Using safe, non-toxic cleaning products is one of the best things you can do to improve your health. Certain ingredients in cleaning products can cause many different health problems and in this post I share the ingredients to watch for and avoid, and how to choose safe cleaning products that don't pose health risks.
How to Choose Safe Cleaning Products
Did you know that many conventional cleaning products can pose significant health risks? Health risks like cancer, infertility, asthma and reproductive toxicity? Scary right? You shouldn't have to worry that the products in your home could be making you or your family sick. In this post I am going to review some of the health risks linked to cleaning products, and then teach you how to read labels so that you can ensure you are only buying safe products for your home. I also have a discount code for my favourite brand of cleaning products that you can choose to take advantage of (if that's all you're interested in simply head to the end of this post).
Cleaning products health risks: asthma
Asthma is the best studied health risk when it comes to exposure to cleaning products. There are so many studies that have shown that certain cleaning product ingredients can not only make asthma worse, but also cause asthma, or asthma-like symptoms in people who never had asthma before.
There are numerous chemicals and ingredients that can cause or worsen asthma symptoms. Many acidic or basic cleaners worsen asthma symptoms because they irritate the lungs. If improperly mixed, bleach and acidic or ammonia-based cleaners can react to form high concentrations of chlorine gas, which can cause asthma after even just one exposure.
Quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” such as benzalkonium chloride which are used in antibacterial cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and in fabric softeners cause asthma after long term exposure.
Ethanolamines (mono-, di- and triethanolamine) which are used to control product acidity and also act as detergents in many cleaning products are also known to cause asthma.
Other chemicals like bleach and ammonia, can cause asthma through allergic reactions that develop slowly after long-term exposure to lower concentrations of the ingredients.
Cleaning sprays, disinfectants, products with fragrances, and mixing products have also all been identified as specific causes or triggers of asthma.
There are certain things you can do to limit the risk of some of these ingredients including substituting cleaning sprays, avoiding bleach and ammonia, minimizing the use of disinfectants, avoiding mixing products, and using respiratory protective devices, but ideally, the products you are using should not carry any risk of asthma, and should not require you to have to take these extra measures just to protect yourself.
Cleaning products health risks: hormone disruption, infertility, reproductive, and developmental toxicity
There are a number of ingredients that are used in cleaning products which can cause hormone imbalances which can ultimately contribute to infertility, reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Parabens are compounds that are used as preservatives, anti-bacterial agents, and stabilizers in cleaning products. Parabens are known hormone disruptors, and parabens can also contributes to hormonally based cancers such as breast cancer. One study even showed that 99% of those with breast cancer had paraben accumulation in their breast cancer tumors.
Phthalates are used in cleaning products because they allow fragrances to last longer. Studies show that phthalates have estrogen-like properties and anti-androgenic properties and act as hormone disruptors.
Borax and boric acid, which are used to stabilize enzymes in laundry or dishwashing detergent are known to be toxic to the reproductive tract in both women and men. Borax and boric acid can also cross the placenta, thus affecting fetal development as well.
Diethylene glycol monomethyl ether can decrease fertility and impact the growing fetus as well. And other chemicals in the glycol ether family have been linked to impaired fertility and reproductive and developmental toxicity in animal studies.
Cleaning products health risks: cancer
Cancer is a very complicated disease to study. There are so many types of cancers and they often take years to develop, so being able to identify specific environmental triggers or causes is very challenging. As such there are not many studies examining the relationship between exposure of cleaning products and the risk of cancer. However, there are known ingredients that are used in some cleaning products which are known to cause cancer including formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.
Formaldehyde can be adding to cleaning products directly, or it can form inside the bottle through reactions between other ingredients used in that product. While 1,4-dioxane is an impurity that is unintentionally formed during industrial processes that make synthetic ingredients such as PEG and polyethylene compounds used in various cleaning products.
As well, while not used in the home, tetrachloroethylene, which is a chemical used in dry cleaning has been linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer.
