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You want your property to be as clean as possible, and that means getting cleaning products that can kill bacteria and other pathogens. But how can you keep your space clean and sanitized, without risking the health of the people who come into contact with your cleaning products?

In this post, we’ll review everything you need to know about toxic and non-toxic cleaning products. Learn which cleaning products can be harmful to humans, and what to do if you’ve been exposed to harmful cleaning solutions.

Chemicals in cleaning products

Most cleaning products contain a range of active chemicals designed to disinfect and kill pathogens such as COVID-19. Cleaners can also contain degreasers and solvents that break down dirt and stains. The most common active chemicals in all-purpose household cleaners are:

  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate 
  • Sodium hypochlorite (bleach)
  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP)

Each of these chemicals can be harmful to humans if you come into direct contact with them through cleaning solutions.

CHEMICAL EFFECT ON THE BODY
Ammonia Low exposure: Burning sensation in eyes, nose, respiratory tract.
High exposure: Blindness, lung damage, death.
Chlorine Low exposure: Skin and eye irritation.
High exposure: Lung irritation, pulmonary edema, death.
Ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate Low exposure: Cough, headache, nausea, skin irritation.
High exposure: Kidney damage, red blood cell damage.
Sodium hypochlorite Low exposure: Eye, skin, throat irritation.
High exposure: Pulmonary edema, stomach perforation, death.
Trisodium phosphate Low exposure: Breathing difficulties, cough, throat pain/swelling.
High exposure: Kidney disease, heart disease, death.

Despite some scary side effects, most people use these chemicals safely and effectively. Public swimming pools often use chlorine as a general disinfectant in the water. And trisodium phosphate is actually approved by the FDA for use as a food additive. Food-grade TSP is labeled as E339 and it’s commonly found in processed meat, cheese, breakfast cereals, and bakery products. The FDA recommends consuming no more than 70g per day.

What are toxic cleaning products?

So if these chemicals aren’t all bad for us, how are cleaning products classified as toxic or non-toxic? There’s no straightforward answer to identifying harmful household cleaning products. It really depends on what they’re for and how they’re used.

For instance, toilet bowl cleaners tend to have higher levels of harmful chemicals than all-purpose kitchen cleaners. However because they’re used in an area away from foods and the risk of accidental ingestion, they can afford to be stronger without increasing the risk to the user. 

Some products are also toxic because of the other ingredients they contain, beyond the active ingredient designed to kill bacteria. Some of the most common cleaners also contain:

 

  • Carcinogens — chemicals proven to cause cancer
  • Endocrine disruptors — chemicals that mimic human hormones
  • Neurotoxins — chemicals that affect brain function
  • Allergens — ingredients that trigger allergic reactions

Some of the top culprits include perchloroethylene (PERC), formaldehyde, phthalates, PEGs, and quats.

INGREDIENT PURPOSE AND EFFECTS
Perchloroethylene (PERC) Purpose: Powerful dry-cleaning solvent 
Effect: Potential carcinogen and neurotoxin
Formaldehyde Purpose: Preservative and disinfectant
Effect: Linked to neurodegenerative diseases
Phthalates Purpose: Solvents used in fragrances 
Effect: Endocrine disruptors linked to low fertility in men
Polyethylene glycol compounds (PEGs) Purpose: Used as thickeners, surfactants, and softeners
Effect: Often contaminated with known carcinogens
Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs/Quats) Purpose: Preservatives, surfactants, and disinfectants
Effect: Skin and lung irritation

How to avoid side effects while cleaning

If we were to write out a list of toxic chemicals to avoid in cleaning products, you might be surprised by how many there are. The truth is, many chemicals are toxic to us in high quantities, or if we absorb them in the wrong way. If you get a bit of household bleach on your hand, it probably won’t cause more than a little irritation. But inhaling large quantities of bleach fumes can cause permanent lung damage.

