Many popular cleaning products contain dangerous chemicals that can damage our health and the environment. But, armed with the information in this article, you can choose safer alternatives that are just as effective.
Walk down the cleaning supplies aisle in your local supermarket and you’ll discover an enormous array of products – many of them familiar to you from advertisements.
With so many choices and such aggressive promotion, it’s tough to figure out what you really need to clean your home, what chemicals may do more harm than good, and which companies are trying to marry effectiveness and safety.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Why finding safe cleaners is a challenge
- Why you should care about cleaner safety
- Particular chemicals to watch for
- How to choose safer and healthier options
The challenge of safe cleaners
When we use cleaning products, we expose our bodies to chemicals. We may inhale those chemicals, absorb them through our skin, or make contact with mucous membranes. (More on specific exposure issues below.)
Once we’re finished using cleaners and rinse them down the drain, they end up in our waterways, where they threaten aquatic life.
Unfortunately, despite these well-known risks, most big-name manufacturers of cleaners seem to pay more attention to their brand appeal and their bottom line than they do to the potential hazards of their products.
What’s in that bottle?
It’s hard to know. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose all their ingredients on the label.
- Manufacturers don’t have to specify what’s included in “fragrance.”
- Nor are they obliged to name ingredients that are considered trade secrets.
- And they’re free to use vague terms (such as “cleaning agent,” or “quaternary ammonium compound”) to describe almost anything they don’t want to list.
You don’t always know exactly what you’re buying and using.
So what’s a concerned consumer to do? How can you ensure that you’re buying safe and effective products?
Researching your cleaning products
Step 1: Read labels
Even though some ingredients may not appear on the label (and even if they did, you might need a PhD in advanced chemistry to understand what they are), start by reading the labels on your cleaning products.
Look for two things:
- usage warnings (e.g. don’t get this stuff in your eyes, wear gloves, etc.); and
- the ingredients outlined in this article.
Don’t be fooled by marketing claims like “natural”, “green”, “eco-friendly”, “organic”, etc.
Step 2: Review a healthy cleaner database
Here you can search for the home cleaning products you currently use and see how safe – or unsafe – they really are. You can also search out safer products to use in your home, as well individual ingredients found in products that the Working Group has not yet reviewed.
The EWG’s database is an incredible resource, and we highly recommend it.
Who regulates cleaning products?
At the workplace, we might don safety gear before working with hazardous substances. In fact, our occupational regulations might require it.
At home, we often don’t think about it. We might assume household products are safe. That they’ve been well-tested. And, perhaps, that our government would never allow the wide (and sometimes unstated) use of dangerous chemicals.
In the United States and Canada, companies that make cleaning products can use nearly any ingredient or raw material in their product formulations without government review or approval. And again, manufacturers don’t have to report all their ingredients on the product label.
In Canada, the industry-led Consumer Ingredient Communication Initiative (CICI) does provide shoppers with some information. Participating companies have agreed to list ingredients contained in their products either on their website, via a customer service number, or on the package label. But without regulations, nobody can enforce this agreement.
In the U.S., the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 lays out what the EPA can do to regulate the industry, and essentially, it’s not much.
If the EPA feels that a product or chemical poses an unreasonable risk of injury, companies may voluntarily recall a product.
And while these voluntary recalls do occur, they tend to focus on immediate injury risk such as chemical burns or fire hazards, not on subtle, chronic, or slow-developing problems such as asthma or cancer.
Companies do not have to prove chemicals are safe before putting them into cleaning products.
How we’re exposed to risk
While we don’t eat, drink, or wash our bodies with these products, we do breathe in sprays and powders, absorb chemicals through our skin and mucous membranes, and accidentally swallow many of them. Chemical residues on surfaces or in house dust can end up on your skin and in your food.
In fact, testing by the Silent Spring Institute found 66 hormone-disrupting chemicals, including flame-retardants, home-use pesticides (such as triclosan), phthalates and more in household “dust bunnies”!
