Are Your Household Cleaners Dangerous?

Two weeks ago I told you about the 17 “germiest” things in your home. I thought it was ironic that the worst offender was a dish sponge. After all, it’s designed to clean dishes, glasses and other items, but it’s often filthy.

Along those same lines, today I want to tell you something else ironic. Household cleaners are made to clean things in your home. Yet some of them do more harm than good. Mainly because they contain chemicals that are harmful to surfaces or our health. Or both.

The Environmental Working Group reviewed 2,000 household cleaning products. They found that 53 percent of them contain ingredients harmful to lungs. And 22 percent contain chemicals that can lead to serious health issues. Many of these products have never been tested.

So, here are some of the chemicals to watch out for next time you’re picking up a household cleaner at the store. I’ll also provide information about homemade alternatives at the end. 

Air fresheners & ammonia 

Nobody likes a smelly room, whether it’s the bathroom, kitchen or bedroom. So, many of us reach for an air freshener, thinking that will do the trick. The problem is, many air fresheners contain formaldehyde and other potentially dangerous volatile organic compounds. 

A truly natural solvent made with essential oils is better for your health. But even it can strip away paint over time. And one-third of substances used by the fragrance industry are toxic. That’s according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Ammonia is an effective agent for getting rid of unwanted dirt on floors, in ovens on wall tiles and plenty of other areas in your home.

But there’s a major downside. The fumes will not do your lungs, throat, nose, eyes or skin any favors. Combined with bleach, it can cause a toxic gas. If you use ammonia or a cleaner containing it, protect your health with goggles, a facemask and gloves.

Bleach & drain cleaners

A small amount of bleach can do a good job of cleaning some surfaces. It’s even useful in helping to purify some contaminated water.

But it also has strong corrosive properties that can damage the human body when ingested. And using too much for cleaning can negatively affect some surfaces. 

Organic material that gets into our pipes through drains can clog and damage them. A chemical has to be strong to break through, and that can mean trouble.

Most drain cleaners contain powerful alkaline compounds. Including lye, which can do serious damage to your skin, eyes, throat, esophagus and stomach.   

Carpet and upholstery cleaners

Are you familiar with naphthalene or perchloroethylene? If not, that might be for the best.

They’re chemicals found in carpet and upholstery cleaners. They can really do a number on anything that breathes. Including you, your children or grandchildren, and pets. 

Naphthalene is derived from coal tar. It dissolves dirt and is used in pesticides to kill moths and other small insects. Exposure to it has been linked to all sorts of health issues.

Perchloroethylene is also used by many dry cleaners. Inhaling it can cause a variety of health problems. And long-term exposure exacerbates the situation. It’s been called a “potential occupational carcinogen” by NIOSH.

More problem areas

Other items designed for cleaning or make-up that can result in health problems include fabric softeners, dryer sheets and antibacterial soaps. 

As well as almost any product that creates suds. Including shampoos, conditioners, bubble baths, dish-washing detergents and laundry detergents.

Plus toilet bowl cleaners, bathtub and tile cleaners. And porcelain and granite sink cleaners, and dusting sprays.

Not to mention body lotions, foundation and concealer. And eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, blush, lipstick and perfume.

Read labels carefully

Here are a few tips for staying away from household cleaners that do more harm than good. 

First, read every label before making a purchase. If you see a warning about toxicity or calling a poison control phone number if ingested, take that as a red flag. 

Second, look for products that say “fragrance-free” or “unscented.” You should still read the label, but you’re probably on the right track.

Third, don’t assume that “natural” means safe. A number of products use that word to draw in health-conscious customers. But a closer look reveals they contain some of the same chemicals found in other cleaners. And, they’re more expensive. 

Your best alternatives

Your best bet is to make your own household cleaners and other items out of safe ingredients.

For example, instead of using fabric softeners, use one-quarter cup of baking soda to soften clothes. Or one-quarter cup of vinegar to help with static cling.

Instead of an air freshener, open your windows whenever possible. And bathe your pets regularly. Some people combine a cup of baking soda with a few dozen drops of essential oils and sprinkle it on carpets. They vacuum it later.

Look for shampoos and soaps free of phthalates and parabens. Or search online for ways to make your own out of natural ingredients. Some folks use goat milk soap. Some combine coconut oil with an essential oil for a face lotion.      

To clean mirrors and toilets, try a 50-50 vinegar and water combination. Same with counters, but add baking soda for a paste to use on stains.

Finally, sodium hypochlorite is a solution made from reacting chlorine with a sodium hydroxide solution. It has a variety of uses and is an effective disinfectant and antimicrobial agent. 

We all want to “keep it clean.” With a little effort, we can keep it clean AND ourselves safe.


  • Elaine - October 26, 2021

    Interesting and informative Thank you

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