You love keeping your place clean and healthy. But if you’ve ever looked at the ingredient list of conventional household cleaners, you’ll know that, even though they’ve got the “cleaning” part down, the same can’t be said for the “healthy” part.
When we examined what’s in conventional household cleaners, we were shocked by what we found. (Spoiler alert: they’re really toxic).
And today we’re sharing these findings with you.
We’ve put together a list of the most dangerous chemicals in household cleaners. Use this post to sort through your household cleaning products and stop exposing yourself (and your family) to harmful substances.
We’ve also researched some natural alternatives to household cleaning products, all vetted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to equip you with some safe home cleaning product options that you can switch to.
If natural DIY cleaning recipes are more your style, we’ll also tell you about ingredients that have even amazed researchers when they tested their cleaning power.
Without further ado, here are the most toxic ingredients in your household cleaners.
Harmful chemicals in household cleaners
Phthalates are nasty because they disrupt your endocrine system – meaning your hormones, which are important for the proper functioning of several body systems, especially the reproductive system.
They accumulate in your body over time. Your body acquires them both through contact with your skin and inhalation (or ingestion).
Phthalates commonly lurk in soaps of all kinds (including shampoos, hand soaps, body washes, and dish soap), hair sprays, anything containing artificial fragrance (including household cleaners and baby wipes), and even toilet paper.
Check the ingredient list of your household cleaning products to make sure they do not contain phthalates. According to the National Academies Press, these are the most commonly found phthalates:
- DMP – Dimethyl phthalate
- DEP – Diethyl phthalate
- DBP – Dibutyl phthalate
- DIBP – Diisobutyl Phthalate
- BBP – Benzylbutylphthalate
- DEHP – Diethylhexyl phthalate or DOP – dioctyl phthalate
- DINP – Diisononyl phthalate
Unfortunately, there are far more than can be listed here. Suffice it to say: if there’s an ingredient that ends with the word “phthalate”, or that is listed as an acronym that ends in “P”, steer clear of it.
2. Perchloroethylene (PERC) or Tetrachloroethylene
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified perchloroethylene as a potential human carcinogen.
It also wreaks havoc on your nervous system. Symptoms of exposure include neurological effects, behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, sleepiness, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. (Yikes!)
It can also irritate your respiratory tract and cause eye and kidney problems. This is mega-bad stuff, folks.
Perchloroethylene is most commonly found in dry-cleaning products. That’s why it’s super important to only go to a dry-cleaner that refrains from using perchloroethylene.
Should you encounter household cleaning products that include perchloroethylene on the ingredient list, it’s important to avoid inhalation and contact with the skin.
3. Quarternary ammonium compounds, or “Quats”
These chemicals can be found in products like floor cleaners, fabric softeners, oven cleaners, hard-water-stain removers, toilet cleaners, stove top cleaners, all-purpose household cleaners, and in chemically-based antibacterial products.
Like the recently-banned triclosan, Quats promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the EWG’s Healthy Guide to Cleaning, Quats should not be inhaled or come into contact with skin.
The best way to avoid these ingredients is to avoid using chemical disinfectants and store-bought fabric softener. (Vinegar is a great alternative on both counts).
If that’s not your style, we have created a list of common Quats so you can check the ingredients of your products:
- Babassuamidopropalkonium chloride
- Behentrimonium chloride
- Behentrimoniu methosulfate
- Benzalkonium chloride
- Cetalkonium chloride
- Grapefruit seed extract (…I know! But this stuff is actually
heavily processed with intense chemicals, hence the Quats.)
Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
- Methylbenzethonium chloride
- Stearalkonium chloride
- Vegetable oil quaternary
This is what gives the household cleaner products in your cabinet—multipurpose cleaners, kitchen cleaners, bathroom cleaners, and window cleaners—their sweet smell.
According to the EPA, exposure to 2-butoxythanol enters your body through skin contact, inhalation, and/or ingestion. Once inside, it can damage your red blood cells and liver, depress your central nervous system, and cause cancer.
Products that contain 2-butoxythanol can be dangerous to your health, and should be avoided.
Although many people believe they will be fine as long as they use the product in a well-ventilated room, our two cents is: why be so cavalier with your health? After all, if it’s a scented product and you can smell it, then you’re breathing it in.