Is this enough exposure to matter?
Many ingredients in cleaning supplies harm or irritate the lungs and can trigger or cause asthma, even in healthy people, and even in very small amounts. Such chemicals can also irritate, harm or even burn the skin and eyes, and act as endocrine disruptors that increase risk of cancer and reproductive abnormalities.
Children are at particular risk.
Most people tested in assessments of chemical exposure have had cleaning ingredients such as phthalates and synthetic musk (from fragrance), alkylphenols, and triclosan in their blood.
Occasional exposure to many of these chemicals may not pose a problem, but prolonged exposure over a lifetime can increase the risk of many complications. We don’t know much about the dangers because safety testing is not required.
What chemicals are we talking about?
Sodium hypochlorite is the main component of most commercial chlorine bleach products. It can irritate and burn skin, cause and aggravate asthma and respiratory problems, and poison marine life. It’s also potentially linked to cancer and reproductive problems.
Quaternary ammonium compounds
These are often used in dryer sheets to coat the fabric.
There are many quaternary ammonium compounds, which are sometimes listed individually, and sometimes simply listed by the category name alone, where the company won’t provide full disclosure. Many of these compounds are cause severe burns and eye damage, are very toxic to aquatic life, and are known asthmagens.
These compounds include:
• benzalkonium chloride
• stearalkonium chloride
• centrimonium bromide
• quaternium 1-29
Formaldehyde releasers are a class of antimicrobial preservatives used in many household cleaning products in the U.S. to extend shelf life of the products.
They are toxic to the immune system and skin, and they are highly allergenic. The U.S. government and World Health Organization classify inhaled formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
The following chemicals are known formaldehyde releasers found in many cleaning products:
• DMDM hydantoin (trade name Glydant)
• bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
• imidazolidinyl urea
• diazolidinyl urea
• hexahydro-1,3,5-tris (2-hydroxyethyl)-S-triazine (trade name Grotan)
Triclosan is an antibacterial pesticide that is found in some dishwashing liquid and hand soaps.
It’s highly toxic to aquatic life, with long lasting effects. It may promote bacterial resistance, can act as an endocrine disruptor, and may decrease thyroid function, among other possible endocrine toxicities.
Fragrance is found in nearly every category of household cleaners.
The term “fragrance” may include any of at least 3,163 different chemicals. The Environmental Working Group has found that on average, 14 hidden compounds make up the “fragrance” ingredient on the label.
Fragrance mixtures have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system, such as low sperm count. Indeed, fragrance is one of the world’s top five allergens.
Phthalates are commonly used in fragrance mixtures to make them last longer.
Several studies have linked phthalate exposure to a host of problems, including low sperm count and an elevated risk of sperm damage, feminization of the male reproductive system (especially when male babies are exposed in the womb through their mothers), neurobehavioral problems, and insulin resistance.
Phthalates are almost never individually listed as an ingredient.
1,4-dioxane is a suspected human carcinogen and is a common contaminant of many cleaning chemicals. It is not used as an ingredient, but is a by-product of the chemical production process.
It is irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract, and exposure may cause damage to the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Accidental worker exposure has resulted in several deaths.
Keep in mind that while these seven categories are important, they do not represent a comprehensive list, as cleaning companies use many other potentially dangerous chemicals.
What does this mean?
Take a hard look at the cleaning products you currently use and decide if their effectiveness is worth the potential health risks to you and your family.
There are many far more human and environmentally friendly products out there that are just as effective and just as affordable as brand-name cleaning products.
Your best bet would be to check out each of the products you use on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning database and see how they stack up. If a product scores poorly, you can search by category to find a safer alternative. If it scores well, give yourself a high five!
Safer, greener cleaning
I’ve saved you some of the trouble by outlining some safe and effective products that I use in my home, as well as some other tips for greener cleaning and a safer environment for you and your loved ones.
Whether you choose to do the dishes by hand or in the dishwasher (most likely both), there are cleaners you can choose that are both safe and effective.
