Growing up, I spent every Saturday morning cleaning the house. I cleaned the bathroom, vacuumed, and dusted. I especially disliked cleaning the bathroom because I always felt sick afterwards. You see, my mother bought toxic cleaners for my sister and me to use when we cleaned. I think she distrusted natural options, but her choice contributed to my later development of multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), allergies, and maybe even fibromyalgia.
Many people use these popular cleaners because of low cost, perceived greater effectiveness, ease of use, and brand recognition. Just spray on the foam and wipe off. What could be easier? And, the whole house smells “clean.” But, the upfront advantages come at the expense of our health.
Defining “toxic cleaners”
So, what are toxic cleaners? After all, ingesting undiluted essential oils can be harmful, too. But, essential oils don’t cause cancer, asthma, or birth defects. Toxic cleaners cause harm, and even death. Natural cleaners may sometimes irritate the skin, but do not cause such awful, long-term consequences.
One of the biggest problems with these cleaners is the lack of information on labels. Many labels simply say “surfactants.” Well, what are those? They don’t disclose that information. Instead, we get hints of what they are through warnings: “harmful if swallowed” or “eye irritant.” If these chemicals aren’t bad, then why should we call the poison control center if ingested?
Why are these toxic cleaners available to the public, when they are used as solvents in industrial settings? Because, according to the Environmental Working Group, (EWG) manufacturers of cleaning products can pretty much do whatever they want without government oversight. The Environmental Protection Agency DOES research some chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer, but they can’t and don’t evaluate every chemical used. Thus, the CAUTION label. But, how many of us actually read and heed the label? If it’s sold in the store, it must be safe, right? Well, let me just say that I cannot even walk down the cleaner aisle without getting a headache and a runny nose.
So, what are these toxic cleaners?
So, what are these toxic cleaners that cause harm? How do we know which ones they are when we are shopping for cleaning supplies? The first sign that you are holding a toxic cleaner in your hand is whether or not it has a warning label on the back that looks a lot like the one pictured above. Usually, you don’t find such a warning on dish soap or wood floor cleaners. But, it is often found on bathroom tub and tile cleaners, toilet cleaners, automatic dish detergent, window cleaners, polish, and some carpet and vinyl floor cleaners. You also find this warning on many laundry products. And surprisingly, you can even find it on some products that have been greenwashed with the labels “natural” or “organic.” Always check!
How do toxic cleaners harm?
Asthma is one of the most obvious and earliest health risks to develop from exposure to even ordinary household cleaners. The EWG cites a study of 3,500 people who didn’t have asthma at the outset. But, after 9 years of using household spray cleaners once a week, they increased their risk of developing asthma by 30-50% during the study period. This is only one of several studies with similar results. Even unborn children of women breathing these toxic spray cleaners suffered a higher risk of respiratory issues after birth. At least 17 different chemicals found in common household cleaners cause asthma and other respiratory issues. And, in the right combination, can cause asthma after a single exposure. If the person already has asthma, well, further exposure to these irritants only worsens it.
Some research suggests a link between household cleaning products and the development of cancer. Some cleaners contain formaldehyde as a preservative and others contain preservatives that release formaldehyde. This happens when pine- and citrus-based ingredients mix with ambient ozone, especially on foggy days. Researchers have detected another known carcinogen, dioxane, in conventional laundry detergents. While a definite and clear cause-and-effect has not yet been established, the research seems to point to a connection.
Research shows that high doses of exposure to borax and boric acid can cause reduced fertility in both males and females. It is on the European Union’s list of substances of “very high concern.” This one surprised me because I always thought of borax as safe as long as I didn’t eat it. Ha! I will have to reassess my very occasional use of this powder. Thankfully, I mostly use baking soda, not borax.
Chemicals in the glycol family also negatively affect fertility and unborn children. They can cause a higher rate of birth defects, congenital deformities, lower IQ, and reduced language skills.
I mentioned asthma, but these toxic cleaners also trigger allergic reactions in the skin, eyes, and nose as well as the lungs. Some of these reactions send people to the hospital. Rashes, sneezing fits, itchy eyes, wheezing and more can indicate a reaction to cleaning agents or even laundry detergent. My granddaughter reacts to conventional laundry detergent, whether it’s fragrance free or not. An angry red rash spreads over the exposed area and can begin to mimic eczema if not addressed. My reaction differs, but leaves me feeling just as sick. I sneeze and develop hives from scented laundry detergent and softeners.
Accidents happen and sometimes, severe burns result. Every year, children die from burns and poisoning from toxic cleaners. Many common household cleaners contain corrosive ingredients that burn skin. eyes, and lungs and result in permanent tissue damage. The most dangerous hazard is the combination of bleach containing cleaners with ammonia containing cleaners. This forms harmful chloramine gas. Combining bleach with rust removers, toilet bowl cleaners, or even vinegar creates another harmful gas, chlorine gas.
Abandoning the use of bleach is the best way to prevent the formation of these poisonous gases and avoid serious burns.
Are your cleaners toxic?
Just type the name of your product in the search bar and the database will tell you how the EWG rates your cleaners. You can find out instantly if they are safe or not. All products undergo rigorous research by third party organizations, including the Environmental Working Group.
What to use instead of toxic cleaners
Good old vinegar and baking soda
These non-toxic, tried and true cleaners have been used for years. However, researchers at Consumer Reports claim that vinegar must be used full-strength for the acidity to kill germs. There are ways to make vinegar smell better (as well as many other cleaning tips), and learn how to use essential oils to clean.
Prefer to purchase ready-made natural cleaners?
Be careful. Some popular brands don’t live up to their claims. And, I have to admit, I haven’t researched all of these companies. Some may be “greenwashed” and some may support social and political causes with which you may not agree. To completely avoid any of those issues, I highly recommend using Rocky Mountain Oil’s Tohi cleaning concentrate or using Earthley products.
Here are some top-rated cleaners: