By Contributing Editor Kristina Strain
Getting a clean oven can be a toxic proposition. Commercial oven cleaners often contain caustic, even poisonous chemicals; the self-clean mode can stink you out of house and home. Fortunately, there are plenty of cheap, eco-friendly options available for green cleaning your oven, and most of them can be made from things you already have on-hand. In this article, you’ll learn the risks of self-cleaning ovens and chemical cleaners, and how to opt out of the toxins by making your own oven cleaning products.
The Risks of Chemical Oven Cleaners
Most chemical oven cleaners are nothing to mess around with. The only one deemed 100% safe and non-toxic by the Environmental Working Group is Arm & Hammer’s Oven Cleaner, which is mostly baking soda. (You’ll read more about baking soda’s magical oven-cleaning properties in the second half of this article.) The rest are comprised of a cocktail of various chemicals, including lye, ethers, ethylene glycol, methylene chloride, and petroleum distillates. Let’s take a minute to get better-acquainted, shall we?
Anyone familiar with the movie Fight Club knows that lye can cause serious chemical burns when combined with water. It’s those same corrosive properties that make lye a good cleaner; unfortunately, it’s far from a safe one. Skin and eye contact should be avoided, chemical-resistant gloves should be worn, and any oven scrubber should be aware that lye “degrades organic tissue” when moistened. Scary stuff. (Source: Wikipedia.)
An ether is a member of a pretty large class of organic compounds– the Ethers– all of which contain an oxygen atom bonded to an aryl or alkyl group. Got that? I’ll kindly spare you the rest of the chemistry. Ethers, such as medical ether, tend to be highly volatile (meaning you breathe them in), and also have solvent properties. Though nowhere near as dangerous as lye, working with ethers can still be irritating to your mucous membranes, and is best avoided. (Source: Wikipedia.)
Simply put, ethylene glycol is what makes anti-freeze deadly to any animal that might drink it, including humans. This compound, unlike lye and ethers, is fortunately only dangerous if ingested.
Irritating, volatile, and smelly, methylene chloride is considered a potential workplace carcinogen by OSHA (Source). Given that information, why on earth would you want this in your house? Methylene chloride is a solvent, often used in paint strippers. It’s an excellent de-greasing agent as well, so it makes sense that such stuff would be found in oven cleaner. But is a clean oven really worth the health risks? (Source: OSHA.)
Petroleum distillates is the general term applied to low to medium-grade solvents produced as a by-product from the oil refining process. Kerosene is an example. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, include petroleum distillates and others. They’re only mildly toxic, though easily inhaled (hence the “volatile” part) and definitely unhealthy to be around. (Source: Solvent Alternatives Guide.)
Now that you’ve met the cast of characters often associated with commercial oven cleaners, you can understand the risks to your health. These compounds are corrosive, and they don’t discriminate between your lungs and the baked-on crud you’re trying to clean off. Fortunately, there are many better ways to clean an oven.
Self-Cleaning Mode: Toxic Teflon
The first time I used the self-cleaning cycle on my oven, it was wholly unpleasant and a little scary. My eyes and throat burned, I felt dizzy, a headache came on from out of nowhere. What was that smell? What was making me sick?
The trusty internet yielded the answer. Turns out, most modern ovens–especially the self-cleaning kind– are coated with Teflon or a Teflon relative. If you’re not familiar, Teflon and its cronies are members of an extremely toxic family of chemicals. (Read more about the risks of Teflon here.)
Originally touted as super-safe, Teflon begins to break down when exposed to temperatures higher than 464 degrees F–as you can see in the graph– and your oven gets easily twice as hot when running a self-clean cycle.
When super-heated, Teflon releases “toxic particulates”– including two carcinogens and a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosphene. (Source: Environmental Working Group.) Perhaps this was the source of my headache? Since this experience, I’ve switched to all-natural cleaning methods (outlined below), and I’ve never used self-clean mode again. It was just too scary.
How to Clean Your Oven the Non-toxic Way
Fortunately for all of us, you need not resort to self-clean mode, nor harmful chemicals, to achieve a clean oven. All you need is a little forethought and some household ingredients.
Method One: Baking Soda
Make a paste from baking soda and water. I try to get mine just a little thinner than toothpaste. Spread the paste all over the dirtiest parts of your oven, avoiding the heating coils, then walk away. The longer the baking soda paste sits, the more grime and baked-on crud it will lift off. If the paste seems like it’s drying out after a couple of hours, you can re-moisten it by spraying it with plain water. After between six and ten hours, the magic of baking soda should reward you with a nice clean oven. Sponge off the baking soda paste, wipe away any residue, and you’re good to go. No elbow grease required!
Method Two: Ammonia
This one’s easy: simply set a bowl of ammonia in your oven, close the door, and left it sit overnight. The fumes will gently loosen any baked-on food and grease, to be sponged or scrubbed off in the morning. Remember not to combine ammonia with any other products.
Method Three: Soap and Borax
2 Tbsp liquid soap (dish soap, for example)
2 tsp Borax (available in the laundry section of your grocery store)
1 quart warm water
Fill a spray bottle with this solution, and spray liberally over your oven. Let sit for twenty minutes, then wipe clean. Scrub any stubborn spots with steel wool.
Now that you know how to clean your oven the natural way, go spread the information amongst your friends. Everyone should be aware of the health risks involved with self-cleaning ovens and caustic chemicals, especially when safe, eco-friendly solutions are so easy to come by!