Here are two effective and highly rated products:
- In the dishwasher: Seventh Generation’s Automatic Dishwasher Detergent. Free and clear of fragrances or dyes, it works as well as products loaded with those.
- For doing dishes by hand: Planet Ultra Dishwashing Liquid.
Avoid anti-bacterial dishwashing products, as they contain triclosan, which is entirely unnecessary, and have not been shown to be any more effective than regular cleaning agents.
Many people are very particular about their laundry detergent. They swear that their favourite detergent cleans best, or they love it for the smell it gives to their clothes.
Unfortunately, that smell may induce asthma or cause other respiratory problems. In addition, many laundry detergents leave soapy residues on clothes that can dull colors and make clothes stiff and irritate the skin.
Many people believe that more detergent equals cleaner clothes. But this isn’t true. Since most detergents today are concentrated, and many people have high-efficiency washers, we don’t need as much detergent as we might imagine.
In fact, using more detergent than needed ends up washing your clothes less effectively. It leaves a soapy residue that fades colors and attracts more dirt.
Excess detergent will also build up in your machine and encourage bacteria growth and odor that will decrease the performance and life of your washer. And of course, overusing detergent is just plain wasteful and expensive.
Whether for HE front-loaders or conventional top-loaders, Seventh Generation Natural Laundry Detergent Powder, Free & Clear is an effective product.
If you’re absolutely committed to a particular scent on your clothes, try adding a few drops of plant-derived essential oils to the wash.
Conventional fabric softeners and dryer sheets coat your clothes with a layer of chemicals, most commonly dangerous quaternary ammonium compounds. These chemicals increase the smooth feeling of fabrics and decrease static build up during tumble-drying.
This buildup of fabric softeners may lead to decreased absorbency, which is obviously less than ideal for items like towels and washcloths, but most people aren’t aware of that.
Meanwhile, most fabric softeners and dryer sheets also contain fragrances. And the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading international authority on asthma, calls many of the chemicals in fabric softeners and dryer sheets “asthmagens” – substances that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people.
While the risk from fragrance may seem arbitrary or not definitive, a 2010 University of Washington study tested 25 commonly used scented laundry products, ran them through a laundry cycle and tested what was emitted from the dryer.
They found 133 different chemicals, with an average of 17 per product, and more than one third of the products emitted a chemical classified as a probable carcinogen by the US EPA. Of these 133 chemicals, nearly a quarter of them were classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law. And only one of these 133 compounds was listed on a product label!
These chemicals don’t belong in your laundry or on your clothes, and your neighbors probably don’t want to breathe them in, either.
Instead of scented liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets, a simple and effective tool is to use distilled white vinegar in place of regular fabric softener. Just use ½ cup with the final rinse cycle.
Vinegar provides many benefits to your laundry, including:
• Dissolving the alkaline residues left on your clothes from the detergent, leaving brighter, clearer and softer clothes.
• Removing unwanted odors that your detergent might’ve missed
• Removing soap scum and mineral deposits that can build up in your washing machine
• Helping to prevent mold and mildew growth
Note that you should not use vinegar if you are also using chlorine bleach. And don’t worry – vinegar won’t affect fabric absorbency nor will it make your clothes smell like a salad!
Vinegar is better at softening clothes than at removing static cling. If you want to use dryer sheets to help eliminate static cling, an unscented product such as Seventh Generation Natural Fabric Softener Sheets would be an excellent choice.
Bleach / whitener
Many people also like to use chlorine bleach when washing their whites, as chlorine is a very good whitener. However, chlorine bleach is poisonous and corrosive, and if you have a septic system it will also kill much of the bacteria that are necessary for breaking down the solids that accumulate in your tank.
Instead, try using:
- a non-chlorine bleach such as Seventh Generation Chlorine Free Bleach, which uses hydrogen peroxide as its cleaning agent; hydrogen peroxide is a safe and effective stain remover; or
- Borax for deodorizing and whitening (look for it in the laundry section of the store)
If you’ve got some funky gym clothes, try soaking them in a solution of baking soda and water before washing.