We recommend using safer alternatives like water, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide (available at any drugstore).
5. Ammonium hydroxide
Ammonium hydroxide is found in glass cleaners and polishing agents for sinks and bathroom fixtures, as well as oven cleaners, drain openers, toilet cleaners, stove top cleaners, and all-purpose household cleaners.
This substance can be dangerous if inhaled, leading to asthma and chronic bronchitis.
According to the New York State Department of Health, exposure to this chemical even at low concentrations leads to skin or eye irritation, and even blindness. Higher concentrations cause severe injury and burns.
Ammonia that comes into contact with products containing chlorine (including bleach) gives off fatal fumes.
This is why we recommend staying away from products that include ammonia.
6. Chlorine (sodium hypochlorite)
If you use bleach, toilet bowl cleaners, laundry whiteners, scouring powders, oven cleaners, drain openers, hard water stain removers, stove top cleaners, household cleaners, or mildew removers, you may be exposing yourself to chlorine.
According to The New York State Department of Health, chlorine can lead to airway irritation, wheezing, difficulty breathing, sore throat, cough, chest tightness, eye irritation, and skin irritation (learn more about things you should never put on your skin).
As we saw, chlorine produces a poisonous (potentially fatal) gas when it comes into contact with ammonia. This combination can happen even if you are not mixing bleach with other cleaning products. For example, urine naturally contains ammonia. Therefore, using chlorine to clean a diaper pail, kitty litter box, or urine mess can inadvertently release poison gas.
Chlorine also gives off poisonous gas when it comes into contact with anything acidic–which includes vinegar, lemon juice, window cleaners, drain cleaners, and other types of cleaning products.
Chlorine bleaches are harmful in other ways besides creating poison gas. They kill germs in a heavy-handed way that helps to create drug-resistant “superbugs”.
Chlorine is also highly corrosive, and can damage the surfaces and materials in your home. Chlorine bleach should never be used on wood, paper, stone (including stone countertops), tile, grout, or fabric, because it corrodes these materials. It also shouldn’t be used on anything metal.
7. Coal tar dyes (aniline)
The National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have found coal tar to be carcinogenic. Also, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics warns of exposing your skin to coal tar.
Remarkably, many household cleaning products include coal tar dyes even though they serve no purpose in the cleaning function!
To spot coal tar dyes, look out for these ingredients on cleaning product labels:
- Coal tar solution
- Coal tar solution
- Coal tar solution USP
- Crude coal tar
- KC 261
- Picis carbonis
- High solvent naphtha
- Naphtha distillate
- Benzin B70
- Petroleum benzine
8. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)
A study published in the Oxford Journal of Toxicological Sciences has shown that nonylphenol ethoxylates affect your endocrine (hormone) system and harm male reproductive capabilities.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates are found in numerous cleaning products, including stain removers, toilet bowl cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, air fresheners, degreasers, liquid laundry detergents, and car wash products.
Our suggestion: avoid the NPEs. Instead, use genuinely natural cleaning products made from good ingredients.
Here’s a list of Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) to look out for on your household cleaning products:
- 2-(p-Nonylphenoxy) ethanol
- 2-(2-(p-Nonylphenoxy)ethoxy) ethanol
- p-Nonylphenol polyethylene glycol ether
- Nonylphenol hepta(oxyethylene)ethanol
- Nonylphenol nona(oxyethylene)ethanol
- Onylphenoxy ethanol
- Oxirane, methyl-, polymer with oxirane, mono(nonylphenyl) ether
- 2-(2-(2-(2-(p-Nonylphenoxy)ethoxy) ethoxy)ethoxy) ethanol
- Nonylphenol polyethylene glycol ether
- Ethanol, 2-[2-(nonylphenoxy)ethoxy]-
- Nonylphenol ethoxylate
- Poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl), alpha-(nonylphenyl)-omega- hydroxy-, phosphate
- Nonylphenol ethoxylate
- Ammonium salt of sulphated nonylphenol ethoxylate
- Poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl), alpha(isononylphenyl) omega-hydroxy
9. Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate
This ingredient has been found to seriously irritate the respiratory system and eyes. Inhaling its fumes or dust causes respiratory damage.
