It is an unprecedented time in world history and staying indoors means there is an increase of stress and anxiety for most people. Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in our homes have become a big focus throughout the Movement Control Order (MCO) which started on 18 March 2020. We then decided to learn the best ways to disinfect surfaces to avoid the virus from spreading.
Then, as many of us quarantined for several months at home and began cooking and baking for days on end, other cleaning tasks — like scrubbing all those burnt pots and pans — attracted our attention.
We use a wide array of soaps and detergents and other specialized cleaners for every surface in our homes but while the chemicals in our cleaning supplies make our bathrooms, kitchen and dishware gleaming and germ-free, many of those chemicals may contribute to indoor air pollution, poisonous if ingested and can be harmful if inhaled or in contact for a period of time.
In fact, some cleaners are among the most toxic products found in the home. Cleaning ingredients vary in the type of health hazards 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 asthma, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption and neurotoxicity.
Manufacturers argue that those harmful ingredients are not likely to be a concern in small quantities, but when we are regularly exposed to them and in combinations that have not been tested, it is difficult to calculate the risks accurately.
Although no one can avoid exposure to toxic chemicals entirely, it is possible to reduce it significantly. Before we jump into the healthier and safer cleaning alternatives, let’s take a look at the worst toxic offenders commonly found in household cleaning products.
This article is best read with your cleaning products in front of you, so you can check the ingredients as you go along. Bear in mind though that it is very likely all your cleaning products contain these chemicals, so if they cannot be avoided entirely, you can try to minimise contact with them or opt for the cleaning tips at the end of this article.
Toxic Household Cleaning Products
Found in: Many household items that are fragrant, such as air fresheners, dish soap, and toilet paper. Companies don’t have to reveal what’s in their scents because of proprietary laws, so you’re not going to find the word ‘phthalates’ on a bottle. When you see the term “fragrance” on a mark, there is a fair possibility that there are phthalates present.
Health risks: Our reproductive processes are disrupted by phthalates, which in turn damage our hormone levels. For example, 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.
Found in: Most liquid dishwashing detergents and hand soaps labeled “antibacterial.”
Health risks: Triclosan is an aggressive antibacterial agent that can facilitate the growth of bacteria that are drug-resistant and it has also been found to be harmful to algae in rivers and streams.
If you take a closer look at the hand sanitizers being widely sold, you might find some with triclosan as a primary ingredient. We can also refer to the World Health Organisation’s recommended recipe or formula for making hand sanitizer and they do not contain triclosan.
Just because it states “antibacterial” on the packaging does not make it safe to use over prolonged periods of time. Keep an eye out for the ingredients used instead to be on the safe side.
Found in: Window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners. It is a key ingredient in surface cleaners and is used to give them their characteristic ‘sweet’ scent.
Health risks: Similar to phthalates, companies do not need to list the ingredient on the product label, despite the risks of respiratory problems such as sore throats, narcosis, edema of the lungs, and serious damage to the liver and kidneys. It is highly toxic if used in an environment that isn’t well-ventilated.
Found in: Glass cleaners and polishing agents for bathroom fixtures and sinks.
Health risks: While it is effective at making surfaces streak-free, it also irritates human tissue. You’ll notice some pain or discomfort quickly if you have an existing respiratory issue. If you do not, you will still be affected by prolonged exposure and it can cause irreversible damage to your mucous membranes and cardiovascular system.
Found in: Scouring powder, laundry whiteners, toilet bowl cleaners, and mildew removers.
Health risks: There are a few ways for you to be exposed to chlorine. You can get exposed to chlorine through fumes and possibly skin when you clean with it. The health risks from chlorine can be acute, and they can be chronic. But what people don’t know is that it could disrupt thyroid functions.
Safer, non-toxic ways to clean
Here are some tips on how to keep your house spick and span without putting your health at risk.
- Clean mirrors and windows using diluted vinegar and newspapers
- Clean your grimy oven and kitchen hood using baking soda paste — with a little bit more time and elbow grease
- To make an all-purpose cleaner, mix tea tree oil with vinegar and water in a BPA-free spray bottle — then, add a drop of essential oil of your choice for a pleasant scent
- Lemon juice is effective against most household bacteria as it is one of the strongest food acids
- You can clean stainless steel surfaces using a cloth dampened with undiluted white vinegar or olive oil
- Use white vinegar or lemon juice full strength and apply with a sponge to remove mold and mildew
If you do need to clean using cleaning products with toxic chemicals, make sure the area is well ventilated. Turning on fans can also help the cleaning product fumes dissipate. But if you have alarming symptoms, it is important to speak to your doctor about them as soon as possible.
Any cleaning tips to share? Let us know in the comments!