Understanding the Chemicals in Cleaning Products

Why You Should Avoid Toxic Household Cleaners

Everyone likes to live in a clean, tidy home, but most of us don’t relish the task. Nevertheless, we strap on our gloves and sometimes even face masks and get the job done. But have you ever wondered why protective clothing is sometimes required in order to use conventional cleaning products? After all, shouldn’t cleaning products make your home safer and healthier, not more polluted? This article highlights the different toxic chemicals in cleaning products so you can start avoiding them and using natural cleaning products and homemade cleaning recipes. 

Of all the toxic exposures reported to US Poison Control in 2000, 10% - or more than 200,000 calls - were to cleaning products.(1) Filled with chemicals - many of which have never been tested for safety - that aren’t even listed on most cleaning product containers, these conventional cleaners are harmful to human health, indoor air quality, water, and soil.


Toxic cleaners create degraded indoor air quality and other health concerns

Perhaps the most compelling reason for you to consider looking into nontoxic household cleaning products is the threat conventional cleaning products pose to indoor air quality and human health. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tells us that indoor air quality can be as much as five times more polluted than outdoor air, due in part to toxic cleaning products.(2) Wonder what poor indoor air quality does to you and your family? Here are some statistics that explain the damage toxic cleaning products can have on your home’s indoor environment:

  • Poison gasses: Not only can chlorine poison humans, when combined with ammonia (often found in other cleaning products), it can form poisonous gasses that are deadly to humans.(3)
  • Cancer causers: Common household cleaners contain things like diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) which have been shown to cause cancer.
  • Eye, skin, digestive, and lung irritants: Many chemicals used in cleaning products will burn or irritate eyes, lungs, and skin, including sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide (lye or caustic soda), d-limonene, cresol, butyl cellosolve (ethylene glycol, butyl glycol, or monobutyl), hydrochloric acid (bleach). Surfactants like monoethanolamine (MEA) as well as ammonium quaternary compounds can contribute to higher levels of asthma in humans.(4)
  • Neurotoxins: Some cleaning products are formulated with chemicals like benzene, naphtha, morpholine, organic solvents, kerosene, amyl acetate, and petroleum distillates which can even cause neurological health problems.
  • Hormone disruptors: Endocrine disruptors in some cleaning products, especially phthalates and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), can reduce sperm counts in men. They may also increase rates of asthma and allergic symptoms.(5)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Many conventional cleaning products emit VOCs like formaldehyde that can contribute to eye, nose, and throat irritation, increase incidence of headaches, impair coordination, damage internal organics like your liver and kidneys, and affect your nervous system. VOCs may also cause cancer in humans.(6)


Environmental harm posed by regular cleaning products

Conventional cleaning products available at your local grocery or department store pose more than just human health concerns; they also are a threat to the environment. Millions of dollars of cleaning chemicals are flushed into public water systems every year, and by and large, scientists have not yet studied how individual chemicals impact the planet, never mind what damage the will wreak when they combine together. That said, emerging evidence about some conventional cleaning chemicals gives us a window into current and future environmental problems:

  • Resistant bacteria: Using disinfectants in household cleaning products is likely contributing to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. This could one day lead to superbugs that cause serious widespread disease (otherwise known as a pandemic).(7 & 8)
  • Stream contamination: Disinfectants and persistent detergent metabolites have been found in more than 65% of all US stream water, doubtless negatively impacting aquatic life and natural ecosystems.(9) Additionally, when cleaning products that contain nitrogen or phosphorus enter streams and lakes, they load the water with nutrients which reduce water quality.(10)
  • Hormone disruption: Found in all purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, and stain removers, surfactant chemicals like alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs) act as endocrine disruptors on aquatic life, causing poor embryo survival and tadpole development in fish, among other things. They can also contribute to asthma in humans.(11)

Though much more research is required in order to determine the true extent and nature of chemicals in the environment, we have a pretty good idea that there are many dangers to using traditional cleaning products. But there are ways you can clean your home without harming your health or that of the planet’s. 

Not only are there more natural cleaning products available for every imaginable cleaning duty, you can often make your own homemade cleaning products with basic kitchen ingredients. Check out Ecolife's DIY home cleaning section. Good green cleaning supplies will have characteristics such as the following:

  • Alcohol-free
  • Avoid labels that read “Danger,” “Caution,” or “Warning.”
  • Chlorine-free
  • Formulated without triclosan
  • Free of lye, glycol ethers, and ammonia
  • Petroleum-free
  • Phosphate-free
  • Solvent-free
  • Stamped with claims of biodegradability (for instance: “XX% biodegradable within XX days”)
  • Stay away from products labeled as “Corrosive” or “Irritant.”
  • VOC-free

Some companies make certified eco-friendly cleaning products (like those certified by Green Seal), but for more great information on natural cleaning products and formulas, read through this comprehensive green cleaning section. Also check out our DIY naturally cleaning recipes for a simple way to swap out your common house cleaners to more naturally (and cheap) alternatives. To learn more about read Ecolife's What to Ask When Buying Natural Cleaners article to learn more about detecting potential chemicals in the ingredient list.



1, 2, 9 Cleaning Products - What's behind the shine?(n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2010, from Worldwatch Institute: http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1484

3 The Best Non-toxic Ways to Clean Your Home. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2010, from WedMD: http://www.webmd.com/health-ehome-9/green-cleaning?spon=2604_2

4, 5, 10, 11 Potential Hazards of Home Cleaning Products. (2007, July). Retrieved June 15, 2010, from Women's Voices for the Earth: http://healthychild.org/uploads/File/HazardsReport.pdf

6 Ten Simple Ways to Clean Green . (2006, July/August). Retrieved June 15, 2010, from Real Green - Green America: http://www.greenamericatoday.org/pubs/realgreen/articles/greencleaners.cfm

7 Antibacterial Soap: Do You Need It to Keep Your Home Clean?(n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2010, from WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/health-ehome-9/antibacterial-soap-cleaners?spon=2604_2

8 Disinfectant Overkill. (2009, November). Retrieved June 15, 2010, from Women's Voices for the Earth: http://healthychild.org/uploads/File/DisinfectantOverkillSMALL.pdf

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