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Clean air, year round.

by Vanessa Graham

Regular cleaning is one of the best things you can do to maintain your home’s indoor air quality. Household dust, mildew, and even unchanged bedding can all pollute your air to some degree, so it’s important to break out the cleaning supplies every now and then. However, many common household cleaners contain harmful chemicals that may leave your indoor air more polluted than it was before you started tidying up.

You have options when it comes to using cleaning chemicals in your home, and switching to safer products may be easier (and more affordable) than you think. Read on for more about why some cleaning chemicals may be bad for your health and what you can use to clean your home instead.

Woman with bucket full of cleaning products

Are cleaning products toxic?

Cleaning products contain a wide range of chemicals that help them get the job done, whether it’s cutting through dirt and grime or freshening up a stinky kitchen. Some of these chemicals belong to a group of gaseous pollutants called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

VOCs are toxic gases that can be found in many aerosol sprays and liquid cleaners. They evaporate quickly at room temperature, so it’s almost impossible to avoid breathing them in while cleaning. Household cleaning products typically only release VOCs when in use, but some may also emit low levels of VOCs while stored away, depending on their packaging.

Once VOCs are released into your indoor air, they can also react with sunlight and ozone to form another type of pollution: microscopic particles called secondary organic aerosol (SOA). Even natural VOCs—like the monoterpenes that give household cleaners their “lemon fresh” scent—can react to create dangerous SOA that remains floating in indoor air long after you’ve finished cleaning.

Sign reading "Danger: Toxic Fumes"

Harmful effects of cleaning products

When you’re using cleaning products in an enclosed indoor space, airborne VOCs can quickly reach levels up to ten times higher than levels found outdoors. Exposure to these VOCs can lead to both short-term and long-term health effects. While you’re cleaning with chemical products, you may experience symptoms that include:

  • Eye irritation;
  • Nose and throat discomfort;
  • Headaches;
  • Skin redness or irritation;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Dizziness;
  • Nausea;
  • Vomiting;
  • Nosebleeds;
  • Fatigue.

Long-term VOC exposure may lead to:

  • Chronic eye, nose, and throat irritation;
  • Recurring headaches, loss of coordination, or nausea;
  • Damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system;
  • Some cancers.

You may be at an increased risk of health effects of VOCs if you regularly use cleaning products as part of your job, such as janitorial work and housekeeping. Others who may be more susceptible to irritation and health problems from VOCs include anyone with respiratory problems (such as asthma) or heightened sensitivity to chemicals, young children, and the elderly.

Exposure to SOA during and after cleaning product use may also contribute to different health problems, including an increased risk of various heart and lung conditions and a higher mortality rate among those with existing heart or lung disease.

Dangerous chemicals in household products

When the ingredients of many conventional cleaning compounds can be harmful to your health, it makes sense to try to avoid the worst offenders. However, it can be challenging to determine which household products off-gas VOCs into the air. Try to read the labels on all household cleaning supplies before purchasing, and opt for ones marked as low-VOC or no-VOC, as well as those free of fragrances, irritants, and flammable ingredients.

When possible, avoid these high-VOC household cleaning products:

Bottle of bleach and jar of diluted bleach water

Bleach

Chlorine bleach, such as Clorox, is a common tool for sanitizing household surfaces. It’s not an all-purpose cleaner, though, so it’s often combined with other cleaning agents for different jobs. You see this a lot in products with “clean and sanitize” on the label. Cleaning products containing bleach can contain harmful VOCs, including chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, both suspected carcinogens.

Sodium hypochlorite, the active ingredient in bleach, can also react with other household cleaners to create dangerous and potentially fatal gases. That’s why you should never mix bleach with ammonia, vinegar or other acidic cleaners, oven cleaners, hydrogen peroxide, or insecticides.

Spray of window cleaning solution from spray bottle

Spray cleaners

When you use spray cleaners, such as Windex or Pledge, tiny droplets of the solution can remain suspended in the air instead of landing on the surface you’re cleaning. This increases your risk of inhaling airborne cleaning chemicals. So, in addition to inhaling off-gassed VOCs, you can also inhale the cleaner itself.

Frequent use of spray cleaning products — especially air fresheners, glass cleaners, and furniture sprays has been linked to increased wheezing, asthma symptoms, and asthma development. Cleaning sprays may also be associated with an increased risk of heart conditions.

