The essence of green living is consuming less. You sort of can’t get away from that. Consuming less has too many environmental benefits—decreased waste, carbon footprints, energy use—and beyond that, deciding to live with less enacts a culture shift that brings us back in tune with our natural environments.

That said, we’re pretty accustomed now to being in easy reach of a product that solves problems for us. We tend to forget that it’s actually not been that long since humans developed a system wherein there’s a specific commercial product for literally every problem, faux-problem and occasion you can think of. Prior to the 20th century, the selling point of a lot of products was how many things they could do, not how well they could do one specific thing. Niche products are a pretty new phenomenon.

In that spirit, let’s have a look at items you probably have in your home that carry on the tradition of having a bajillion functions. If you start Internet searching, you’ll find that everything you own can probably double as at least one other thing. Here, though, are some everyday items that do many jobs super well.

Coconut oil

Right? What can’t it do? Coconut oil has historically been one of the most versatile things you can have on hand. This is only a brief run-through of its many uses:

  • Make any and all foods delicious
  • Become a leave-in conditioner
  • Keep skin soft and oddly free of breakouts and wrinkles
  • Block the sun (it naturally has an SPF of about 6. Meh, but at least it’s something)
  • Take make up off, especially mascara
  • Make soap—if you know how to make soap (it’s actually harder than you’d think)
  • Get rid of fungal infections
  • Relieve bug bites, stings, rashes and scrapes/scratches. It’s both antibacterial and antifungal
  • Inhibit cold sores
  • Polish wood and metal
  • Prevent lice
  • Reduce hair balls and improve your cat’s digestion if you rub a little on their paws
  • Help with arthritis if you massage it into joints (it’s also an anti-inflammatory)
  • Make eggs last longer in your fridge when you coat them with it
  • Heal bruises
  • Take gum out of your hair, or extricate your hair if you get it caught in a fly strip (this is a real thing that happens and not just to me)

Baking soda

Like coconut oil, the list of what this cheap pantry staple can do is sizeable. It:

  • Cleans anything and everything—hair, teeth, bathroom fixtures, kitchen surfaces, fridges, ovens, silverware, you name it. It’s abrasive, so it scrubs things super well
  • Works as an excellent antacid
  • Neutralizes the gas in beans and legumes so you can enjoy them more
  • Makes deodorant that actually works, when combined with cornstarch and, yes, coconut oil. It will likewise deodorize anything it touches
  • Relieve insect bites and stings, as well as poison ivy rashes
  • Works like salt to make icy sidewalks safer

Petroleum jelly

This is an unsung hero of the medicine cabinet. If you’re concerned about the petroleum factor, there’s a recipe to a non-petroleum-based jelly here. In either form, it works to:

  • Moisturize everything: skin, lips, baby bums, old leather, whatever
  • Inhibit rust—rub a bit over metal that could be exposed to moisture
  • Keep hinges from squeaking
  • Get rid of water marks on your table—rub on and let it sit for 24 hours, then wipe off
  • Loosen light bulbs
  • Keep grass clumps from sticking to lawnmower blades if you coat them lightly
  • Unstick a zipper
  • Maintain bicycle chains
  • Keep hair dye from staining your skin if you apply it just below the hairline
  • Remove rings you can’t get off your finger
  • Soothe blisters, razor burns or other skin irritations


These are at their best when you’re putting them in your mouth somehow, either as a lemonade, or with some dark leafy greens to make them even more delicious, but their uses aren’t limited to the culinary:

  • They clean everything: kitchen surfaces, cuts and scrapes, laundry, bathroom fixtures, glass, furniture, china—as well as deodorize and disinfect
  • They’re excellent when you’re sick, especially when you have a sore throat
  • They also work as a mild bleach for clothes and fabrics, but also for hair and skin, as well


This does so much more than provide you with tasty vinaigrettes. Vinegar is another of those time-tested products that’s been used forever to:

  • Repel insects and treat bug bites (it’s an anti-inflammatory)
  • Shampoo your hair and make it shiny—washing your hair in vinegar was a Victorian tradition
  • Clean water stains or rust stains from chrome
  • Remove calcium build-up from kettles, coffee pots, etc.
  • Stop hard-boiled eggs you might be cooking from cracking just by adding a spoonful to the pot. It will also keep a poached egg from separating so you can go without a poacher.
  • Extract gum from hair
  • Relieve jellyfish stings
  • Kill weeds
  • Revive leafy greens when you soak them in cold water and a little vinegar together
  • Revive scuffed DVDs that don’t work anymore if you wipe them down with a soft cloth
  • Get rid of mildew
  • Extend the life of a floral arrangement by adding a few spoonfuls to the water
  • Stop your cats from scratching something if you spray a vinegar-water solution on it

These are helpful, helpful substances. Not just because they can perform so many functions, but because they can help us to shift our buying patterns from needing a niche product to insisting that we can do more with fewer purchases. Our culture doesn’t love when we opt not to buy things, but our Earth will.

image: tree in lightbulb via Shutterstock