I grew up with familiar names like Windex and Dawn in our cleaning supplies at home. These brands and many others are ones we’ve trusted to keep our kitchens clean and sparkling for decades. Unfortunately, the trust we have placed in these brands has been taken advantage of. Household brand names in our cleaning supplies are full of toxic chemicals and the findings only keep mounting. From heightened risk of miscarriage to developmental delays to cancer, nearly all of our common cleaning supplies are wrought with problematic ingredients that have dire consequences. I want to take you through the biggest offenders to give you a snapshot of what you are up against when you clean your home. In my next post, I’ll provide you with some easy toxin-free DIY or Conscious Consumer approved alternatives.
The Worst Cleaning Chemical Offenders
Phthalates - Typically phthalates are found in dish soap, hand soap, air fresheners, and in some instances toilet paper. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood showed reduced sperm counts, according to a 2003 study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard School of Public Health. Another 2003 study cites how phthalate exposure in pregnant women can disrupt endocrine function and induce reproductive and developmental toxicity. What this boils down to is that phthalates disrupt our reproductive systems, which in turn disrupt our hormone levels. Although exposure to phthalates mainly occurs through inhalation, it can also happen through skin contact with scented soaps, which is a significant problem.
Phthalates are often hidden under the guise of “Fragrance” or “Parfum” when listed on ingredients. This is a common loophole that many companies use in terms of not having to list an ingredient, or rather an amalgamation of over 3,100 ingredients disclosed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) to be more exact. The term “Fragrance” on a label legally enables a company to hide the specific mix of chemicals used, deemed a “trade secret” or “proprietary information.” The list of possible ingredients used under the IFRA are regulated by, guess who, themselves! What makes this whole situation worse is that the IFRA has not even tested the majority of the chemicals on this list. Thus, a company could combine any number of chemicals (tested or untested) in their fragrance recipe and not disclose the list, it would be legal, and the FDA could not do anything about. Don’t believe me? It’s right on the FDA website.
What this translates to is that companies are responsible for regulating themselves, not the FDA, and when checking under the ingredients when you see the word “Fragrance” the FDA knows just as much as you - which is technically nothing.
Perchloroethylene /Tetrachloroethylene/PCE - PCE is found in many of your degreasers, spot removers, as well as carpet and upholstery cleaner. According to a Toxicological Review by the EPA in 2012 “The epidemiological evidence from cohort and case–control studies provides evidence of associations between PCE exposure and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma in adults.” PCE has been proven to be a neurotoxin, meaning that it negatively affects the way our brains function. Neurotoxins disrupt the way our neurons communicate in our brain, leading to symptoms like brain fog or short-term memory loss.
Triclosan - Triclosan is found in most hand soaps and dishwashing liquids that are listed as “anti-bacterial.” Triclosan is a vigorous anti-bacterial and has raised concerns in terms of immunotoxicity, meaning the disruption of our immune systems. It’s important to keep in mind that these bacteria-killing chemicals don’t have the ability to select the type bacterial they can kill, they kill it all. Our bodies and our skin have an active microbial environment that is constantly trying to achieve an equilibrium. When we apply chemicals like Triclosan to our skin, we are disrupting that environment. According to a 2015 study, “Triclosan has been shown to undergo dermal absorption in both rodent and to a lesser degree human skin, affording it the potential to interact with immune cells in the dermis.” In this study they observed that after Triclosan was absorbed into the skin, it increased the size of both the liver and the spleen in mice, demonstrating that exposure to the skin caused a significant inflammatory response in the immune system. The EPA has found that it is also an endocrine disruptor, more specifically, it affects the balance of hormones the thyroid produces and excretes. This all boils down to a chemical that has been developed by humans and is being tested on the public (without our consent) with no long-term studies to prove it is not harmful.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds or “QACs” - QACs are disinfectants used alone or added to cleaning products. Some of the common products they are added to are dishwashing liquids, hand soaps, window cleaners, “all-purpose” cleaners, floor products, baby-care products, disinfectant sprays and wipes, air fresheners, and other “anti-microbial” products. Similar to Triclosan, QACs affects the microbial environment in our bodies. They’re also a skin irritant; one 10-year study of contact dermatitis found QACs to be one of the leading causes alongside its direct correlation to increases in asthma. They also have been proven to disrupt hERG potassium channel activity in the body, contributing to cardiotoxicity. This ion channel is best known for its contribution to the electrical activity of the heart that coordinates the heart's beating. In this study, they stated, “Although an assessment of hERG channel activity is an important step in early drug development, it has not been a focus in the evaluation of environmental chemicals for toxicity. To date, more than 100,000 chemicals have been introduced into commerce without sufficient toxicological testing (Belpomme et al., 2007). These synthetic chemicals are widely used in the energy, transportation, agriculture, food, and pharmaceutical industries, and they cause environmental pollution via contamination of air, soil, water, and food.” Talk about whistleblowing! Again, this is a chemical we did not give our consent in being exposed to, and no one is stepping forward in the industry to stop its inclusion in our everyday home products.
