Monday, April 18, 2022

ABC Post 12: Ask Aunt Dorcas--Moms and Product Pressure, Part 1

Dear Aunt Dorcas—

I have five small children, and I get really frustrated with the pressure on young moms to use certain cleaning and health products, usually from MLMs like Norwex or DoTerra.

I’m part of a few big chat groups with Mennonite moms, and most of the vocal women on such platforms tend to send the subtle implications that a good mother should be always looking for better health, better cleaners, and better hairspray. And I feel like a freak for just thinking a clean scalp is what’s most important. I’m doing good if I can pick up detergent or shampoo at Walmart. 

One day I decided to ask the group if I’m as unusual as I feel like I am. I thought maybe there’s other moms out there like me. But the admins deleted my question! So then I really felt like a freak. Do you have any advice for me?



Dear Kayla—

When I sat down to examine your question, I realized it had multiple layers. Soon I had wandered down numerous bunny trails and typed almost 4000 words. So, if you can indulge me, I’m going to spread this out over a couple of posts.

First: a bit of history and chemistry about cleaning, soap, and the marketing thereof. 

Later, we’ll look at the tendency and history of moms obsessing about specific topics, the troubling statistics about MLMs, making money as a stay at home mom, dealing with the pressure, and recipes for super-basic cleaners.

Aunt Dorcas does laundry in a very "sketch" laundry room 
in a motel, on a recent trip to Virginia

Women all over the world are passionate about keeping clean.

When we lived in a remote village in Canada, the First Nations women all had these very basic government-issue houses with paneling on the walls and white tile floors.

The houses were not cute or Instagrammy in any way, but they were clean. You could have eaten off those floors. The women hauled water from the lake, heated it on the stove, poured it in a bucket, and added a good glug of bleach and maybe dish soap. Then they took a string mop and scrubbed every bit of mud and food and dust, and probably the shiny finish as well, off those tiled floors.

Their lives might be full of helpless frustration and people around them making heartbreaking decisions, but they had the power to keep those floors clean, and they did.

Some years later, in 1998, I visited my sister in Yemen. One day Rebecca took me to visit her neighbor Fawzia. A sweet young mom with one child, Fawzia lived in a sparsely-furnished one-room apartment with a narrow outdoor cooking area between a cement wall and the house. Her husband had trouble finding work, and they were so poor that Fawzia hadn’t seen her mom in two years because they couldn’t afford the bus fare, which I think was $5. They lived on the verge of hunger, wanting to be independent but sometimes asking her husband’s parents for food.

What struck me about Fawzia’s home was that it was incredibly clean. The baby smelled nice, the floors were spotless, Fawzia’s clothes were clean, and the tiny kitchen/courtyard was swept and tidy.

You could tell that despite their extreme poverty, she took pride in herself and her home and her baby. I’m guessing she used plain water for a lot of cleaning, but not much of it at a time, because Yemen had a terrible water shortage. Judging by the state of her clothes and the baby’s blanket, she probably had one very raggedy rag to scrub everything.

It would have been ridiculous and cruel of me to tell Fawzia she’s doing it all wrong because she’s not using a fancy American cleaning product. You can see that, right?

The important thing is caring for yourself and your house and children, which includes cleanliness. This is true for us, for Middle Eastern women thousands of years ago, and for Kenyan women bathing their babies outside in plastic tubs and then setting the babies out to dry in the sunshine.

A common thread here is water and soap.

Jeremiah 2:22 says,
Although you wash yourself with soap
    and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
    the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.

[That verse is also a hint that some things are more important than cleanliness.]

Water is the universal solvent, and most dirt can be dissolved and washed with water alone. But water doesn’t mix with fats, so we have that fascinating chemical, soap. Every molecule of soap has a head that bonds with water and a tail that bonds with fats, so all those dish soap molecules latch onto tiny bits of chicken fat left on the plate, dissolve them in water, and swish them down the drain.

(Read more about soap here.)

Of course, we have other cleaners for other situations, such as ammonia, bleach, and alcohol. But the most basic cleaner is soap and water.

As the FlyLady often says, “Soap is soap.” Did you know you can use shampoo to clean the shower, if need be, and dish soap to wash your hands? It’s true. Nothing will implode.

Your great-grandma probably saved bacon fat and tallow, bought lye at the hardware store, and cooked a blurping white soup that turned into slabs of white soap with a thick, heavy scent of earth and determination. She grated this soap into the wringer washer to wash your great-grandpa’s overalls, and all the manure and grass stains cowered before the superior strength of that potion.