There is also some retrospective data implicating the use of household cleaners with an increased risk of breast cancer.
Cleaning products health risks: burns and poisoning
This is a pretty scary one. There are many cleaning products that can cause serious injury or even be fatal because the ingredients in them are so harmful. The injuries occur when these products come into contact with the skin, or are ingested.
Cleaning products that are very acidic or alkaline or contain corrosive ingredients can cause burns to the skin and eyes and permanent tissue damage or scarring. Inhaling fumes from these products can also be harmful to the lungs.
One of the most dangerous hazards is the formation of high levels of harmful gases when certain cleaning products are mixed. Bleach based products have the greatest risk. Chloramine gas forms when bleach and ammonia based cleaners are mixed. Chlorine gas forms when bleach based cleaners are mixed with acidic cleaners ( things like toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers or vinegar).
Cleaning products health risks: allergic reactions and skin irritation
It is possible to be allergic to almost anything, and there are many reported cases of people being allergic to ingredients in cleaning products. Home cleaning products can cause some people to suffer mild to severe allergic reactions of the skin, eyes and lungs. In rare cases, these reactions can be very serious and require hospitalization.
Some cleaning products contain ingredients that can trigger an allergic reaction on their own, while others have ingredients that can combine with proteins to form “haptens” that trigger allergic reactions. For example, linalool, which is commonly found in fragrances and essential oils, is one hapten-forming chemical. The resulting allergic reactions can either develop quickly after only a few exposures or slowly after long-term exposures to lower concentrations of allergenic ingredients.
Fragrance ingredients are also very common causes of allergic reactions, and are collectively considered among the top five allergens in the world, and cleaning products commonly contain fragrances to make them smell appealing.
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products
Now that you know some of the health risks associated with certain cleaning product ingredients, I want to teach you how to read labels so you know what to watch for and avoid. It would be impossible for me to list every single ingredient that you need to watch for, but I have tried to list some of the most commonly used ingredients and ingredients that pose the most potential risk.
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products: ingredients that can cause or worsen asthma symptoms, or act as respiratory irritants.
There are a number of ingredients that can worsen or cause asthma and that you need to watch for and avoid. This list comes from the EWG's post: Cleaning Supplies and Your Health which is an incredible resource. I can take no credit for the work they did putting this list together but I am so grateful that they did.
- Alkyl Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride
- Alkyl Dimethyl Ethylbenzyl Ammonium Chloride
- Didecyldimethylammonium Chloride
- Dioctyl Dimethyl Ammonium Chloride
- Distearyldimonium Chloride
- *DMDM Hydantoin
- Monoethanolamine Citrate
- Bleach (Sodium Hypochlorite)
- Sulfuric Acid
* While not asthmagens themselves, these ingredients release formaldehyde, which is a known asthma trigger.
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products: fragrances
Fragrances are considered to be trade secrets. This means that companies don’t have to disclose the ingredients that go into a fragrance. Over 3,000 different ingredients can be used to create a fragrance, and you don’t get to know the identity of any of them. Ingredients that are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, neurotoxins and other health harming ingredients can be hidden under the term fragrance (including parabens and phthalates which I will discuss in more detail below). As well, fragrances are common causes of headaches, allergic reactions, skin irritation, and respiratory irritation.
As well, many essential oils are processed with solvents that have harmful volatile compounds, so botanical fragrances should be organic or wildcrafted and must be extracted through distillation, not with solvents. As well, terpenes in pine, lemon, and orange oils can react with ozone from outside air to form toxic compounds like formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone.
When you are reading labels, if you ever see the words “fragrance” or “parfum”, or “scent” listed in the ingredients, don't use those products. You have no idea what harmful ingredients might be hiding in them. Even if the front of a package says a product is "fragrance free" you actually have to turn the package around and read the ingredient list to double check. Companies can add fragrances that combine to give the product a neutral scent and can still label that product as "fragrance free" even though it isn't (it's extremely frustrating).
