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Cleaners: Ingredients to Avoid

This is part of our Easy Lists guide.  Please check out our others here.

First I would like to say that avoiding harmful ingredients can be hard.  Most of the cleaning products that I have seen don’t list ingredients.  That, to me, is a first clue that it’s not something you want to use.  It may not always hold true, so here are a few other warning signs before we get to the ingredients.

Don’t be fooled by labels and wording!
Labels like Environmentally Friendly, Natural, Nontoxic & Biodegradable can be misleading. It’s a great place to start when looking for cleaners, but verify it! Be sure that you know what’s in the product and that there is nothing unsafe.

Natural is the one that I personally find to be the most misleading. Natural seems safe when you hear it, but there are SO many things in nature are very dangerous. Again, just be sure to know what’s in these products.

Avoid products that tell you they are dangerous!
There are a whole lot of products that tell you right on the bottle/box/etc. that they are dangerous.  Listen to them and stay away! Look for terms like (but not limited to): Caution, Corrosive, Danger, Irritant, Poison, or Warning.

I recently read on a popular eco-friendly cleaner that if swallowed “drink plenty of water”.  I thought that was great.  No “call poison control”, panic, etc.  Good sign!

Ingredients to Avoid
There are so many ingredients to avoid. I’m going to try to list some common ones and try to explain a little about why you should avoid them.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs)
These are surfactants and suspected hormone disruptors.

Poisonous when swallowed, can burn skin on contact and is also extremely irritating when inhaled. I remember my Mom using this stuff as a kid and man, it is some seriously strong stuff.

Antibacterials & Disinfectants
These are a bit complicated as it includes a whole list of ingredients from Bleach to Triclosan. Many have concerns over the effect and cause these have on antibiotic resistant bacteria. Simple cleaners (even soap and water) are often enough to take care of the concerns that consumers would buy these products for anyhow.  Don’t underestimate soap and water!

Butyl Cellosolve (also known as butyl glycol, ethylene glycol, monobutyl)
This is common in most cleaners (all-purpose, window, etc.). Dangerous to the nervous system, liver, kidneys. Poisonous if swallowed and irritating when inhaled.

Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite)
Bleach is very obviously strong, corrosive and irritating to both the eyes and lungs.

Glycol Ethers   (ethylene glycol mono-butyl ether, EGBE or 2-Butoxyethanol)
This is a solvent and pops up in glass cleaners, all-purpose cleaners and more. They are irritating and can cause headaches and like symptoms. I have also read that they are also linked to lowered sperm counts and reduced fertility

Monoethanolamine (MEA) Diethanolamine (DEA) & triethanolamine (TEA).
Surfactants. Suspected to affect hormones and produce carcinogenic nitrates and nitrosamines. Can cause eye and skin irritation, as well as other allergic reactions.

Petroleum Solvents
Solvents in floor cleaners damage mucous membranes. Many ingredients are derived from petroleum, including some of those above such as APEs and naptha, and they’re commonly found in many cleaning products as surfactants. Other toxic ingredients derived from petroleum, including formaldehyde, can also be present at trace levels in cleaning products. Found in a variety of household cleaners.

Naptha is not found in the soap Fels Naptha (which is used in the homemade laundry detergent recipe).

Phenols are found in disinfectants and are toxic to respiratory and circulatory systems.

These can get into waterways and contribute to the growth of algae and other water weeds.  This can be very harmful to fish and other aquatic life.  These are often found in laundry detergents and dish detergents.

Phthalates (Fragrances)
Phthalates are hormone disruptors found as components of synthetic fragrances.  These are in SO many things.  These are linked to issues with obesity, reproductive development and more.  I highly recommend avoiding products that contain artificial scents.  Look for unscented, fragrance free or natural fragrance.  Some products now say “Phthalate Free” or mention the use of essential oils for scent.  Those are great choices.

This is found in antibacterial cleaners. I have actually heard some recent studies on this.  Not good stuff.  Look for “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” as most products won’t say that it has it in it.

There are more, but this is a start 🙂

Now let’s talk a little about what THINGS TO USE!

Baking Soda
Baking soda can be used for a whole host of household chores.  Combine it with a little water to scrub up just about anything.  Add to vinegar (carefully, it gets very fizzy!) for some super strength  to clean tile, pots and pans, carpet, tubs, toilets, etc.

Borax is a water softener and sanitizer. It is a great laundry additive.  I have also used it to help clean my toilets.  You can find this in the laundry isle at most stores.

recent article by EWG cautions the use of borax for cleaning in the home noting that toddlers and young children face special risks from hand-to-mouth transfer of carpet or crack and crevice, dust or spray borax treatments. I would recommend not using borax as a general home cleaner – any cleaner (aside from pure water) used for these purposes will leave a residue.  I feel comfortable using the minuscule amount in my DIY detergent. It is not used on open surfaces and is washed out during the rinse cycle.

You can read a bit more on this debate here – there are some great points of view in the comments.

Castile Soap
Castile soap is a gentle soap made from vegetable oil (often olive) as opposed to animal fat or synthetics.  This stuff is great for just about everything.

Lemon Juice
My mother raves about lemon juice’s ability to remove stains.  It is great in cleaners.  It helps cut grease and the scent is divine.

Washing Soda
Washing soda is similar to baking soda but stronger.  It is a great laundry additive and can be found in the laundry isle.  This one can be a bit harder to locate, but is well worth it 🙂

White Vinegar
Vinegar is good for just about everything.  Mix up your own all-pupose and glass cleaners.  Add it to your laundry in the rinse cycle for a great fabric softener.  Even put it in your dishwasher’s rinse aid compartment.

If making your own cleaners isn’t your thing consider these brands:
Better Life
Dr. Bronners
Seventh Generation
Mrs. Meyers

Learn more about your favorite cleaners and their safety (or toxicity) at EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning

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