She may have bought a basic shampoo for her children’s hair. If she was like my mom, she saved rain water in a barrel for shampooing hair, and rinsed with vinegar.

If she didn’t use homemade soap for dishes, she bought a basic dish soap at the grocery store. If there was a drought and the well was running dry, the dishwater was also used to mop the floors and then dumped on the flower beds.

She probably used ammonia to clean the oven, first tying a bandana over her nose to keep out the scorching fumes. She cleaned the copper bottoms of her kettles with vinegar and salt, buffing them to a shine. Like my mom, she probably used copious amounts of elbow grease.

One way or another, she and all her household were clean. So how did we get from that to the highly specialized cleaners today?

It was after the Great Depression when big companies like Proctor and Gamble realized they could make money off of jazzing up cleaning products and convincing housewives to buy them. Tide detergent, invented in 1946, was the first of its kind.

Two things in particular became important: specializing and scents.

No longer was it ok to do all your cleaning with a bottle of vinegar, a jar of baking soda or borax, and a bar of homemade soap. By the 1970s, you needed detergent for laundry, a different shampoo for each member of the family, and a different cleaner for each part of the bathroom: sinks, counter, mirror, toilet, shower, and floor. You needed one soap for dishes, one for hands, and one for the car.

It was all supposed to smell good. I’m sure this sounded luxurious to someone whose laundry always smelled like tallow and lye. Tide detergent had a unique scent that you can probably smell right now if you close your eyes. Dish soap was supposed to send bubbly fumes in the air. Everyone was supposed to blast a flowery spray all over the bathroom after they flushed. When I was in high school, the teen magazines always had ads for a shampoo called Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, with pictures of a guy in science class sniffing a girl’s hair and saying that line while they heated chemicals on Bunsen burners.

A decade or two later, an evil genius was hired at these big companies and invented plug-in air fresheners. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into someone’s house and began coughing and gasping for air. “Do you have a Glade air freshener?” I manage to ask.

“Oh yes!” they say, digging around behind the recliner and emerging with one of those horrible little devices. “I’m so sorry!” They hurry off and tuck it away under the bathroom sink, and I resume breathing.

Some of us have psoriasis, migraines, asthma, or simply a sensitive nose. We can’t handle all the scents and additives.

There was bound to be a backlash.

The housewife world didn’t return to cleaning like Grandma, though, with vinegar, borax, and homemade soap. Instead, we turned to an array of companies that sprouted up like mushrooms in the fall rains, promising cleanliness and good smells, but a “healthy” version of them. Many were multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) in which people—usually women—signed up to sell the products from home. Amway and Shaklee were two of the originals. Today there are many more.

It began to matter like never before not only that you kept your family clean, but which products you used to do so.

These producers emphasized “natural” ingredients and health benefits. Often, they also insist that “chemicals” are bad, and their products do not contain these nasty substances.

This has always confused me. Probably the people who came up with that idea were the same ones who were tossing their terrific-smelling hair at the guys in chemistry class instead of paying attention. A chemical, according to Merriam-Webster, is simply a substance “that is formed when two or more other substances act upon one another or that is used to produce a change in another substance.”

Vitamin C is a chemical, as are sugar, vinegar, oregano oil, and polyethylene glycol.

It’s a free country, and I don’t have any issue with someone deciding to make a new and better kind of shampoo. What troubles me is that many of these companies co-opted the health narrative and equated their products with optimizing your family’s health and well-being, and they made lots of money off of this.

In addition, instead of selling through stores, they chose to market through dealers, emphasizing not only their products but also recruiting others into the company.

The result is an unhealthy mixture of women gaining financially from putting guilt and pressure on other women, all in the name of being concerned for their wellbeing. It's one thing to feel pressure from an advertisement in a magazine, but quite another to feel it from family and friends.

But the saddest part is that, many times, the system is designed so that only those at the top actually make money, increasing the pressure on those at the bottom to recoup their investments and also to inundate me with helpful messages if I mention the cat pawprints on the patio doors or my constant cough.