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products: petroleum based ingredients
If an ingredient ends in “ol” or “ene” this usually indicates a petroleum-based product or coal tar derivative. Certain examples of these ingredients include:
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products: hazardous ingredients
This one may seem straight forward, but you would be surprised at just how many cleaning products contain ingredients with known hazardous properties that you need to be extra cautious of. If you ever see the following warnings on product labels this is an easy way to tell if a product contains hazardous ingredients:
- If a product warns that it is "flammable"
- If it instructs you to wear a mask or gloves to use the product
- If it requires ventilation to use
- If it requires hazardous waste disposal: If you can’t throw them in your garbage, do you want them in your house?
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products: parabens
To avoid parabens in your products, watch for any ingredient ending in “aben” on the label. Also avoid any products with fragrances listed in the ingredients as parabens are often hidden within that term as well.
Ingredients to avoid when choosing cleaning products: phthalates
Phthalates are a little harder to identify on ingredient lists because they often have complicated names. Five of the most widely used phthalates are di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), di-isononyl phthalate (DINP), di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP).
However, phthalates are often part of a product's fragrance so an easy way to avoid most of them is to avoid any products with fragrance listed in the ingredients.
The cleaning products I use in my home:
Are you running to your cupboards to check if the cleaning products you have in your home right now are safe? My intent with this post is not to scare you, but to empower you. Once you know better you can do better. So now that you know what ingredients you need to watch for and avoid, you are probably wondering what cleaning products on the market are safe to use? I want to take the grunt work out of the search for you. Because trust me, not all safe cleaning supplies are created equally.
I tried about six different brands of safe or natural cleaning products before finding a brand that actually works and that I like. There are a lot of products out there that do contain clean ingredients, but they don't actually clean anything. Such a waste of money!
Here is a list of the cleaning products that I use in my home:
- Aspen Clean Natural All Purpose Cleaner
- Aspen Clean Natural Bathroom Cleaner
- Aspen Clean Natural Glass Cleaner
- Aspen Clean Natural Kitchen Cleaner
Why I love Aspen Clean products:
- They are made from natural ingredients and scented with organic essential oils so you know that they are safe for your health.
- They work! I can't tell you how many other non-toxic cleaning supplies I tried that just didn't actually do what they said they would. I wasted so much money on other products that honestly didn't work at all. Aspen Clean cleaners have cleaning properties equal to conventional cleaners and have shown a high efficiency in fighting dirt and stains on many types of surfaces.
- They are biodegradable and safe for septic tanks
- They are cruelty free and Leaping Bunny certified
- They are Ecocert certified
- Their products received straight A's on the EWG guide to safe cleaning products (the highest score you can get).
You might also like:
- Is there mercury in your mascara?
- How to choose a safe sunscreen
- Deodorant health risks
- How I healed my keratosis pilaris naturally
- Cleaning products and short-term respiratory effects among female cleaners with asthma.
- Asthma and exposure to cleaning products - a European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology task force consensus statement.
- Prenatal use of cleaning and scented products and its association with childhood asthma, asthmasymptoms, and mental health and developmental comorbidities.
- Occupational and work-related respiratory disease attributed to cleaning products.
- Job hazards and respiratory symptoms in Hispanic female domestic cleaners.
- Work-related asthma from cleaning agents versus other agents.
- Fragranced consumer products: effects on asthmatic Australians.
- Tetrachloroethylene exposure and bladder cancer risk: a meta-analysis of dry-cleaning-worker studies.
- Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: a case-control study.
- Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum.
- Methylparaben stimulates tumor initiating cells in ER+ breast cancer models
- Sicker Fatter Poorer by Leonardo Trasande
- EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning
Disclaimers: This post was sponsored by Aspen Clean but all of the opinions are my own. I use Aspen Clean products in my home and have never been gifted any products or services from Aspen Clean.