2-Butoxyethanol - 2-Butoxyethanol is released into the environment at places where it is produced or used as a solvent. Solvent-based household cleaners or building materials such as varnishes, lacquers, latex paints, and enamels may release 2-butoxyethanol into the air as they dry. It is also used in glass or window cleaners. Studies have shown that it affects the hemoglobin count in rats as well as their reproductive systems, including birthing smaller litters, birth defects, or bleeding of the vaginal wall.
Isothiazolinone preservatives - the Environmental Working Group released a report in 2016 stating 40 percent of cleaning products they reviewed contained isothiazolinone preservatives, which can either trigger or exacerbate allergies. They stated, “Researchers and physicians from over a dozen clinics have reported cases of serious skin allergy, and an increase approaching epidemic proportions in allergies to a specific type of isothiazolinone known as methylisothiazolinone, or MI.” While the US has no restrictions on the use of MI, the European Union just lowered its safety standard for these chemicals in rinse-off cosmetic products. One of the biggest concerns is that hands and forearms are repeatedly exposed to these substances for long periods while washing dishes, not to mention that a significant number of these products which contain these preservatives release formaldehyde when mixed with water.
Benzene - Benzene is used primarily as a precursor to the manufacture of chemicals with more complex structure, including paint, detergents, industrial cleaning and degreasing formulations, lacquer, and varnish removers. It is derived from coal-tar, a known carcinogen.
Formaldehyde - As crazy as it sounds, formaldehyde is rampant in the cleaning supplies in our home. Formaldehyde makes its way into the body through inhalation of fumes or contact with the skin. It has shown to cause cancer in the nasal cavities and leukemia in rats. After some independent testing done by the EWG, formaldehyde was found in Ajax Dish Liquid, Ajax Triple Action Dish Liquid Hand Soap, Finish All in 1 3X Concentrated Grease Cutting Gel, and Palmolive Ultra Dish Liquid, to name just a few. The severity of your reaction to formaldehyde can depend on your genetics, as one study showed. Even at low exposure rates, formaldehyde has shown cell death in human beings, affecting the way our genes express themselves. Again, I’ll sit this human guinea pig experiment out, thanks.
Ammonia - Ammonia is found primarily in glass cleaner (Windex!). Ammonia is inhaled and is a known respiratory irritant. In rats it was found to greatly decrease lung activity and increase inflammation.
Chlorine - Chlorine is found in scouring powders, mildew removers, and household tap water. At an acute level chlorine is a respiratory irritant, but at high and repeated exposure it has shown to disrupt thyroid activity.
If you want to say after reviewing these studies we aren’t rats, the Mouse Sequencing Genome Consortium begs to disagree. We share at least 75% of our genetics with rats. If that angle doesn’t please you, consider animal rights and how many rats, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and monkeys go into testing these chemicals. Animal testing is inseparable from the chemicals we use in our homes. Although I am a meat eater, knowing that animals had to suffer to make my mirror spotless and there is ample evidence that these chemicals cause significant harm, just doesn’t sit well with me.
If all that medical jargon isn’t enough to sway you, I know that money talks. In the Bureau of Labor’s most recent analysis of home keeping expenditures, the average homeowner spends $645 a year on cleaning supplies. When you choose healthier alternatives and DIY your own cleaning products you can cut that number by more than half. So what are you waiting for? Let’s cut out toxins and save some money! Click here to read Part Two and learn how you can make your own cleaning solutions at more than half price.
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to orchard planting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live sustainably and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Sustainable Dish
6. Zero Waste Home
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. In The Company of Women