Most of us are conscious of the products that we are putting both on and in our bodies. However, cleaning products can often fly under our “awareness” radar despite being capable of causing significant harm to our health. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that the air inside our homes can be as polluted as the air outside, with a significant amount of pollution coming from our household cleaning products. In the blog post below I share some insight into why “detoxing” your cleaning products is critical to your health and that of your family and provide a few easy alternatives to get you going on a toxin-free cleaning regime!
Many of us have been raised in family homes where bleach, ammonia, caustic soda and harsh disinfectants were considered the gold standard for hygienic cleaning. A bathroom was not considered “clean” unless a significant amount of bleach and disinfectant had been liberally applied. I was raised in one of these families and subscribed to this model until conducting a little more research on the harmful effects of such products.
Regulation is relaxed when it comes to cleaning products. About 40,000 individual chemicals are permitted for use in consumer products and environmental experts indicate that the average household contains over 60 toxins.
When I started conducting research on the contents of common cleaning products, I was shocked to find that ingredients lists were often non-existent. In Australia, cleaning products are not required to disclose a full list of their ingredients, just the hazardous ones which are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). In the USA, there is a similar lack of disclosure and oversight by industry regulation.
Furthermore, products can be released to the market without any sort of safety standard, testing data or notification. There is in general a lack of research focused on the long-term health consequences of chronic exposure to the chemicals in cleaning products which stems from a lack of federal regulation requiring safety tests and setting legally binding upper limits on toxic ingredients and impurities.
Why you need to be concerned?
A United Nations Report published three years ago called for more research into the long-term effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and listed household cleaners as a possible concern. This toxic body burden is the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s chief concern about household chemicals. Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist at the EWG explains:
“Our concern is daily, weekly, chronic exposure over a lifetime. Maybe if you’re exposed to a chemical a handful of times it wouldn’t cause harm, but some chemicals build up enough or cause enough harm in your body over time that it triggers some kind of disease outcome. The concept [of body burden] is that pollution is not just in our air and in our water — it’s also in us.”
Health conditions most frequently linked to the use of cleaning products generally include:
- Asthma. The inhalation of cleaning products has been shown to be a trigger for attacks in people previously diagnosed with asthma but has also been shown to be capable of inducing asthma in otherwise healthy individuals. A 10-country study of more than 3,500 individuals who were initially free of asthma found that nine years later, those who used spray cleaners at least once a week to clean their homes had a 30-to-50 percent increased risk of developing asthma during the study period. The research team calculated that, one in seven cases of adult asthma could be attributed to the use of these products (Zock, 2007). This is of great concern based on the fact that more than 50% of cleaning products on the market contain ingredients known to harm our lungs (EWG).
- Carcinogens. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and is listed on labels or the safety sheets of many cleaning products. Preservatives, which are added into cleaners to extend their shelf life may also be capable of releasing formaldehyde. Ingredients found in common brand name cleaning supplies can also be laced with the carcinogenic impurity 1,4 dioxane with independent tests detecting the presence of this chemical in numerous brand name laundry detergents. 1,4 Dioxane is an impurity unintentionally formed during industrial processes that make synthetic ingredients such as PEG and polyethylene compounds.
- Allergies. Many harsh chemical cleaners can cause direct, painful irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The properties that provide cleaning products with effective abrasive qualities can also mean that they inflame delicate tissues. Some cleaning products contain chemicals that can trigger an allergy by themselves, while others have ingredients that can combine with proteins to form “haptens” that trigger reactions (Chipinda 2011). Linalool, commonly found in fragrances and essential oils within cleaning products (and skincare) is a hapten-forming chemical (Christensson 2010; Karlberg 2008). Repeated exposure to chlorine bleach has been linked to respiratory damage and wheezing as well as nose and eye irritation.
- Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity. A 2010 study conducted by the New York State Department of Health that analysed maternal occupation and 45 types of birth defects indicated that children born to women working as building custodians have a significantly increased risk of certain congenital deformities (Herdt-Losavio 2010). Borax, a common ingredient used to stabilise enzymes in laundry and dishwashing detergents, is considered toxic to human reproductive development systems, according to the European Union (ECHA, 2011). Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido.
Ingredients to look out for
- Chlorine – found in toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers, laundry whiteners and even household tap water. Acutely, it is a respiratory irritant whilst chronic exposure can cause serious thyroid disruption.
- Ammonia – found in polishing agents for bathroom metal fixtures, sinks, and glass cleaners. Ammonia is a powerful irritant and when frequently inhaled is linked to chronic bronchitis and asthma.
- Phthalates – found in fragranced household products (and skincare). This ingredient will not be found on a label but will be listed as a fragrance or “parfum”. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and have been linked to reduced male fertility.
- Tricoslan – found in liquid dishwashing detergents and hand soaps. Tricoslan can promote the growth of drug resistant bacteria. Also being investigated as a possible carcinogen and endocrine disruptor.
- Quarternary Ammonium Compounds, or “QUATS” – found in fabric softener liquids and sheets, most household cleaners labelled “antibacterial.” Linked to respiratory disorders and known skin irritants.
