech.html
- Bath Enclosure Manufacturers Association. "Care and Cleaning of Your Enclosure." (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.bathenclosures.org/basics/cleaning.htm
- Berry, Sian. "How to Remove Limescale." The Guardian, Aug. 22, 2009 (2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/aug/23/how-to-remove-limescale
- Blackburn, Gordon. "Getting Real about How Much to Exercise." (Dec. 31, 2011) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/exercise/exercise_gettingreal.aspx
- BuildDirect. "Travertine Cleaning and Maintenance." (Jan. 8, 2012) http://learn.builddirect.com/flooring/travertine-tile/install-care/travertine-cleaning-maintenance/
- Daya, Mohamed, and Chandler, David B. "Dangerous Chemicals in Your Closet?" (Jan. 3, 2012) http://www.parish-supply.com/chemicals_in_closet.htm
- Ferguson, Eileen. Personal correspondence. Dec. 10, 2011 through Jan. 5, 2012.
- Field, Simon Quellen. "Acids and Bases." (Jan. 5, 2012) http://kitchenscience.sci-toys.com/acids
- Heloise. "Heloise Web Vinegar and Baking Soda Hints." (Dec. 30, 2011) http://www.heloise.com/hints_vinegar.html
- Natrium Products, Inc. "Sodium Bicarbonate from Natrium Products." (Jan 4, 2012) http://www.natrium.com/productsgrades.htm
- Niagara County Landfill & Recycling. "Alternatives to Chemical Goods." (Dec. 26, 2011) http://www.niagaracounty.com/Landfill/chemicalgoods.asp
- Niz, Ellen Sturm. "Easy-to-Clean Products." K+BB, Sept. 20, 2010. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://pdnonline.com/kbb/news-and-features/Easy-to-Clean-Produc-962.shtml
- Ophardt, Charles E. "Detergents and Surfactants." Virtual ChemBook. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/vchembook/558detergent.html
- Planet People. "Gloves Off Product Specification Sheet." (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.glovesoffclean.com/common/pdf/tech_clr.pdf
- Reader's Digest. "11 Tips for Cleaning Vinyl Floors." (Dec. 26, 2011) http://www.rd.com/home/11-tips-for-cleaning-vinyl-floors/
- Reader's Digest. "How to Wash Shower Curtains." (Dec. 26, 2011) http://www.rd.com/home/how-to-wash-shower-curtains/
- Reckitt-Benckiser. "LIME-A-WAY FAQ." (Jan. 6, 2012) http://limeaway.com/faq.php
- Snoonian, Deborah. "10 Uses for Baking Soda." (Dec. 26, 2011) This Old House. http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,20168224,00.html
- The Naked Scientists. "Why does hard water make soap 'scum'?" Nov. 15, 2008. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.thenakedscientists.com/forum/index.php?topic=6251
- The Natural Handyman. "Toilet Cleaning Methods and Chemicals Q & A." (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.naturalhandyman.com/qa/qatoiletcleaning.html