In theory, making your own cleaning products is a great way to save money without sacrificing effectiveness. In practice, a lot of DIY “natural” cleaners work about as well as plain water. If you want to avoid messy, potentially expensive failure, stick to baking soda, vinegar, and borax (otherwise known as sodium tetraborate). They’re cheap and they’ll never let you down.
To understand why some “natural” cleaners suck so bad, it helps to know why baking soda, vinegar, and borax don’t. First, they all dissolve easily in water, which sounds obvious but is actually super important. (You can’t clean anything without water!) They’re acidic or basic enough to break down grime, but too weak to damage fabric, most surfaces, or human skin. We know exactly which active ingredients they contain—and how much—because it says so on the label. And, most importantly, they’re safe and cost-efficient to use in concentrations that actually do something.
This combination of features is rarer than it seems, which is why most DIY cleaners don’t measure up. Lemon juice is a great example, because it comes so close. Although it’s both acidic and water-soluble, there’s no way to tell how much citric acid it contains, and therefore how much you should dilute it. Given that citric acid is corrosive to natural stone surfaces, you’ll probably want to do that before spraying it on your granite counters—but how much water should you add? It’s impossible to tell. (Plus, it’ll eventually go rancid at room temperature.)
Essential oils are frequently added to DIY recipes for their alleged antibacterial properties—which some actually have, at full strength. But a few drops of tea tree oil won’t magically turn water into a broad-spectrum disinfectant, and wiping down your counters with the pure stuff is just stupid, not to mention a great way to irritate your skin. Liquid castile soap like Dr. Bronner’s is the rare DIY ingredient that actually works as intended, as long as you don’t water it down too much and remember to scrub. Soap can’t kill germs or dissolve gunk on its own; it needs a little friction.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you use to clean your house as long as it does the job and nobody’s allergic to it. All cleaning products are made of chemicals—even the so-called “natural” ones—so you might as well use chemicals that work.