It’s that time of year when many people decide to tackle spring cleaning, reaching for the mops, brooms, and brightly labeled cleaning products. What you might not realize is that many of those bottles featuring cheery lemons or cute bubbles are actually loaded with toxins that can contribute to autoimmunity and other chronic health issues.
They can impact your health as you breathe them in while cleaning and even afterward as they linger in the air. In fact, because we spend nearly 90% of our time indoors, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top 5 environmental risks to public health.
You can also absorb these toxic chemicals through your skin while you’re scrubbing away. Remember, your skin is your largest organ and it absorbs whatever you put on it, sending any toxic chemicals straight into your bloodstream, which can add to your toxic burden.
As I explain in my books, this chronic, low-level exposure to toxins can actually be more damaging to your health that one large exposure that happens all at once. It’s why taming the toxins is one of the five key steps in The Myers Way®, and why it’s so important to make smart choices about the products that you use regularly since their combined impact can make a huge difference.
In this article, I’m going to explain the problem with most cleaning products available, walk you through 8 of the most common toxins hiding in them, and how to replace them with safer alternatives, so that your home can be sparkling clean and toxin-free!
The Dirty Truth About Home Cleaning Products
According to the EWG (Environmental Working Group), U.S. law allows manufacturers of cleaning products to use almost any ingredient they wish, including known carcinogens and substances that can harm fetal and infant development. What’s more, the government doesn’t review the safety of products before they’re sold.1
As with the beauty industry, the government relies solely on the companies themselves to test and determine the safety of new chemical ingredients. Currently, 80,000 chemicals are registered for use in the US, and each year about 1,700 are added to this list with little to no testing.
Furthermore, if you try to read the labels of most cleaning products, you will find their ingredients list incomplete. That’s because the companies that make cleaning products aren’t even required to list the ingredients on their packaging. The EWG found that out of 1,000 cleaning product labels they studied, 48% listed three or fewer ingredients on the label. These incomplete lists of ingredients are often accompanied by pretty serious warning labels, although even those don’t tell the full story.
It’s true that there are often warnings for poor reactions that can happen as a result of acute exposure such as skin burns or headaches from noxious fumes. However, as I mentioned, one of the biggest risks from these toxic chemicals is the destruction they cause through regular, low-level exposure. Constant exposure to toxins can stress your immune system, damage your tissues, and has been linked with autoimmune disease, asthma, cancer, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity. It should come as no surprise then that as the use of manufactured household cleaners has increased, so has the incidence of these chronic health conditions.
8 Cleaning Product Toxins to Avoid
Although reading the (often incomplete) ingredient list on your cleaning products won’t 100% ensure you’re avoiding toxins, it can be really helpful for avoiding the worst and most common offenders.
Here’s a list of some key ingredients to avoid, products where they are commonly found, and suggestions for safer alternatives.
Cleaning Product Toxin #1: Parabens
Found in: This toxic chemical is one of the top offenders in both our household cleaners and beauty products. Any household products that claim to be antifungal or antimicrobial (including dish soap, all-purpose cleaner, glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, and more) most likely contain parabens, listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.
Health risks: Parabens are xenoestrogens, meaning they mimic estrogen in your body and can lead to estrogen dominance. As a result, they cause hormone disruption, reproductive problems, and have been linked with hormonal cancers including breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer. They can also cause neurotoxicity and skin irritation.
Healthier alternative: Avoid using all products with “antifungal” or “antimicrobial” claims, and always aim for organic, all-natural products by companies such as Mrs. Meyer’s or Dr. Bronner’s. Homemade cleaners are almost always the best choice, because you know exactly what’s in them. I’ve included a recipe below of a DIY, toxin-free all-purpose cleaner that can replace many of your paraben-containing products, and I’ve included several more home cleaning and beauty product recipes in The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook.
Cleaning Product Toxin #2: Triclosan
Found in: Triclosan and triclocarban are used as antimicrobial agents in cleaning products. Triclosan specifically is used in liquid dishwashing detergent and hand soaps labeled “antibacterial”, as well as toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorants, and cosmetics.
Health risks: Triclosan, which is classified as a pesticide, is an antibacterial agent that can contribute to the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. It can affect your body’s endocrine system, which produces hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood. It is also irritating to the skin and eyes.
Healthier alternative: Avoid soaps with the “antibacterial” label altogether, and opt for alcohol-based hand-sanitizers without triclosan. Or better yet, just use traditional, all-natural soap.
Cleaning Product Toxin #3: Phthalates
Found in: Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances. These fragrances are in everything from laundry detergent and dish soap to air fresheners and even toilet paper.
Health risks: Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system, which, as I stated above, affects most major functions of your body including metabolism, tissue function, sleep and mood, to name a few.
Healthier alternative: A way to avoid phthalates completely is to choose all-natural and fragrance-free products. Avoid air fresheners altogether, and instead use a diffuser with organic essential oils to fragrance your home.2
Cleaning Product Toxin #4: Perchloroethylene or “PERC”
Found in: PERC is the main solvent in dry-cleaning solution. It is also found in many household cleaning products such as wood cleaners, spot removers and carpet cleaners, aerosol products, and even in solvent soaps.
