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Some Cleaning Products - More Harmful Than Helpful?

Ingredients in common household cleaning products may be harmful to our health, which is ironic when you consider that these products are designed to improve our quality of life. 


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Hazardous ingredients in household cleaning products fall into three main categories:


1. CarcinogensCarcinogens cause cancer and/or promote cancer’s growth. 

2. Endocrine disruptorsEndocrine disruptors mimic human hormones, confusing the body with false signals. Exposure to endocrine disruptors can lead to numerous health concerns including reproductive, developmental, growth and behavior problems. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to reduced fertility, premature puberty, miscarriage, menstrual problems, challenged immune systems, abnormal prostate size, ADHD, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and certain cancers.

3. NeurotoxinsNeurotoxins affect neurons and brain activity, causing a range of problems from headaches to loss of intellect.

Inundated with Chemicals

There are more than 80,000 chemicals used in consumer products, most of which have not been tested for long-term health impacts. How do you know which ones to avoid? The following list - which is obviously far from all-inclusive - can help.

Pesticides. Common sense tells us that killing harmful household germs protects our health. However, disinfectants are pesticides (according the US EPA) and the ingredients in pesticides may include carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Pesticides are often fat-soluble, making them difficult to eliminate from the body. 

Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEs). APEs act as surfactants, meaning they lower the surface tension of liquids and help cleaning solutions spread more easily over the surface to be cleaned, and penetrate solids. APEs are found in detergents, disinfectants, all-purpose cleaners and laundry cleansers. They are also found in many self-care items including sanitary towels and disposable diapers. APEs are suspected endocrine disruptors.

FormaldehydeFormaldehyde is a preservative, germicide, bactericide and fungicide, among other functions. Formaldehyde is found in some household cleaners and disinfectants. It is also present in some nail polish and other personal care products. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen.

Organochlorines. Organochlorines (OCs) result from the combination of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine. Some types are highly toxic, such as DDT. OCs are bioaccumulative and also persistent in the environment. OCs are present in some pesticides, detergents, degreasers and bleaches. OCs are also present in some drycleaning fluids. OCs, depending on the type, may be carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Styrene.  Styrene is most commonly used in the manufacture of numerous plastics including plastic food wrap, insulated cups, carpet backing and PVC piping. Styrene is also found in floor waxes and polishes and metal cleaners. Styrene is a suspected carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. Exposure may affect the central nervous system, liver and reproductive system.

Phthalates. Phthalates are most commonly used in the manufacture of plastics. Phthalates are also used as carriers for perfumes and air fresheners and as skin penetration enhancers for products such as moisturizers. They are suspected human endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Phthalates are believed to cause human hormonal abnormalities, thyroid disorders, birth defects and reproductive problems. 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted as airborne gases. VOCs include an array of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects, and are present in perfumes, air fresheners, disinfectants and deodorizers. These compounds may pose a variety of human health hazards and, depending on the type, may be reproductive toxins, neurotoxins, liver toxins, and carcinogens.


Certain ingredients (such as fragrances) are considered trade secrets and government regulations are designed to protect proprietary information. Without full disclosure, consumers can unknowingly submit themselves and their families to unhealthy exposures.

Impact on Children and Others

Pound for pound, childrens’ exposure levels are higher than adults’ because, although the amount of chemicals in an exposure remains equal, children’s bodies are smaller so the concentration or dose is stronger. Also, their immune systems are still developing. Thus, children are at higher risk for chemical exposures through cleaning products. For some of these same reasons, pets may also be at risk. Other populations at possibly greater risk are breast cancer victims, the elderly, asthma and allergy sufferers and those with compromised immune systems.

Some Help from Labels
Consumers may find it cumbersome or time-consuming to research all of the ingredients in the cleaning products under the kitchen or bathroom sink. In general however, product warning labels can be a useful first line of defense, although they are an incomplete resource since not all ingredients are legally required to be listed. Cleaning products are required by law to include label warnings if especially harmful ingredients are included. From safest to most dangerous, the warning signals - for ingredients having toxicity if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin - are:
  • Signal Word: "Caution" - One ounce to a pint may be harmful or fatal.*
  • Signal Word: "Warning" - One teaspoon to one ounce may be harmful or fatal.*
  • Signal Word: "Danger"  One taste to one teaspoon is fatal.*
(*for a 180-pound male)



The safest course of action a consumer can take is to be informed. Here are suggestions:

1.   Read product labels. Don’t use products with a signal word stronger than “Caution”. 
2.   Research the chemicals listed on product labels through the Household Products Database, the Cosmetics Database, Toxnet and Scorecard
3.   Avoid products with fragrances. A clean home should smell like nothing at all.
4.   Use homemade cleaning solutions made from good, old-fashioned common ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, lemon juice and borax.
5.   Find and purchase cleaning solutions that bear the Green Seal logo. Green Seal certifies cleaning products to be effective at cleaning yet safer for human health and the environment.
6.   If you choose to outsource cleaning, interview cleaning services and hire one that has proven its thoroughness and due diligence in striving to ensure that its processes are green.



Even products with 'merely' a cautionary label, it should be noted, may present serious health risks if used improperly or with repeated exposures over time. Good ventilation and skin barriers are very important when using any over-the-counter cleaning product. 


Some of the toxins found in these and other products are bioaccumulative, meaning the chemicals do not purge easily from the body and over time even small exposures can add up to toxic levels.


Plainly, this is a complex topic requiring a cautionary, educated approach.

Why Bother?

Taking a greener approach to cleaning can help you feel better physically. You will also likely have greater peace of mind, knowing you are creating a safer environment for yourself, your family, and your pets.


(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)



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Some Cleaning Products - More Harmful Than Helpful?:  Created on April 2nd, 2008.  Last Modified on April 12th, 2011


We do not strictly control Google ad content. If you believe any Google ad is inappropriate, please email us directly here.

About Maid Brigade

Maid Brigade, Inc. is a franchised housecleaning service with over 400 service areas throughout the US, Canada and Ireland. Maid Brigade sponsors Green TV, an online video series featuring author and authority on Green Living, Annie Bond. Green Clean TV is designed to help educate the public about the hidden dangers in common household products, and to promote green living practices. Maid Brigade also launched the Web site, Green Clean Certified, as an educational resource for consumers.



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