The Undiluted Truth
The cost of cleaning products — for yourself or your home — can be steep, which makes it tempting to water them down to save money and to stretch them out when they're scarce. But the question is: Do diluted detergents and other cleaning agents still work? For the most part, the answer is yes, but it's important to proceed with caution. We consulted a few expert sources about what can be diluted and how to dilute safely.
Which household products can be diluted?
Everything from laundry detergent to bleach, according to home and lifestyle expert Mélanie Berliet of The Spruce. "It's possible to dilute many cleaning products in order to make what you have last longer, saving you the hassle of returning to a store and also saving you some money," Berliet says. "Many laundry detergents, hand soaps, and shampoos can be watered down a bit without compromising their effectiveness. Just be sure to read all labels for specifics before you dilute anything."
Frugal consumers tend to use multi-purpose cleaners rather than specialized products. Cleaning products like Mr. Clean, Lysol, and Spic and Span clean non-wood floors as well as walls, tables, blinds, and most other hard surfaces. Buying one cleanser instead of many is more cost efficient, and watering it down adds to the savings.
Some household products come in concentrated form and are actually meant to be watered down. Using them at full strength is not only a waste; it requires extra effort to rinse off the excess. One example is Murphy's Oil Soap. The label recommends a quarter cup of the Murphy's cleaning product to a full gallon of water; a quart of the product (less than $5) is sufficient to clean a floor 16 times.
Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds, a pricier all-purpose cleaner (about $11 for a quart), is even more concentrated. The dilution recipe calls for 1 tablespoon per quart of water to create a solution for cleaning floors and practically everything else, including dishes, laundry, windows, cars, and boats. A note to the eco-minded: Dr. Bronner's is non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
For consumers looking to get the best bang for their buck, bleach and vinegar are alternative cleaning agents that beg for dilution.
If you dilute bleach, is it still effective for cleaning?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends diluting bleach at a ratio of 5 tablespoons (one-third cup) per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. This solution not only cleans; it also disinfects, killing germs including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
However, Berliet cautions against using hot water, because it can release a harmful chlorine gas. You should also avoid mixing bleach with household items such as vinegar, ammonia, and alcohol. When ammonia is mixed with bleach, for instance, it converts the chlorine in the bleach to chloramine gas. The fumes from such gas can trigger coughing, shortness of breath, and even pneumonia. Mixing vinegar with bleach will create chlorine gas, which can cause everything from chest pain and vomiting to death. When making a bleach solution, it's best to do so outside or in a room that has plenty of ventilation.
Is vinegar an effective household cleaner?
Although vinegar is not a registered disinfectant, a solution of equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle is a tried-and-true cleanser for many surfaces and household items.
"Vinegar is one of the world's best all-purpose green cleaners with dozens of cleaning uses," Berliet says. "Diluted white vinegar is excellent for cleaning windows, hardwood floors, carpet stains, fireplace bricks and irons, CDs and DVDs, shower curtains, upholstery, mattresses, wood furniture (when combined with olive oil), and glassware."
You can also clean the coffee maker with diluted vinegar every month or so, Berliet says. Just remember to run fresh water through the coffee maker before using it again.
Should you dilute vinegar before using it as a household cleaner?
It depends what you plan to clean with it.
"On wood floors, for example, cleaning with vinegar requires 1 cup diluted with about 1 gallon of warm water," Berliet says. "But for cleaning mildewed tile and grout, use full-strength vinegar."
Note that, as an acid, vinegar has the potential to break down the finish on a hardwood floor. But when diluted to make a cleaning solution, vinegar can be a great way to make wood floors look shiny and avoid the buildup that often results from commercial cleaners.
Laundry and Other Detergents
Can laundry detergent be diluted?
Diluted laundry detergent will keep your clothes just as clean, and it can also help you conserve detergent in the process, Berliet says.
"In fact, if you use too much detergent, it can actually cause excess suds that hold dirt in hard-to-reach areas, which won't always rinse clean," she says.
If you pour a whole capful of detergent into each load, you're using too much. Newer machines use far less water than older models and thus call for less detergent. Clothes won't get any cleaner if you up the volume of detergent; you're just wasting product. This is especially true for laundry detergent that's formulated for HE (high-efficiency) washers. If you can't get past the full-cap mindset, diluting liquid laundry detergent in a 1-1 ratio won't compromise the end results.
How do you dilute laundry detergent?
First, be sure to save your old laundry detergent bottles, Berliet says. Then, when you have a new bottle of detergent to open, pour half of the new detergent into the old, empty bottle.
Next, take both containers and fill them up with water until they're about two-thirds full. "Now you have two bottles of detergent you can use," Berliet says.
Is diluted dish soap still an effective cleaner?
Some dishwashing detergents are more concentrated than others, and you might find yourself using so much of the watered-down product that the potential savings wash down the drain. But Berliet says diluted dish soap still works — and for more than just dishes.
"Diluted dish soap can be used to clean glass surfaces, and it's the best one to use on really dirty glass," Berliet says. "Try using diluted dish soap to thoroughly clean glass before going back over the surface with a glass cleaner to shine it up. If you use a squeegee with your dish soap on a glass, then glass cleaner may not even be necessary."
Personal Care Products
Can you dilute shampoo with water?
Diluted shampoo is still entirely effective for washing hair, Berliet says.
"People tend to use more shampoo than necessary when washing their hair, and washing with excess product can actually dry out your hair," she says. "When diluting shampoo, the right mixture of shampoo to water really depends upon your personal hair type. Generally speaking, a 50-50 ratio of water to shampoo is a good place to start. It's important to note that if your shampoo does not lather, it may be too diluted, so be sure to add additional product as needed in this case."
Are there any other uses for diluted shampoo?
"Shampoo makes an excellent liquid hand soap, and it's loads cheaper than any soap refill that you can buy," Berliet says. "Just fill your soap dispenser about a third of the way with shampoo, fill the rest of the space with water, and give the dispenser a good shake to combine everything."
Likewise, dish soap can serve as hand soap — and may even be preferable.
Can you add water to liquid soap?
Many viruses and bacteria can be vanquished by a mere drop of liquid soap diluted in water. Still, proceed with caution: Certain hand soaps are more concentrated than others, so there's no set ratio for diluting them, Berliet says. "Be cautious and read all labels before adding water to your hand soap."
On message boards and blogs like The Art of Doing Stuff, frugal consumers report good results mixing one part liquid hand soap with three parts water. This creates foaming hand soap, which not only stretches soap and money but adds an element of fun.
Elizabeth Sheer contributed to this report.