- Sodium Hydroxide – found in oven cleaners and drain un-blockers. This ingredient is extremely corrosive and can cause severe burns upon exposure.
- 2-Butoxyethanol – found commonly in window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners.
Reading cleaning product labels - Red flag warning signs
Seeing any of the below words or phrases on your cleaning products should be a red flag for high toxicity. Note that greenwashing is rampant when it comes to consumer products. Words such as natural, green, organic, biodegradable and CFC-free are not necessarily indicative of a product’s purity so look a little more closely at these products to confirm their safety.
- Poison, Warning, Danger. These words are clearly indicative of toxic formulas.
- Flammable or combustible. These warnings indicate the presence of dangerous solvents and other volatile organic compounds.
- Instructions to use the product in a ventilated room or warning of allergic reactions. This indicates that exposure may be capable of causing respiratory irritation or allergic reactions.
- Skin irritation warnings can indicate potential skin irritants or hazards.
- Generic terms like “surfactants” or “dispersal agents” may be a disguise for toxic ingredients.
- Look at ingredients lists carefully. Common unsafe ingredient tip-offs, include:
- Ingredients ending in “-ol” or “-ene,” like benzol or toulene, which usually indicates toxic solvents.
- The presence of “chlor” in an ingredient name, this typically indicates a toxic chlorinated compound.
- The presence of “glycol” as part of a name, often points to a petroleum-based ether.
- Ingredients containing “phenol,” can point to the use of coal tar derivatives.
Do it yourself cleaners
When it comes to do it yourself cleaners, you can create highly effective cleaning products with products you already have in your home. White vinegar, baking soda, Castile soap and essential oils are all that is required for a squeaky natural clean.
- Basic sink cleanser — Combine ½ cup baking soda with six drops essential oil (such as lavender, rosemary, lemon, lime or orange). Rinse sink well with hot water. Sprinkle combination into sink and pour ¼ cup vinegar over top. After the fizz settles, scrub with a damp sponge or cloth. Rinse again with hot water. (From The Naturally Clean Home, by Karyn Siegel-Maier.)
- Toilet bowl cleaner – Mix 2 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of baking soda, 1/3 cup of Castile soap and 25 drops of essential oils. Mix the water and baking soda together to combine. Then add the liquid soap and essential oils. Funnel into an empty spray bottle. To use spray onto toilet bowl and seat. Leave for five minutes then brush the bowl. Use white vinegar for extra disinfecting properties.
- Oven cleaner — Put a heatproof dish filled with water in the oven. Turn on the heat to let the steam soften any baked-on grease. Once the oven is cool, apply a paste of equal parts salt, baking soda, and white vinegar, and scrub. (From Super Natural Home, by Beth Greer.)
- Bathroom mildew remover — An effective mould spray can be made with 2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon each of tea-tree and lavender oil. Shake first and spray on trouble spots. The oils break down the mildew so there’s no need to wipe it down. (From Green Interior Design, by Lori Dennis.). I am also a huge fan of clove oil for breaking down mould and killing spores. Add a ¼ teaspoon into the mix if you are experiencing mould.
- Laundry soap — Try “soap nuts” made from the soapberry tree. These are incredibly efficient and environmentally friendly as they are reusable. They come in a cotton sack that goes into the washing machine with clothes. You will never need laundry detergent again.
- Dusting — Furniture polishes are not necessary when you have olive oil which makes a fine polishing agent and micro fibre cloths which capture dust more efficiently than regular dusting cloths.
Safe Cleaning Products
If the thought of making your own cleaning products is too daunting, there are a few inexpensive and pure products that I highly recommend:
- General Multi-Purpose Cleaner by Ecologic
- Toilet Bowl Cleaner by Abode
- Bathroom Cleaner / Disinfectant spray by Our Eco Clean
- Floor Cleaner by Ecologic
For more information on healthy cleaning products and specific product recommendations refer to the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
Chipinda I, Hettick JM, Siegel PD. 2011. Haptenation: chemical reactivity and protein binding. Journal of Allergy 2011: 839682.
Christensson JB, Matura M, Gruvberger B, Bruze M, Karlberg AT. 2010. Linalool--a significant contact sensitizer after air exposure. Contact Dermatitis 62(1): 32-41.
ECHA (European Chemicals Agency). 2011. Classification and Labeling Inventory Database. echa.europa.eu/web/guest/information-on-chemicals/cl-inventory-database.
Herdt-Losavio ML, Lin S, Chapman BR, Hooiveld M, Olshan A, Liu X, et al. 2010. Maternal occupation and the risk of birth defects: an overview from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 67(1): 58-66.
Karlberg AT, Bergstrom MA, Borje A, Luthman K, Nilsson JL. 2008. Allergic contact dermatitis--formation, structural requirements, and reactivity of skin sensitizers. Chemical Research in Toxicology 21(1): 53-69.
Zock JP, Plana E, Jarvis D, Anto JM, Kromhout H, Kennedy SM, et al. 2007. The use of household cleaning sprays and adult asthma: an international longitudinal study. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 176(8): 735-741.