Health risks: Perchloroethylene is a volatile organic compound (VOC). VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at room temperature and are released, or “off-gassed,” into the air. “Organic” in this context simply means carbon-based. Exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene can affect your central nervous system and even cause unconsciousness or death.3
Other side-effects of exposure to PERC include severe shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, sleepiness, confusion, difficulty speaking and walking, and lightheadedness. If you are pregnant, long-term exposure may harm a developing fetus.4
Healthier alternative: You can take your clothes to a “wet cleaner” which uses a water-based method of cleaning clothes instead of a chemical-based dry cleaner. For tougher stains on fabrics, use a natural soap and pre-treat the soiled area prior to washing. A few stains are preferable to the health risks associated with this toxic chemical, so check with your dry cleaner to see if they use PERC.
Cleaning Product Toxin #5: Ammonia
Found in: Ammonia is found in many cleaning products, including window cleaners, bathroom cleaners, and floor waxes.
Health risks: Ammonia is actually used to make other chemicals, including cyanide! The fumes from cleaners with ammonia can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, laryngitis, headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, asthma, rapid pulse, and increased blood pressure.5 People with asthma are at an even higher risk from complications associated with ammonia use.
Healthier alternative: Organic all-natural products from trustworthy companies or a DIY cleaner. Believe it or not, vodka gives windows a wonderful shine.
Cleaning Product Toxin #6: Sodium Hydroxide
Found in: Sodium hydroxide is found in oven cleaners and drain cleaners.
Health risks: Also known as lye, sodium hydroxide is extremely toxic due to its corrosive nature. It can burn your eyes and skin, can cause a long-lasting sore throat if you breathe it in.
Healthier alternative: You can use baking soda paste (just mix baking soda with water) to clean your oven. To unclog your drains, simply pour a cup of baking soda and a cup of vinegar down your drain, cover, and walk away for 30 minutes. Then remove the cover and run hot water down the drain. You can also use a plumber’s “snake” tool for tougher jobs.
Cleaning Product Toxin #7: Chlorine
Found in: Household bleach is made from sodium hypochlorite, a chlorine-based chemical. Whereas this is not pure chlorine, you can be exposed to hazardous chlorine gas at home if you mix bleach with ammonia or other cleaning products. You may be exposed to non-toxic concentrations of chlorine through household products that are made from chlorine, such as disinfectants used in drinking water and swimming pools. It can be found in some household cleaners, mildew removers, and laundry whiteners. It can even be found in trace amounts in your tap water.
Health risks: Chlorine can be a big problem for thyroid health because it’s part of the halogen family, which also includes iodine, bromine, and fluorine. Iodine is one of the two key building blocks of your thyroid hormone, and when you are exposed to too much chlorine your body can actually absorb it in place of iodine because the two look so similar. This can lead to Hashimoto’s, hypothyroidism, and other forms of thyroid dysfunction.
Exposure to chlorine can also cause coughing, wheezing, sneezing, or even pneumonia, as it is a respiratory irritant. It can also cause headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, skin blisters, and irritation.6
Healthier alternative: For scrubbing, try baking soda, and for laundry, vinegar whitens clothes. To eliminate exposure to chlorine through tap water, install filters on your sinks and showerheads.
Cleaning Product Toxin #8: Quaternary Ammonium Compounds, or “QUATS”
Found in: QUATS are found in most fabric softeners and “antibacterial” cleaning products.
Health risks: QUATS contribute to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because they are antimicrobial in nature like triclosan. It is also a skin irritant and respiratory irritant.
Healthier alternative: White vinegar added to the rinse cycle softens clothes, and a simple DIY cleaner (see recipe below) can more than suffice to kill bacteria around your home.
My Favorite Toxin-Free Cleaning Products
As you can see, cleaning products are not all created equal. In order to avoid these common toxins, I recommend reading the labels on your cleaning products as closely as you would a food label at the grocery store. By doing your due diligence you can make informed choices of all-natural, non-toxic cleaning products that do not contain any of the chemicals listed above.
Some of my favorites are listed below:
- Mrs. Meyers’ Lemon Verbena Multi-Surface Everyday Cleaner
- Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Liquid Cleaner, 16 Fl Oz
- Truce All-Purpose Cleaner, Peppermint
- Truce Wood Cleaner, Orange & Lemon
- Mrs. Meyer’s Lavender Dish Soap
- Molly’s Suds Laundry Powder
DIY Toxin-Free Cleaning Products
Although you might be intimidated by the idea of making your own cleaning products at first, it’s actually a super simple way to reduce your exposure to toxins and save money! By making your own toxin-free cleaning products, you’ll know exactly what ingredients are in them and that they are completely safe for you, your family, and your pets!
Here’s an incredibly simple recipe for an all-purpose cleaner from The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook to get you started.
- 2 cups filtered water
- ½ cup rubbing alcohol
- 1 tablespoon liquid castile soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s)
- 10 drops of essential oils (such as lemon, tea tree or peppermint)
- Mix all ingredients together in a 24 oz spray bottle. Shake well before using.