That’s why it’s important to always follow the instructions on the label, never mix cleaning solutions, and wear appropriate protective clothing.

  • Use gloves when handling harsh chemicals like bleach and ammonia
  • Use eye-protection if there’s a risk of products splashing on you
  • Always ensure the cleaning area is well ventilated, or wear a mask to avoid inhaling chemicals while cleaning 

These measures will protect you from the most harmful effects of cleaning chemicals.

What to do if you experience negative effects while cleaning

If you do experience side effects of inhaling cleaning products, such as coughing, breathlessness, dizziness, nausea, or headaches, move to a well ventilated area. Going outdoors is best. And avoid the room you cleaned for several hours to give the vapors a chance to dissipate. 

Feeling sick after using cleaning products can be scary, but often the symptoms go away on their own. In the future, take more precautions to prevent overexposure.

For specific advice, such as how to stop coughing after inhaling bleach, or if your symptoms don’t go away, contact Poison Control using their national hotline: 1-800-222-1222.

Finding the right cleaning product

Selecting the right cleaning product will depend on what you need to clean, and how clean you need it to be. White vinegar is awesome for removing hard water stains in your sink, cleaning a humidifier, or getting your glass-top stove gleaming. However, if you need to disinfect a surface thoroughly, a stronger product is often the better choice.

Commercial non-toxic cleaning solutions also typically focus on just the active ingredient, such as bleach or ammonia. However, they can still contain PEGs, Quats, formaldehyde, and phthalates. That’s why it’s important to read the ingredients label and understand what’s really in your cleaning products.

Even “all-natural” cleaning solutions can contain these additives, or create them through common chemical reactions. The compounds that create the scent in botanicals such as pine, lavender, and citrus fruits are called terpenes. When released into the air, terpenes can react with natural ozone and make formaldehyde. So that all-natural room spray that only uses orange essential oil could still be filling the room with formaldehyde every time it’s used.

Choosing the best non-toxic cleaning products

One of the best places to find cleaning agents that won’t pose a risk is the EWG verified cleaning products list. These products meet strict health standards that look at all the ingredients they contain and their potential side-effects. As of the time of writing, there are only 29 cleaning products that make the cut. That gives you some idea how pervasive potentially-harmful ingredients are in the products we use to clean our homes and workplaces.

What are non-toxic cleaning products?

Now we know that cleaning products contain several different types of harmful ingredients. These range from the active agents that pose the most risk, to the fragrances, solvents, and thickeners that make products the right scent and consistency.

You’ll also see non-toxic or safe cleaning products on store shelves. However, just like with toxic products, safety is relative. All household cleaners are sold in concentrations that are generally safe if used according to the instructions on the label. The reason they contain dangerous ingredients at all is because their purpose is to kill viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens. That requires using chemicals that can also be harmful to humans.

Non-toxic cleaning products often skip the ammonia, bleach, or chlorine in favor of less harmful ingredients. The most common is white vinegar, which is an amazing cleaning agent. Hydrogen peroxide is another common non-toxic active ingredient. These cleaners do have antifungal and antibacterial properties that make them effective at getting rid of many common pathogens. However, they’re not as effective as more powerful (and potentially harmful) cleaning agents.

Final thoughts

Understanding what’s in your cleaning products can be trickier than checking the main active ingredient on the label. Many commercial products — not just cleaners — also contain lots of solvents, thickeners, texture enhancers, and scents. All of these extra ingredients can also have a negative impact on your health, especially if used improperly.

It’s important to always read the label of any cleaning product and understand how to use it properly. Cleaning products are carefully tested for tolerance levels, and they’re generally safe to use if you follow the instructions. Wear the right protective clothing, such as glasses, gloves, and masks, to prevent inhalation or getting cleaning chemicals on your skin or in your eyes. 

To find the best non-toxic cleaning products, check out the EWG verified cleaning products list. These products have been carefully studied and meet the latest safety criteria.





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