Last updated: June 2012
The ingredients found in conventional cleaning products mean that our homes may look clean but may not be healthy. They contaminate the air with a mix of carcinogens, hormone disrupters, neurotoxic solvents, mood altering chemicals and reproductive toxins.
Scientists regard household cleaning products as one of the most important sources of indoor pollution and one of the most insidious threats to human health.
As our use of cleaners has grown, there has been a rise of incidences of cancer and asthma. Constant contact in the home with chemical fumes and chemical residues may be a contributory factor.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside the typical home is on average 2-5 times more polluted than the air just outside and, in extreme cases, 100 times more contaminated largely because of household cleaners and pesticides.
Look on the back of most household cleaners and you'll get an idea that their ingredients are toxic – 'hazardous, corrosive, warning, danger or irritant, inflammable'.
If a cleaner claims to be able to instantly strip years of ground-in dirt and grease, think what it could do to your body and the environment.
REACH - safer chemicals by 2018?
Household cleaning products are made using industrial chemicals. According to a Friends of the Earth report in 2000, in Europe only 14% of these chemicals had a full set of basic safety data, 65% had incomplete safety data and 12% had no safety data at all.
By 2018, REACH will have put a stop to that. REACH is a European Union regulation concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of CHemicals. REACH aims to assess upwards of 30,000 chemicals on the market. It came into force on 1st June 2007 and by 1st June 2018 pretty much all chemicals will have to have safety data provided by the manufacturers.
But, according to Greenpeace, European law is currently based on an assumption that there are 'acceptable' levels of risk, even from the most hazardous chemicals, and regulators determine acceptable levels of exposure from these risk calculations.
It is further assumed that the quantity of substances that we are exposed to can be controlled through dilution and dispersion of chemicals throughout the environment. However this assumption falls apart for chemicals which do not degrade, or degrade only slowly in the environment and which can bioaccumulate.
According to Greenpeace, "What is needed is a shift from 'permissive' regulations based on attempted control of exposure and risk, to one based on prevention. The goal of a chemicals policy should be the elimination of exposure to intentionally manufactured substances whose intrinsic properties give cause for high concern."
The REACH legislation continues with 'adequate control' as the regulatory paradigm, not prevention.
Another downside is that REACH involves testing these chemicals on tens of millions of animals such as rodents, rabbits and fish. See the article on Animal testing.
A key problem with household cleaners is that consumers can't even avoid chemicals of concern at the checkout because manufacturers are not required to disclose a full list of ingredients on the label. Hence the wording on labels such as "Contains amongst other ingredients...".
In the UK, manufacturers have to list on the label all ingredients with a concentration above 0.2 per cent in percentage ranges (e.g. < 5% non-ionic surfactants etc). Fragrances, enzymes, optical brighteners and disinfectants must be listed on the product label in any concentration.18
But even if full ingredients are not listed on the packaging, it's a legal requirement for manufacturers to provide details on the pack of a website where you can get a full list.
Some more responsible manufacturers list all their ingredients on their packaging in an act of transparency. Their lists tend to be much shorter than those on conventional cleaning products.
Unilever's Persil Bio Powder - 53 ingredients
Procter & Gamble's Ariel Bio Powder - 44 ingredients
Ecover's Bio Powder - 18 ingredients
There may be no such thing as a 'green' cleaning products – even plant and mineral-based formulations require water to neutralise their impact as well as energy for the manufacturing process and transport for their raw ingredients, fertiliser and pesticide use on the crops, plus competition between food and non-food uses of land.
However, there are an increasing number of companies that are trying to produce cleaning products is a more responsible way. Concerned by the potential toxic effects of some chemicals, they largely source ingredients that are a) plant-based and therefore renewable and b) with a long history of safe human use. For virtually all of these companies, that means that they avoid petrochemicals and chemicals such as chlorine bleaches, phosphates, optical brighteners and synthetic fragrances.
We have only listed petrochemical-free brands as our Best Buys.
Antimicrobial is the general term for any product or ingredient that kills or inhibits bacteria, viruses, or moulds. Disinfectant and chlorine bleach are common antimicrobials. Antibacterials, on the other hand, are only effective against bacteria. Lots of cleaning products and washing up liquids now claim to be 'antibacterial'.
Extensive marketing has been developed to convince consumers, especially mothers, of the need to kill 'germs' and eliminate 'bacteria' in order to keep their family safe. And it is women, as the main users of these cleaning products, that are being exposed to the hazardous chemicals that they contain.
Most household disinfectants contain either chlorine bleach, alcohol, quaternary ammonium chlorides (called "quats"), pine oil, or phenolic compounds.
All of these ingredients can cause some health effects, and a disinfectant product is almost always more hazardous than a similar cleaner without the antimicrobial ingredient.
Furthermore, according to the EU Ecolabel board, due to their mode of action, substances with disinfecting or antimicrobial properties generally have a high aquatic toxicity and are often poorly biodegradable due to inhibitory effects on bacteria.
Bio D, Attitude, Sonett and Sodasan use plant-based alcohol, essential oils like Tea Tree or eucalyptus.
Triclosan and nanosilver
Triclosan is the most studied biocide with respect to bacterial resistance. It is now found widely in the environment, from breast milk to rivers.
It meets the criteria used to identify Substance of Very High Concern in the European Union's REACH program and is being prioritised for replacement by safer alternatives.
Companies have been phasing out its use because of the controversy surrounding it.
We found Triclosan listed as an ingredient of Palmolive and Ajax washing up liquids in the USA, but only in one UK product, Sqezy lemongrass & eucalyptus antibacterial washing-up liquid.
Nanosilver is another newly-emerging antibacterial used in cleaning products. Of all types of nanomaterials, nanosilver is the most commonly used in consumer products including cleaning agents and air fresheners.
We found it listed as a component of E-Cloth's antibacterial cloth. Concern has been expressed about the effect nanomaterials can have on human health when these tiny particles enter the body.
Regulatory authorities have concluded that there is not enough scientific evidence to restrict the use of Triclosan and nanosilver despite reviews warning of their environmental toxicity and bacterial resistance.
Dirt is good?
There is a hygiene theory that by 'protecting' children from dirt and germs we are destroying the immune system's ability to develop and function properly. The theory was developed in 1989 out of scientists' inability to explain why atopic diseases, such as allergies, asthma and eczema were escalating.
The indiscriminate use of antibiotics has been blamed for the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria or 'superbugs' like MRSA, but research is showing that the overuse of antibacterials in the home, especially Triclosan and nanosilver, may be a contributory factor.
There's a growing consensus that antimicrobial household cleaners won't keep you any safer from infectious illnesses than regular types.
The UK Cleaning Products Industry Association maintains: "There is no evidence of a link between living in super-clean homes and increased allergies such as hay fever, eczema or asthma."
Similarly, the American Cleaning Institute, the US cleaning industry trade body, claims that its studies have shown that the use of antibacterial cleaning products does not lead to a "significant increase in antimicrobial drug resistance after one year."
However in 2000, the American Medical Association issued the statement that antibacterial soaps were no more effective against germs than common soap.
Although they initially kill more germs than soap, within an hour or so there is no difference in the numbers of germs that have repopulated the area.
In fact, experts say, it's not the type of cleaner that matters in combating germs, but the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning; plain soap, hot water and elbow grease are generally enough to do the job.