Common Toxins in Cleaning Products

Another guest post by Sarah Scherr detailing helpful info on the ingredients in basic household products we use so commonly. -SK

When we buy cleaning products, we expect them to do one thing—CLEAN! But, it’s not as easy, or as innocent as that. While the chemicals in cleaners foam, bleach and disinfect our homes, making our surfaces cleaner and germ-free, they are poisonous.

Every 13 seconds, a poison control center in the United States answers a call about a possible poisoning ... More than 90% of these exposures occur in the home.
— Center for Disease Control

The CDC’s page on poisoning prevention goes on to say that just breathing the fumes from many products can harm people.

Cleaning ingredients vary in the type of health hazard they pose. Some cause acute, or immediate, hazards such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns, while others are associated with chronic, or long-term, effects such as cancer.

The most harmful chemicals are often found in the most common products.

It’s important to know the ingredients to avoid so you can find safe substitutes, mitigate the hazard, or do without the product. So, let’s see just what is lurking in your home-sweet-home and which step is best suited for you at this moment.

According to Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition, the most toxic cleaners on the market are drain cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners and oven cleaners. Corrosive cleaners work because they eat away at the junk we don't want, but they can also be very harmful to your airways and skin.

Disinfectants and Pesticides are designed to kill living things such as bacteria, mold, insects and weeds. Regulatory agencies state that a deadly dose for tiny life forms such as bugs, weeds, and germs is not large enough to kill people. This is true. But, what is the effect on humans when small doses are continuously used?

Some of these substances accumulate in body fat, meaning that eventually we may be exposed from inside our bodies. Environmentalist, Rachel Carson, first informed us of this when she stated that, “As you move up the food chain, the higher levels of life tend to have higher quantities of pesticides stored in their body fat.”

Pine- and citrus-based cleaners and air fresheners contain a class of volatile chemicals known as terpenes which, when combined with ozone and other ingredients you might find in your products, produces a chemical reaction that creates airborne carcinogens such as formaldehyde.

The chemical compounds that commonly cause concern are:

  • ammonia
  • petroleum distillates
  • phosphates
  • sulfuric acid
  • sodium hydroxide
  • chlorinated compounds
  • alcohol and alcohol based compounds

Let’s take a closer look at some specific ingredients to avoid:
(The links will direct you to a list of products containing that ingredient as well as further links to more information about that chemical.)


Irritates allergies and skin, can damage vision, and can irritate the respiratory system
Linked to acute toxicity in aquatic life


240 products including a wide array of household cleaners, laundry detergents, air fresheners, and much more

Causes eye damage and severe skin burns, is harmful if swallowed or inhaled, and irritates. allergies and asthma
Linked to acute toxicity in aquatic life

159 products including many household products, common kitchen cleaners, laundry detergents, and even hair dye!

Liquified and Sweetened Petroleum Gases (also known as Propane and Butane)

May cause cancer, genetic defects, impair the central nervous system and cause cardiac sensitization

Household disinfectants and other sprays, auto care products, and aerosols across a wide array of industries

Affects respiratory systems, and may cause cancer and reproductive issues. It also may damage vision, the digestive system, the nervous system, as well as irritate skin

Many consumer cleaning products such as degreasers, oven cleaners, disinfectants and other cleaners, as well as paint, water repellants, sealers, and more

Affects organs and respiratory systems and is high risk to human health according to the EPA

Disinfectants, hard water stain removers, household cleaners and some personal care products

Affects respiratory systems

Disinfectants, toilet cleaners, hard water stain removers, basic household cleaners and more

Irritates allergies, damages skin and vision, and irritates the respiratory system

Auto products and household polishes


If you see any of these in an ingredients list, it’s safe to say you shouldn’t have the product in your home.

Once you have located toxic products, you have four options for making your home safer:

  1. Remove toxic sources of contamination. (They aren’t present anymore. You aren’t being exposed.)

  2. Isolate toxic sources. (They are still present, but aren’t in contact with you.)

  3. Dilute sources with ventilation. (They are still present but at lower levels.)

  4. Reduce sources with filtration. (They are still present but at lower levels.)

Look for cleaning products that are vegetable-based and use essential oils in place of “fragrances”. (For more info about fragrances, check out 5 Easy Steps to a Healthier Home.) Some companies who offer safer alternatives include: Seventh Generation, Clean Well and Earth Friendly Products. As always, do your research and analyze the ingredients lists for everything you buy. Even these safer products could contain new ingredients from time to time. This is why DIY is preferred. It’s the only way to know exactly what you’re using.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has made it much easier for anyone to get trusted information on many household products. You can easily search their Guide to Healthy Cleaning to assess your own supplies. If you wish to learn more about EWG and this handy guide, check out this post.

Additional sources for toxin information can be found by reading the material safety data sheets at EWG warns: Read labels carefully and pay special attention to warnings. Don't buy any products labeled "poison," "danger" or "fatal" if swallowed or inhaled.

You are in charge of your health. 

The only effective way to avoid chemicals indoors is to not bring them in. When that can’t be avoided, you are left with techniques that only dilute by ventilation or reduce by filtration. Luckily, there are plenty of convenient, safe alternatives on the market, not to mention, tons of super easy DIY recipes made from inexpensive ingredients that get the job done!



Sarah Scherr

"I am passionate about creating a more just, safe and sustainable world. I believe thinking globally, but acting locally is the key to living this life, contributing to this cause, and spreading environmental and health conscious awareness. My environmental moral code dictates my actions--in my private life and in my work." Sarah has Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, is a licensed air sampling technician and asbestos & lead inspector in KS, MO, WI and all EPA States, is a yoga teacher in training, and nurtures an ongoing education in herbal studies. She is also is and has been an environmental advocate, organizer & presenter for NFP organizations such as 350KC, Food Circle, Sierra Club, TransitionKC, MOTUV (Movement of the Unied Voice), and on the board of HAAL (Heart of America Action League, a 501(c)(3) serving environmental action groups in Kansas City area).