Are Cleaning Products Bad for Your Health and Indoor Air?

It seems counterintuitive to think that cleaning products could be harmful to your health. A clean house is a source of pride, a symbol of having it all together. Nobody wants to let bacteria, viruses or mold run rampant in their home. However, depending on how you clean your living space, you could be adding in harmful gases in your quest to sanitize. Sure, the smell of a freshly-cleaned home is amazing, but could it also be dangerous?

Are cleaning products harmful to your health?

For some people, the smell of Clorox or Lysol is synonymous with a clean house. Before you breathe in deep to savor your hard work, however, you should know that some of these products may actually be harmful to your health. A surprisingly wide range of common household cleaning chemicals can be sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are toxic gases that are released in the air when you use certain products. They evaporate readily at room temperature, so they can quickly become part of the air that you breathe while you are cleaning.

A growing number of scientific studies point to the health effects caused by the use of household cleaning and sanitizing products, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Individuals that regularly use cleaning products as a part of their job, such as janitors and housekeepers, may have:

  • An increased risk of new-onset asthma
  • Increased wheezing and other asthma symptoms
  • An increased risk of cardiovascular health hazards
  • An increased risk of cardiovascular health issues

However, domestic use of household cleaning products has also been associated with adverse health effects. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, people with existing respiratory conditions, young children and the elderly may be more vulnerable to the effects of VOC exposure. Use of common cleaning chemicals during pregnancy may cause the child to be born with respiratory health issues. Additional symptoms of VOC exposure include:

  • Eye and skin irritation
  • Allergic reactions
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

VOC exposure can also cause long-term health effects, such as chronic respiratory problems, loss of coordination, damage to the kidneys, liver and central nervous system, and cancer.

What to avoid in popular cleaning products

If the ingredients of many conventional cleaning compounds can be harmful to your health, it makes sense to try to avoid most (if not all) of the worst offenders. However, it is not always easy to determine which household products off-gas VOCs into the air. The American Lung Association (ALA) recommends reading the labels on all household cleaning supplies before you purchase them. Products that are marked as low- or no-VOCs, as well as those without fragrances, irritants and flammable ingredients, are typically your best options.

High-VOC household cleaning products that should be avoided include:

Bleach—Chlorine bleach, such as Clorox, is commonly used to sanitize surfaces in the home. Because it is not an all-purpose cleaner, it is often used in conjunction with other cleaning agents. It is also found in cleaning products that are marketed as “combination” compounds that can both clean and sanitize. Chlorine bleach contains the VOCs chloroform and methyl chloroform that can be off-gassed during use. Additionally, mixing bleach with other cleaners can create hazardous byproducts including chloramines, gaseous ammonia and hypochlorous acid. Because of this, you should never mix any bleach-containing products with ammonia or acid-based cleaners (Nazaroff and Weschler, 2004).

Spray cleaners, such as Windex and Pledge—When you use spray cleaners, you have an added chance of breathing in the cleaning chemicals. This is because some of the sprayed liquid can remain in the air instead of landing on the surface that you are cleaning. So, in addition to inhaling off-gassed VOCs, you can also inhale the cleaner itself. VOCs found in glass cleaners, such as Windex, can include toluene, 2-butoxyethanol, ethylbenzene, tetrachloroethylene, camphene and limonene. Furniture and floor-cleaning sprays, such as Pledge, can contain formaldehyde, ethylbenzene, tetrachloroethylene and toluene (Nazaroff and Weschler, 2004).

Fragrance sprays—In a previous blog post, we discussed how fragrances in personal care products could be harmful to your health. Many cleaning products also contain VOC-containing fragrances that are listed under vague terms on the label, such as “fragrance” or “perfume.” The ALA actually recommends avoiding air fresheners altogether. A 2011 survey of 25 scented household products found 133 unique VOCs, 24 of which were classified as toxic. Only one out of the 133 VOCs was listed on any of the product labels. Additionally, the study found that products labeled as “green,” “natural” or “organic” can contain just as many harmful VOCs as standard cleaning products.

Carpet fresheners—Carpet cleaning powders, like cleaning sprays, present an additional respiratory health risk. They contain fine particulate matter that can remain suspended in the air long after you have finished cleaning. Carpet cleaners can also contain sodium tripolyphosphate, glycol ethers, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, limonene and a wide range of other VOCs.

Other common cleaning products that can contain hazardous VOCs include:

  • Toilet bowl cleaners
  • Oven cleaners
  • Dishwasher and laundry detergents
  • Furniture polish

are cleaning products bad for your health and indoor air quality

Safer options for cleaning products

If products that are labeled as “green” or “natural” can contain just as many harmful chemicals as traditional cleaning products, how are you supposed to determine which products can be used safely? To help consumers make informed decisions when it comes to buying household cleaners, the EPA developed a “Safer Choice Standard.” This standard designates the lowest-hazard ingredients for each type of product. Cleaning compounds that have the EPA’s “Safer Choice” label have been found to contain the “safest possible ingredients” while still maintaining their effectiveness. You can even search for products that meet the Safer Choice Standard on the EPA website.

Another standard for safer cleaning products is the Green Seal. To be Green Seal certified, a product must satisfy a set of criteria for a variety of factors, including toxicity limits, indoor air quality effects, manufacturing processes and waste practices. A list of Green Seal certified household cleaning products can be found on the nonprofit’s website.

In addition to switching to safer cleaning agents, the ALA recommends using simpler cleaning methods whenever possible. For example:

  • Soap and warm water can clean a wide range of messes
  • Baking soda can be used in place of harsher scrubbing agents
  • A solution of vinegar and water can clean glass just as effectively as chemical sprays

Maintaining indoor air quality while cleaning

You may not always be able to avoid using cleaning products with VOCs. Fortunately, there are actions that you can take to decrease the airborne pollutants that you release into your home. To keep yourself from breathing in harmful chemicals while cleaning:

  • Make sure the area is well ventilated. When you are cleaning with volatile compounds, opening doors and windows can help decrease the concentration of VOCs in your home. Turning on fans can also help the cleaning product fumes dissipate.
  • Avoid using cleaning agents in small or enclosed spaces.
  • Keep high-VOC products outside of the home or confined to a storage closet when not in use. Make sure that children and pets cannot access stored cleaning chemicals.
  • Use an air purifier to help remove any VOCs from the air in your home. However, you should note that not all air purifiers are effective against gases. Our solution, the Molekule air purifier has proprietary PECO technology that can destroy VOCs on a molecular level.

Not all cleaning products are created equally. Reading product labels and learning about the ingredients in cleaning compounds will help you choose the safest options for your home. When you use safer cleaners, you can have the peace of mind that you are maintaining the cleanliness of your home without sacrificing air quality.

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