Sliced lemon and lemon peels next to drawing of limonene molecule

Fragranced cleaning products

Almost all household cleaners are available in a variety of scents (including “unscented” products, which can still contain fragrances to mask or neutralize odors of other ingredients). Most of the time, you’ll see VOC-containing fragrances listed under vague terms on the product label, such as “fragrance” or “perfume.”

2011 survey of 25 scented household products found 133 unique VOCs, 24 of which were classified as toxic. Only one of the 133 VOCs was listed on any of the product labels. Additionally, the study found that products marketed as “green,” “natural,” or “organic” can sometimes contain just as many harmful VOCs as standard cleaning products.

more recent study on household disinfectants found that fragranced cleaning products can cause indoor air to have VOC and SOA levels similar to what you’d be exposed to if you breathed in car exhaust during rush hour traffic.

Other common cleaning products that can contain VOCs

  • Carpet cleaning powders
  • Rug and upholstery cleaners
  • Household disinfectants
  • Toilet bowl cleaners
  • Oven cleaners
  • Dishwasher detergent and dishwashing liquid
  • Laundry detergents
  • Furniture polish
Jars of vinegar and baking soda next to sliced lemons and limes and sponges

What are the safest cleaning products?

When products labeled as “green” or “natural” can contain just as many harmful chemicals as traditional cleaning products, it can be difficult to figure out which household cleaners are actually safe to use. That’s why the EPA created the Safer Choice Standard to designate the lowest-hazard ingredients for each type of cleaning 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 search for household cleaners that meet the Safer Choice Standard on the EPA website.

Green Seal, a nonprofit eco-labeling organization, also hosts a searchable directory of products that meet specific standards for toxicity limits, indoor air quality effects, manufacturing processes, and waste practices.

Low-VOC cleaning products

Some low-VOC fragrance-free household cleaners that make the EPA’s Safer Choice list include:

  • CloroxPro Clorox EcoClean All-Purpose Cleaner
  • GUNK Multi-Surface Cleaner
  • Breathe Multi-Purpose Cleaner
  • Presto! Dish Liquid Fragrance-Free
  • Ultra Palmolive Pure + Clear Fragrance-Free Dish Liquid
  • ECOS Dishmate Dish Soap, Free & Clear
  • PowerPlus Hardwood Floor Deep Cleaner Ready-to-Use
  • CLR Bathroom & Kitchen Cleaner Deodoriser
  • Presto! Laundry Detergent Fragrance-Free
  • Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent Free & Clear

Natural household cleaners

For even more control over the chemicals you introduce to your indoor air, you can always try making your own cleaning solutions. You may be surprised how well you can clean your home using supplies you probably already have in your pantry. For example:

  • Soap and warm water can clean a wide range of messes;
  • You can use baking soda and water in place of harsher scrubbing agents;
  • A solution of vinegar and water can clean glass and hardwood floors just as effectively as chemical sprays.
Collection of common household cleaning products that emit VOCs

Cleaning safety

In addition to switching to low-VOC or natural cleaning products, you can further reduce your exposure to VOCs and SOA while cleaning by:

  • Opening doors and windows on good outdoor air quality days to vent cleaning chemicals more quickly;
  • Turning on fans to keep the chemical fumes from accumulating in one area;
  • Only using harsh cleaning chemicals in bigger rooms or rooms with open windows, then avoiding the room until it’s had a chance to air out;
  • Limiting your use of cleaners with pine or citrus oils, especially on days when outdoor ozone levels are high;
  • Only using as much cleaning product as you need to finish the job;
  • Rinsing surfaces with water after cleaning (when possible) to remove cleaning chemical residue;
  • Rinsing cleaning products out of sponges or mops before storing them;
  • Throwing away paper towels or other disposable cleaning tools in an outdoor garbage container after use;
  • Keeping high-VOC cleaners outside the home or confined to a storage closet when not in use;
  • Using an air purifier to help remove VOCs from the air in your home. (Note: Some air purifiers may not be effective against VOCs. Check out our blog post on different types of air purifiers to learn more.)

By reading product labels and learning about the different ingredients in your favorite cleaning products, you can spot and avoid toxic cleaning chemicals that pollute your indoor air. Low-VOC and natural cleaners can work just as well as harsher cleaning compounds, so you don’t have to choose between a sparkling clean home and great indoor air quality.

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