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The uncommon powers of 14 common household items

By: Elisabeth Leamy The Washington Post
February 24, 2018 Updated: February 24, 2018 at 7:23 pm
Caption +
Rubber bands are one of 14 common household items with uncommon uses. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.

Most of us could use more storage - or less stuff. What if you could keep fewer products by choosing items with multiple uses? The Web is full of articlessuch as "23 Extraordinary Uses for Pantyhose" and "Sort Makeup Brushes in a Toothbrush Holder." But I wanted to know which products have the most - and most useful - alternative uses. I wanted the best of the best.

My quest was wholly unscientific, but I did set some rules. I searched for articles about amazing alternative uses for common household items. Then I searched to see which of those items was cited most. I decided every tip I shared should be unisex, to be as universal as possible. And I instituted a "get real" rule: The alternative uses had to be tasteful and not too taxing. No flower bouquets made of egg cartons. Too cheesy. And no photo projectors made of shoe boxes. Too time-consuming.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 14 best of the best, most useful household products, according to the internet and me:

Baby powder

- Sprinkle it on tangled jewelry to get knots out.

- Put talc on your hairbrush and brush into your roots as a dry shampoo.

- Dust into stale-smelling books to freshen their scent.

- Leave around doors or windows to repel ants.

Baking soda

- We know to stick a box in the fridge, but sprinkling baking soda in a stinky hamper also helps with odors there.

- Use it to scrub the grate of your barbecue grill.

- A study found that a solution of baking soda and water is the most effective way to wash pesticides off produce.

Clear nail polish

- Women have been using it to stop runs in their stockings for years, but it also keeps buttons from unraveling. Just dab a tiny drop onto the loose thread at the center of the button.

- Paint over inexpensive jewelry so it won't turn your skin green.

- Give handwritten labels a coating to make them smudge-proof.

Coconut oil

- Remove price tag residue by rubbing a 50-50 mixture of coconut oil and baking soda on the problem spot.

- Season cast-iron pans: Its thick consistency is easy to work with and holds up well.

- Try it as a cheap, natural moisturizer. Bonus: Some people love the smell.

Emery board

- Use emery boards to sharpen small things such as utility knife blades, tweezers and sewing machine needles.

- Remove stains from suede shoes, clothing and more by very gently buffing them with an emery board.

- If your sweaters are pilling, try running an emery board over the little bumps to remove them.


- We all know running a lemon rind through your garbage disposal will freshen the smell, but did you know that lemons also can deodorize your microwave? Zap a bowl of water and half a lemon for 5 minutes.

- The acid in lemon juice cuts through soap scum on shower doors and other bathroom spots.

- Remove coffee and tea stains from mugs by filling them with lemon peel and warm water and letting them soak.


- Remove water rings from wood furniture by dabbing on a little mayonnaise. Let it sit for an hour, then wipe with a soft cloth. Repeat if necessary.

- This slippery condiment also removes gum from your hair.

- Others swear by mayonnaise, which is rich in oils, for healing hangnails.


- Yeah, yeah, we in the newspaper business know about the birdcage liners. But did you know you can shine dark shoes by balling up newspaper and briskly rubbing them with it?

- Make newspaper balls, spray them with water and stuff them in your refrigerator to soak up bad smells.

- Wrapping green tomatoes in newspaper helps them ripen faster. Just be sure to wash before eating - and to finish reading this article before wrapping.


- Drop a pre-1982 penny and a pinch of sugar into a vase, and cut flowers last longer because the copper acts as a fungicide. (In 1982, the composition of pennies was changed from mostly copper to mostly zinc.)

- Check your tire tread depth by sticking Lincoln headfirst into the tread. If his entire head shows, you need new tires.

- Pennies stabilize tippy tables and other furniture, too. My small fountain has a couple of pennies between basin and base to level it.

Rubber bands

- If a screw gets stripped as you're trying to remove it, stick a section of rubber band into the stripped area and it gives you just enough grip to get the job done.

- Stick rubber bands over the ends of hangers for a cheap but effective way of keeping strappy tops and slinky sweaters from slipping off.

- Stretch a rubber band from the bottom of a can of paint up over the open top and use it to wipe your brush to remove excess paint and prevent drips.

Rubber gloves

- Use them to get a better grip on tough-to-open jars. You don't even have to put them on.

- Do put them on to pull poison oak or ivy and emerge unscathed. (You probably should dispose of them afterward.)

- Don the gloves, dampen them slightly, and run your hands over your upholstered furniture to remove pet hair.


- String chain necklaces through drinking straws to keep them from getting tangled in storage.

- Use straws to support delicate flower stems when you make a homemade bouquet.

- When storing food in a zipper bag, close all but a quarter of an inch, then stick a straw in and suck the air out of the bag before closing all the way. This should prevent freezer burn.


- We've all probably used an old toothbrush to clean around faucets or scrub grout, but it's also the perfect tool to clean mud out of your shoe treads.

- Use an extra toothbrush to clean your cheese grater without grating your fingers.

- Try using a toothbrush to remove silk from corn.


- The acetic acid in vinegar can kill weeds, though expert gardeners suggest using it just on those in the cracks of your pavement because it also can kill your plants.

- Apple cider vinegar is a great clarifier to remove product buildup from your hair.

- So many people have wondered whether spraying a vinegar-and-water solution on car windows will prevent frost that there's even a Snopes page verifying that it's true.

- I hoped to get the hiccups while writing this article, so I could test this final offbeat use, but no dice: Some swear that a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar will stop the hiccups.

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