What’s in Your Cleaning Products?


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) examined the safety data of over 1000 ingredients used in commercial household cleaning product. They found that more than half of those products contained ingredients harmful to the lungs. One in five had ingredients that can trigger asthma, even in healthy individuals.

Below are some of the most dangerous chemicals currently used in home cleaning product:

1,4-Dioxane
This ingredient is suspected carcinogen found in many common detergents.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds or “Quats”
Quats are known asthma triggers often found in spray cleaners and fabric softeners.

Chlorine Bleach
Bleach fumes can contain chlorine and chloroform, which have been linked to respiratory and neurological effects and cancer. In addition, bleach is highly reactive and can form other dangerous gases when it comes in contact with ammonia or acids such as vinegar.

Formaldehyde
Used as a preservative, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

Perchloroethylene (“PERC”)
Found in spot removers, home dry cleaning product , and upholstery cleaners, PERC is a probable carcinogen and neurotoxin.

Ammonia
Ammonia is a respiratory and skin irritant.

Antibacterials
Though the FDA banned triclosan and 18 other anti-bacterial compounds from hand and body soaps in 2016, these may still be found in cleaners. These banned substances have been linked to endocrine disruption and antibiotic resistance. Unfortunately safety data on many of the antibacterials used as alternatives is scant.

2-Butoxyethanol (also 2-BE, BCEE, or Butyl cellosolve)
Found in laundry stain removers, oven cleaners, and degreasers, 2-BE is a skin and eye irritant that made the list of toxic substances in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Diethylene Glycol Monomethyl Ether (also DEGME or Methoxydiglycol)
This ingredient is a solvent used in some degreasers and heavy-duty cleaners. Banned for use in cleaners in the EU, this compound has been linked to reproductive health effects.

Fragrance
The common ingredient known simply as “fragrance” may contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, including phthalates, an endocrine disruptor. Fragrances may also trigger asthma and allergies.

In addition to the above effects, many common cleaning product will burn or irritate skin and eyes, and many are fatal if swallowed. Thankfully, none of these ingredients are necessary for cleaning your home. It’s easy to make your own safe cleaning products using the formulas listed below.

A growing number of commercial, non-toxic home cleaning products are also available as healthier and environmentally responsible alternatives. If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own, using these products helps promote the growth of green businesses that are contributing to a more sustainable economy.

Safe Ingredients for Homemade Substitutions
Here is a list of common, environmentally safe ingredients that you can use alone or in combination for a wealth of household applications. The vast majority of cleaning projects can be tackled with nothing more than vinegar, baking soda, soap, and water, but other ingredients are useful for specific jobs.

Olive oil
Baking Soda
Trusted for over a century, baking soda cleans, deodorizes, softens water, and scours.

Soap
Unscented soap in liquid form (along with soap flakes, powders, or bars) is biodegradable and will clean just about anything. Castile soap is one example of an excellent, versatile cleaning ingredient. Avoid using soaps that contain petroleum distillates.

Lemon Juice
One of the strongest food acids, lemon juice is effective against most household bacteria.

White Vinegar
Use white vinegar to cut grease; remove mildew, odors, and some stains; and to prevent or remove wax build-up.

Washing Soda
Washing soda or SAL Soda is sodium carbonate decahydrate, a mineral. It cuts grease; removes stains; softens water; and cleans walls, tiles, sinks and tubs. Use with care, since washing soda can irritate mucous membranes. Do not use on aluminum.

Vegetable or Olive Oil
Use in homemade wood polishes.

Alcohol
Alcohol is an excellent disinfectant. However, some safety concerns with isopropyl alcohol (also known as rubbing alcohol) make other forms of alcohol the more cautious choice. Vodka is a potent odor remover, and other forms of ethanol (grain alcohol) can be used for cleaners and disinfectants.

Cornstarch
Use cornstarch to clean windows, polish furniture, and shampoo carpets and rugs.

Citrus Solvent
Citrus solvent cleans paintbrushes, oil and grease, and some stains. But beware: citrus solvent may cause skin, lung or eye irritations for people with multiple chemical sensitivities.

Oxygen Bleach
Oxygen-based bleach (usually made from sodium carbonate and/or peroxide) gently removes stains, whitens fabric, and has a number of applications in household stain removal. Many common brands of oxygen bleaches have a number of additional (and less benign) chemicals, so it’s best to look up the brand in the Environmental Working Group’s cleaners database before using.

Hydrogen Peroxide
A common disinfectant for wounds, hydrogen peroxide can also be used for disinfecting in the kitchen or bathroom. Its mild bleaching effect makes hydrogen peroxide an excellent stain remover for fabrics and grout. It may cause skin or respiratory irritation, so handle with care.

Is Borax Safe?
Many people consider borax to be a mild skin irritant. The MSDS lists borax as a health hazard of 1, similar to salt and baking soda. However, recent research indicates that sodium borate and its derivatives have the potential to harm the reproductive system. While studies have not been done in humans, at least one study clearly shows endocrine disruption in animals, and the European Union now considers borax toxic to human reproductive systems. Most cosmetic manufacturers have removed borax and sodium borate from personal care products because they are easily absorbed by human skin. If you choose to use borax in home cleaning, use sparingly and protect yourself.