We all want our homes to be clean and free of germs so we can live in a safe and healthy environment. In the quest for a clean, fragrant home, we regularly apply a combination of chemicals to our household surfaces as well as releasing them into the air we breathe.

Cleaners that contain strong chemicals and disinfectants pose health risks for people and pets, and when they’re washed down the drain, they contaminate our waterways and soil. We can smell the chemicals whenever we use these cleaning products. The labels even warn us to wear gloves, avoid contact with skin and eyes, and not to breathe in the fumes.

Chemical-laden cleaning products can cause myriad short term or immediate health problems, among them headaches; dizziness; skin, respiratory and eye irritation; and asthma attacks. Some cleaners also contain known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive system toxins and hormone disruptors. And while manufacturers argue that in small amounts these toxic ingredients aren’t likely to be a problem, the bigger concern is what happens when we are exposed to them in combination, and how they may build up in tissues over time. It is this ongoing “toxic load” that can contribute to chronic disease.

Children are particularly vulnerable. Because of their smaller size and weight, and because their vital organs are still developing, children have a reduced ability to eliminate toxins from their developing bodies and are at greater risk of being affected by these toxins over the long term.

Among the most toxic household products are drain, oven and toilet-bowl cleaners; chlorinated disinfectants; mildew removers; and wood and metal polishes. Even seemingly benign products, such as dish detergent, can contain toxic chemicals.

While the goal in cleaning our homes is to remove dirt and contaminants, ironically we often end up replacing them with allergens and poisons. Thankfully, there are many alternatives to toxic commercial cleaning products – effective homemade and store-bought natural solutions that will leave your home clean, fresh and chemical free.

Some Key Dos and Don’ts

Do learn from the labels. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose all the ingredients in their cleaners—even on a product’s Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). However, safety labeling in the form of “signal words” is required. For example:

  • “Danger” or “Poison” indicates that a product can be lethal when ingested in very small quantities.
  • Products with “Warning” labels are also dangerous, but less so.
  • Those marked with “Caution” are the least harmful of the three, though they still can be hazardous.
  • Also avoid cleaners labeled “Corrosive,” “Severely Irritating,” “Strong Sensitizer,” “Highly Flammable” or “Highly Combustible.”

Don’t assume it’s safe. Unless a manufacturer’s specific claims have been certified by a third-party organization that works with sustainability and food certifications, there’s no way to be sure the information is factual. Beware of “greenwashing” by commercial brands.

Do check ingredient lists. Often you can more accurately assess a product’s safety by reading through its ingredients list. Watch out for these toxins as you shop:

  • Phthalates – typically found in fragranced household products such as air fresheners and dish soap. These known endocrine (hormone) disruptors may not be listed, but if you see the word “fragrance” on a label, chances are phthalates are present.
  • Perc (perchloroethylene) – a neurotoxin found in dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet and upholstery cleaners
  • Triclosan – an antibacterial foaming agent used in many products including dishwashing detergents, hand soaps and even toothpaste. In addition to contributing to antibiotic resistant microbes, triclosan is also suspected of being a hormone disruptor and possible carcinogen.
  • 2-Butoxyethanol – gives window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners their distinctive sweet smell. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, this ingredient, which isn’t required to be listed on labelling, can cause sore throats, pulmonary edema, and liver and kidney damage.
  • Ammonia –used as a polishing agent for bathroom fixtures and sinks, and is also found in glass cleaner. Concerns with ammonia include chronic bronchitis and asthma. And be sure to avoid the combination of ammonia and chlorine bleach – together these create highly toxic chloramine gas that can injure lung tissue.
  • Chlorine – found in scouring powders, toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers, laundry whiteners and household tap water. Coming in contact with chlorine compounds can severely irritate the lungs or burn skin and eyes and may be a thyroid disruptor.
  • Sodium hydroxide – found in oven cleaners and drain openers. This chemical is extremely corrosive, causing severe burns if it touches the skin or eyes. Inhaling sodium hydroxide can cause a sore throat that lasts for many days.

Do consider alternatives. Nontoxic cleaning products are available, and many of these are just as effective as their conventional counterparts. You can either buy ready-made nontoxic cleaners at health food stores, or mix your own combinations using household staples. Here are a few simple homemade substitutions you can try:

  • Blend one or more essential oils in a diffuser or diluted with water in a spray bottle to freshen up your home.
  • Clean mirrors and windows with newspaper and diluted vinegar.
  • Use baking soda, vinegar and essential oils to create your own multipurpose cleaner.
  • Clean toilet bowls with vinegar.
  • Whiten clothes with borax powder.

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