Hands should be washed upon contact, as sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate can also severely irritate the skin.
This ingredient is commonly found in deodorizers, surface cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, and disinfectants.
Now that you know some of the worst common ingredients in cleaning products, and no longer want to use them, how do you get rid of them?
How to safely dispose of products containing these ingredients
Here are a few tips to keep in mind in order to do this the right way.
What NOT to do:
- Do NOT pour these products down the drain (as this will contaminate the environment and your local water supply)
- Do NOT toss them in the garbage (as the container will eventually leak, causing the toxins inside to leach into the ground and groundwater).
What to do:
- Drop them off at your local collection point for toxic household products. Most local governments offer at least one “hazardous waste” collection day per year; if you live in a big city, your local collection point might be open several days a week. A quick web search will reveal what’s available in your area.
- Talk to members of your household about the dangers of these products in order to prevent them from reappearing in your cupboards.
- Choose safer alternatives. Water, club soda, hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, baking soda, non-chemically-based dish soap, and good old-fashioned elbow grease are wonderfully versatile cleaning agents. When you are armed with knowledge about the clever uses of each, no household grime will stand a chance.
Ready to learn more?
DIY natural household cleaners for cleaning your home
If you want to stop using conventional household cleaners, the good news is that there are many natural alternatives available to you that work well.
Vinegar is one of them.
A study published in Environmental Health showed that vinegar can be used as a household cleaner. Tests have shown that it kills 98.6% of common bacteria found in households. Vinegar’s acidity also helps it to dissolve dirt and grime.
It’s a simple, all-natural substitute to conventional cleaners and well-suited for cleaning windows, blinds, kitchen appliances, bathtubs, shower floors, sinks, stove tops, and many other areas in your home. (Just don’t use vinegar on marble or granite countertops, because the acidity can etch the stone). Lemon juice substitutes well for vinegar.
Another ingredient that makes for a great DIY household cleaner is baking soda. Sprinkling some baking soda onto a moist cloth is a great for cleaning surfaces like kitchen counters, sinks, tiles and other areas.
What if you don’t like the smell of vinegar, and are looking for a stronger cleaner than baking soda? Then you can choose from a number of carefully-formulated natural cleaning products.
There’s one important caveat though. You need to ensure that each product you buy is truly safe for your health, and isn’t just a marketing hoax.
In the next section we’re going to walk you through what to look out for when choosing a truly natural household cleaner.
Natural alternatives to conventional cleaning products
There are some amazing natural cleaners available that facilitate your move away from toxic household cleaners to healthy, natural alternatives.
But don’t take a product’s packaging at face value. As consumers have grown more health-conscious, manufacturers have gotten increasingly clever at leading us to believe that their products are “green,” even when they’re not.
An independent study by The Sins of Greenwashing found that only 4.5% of products that claim to be healthy and environmentally friendly actually live up to their promise.
The most common sins that manufacturers commit include:
- Cherry-picking certain positive attributes without mentioning a product’s weightier harms (e.g., organic cigarettes; sugary cereal fortified with iron; a cleaning product that contains essential oils alongside really harmful ingredients.)
- Making vague promises, or not providing any proof for claims (e.g., “MSM is known as the ‘beauty mineral’.”)
- Designing product labels in “earthy” tones, or using retro / nostalgic / childlike graphic design to imply that a product is wholesome.
- Making meaningless “green” claims (e.g., advertising a product as “CFC-free” even though CFC is a universally-banned substance.)
- Implying that a harmful ingredient is safe by offering irrelevant information about it (e.g. “laureth-7 (plant-derived cleaning ingredient)”).
- Making outright false statements about a product’s environmental impact.
The surest way to protect yourself from harmful ingredients –and from marketers’ greenwashing attempts– is to read a product’s full ingredient list.
The list of dangerous chemicals in household cleaners that we presented in this post can help you to a certain extent to spot dangerous ingredients and identify greenwashers.
At the same time, chances are you will quickly run into ingredients on product labels that you do not recognize. When that happens, ignore anything the manufacturer may say on the label or website (e.g. “plant-derived”) to attempt to explain the ingredient away. Instead, look up the ingredient or product in the EWG database.
