Cleaning Products and our Health

Nadia Hursky on August 5, 2011

Most of us underestimate how much environmental toxins affect our health. According to Professor Sly of the World Health Organisation, environmental toxins account for 25% of the burden of disease. We know about air pollution. But many of us do not think that our home environment could be three to eight times more polluted than the air quality of Los Angeles—a city with over 11 million registered cars! This is the result of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) being off-gassed into our homes from chemicals used in building products, furniture, cleaning products etc.

Food manufacturers must list all the ingredients on their products. Cleaning products, however, may be sold in countries such as Australia, Canada and the USA without a full disclosure of their chemical content. As consumers, we must do our own research, or be left to believe advertising hype.

Consumer advocate, Sloan Barnett, author of Green goes with Everything says “The government only requires companies to list ‘chemicals of known concern’ on their labels. The key word here is ‘known’,” she says. “The fact is that the government has no idea whether most of the chemicals used in everyday cleaning products are safe because it doesn’t test them, and it doesn’t require manufacturers to test them either.”

Cleaning Products and our Health

Media terms to be aware of:

NON-TOXIC: means that the product will not cause harm to you or the environment. Unless otherwise specified, there is no organisation independently verifying this claim.

NATURAL: there is no standard definition for this term, so it can be used as the company pleases. Furthermore, just because something in natural, it does not mean that the product is non-irritating.

ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY: There is no standard definition or independent organisation to verify this claim.

FRAGRANCE FREE: is not considered to be a meaningful label.

Some ingredients to avoid:

Ammonia. Poisonous when swallowed, extremely irritating to respiratory passages when inhaled; can burn skin on contact. (Note: Never mix ammonia-containing products with chlorine bleach. That produces a poisonous gas.) Found in floor, bathroom, tile, and glass cleaners.

Antibacterial soap is a registered pesticide. Avoid the use of antibacterial soap and cleaners as they do not kill viruses and do more harm than good.Triclosan is the main ingredient found in antibacterial products that contributes to bacterial resistance, and that is bad for everyone. It is also linked to endocrine abnormalities, allergies and eczema and has been found in breast milk.

Bleach. Bleach is irritating to the lungs and eyes. Furthermore it is acutely toxic to fish and can bind with organic materials in the marine environment to produce persisting toxic chemicals.

Diethanolamine (DEA) & triethanolamine (TEA). These ingredients can produce carcinogenic compounds, which can penetrate the skin.

Phosphates. Phosphates are still found in automatic dishwashing detergents and may leave residues on your plates, glasses and silverware. As well as releasing toxic fumes, phosphates contribute to the overgrowth of algae and aquatic weeds, killing off fish and other aquatic life.

 Sodium hydroxide (lye). Corrosive and extremely irritating to eyes, nose, and throat and can burn those tissues on contact. Found in drain, metal, and oven cleaners.

house cleaner

Natural Alternatives

Many companies provide better products for our home, our health and the environment. One such company is Method. You can find their cleaning products in most Woolworth stores.

You can also make your own non-toxic cleaners. Vinegar, bicarb of soda and lemon work great as cleaners. These natural products can be used everyday for multiple applications, from disinfecting surfaces to scrubbing out ovens.

Whilst it is unsettling that these chemicals may be hiding under our kitchen or bathroom sinks, we can be responsible to make wiser and greener choices and exchange these products for healthier options. Avoiding toxic chemicals and making better choices will benefit our health, the health of our friends and family around us, and the wellbeing of the environment.

lemon cleaner




  1. Dolors says:

    I never realised how dangerous some of these chemicals are… Not to mention I am totally horrified about what I have just read regarding the labels “non-toxic” and “natural”, which I always kind of trusted… I felt they gave me some “peace of mind” when purchasing a cleaning product. Having a toddler running around the house, I think I need to take a closer look at what I have in my cupboards!

    1. nadiah says:

      Hi Dolors, yes it’s a shame that these chemicals are allowed freely in our homes without much consideration! Bi-carb of soda is a great cleaner- check it out, it’s completely safe 🙂