Last updated: February 2017
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.
The toxic trio
Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as an antifungal agent, preservative and antimicrobial. According to breast cancer charities, they are absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumours.
Parabens are also linked to hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.
The EU has banned five parabens from cosmetics but not the most common ones used in products – methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. However, it has restricted the amounts of these that can be used in products.
Triclosan and triclocarban can be used as an antimicrobial in cleaning products. Its use in toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorants, cosmetics and hand soaps is restricted by the EU whilst, last year, the US banned its use in liquid soaps and bars of soap.
Triclosan, which is classified as a pesticide, can affect the body’s hormone systems – especially thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism – and may disrupt normal breast development.
The EU classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes, and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment. Widespread use of triclosan may also contribute to bacterial resistance to antimicrobial agents.
Phthalates are a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are most commonly used to make PVC soft and flexible but are also in synthetic fragrances. Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant and laundry detergent.
Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer.
Several phthalates have been banned in the EU but not all, including diethyl phthalate (DEP). Because the chemical constituents of ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ do not have to be listed on labels, one way to avoid phthalates altogether is to go for fragrance-free products or those free of synthetic fragrances.
Finding out what’s in the products?
Some consumers may want to look for parabens, triclosan and phthalates on the label and try to avoid these chemicals or any others.
Cleaning products only have to have a list of the main ingredient families in the product, and how much of each there is in the product in a series of weight ranges e.g. ‘Non-ionic surfactants < 5%’. But manufacturers also have to put a website address on the packaging of where you can get a list of each specific ingredient rather than just the families. Some more responsible cleaning products manufacturers list all their ingredients on their packaging.
Reducing your risk
Use less – use fewer products, less often
Buy from companies you trust – these could include brands that get our best rating for toxic chemicals policies.
Do your research – check ingredients lists before you buy and choose products. EWG comes up with a 0-10 safety rating for each product and provides links between individual ingredients and studies which have proven possible organ toxicity, reproductive issues or carcinogenic effects.
Make your own – You can make your own cleaners using readily available natural ingredients such as baking soda, coconut oil, lemon, olive oil and oats. See our article on DIY Cleaning Products for more information.
Animal charity Naturewatch, whose research is one of the sources we use to rate companies on animal testing, have produced a Homemade Household Cleaners which contain hundreds of recipes.