Ingredient labels don't tell the whole story
Image Point Fr/ShutterstockClean-living guru and author of A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures, Sophia Gushee says you're not getting the full story from the product labels. "Federal laws protect confidential business information, so manufacturers are not legally bound to disclose all their chemical ingredients or all the potential health problems that the product may cause," she warns. Gushee also believes we currently lack unbiased oversight that can help ensure cleaning products are safe: "What we do know about conventional cleaning products raises concern." Check out these natural ways to clean your home.
Concentrations are key
T.Dallas/ShutterstockWhile most common household cleaning products contain low concentrations of the active ingredients, the industrial-strength concentrations you can get in hardware and specialty supply stores are a real concern, points out Gerald F. O'Malley, DO, a Merck Manuals expert, professor of toxicology at Thomas Jefferson University. "For example, standard household bleach is a low-concentration (3 to 8 percent) of sodium hypochlorite, which is just an irritant to your mucous membranes," he says. "Exposure to high concentration bleach (greater than 40 percent) is injurious if it comes into contact with the skin or eyes or if it is swallowed or deeply inhaled." He recommends checking labels for the concentration of your bleach—and when in doubt or if you have an exposure, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
Open windows while cleaning
vadim kozlovsky/ShutterstockNo matter what room you are in, be wary of using cleaning products with the windows closed—your indoor air can quickly become hazardous. Acupuncturist Elizabeth Trattner, certified by the University of Arizona Center of Integrative Medicine on Environmental Medicine, shares that many common cleaning chemicals release toxic gasses; when you breathe them in, they can place a burden on your liver.
Don't mix bleach
Leslie Fischer, an eco-living specialist, notes that certain chemicals when combined can be toxic and even deadly. "When chlorine bleach is added to ammonia... it creates a toxic fume that can be deadly," she says. "Ammonia is not only found in household cleaners but also in urine. Putting bleach into a toilet can be very dangerous." The Washington State Department of Health maintains a list of things you shouldn't mix with bleach. Here are some more cleaning products that should never mix.
Avoid the big toxins
The Environmental Working Group says that many cleaning products fail their test of safety, but three of the most commonly used yet dangerous and toxic cleaning products that receive an F-Failure rating for safety are drain cleaners, oven and grill cleaners, and toilet bowl cleaners. You can crosscheck the products in your cleaning stash on their site to see where they fall in safety ratings.
DIY cleaners that are safe
focal point/ShutterstockBaking soda sprinkled into a sink cleans just as well as a product like Comet without the concern of chemicals. For windows and surfaces, try this simple and safe cleaner:
1 clean 32-ounce spray bottle
1/3 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup rubbing alcohol
3 1/2 cups water
Here are some more DIY cleaners that really work.
Cleaning sprays can trigger asthma
Luz Claudio, PhD, professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has done a lot of research work on children's asthma, and she's particularly concerned about spray cleaners. "Some of these products contain chemicals that are known or suspected to be asthma triggers, such as ethanolamine and ammonium compounds," she says. She adds that simple vinegar and water in a spray bottle work just as well as any chemical combo purchased in a store. Check out these other surprising uses of household vinegar.
Even running the dishwasher can be toxic
Yunava1/Shutterstock"The more concentrated and scented dishwasher soap is, the bigger problems you're going to have," warns Trattner. "The hot water transforms those chemicals into gas in your nice airtight home. If you have allergies, asthma or any autoimmune disease, you should avoid conventional cleaners. Also avoid soft plastics in the dishwasher as well. The heat makes BPA and other petrochemicals which can outgas right in your kitchen." Use healthy alternatives like DishwasherFresh, which uses food grade citric acid powder and sodium percarbonate and turns into hydrogen peroxide when mixed with water in the dishwasher. Don't miss these surprising things you can clean in the dishwasher.
Beware of oven cleaning
alexandre zveiger/ShutterstockDr. Claudio warns that oven cleaners are notoriously harmful. Most have explicit warnings on their labels. Make sure to follow the label's instructions to a letter; open windows and keep the exhaust fan running. And be sure to wear gloves and eye protection—the cleaners can release fumes that are irritating to skin and eyes. "My concern is that once users wipe off the cleaner and turn on the oven, the heat can release even more chemicals into the air," she says. Instead, use lemon juice and water and a steel wool sponge. Check out this information before you use the self-clean option on your oven.
Avoid synthetic scents in detergents
ssuaphotos/ShutterstockTrattner warns that long-lasting scents come at a price: "A large percent of synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum—crude oil," she says. These include benzenes, aldehydes, toluene, and endocrine disruptors, which research suggests can cause disease, nervous system disorders, and allergies. Trattner recommends looking for alternatives, such as brands like Nellies Naturals, Ecover, and Seventh Generation. If you want a scent, she recommends organic lavender sachets from Trader Joe's that are made with unbleached material and real lavender flowers. Here's a list of some of the safest laundry detergents on the market.