Clean Without the Chemicals: Understanding Cleaning Product Labels

Many household cleaners contain harsh chemicals. Use simple, effective natural alternatives and let your family breathe easy.


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We clean our homes to remove dirt and contaminants, but ironically, many common cleaning products can actually introduce allergens and poisons into our homes. Luckily, many natural solutions leave your home clean, fresh and chemical free.

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. Chemical-laden cleaning products can cause myriad health problems, among them headaches; dizziness; skin, respiratory and eye irritation; and asthma attacks. Some cleaners even contain known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive system toxins and hormone disruptors.

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.

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, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does require safety labeling in the form of signal words. “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.”

Avoid the common disinfectants ammonia and bleach, which are both toxic. Steer clear of chlorine bleach and detergents that contain chlorine or hypochlorite, because coming in contact with chlorine compounds can severely irritate the lungs or burn skin and eyes. Chlorine also is harmful to the environment, as it escapes into the air and water where it can react with other chemicals or combine with organic compounds, harming plant and animal life.

Sodium percarbonate and hydrogen peroxide are safer alternatives to chlorine bleach. If you decide you must use chlorine bleach or ammonia, dilute them. Never mix the two; together they create highly toxic chloramine gas that can injure lung tissue.

Fortunately, 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.

Know your labels: toxins to avoid

Unless a manufacturer’s specific claims have been certified by a third-party group such as Scientific Certification Systems, there’s no way to be sure the claims are factual. Sometimes you can more accurately assess a product’s safety by reading through its ingredients list. Watch out for these toxins as you shop.

Product Ingredients of Concern
Bleach, disinfectants, some detergents Chlorine compounds, hypochlorite, phenolic compounds
Dishwasher and laundry detergents EDTA or NTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, nitrilotriacetic acid); or phosphates (still found in some dishwasher detergents)
Furniture and floor polishes Nitrobenzene
Glass cleaner Ammonia
Spot removers and carpet cleaners Perchloroethylene or trichloroethane solvents
Toilet bowl cleaners Hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate
Various cleaning products Ethylene-based glycol ethers (ethylene glycol, ethoxyethanol, butoxyethanol)
Mothballs and air fresheners Naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene

Greener cleaners

These days, many manufacturers market cleaning products as “green” or “environmentally friendly.” Unfortunately, there’s no standard definition for those terms, and labels aren’t regulated, so they can mean almost anything—or nothing at all. For guidance, look for attributes such as:

• Low VOC or zero VOC. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are toxic chemicals emitted into the air.

• Plant-based or bio-based ingredients rather than petrochemical ingredients.

• Neutral or mild pH (closer to 7 than to 0 or 14).

• Recyclable packaging (or reusable, returnable or refillable container).

• Unscented.

• Recycled-content packaging and/or minimal packaging.

“Readily biodegradable” defined as 60 to 70 percent biodegradable within 28 days. 

Tips for the healthy housekeeper

Eco-friendly tools make household chores a breeze.

1. Are you applying nontoxic cleaners using sponges that contain chemical disinfectants such as antibacterial triclosan or triclocarban, both registered pesticides? If the package says the sponges are “antibacterial” or “kill odors,” or if they have a chemical smell, they probably contain a disinfectant. Instead, buy pure cellulose sponges, usually available at your grocery store (if not, check a hardware store).

2. Use washable cloths and rags instead of disposable paper towels. If you do buy paper towels or other paper goods, choose those that aren’t chlorine bleached and that have a high percentage of recycled content.

3. Rather than using abrasive, corrosive chemicals for scrubbing, use nontoxic soap. Give your elbow grease a boost with steel wool or dry salt.

4. Open windows while you’re cleaning so cross-breezes can exhaust fumes to the outdoors. Even natural products—such as citrus or pine cleaners—can emit irritating fumes.


8 Safe Ingredients to Clean Almost Anything 

Household Products Database: Health and Safety Information
searchable database of brand-specific product ingredients and their potential health effects

Care2’s Healthy Home section: Nontoxic Cleaning information 

Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living
by Annie Berthold-Bond (Three Rivers Press, 1999)

Green Clean
by Linda Mason Hunter and Mikki Halpin (Melcher Media, 2005)

Home Safe Home: Protecting Yourself and Your Family from Everyday Toxics and Harmful Household Products in the Home
by Debra Lynn Dadd (Tarcher, 2005)

Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe & Healthy, Non-Toxic Cleaning
by Jeffrey Hollender, Geoff Davis and Meika Hollender (New Society Publishers, 2006)

The Naturally Clean Home: 100 Safe and Easy Herbal Formulas for Non-Toxic Cleansers
by Karyn Siegel-Maier (Storey Publishing, 1999)

Organic Housekeeping
by Ellen Sandbeck (Scribner, 2006)