The EWG database is a powerful tool that helps you to see through a company’s marketing communications and spot ingredients that can harm your health.
But in case you don’t have time for that, we created a list of common cleaning products that got excellent scores for health and sustainability from the EWG:
Their natural laundry soap gets your clothes clean, makes them smell great, and all of this without any (and we mean any) harsh or toxic substances.
Here’s their ingredient list:
Water, Decyl glucoside, Sodium oleate, Glycerin, Caprylyl glucoside, Lauryl glucoside, Sodium chloride, Sodium gluconate, Carboxymethyl cellulose, Alpha-amylase, Protease, Lipase, Citrus Limon (Jade lemon) peel oil, Citrus aurantium bergamia (Bergamot) peel oil (Furocoumarin-free), Syzygium aromaticum (Clove) bud oil, Citrus limon (Lemon) peel oil, Cinnamomum zeylanicum (Cinnamon) bark oil, Eucalyptus radiata oil, Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) leaf oil.
We checked each ingredient individually to ensure the formula is safe, and we were very pleased with the result. This is a truly natural product that we’re happy to recommend. You can check for yourself in the EWG database to see if you agree and then read what other customer had to say about this amazing product.
This next cleaner easily removes food residue on your countertop and dinner table. It works great in your bathroom, even electronic gadgets, hardwood floors, granite, glass, metal, painted surfaces, plastic, porcelain, stainless steel, and any other solid surface.
And all of this without using any harsh and toxic ingredients.
The ingredients of this all-purpose cleaner are: lavender oil, grapefruit oil, coco-glucoside, lauryl glucoside, ethanol, and water.
The EWG gave this product an “A” rating, and you can check out how the individual ingredients were rated in the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning database.
Having a natural all-purpose cleaner in your household can be very handy, especially since there’s no natural alternative for some types of special cleaning products.
This is one example where a natural all-purpose cleaner comes in handy and if you happen to have a glass or ceramic stovetop, and want a simple, non-toxic solution, then a stove-top scraper can serve you in addition.
Due to the especially harsh toxins in conventional toilet bowl cleaners, you should consider using a natural alternative to protect yourself and your family.
We found a toilet bowl cleaner that was formulated without ingredients that compromise your health. You can read the reviews here:
Not all Seventh Generation products are of equally high quality. However, we are happy to recommend Seventh Generation’s Toilet Bowl Natural Cleaner, Emerald Cypress & Fir because the formulation is so non-toxic that the EWG gave it an “A” rating.
Dish soap is another household cleaner product that contains ingredients that are more harmful than most people would expect.
Conventional dish soaps often contain ingredients like:
- Benzisothiazolinone (leads to skin irritation or damaged skin)
- Dipropylene glycol (causes cancer, damages DNA, irritates or damages skin, damages vision, affects respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems.
- Fragrance (unspecified ingredient used to hide a large number of toxic chemicals)
- Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (affects your digestive system)
- Methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone (irritates and sensitizes skin, causes allergic contact dermatitis)
- Polysorbate-20 (damages DNA, causes cancer, developmental, endocrine, and reproductive problems, affects respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems, irritates or damages skin, and damages vision)
- Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate (damages DNA, affects many body systems including respiratory, endocrine, reproductive, digestive, and nervous systems, and causes cancer)
Your dishes are what you eat from. Your (moist) food spends time on the dishes, and picks up any chemical residue lingering on it– which is why the chemicals in your dish soap matter more than any other household cleaning product in your house.
Here’s an all-natural dish soap we’re excited to recommend. It’s made from just six easy-to-understand ingredients:
- Distilled water
- Vegetable glycerin
- Coconut oil
- Castor oil
- Lavender essential oil
Now that you’ve learned which ingredients in household cleaners to avoid, find out how to detox your body naturally in 8 sure-fire steps.
And if you wanna read more about how to keep your home sparkling clean, here’s a list of the top 100 house cleaning and housekeeping blogs.
Hey there reader! Welcome to the Sunshine Organics blog where we share proven beauty tips that are so natural even your great-grandmother would understand them. If you have any questions or if you want to write for us or work with us please drop us a line at howdy [at] sunshine-organics.com or leave a quick comment below. We always love to hear from you!