Buying these products requires a pretty high level of privilege, and not everyone has these ingredients in their life:
1. Money. Melaleuca and Mrs. Meyers and Norwex are a lot more expensive than an old t-shirt and a bottle of dish soap from the grocery store. Many families can barely afford the dish soap.
2. Time. A woman who has lots of small children has a hard enough time just keeping everyone fed and safe. Moms who are caregivers for the elderly and moms with physical handicaps and limitations are almost always short on time. Such a mom doesn’t have time to research all the specialty products or go to Norwex parties or order from a dealer. She’s just relieved if her husband calls from town and she can tell him to pick up some laundry detergent—whatever he grabs is fine when all the little jeans are dirty and the baby is teething.
3. Access. Moms on the mission field in Mongolia or Mexico don’t have access to all the lovely natural “chemical-free” cleaners that a mom in Lancaster County has at her fingertips. Women in more isolated communities in the U.S. and Canada will have a harder time buying these products as well, especially if they don’t have internet access.

I’ve talked to young moms who feel like outcasts if they buy shampoo and detergent at the grocery store. Others feel so guilty for using Walmart cleaners that they start buying products they can’t afford. They feel like the conversation in the church nursery and the moms’ groups is all so pro-MLM product that their own conflicted opinions and questions can’t be spoken. They feel the shame of not fitting in.

That is not ok.

But whose problem is it? 

Next time, let’s look at the history of passionate moms, dealing with pressure, and how to sell ethically.

Meanwhile: Applause to you for loving your family and wanting the best for them. There's a lot of leeway on just how you do this. The important thing is to be kind to those who choose differently.

Aunt Dorcas learns from her mom, the Queen of elbow grease and homemade soap.


  1. Couldn't agree more! I've watched all sorts of homemaking, decluttering, etc. YouTubers and want to shout at them, "Why are you spraying something all over your counters to clean them? Why didn't you wipe them down when you had a sink full of soapy water as you did the dishes?" Oh yes, you don't do dishes by hand and don't know how to multi-task, and get more than one use out of something. Sad for you! When I need to clean the counters I just wet the dishcloth and wipe them down. No one has ever gotten sick from my kitchen!
    The harsh chemicals that so many want to get away from are the fragrances, the anti-bacterial, the preservatives, etc. Soap is soap is soap. And it can be made very cheaply.
    MLM plans are the devil in my opinion; and totally too expensive and inconvenient.
    (Gosh Rozy, tell us how you really feel.)
    Looking forward to the rest of your information and instruction.

    1. I enjoyed reading "how you really feel."

  2. Joanna Yoder4/18/2022 12:42 PM

    Loud applause.
    Standing ovation.
    Preach it, Aunt Dorcas!

    1. Ha! Dodging a few rotten tomatoes, but I'll try to keep preaching!

  3. Replies
    1. You're welcome, and thanks for coming by.

  4. Yes! It's about time someone addressed this issue! Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart!

  5. Carol Peachey Martin4/19/2022 4:23 AM

    I am one who gets migraines from all those fake fragrances. I have trouble just sitting in church beside someone who uses laundry detergent that smells to me like mosquito dope. Those candles with all that manufactured fragrance? They make me feel ill. When I have to pass through the smelly candle aisle st Walmart I have to hold my breath lest that horrible stuff gets into my sensitive sinuses and gives me a headache. Why does EVERYTHING have to have a strong smell or fake flavor?

    1. Carol, I am so sorry you get migraines from fake fragrances, but I am smiling, as I am a Peachey, too, and I totally identify! Now I am curious if this is a genetic issue with us Peachey girls?! Dorcas, I love your article and respect you ever so highly for everything you shared! I am the friend who will either volunteer to leave or make people unplug or blow out whatever gives a strong aroma in a room, except for cinnamon, I am okay with that fragrance. :) I hold my breath when I dash into the soap aisle in the grocery store BUT I rarely buy anything there. I am quite basic in cleaning with vinegar and water. I do realize I am a privileged woman to have a lovely stash of essential oils in my home to use for medicinal and cleaning purposes. I am so fond of the citrus oils, I consider it a love affair. :) The oils come from various companies, as I am one who gets joy with buying from friends who do parties and market different brands. I also buy from a company I have a wholesale membership with, when I feel led to do so. It's been many years since I did an oil party, that was back in the day when many still believed oils were all made for the witches, the backlash I got for promoting it for medicine, was one for the thick books. Today many of those woman use and even promote oils, as well. :) I am a big promoter of the toxic free lifestyle for I have learned that I don't have to live with the triggers that cause migraines! I am also a fan of (gasp) dawn detergent, baking soda, and peroxide which are amazing when all 3 are used on stains. I make my own fabric softener (for some loads I like to use more than plain vinegar for rinse additive) with affordable tea tree oil hair conditioner from Trader Joes, mix with water and vinegar. If you chose to buy a cheap hair conditioner that has ingredients that smell toxic to me, I love you and bless you the same, for I am not a better mom than you. :)

    2. Carol, I'm right there with you on the fragrances in stores. They're overpowering!

    3. To the "other" Peachey commenter, I enjoyed your comment.

  6. THANK YOU!!!
    My first inclination was to wish to share this with everyone; ESPECIALLY a certain mom chat. But then I remembered the most effective witness is quietly living your life. Folks can argue with your speech but they can’t argue with your life. Thanks for speaking out for those who want to live simply.