When possible, leave the washer door open between uses. This lets the washer dry out, and thus prevents mold and mildew from growing.
Cleaning the bathroom
When it comes to their bathrooms, many people feel the need to sanitize things with a death blast of chemicals.
We’d never advise you to live in filth. But you don’t need to kill every last micro-organism in your loo.
Research has not found anti-bacterial cleaners such as bleach to be any more effective than conventional cleaners at reducing illness at home. In fact, the American Medical Association recommends avoiding antibacterial cleaning supplies (such as chlorine bleach and triclosan) because there is no evidence to suggest that they enhance health protection, and because overusing them may help create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
While antibacterial cleaning products might be important in a hospital, there’s no evidence that you need to use them at home.
- Seventh Generation Natural Toilet Bowl Cleaner for the toilet
- Seventh Generation Natural Tub & Tile Cleaner for sink, shower, and tile
- You can also use a solution of white vinegar and water for getting rid of hard water buildup; and simply dipping a damp sponge in baking soda for scrubbing off tough grime
- A solution of borax and water will work for toilet bowl cleaning (pour it in and let it sit for a few minutes, then scrub and flush)
Cleaning the floor
Many traditional floor cleaners are unfortunately loaded with some of those nasty compounds discussed in the beginning of this article. They are probably doing you more harm than good, and there are many other safer options available to you.
I recommend Aussan Natural floor cleaner concentrate.
For removing those tough carpet stains, another great product is Martha Stewart Clean Carpet Stain Remover. (Yes, that Martha Stewart. In fact, many of the products in her Clean line are incredibly safe and effective.)
I like Aussan Natural all-purpose cleaner for a multi-purpose or all-purpose general cleaner. Baking soda can also be really useful as a cleaning and stain removing agent.
If you like to use pre-wet wipes, a great option is Whole Foods Green MISSION Surface Cleaning Wipes. But limiting your use of this type of product is a good idea. Often you can use a reusable cloth instead.
Glass & window cleaner
Instead of the classic Windex, try Citra-Solv Citra Clear Window and Glass Cleaner.
Or you could try a low-tech solution of ¼ cup distilled vinegar, two cups water, and a teaspoon of regular dishwashing soap. The dishwashing liquid removes the residue left on the windows by the commercial cleaners.
And by the way, scrub windows with crumpled-up old newspapers instead of paper towel. Saves you buying paper towels, leaves a streak-free shine, and it’s a handy way to re-use the newspapers before you recycle them.
Pledge doesn’t make the cut. Citra-Solv Citra Wood Natural Wood & Furniture Polish is a better option. You could also try an old-fashioned beeswax polish or some olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice (drip a little on a soft cloth, then use the cloth to polish the wood).
The best way to make changes
Now that you might be convinced you want to change the products you’re using to clean your home, clothes, and dishes, what is the best course of action?
First, don’t be in a hurry to flush your products down the drain or throw them away.
When these chemicals get into waterways they can harm wildlife and contaminate streams and rivers. Simply use up what you have before you transition to a safer product.
A few more uses probably won’t harm you. But if you have special reasons for concern – say, if you’re pregnant or plan to become pregnant; or are already struggling with asthma/allergies – or if you simply want to get rid of them quickly, call your local town office to find out where you can drop off hazardous waste.
In general, simply replace old and dangerous cleaners with newer and safer ones as you finish them.
Choose products you have researched to be safe, can easily access, can afford, and find effective for your needs.
If you make a small donation to the Environmental Working Group you get a Tips for Greener Cleaning and a DIY Cleaning Guide. I have both and they are awesome!
Finally, while many Seventh Generation products were listed as safe cleaners, don’t just assume that all this company’s products meet top safety evaluation. Many of them don’t – including their liquid dishwasher and laundry detergents.
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