    1. Thanks for reminding me of the power of quietly living your life!

  7. If you're reading this and have control over any glade plug-ins or other fragrance devices, please consider making them disappear. It makes me take a nice big deep breath just thinking about it! Ten minutes with a plug-in can cause a headache that lingers until bedtime!

    Still-potent alternatives that bother fewer people:
    -vanilla extract sprinkled or wiped here and there. Keep it in a little spray bottle!
    -powdered or whole spices put near heaters or sunlight: fresh nutmeg doesn't stain; sprinkle in on rugs or wherever.
    -specks of cedar oil wiped on wood or trim. and so on.

  8. I thank you for being a voice of reason. Very informative.

  9. Thank you Aunt Dorcas.
    This is so so important for moms to hear. There is so much mommy shaming about cleaning products, epidurals, nursing until 1, vaccines, eating ONLY organic, etc.

    I really really liked how my SIL put it when asked about vaccines for babies. She said, we often debate/fight/argue so much about our children's physical health, why do we not do the same for their spiritual health?

    On public platforms some write so much about how horrible vaccines are, how bad we mom's are who don't use essential oils as household cleaners, ect. ect.

    Yet, our children's spiritual health is SO SO SO much more important.

    Children need less screen time while their moms are posting online and more mommy time.

    There is a spiritual war going on and our children are the targets, THAT is what we should be raising awareness, not cleaning products.

    I can't take cleaning products to heaven with me but I can take my child.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! I totally agree that we are distracted from spiritual realities by physical things that are far less important.

  10. As covid spread across the country, the experts told us that using soap and water was the best way to get those tiny virus invaders off our hands... --Linda Rose

  11. I think that quite possibly the pressure is greater in conservative religious settings where conformity is emphasized. I remember having a terrible allergic reaction to a wonderful pill that was guaranteed to change my life. I became comfortable saying that I only use supplements my doctor recommends.

    As I learn about healthy boundaries I'm becoming a lot more comfortable saying no. It really is not anyone else's business whether I have the energy or finances to afford their product. It's entirely my choice what I do or don't want to buy or use.

    So, to the ones who feel pressured in any direction, courage! Saying no, or I'm not interested, is a muscle. It grows stronger with use.

    1. Love love your last sentence!

    2. Yes! "Oh, I'm not really interested.." and trail off. Additional "mm's" if needed. Looking bored is SO much more discouraging and less contentious than giving into the temptation to engage. And then there's no recovery time needed once you notice or think of something else to talk about!

  12. Well-put, thank you so much! Your description of soap doing its job is instructive to me :) And I feel a blog post coming on about my old-fashioned cleaning methods (your mom and I would get along just fine - elbow grease and homemade soap! I'm trying to teach my kids to use elbow grease, NOT more cleaner, for pete's sake)

  13. I wonder if the pressure comes from the same sort of insecurity that begets the silent submission and resentment.

  14. It was interesting to me that you said you "resume breathing" after the air freshener is taken out of the room and put away. My grandmother was allergic to blooming flowers. African violets were one of the worst offenders (along with ferns because of their spores). She needed to be careful about visiting people because of their flowers. And if someone quickly moved their violets out because she was coming, it didn't help much. She could tell within minutes that the flowers had been there.

  15. Good post, Dorcas. I could probably leave a lengthy comment, but will try to keep it brief. :-)

    ~Melaleuca. Now there's a name that brings back some memories (most of them funny, in my case!), LOL
    ~"...You needed one soap for your hands, one for the dishes, and one for your car..." Well, yes and no. I wash my hands with dish soap fairly often, and I have used lye soap to get grease off my skin in the shower. They work great. However, DON'T get anywhere near the surfaces of my car with lye, borax, vinegar, etc. They may work fine in many other applications, though. :-) (I realize that's not your quote, but there is a difference between Ajax and Meguiar's) To me, that would be about as bad as washing your dishes in gasoline...
    ~Okay, I'll stop now. Sorry, didn't mean to get up and preach from a soap box (pun very much intended...) *Grin*