Spring Cleaning: What You Should Know About the Health Risks of Cleaning Products


Now that it’s almost May, you’ve found yourself overcome with the overwhelming desire to deep clean every surface in your home. But there are a lot of buzzwords out there when it comes to which cleaning products to use.

The combination of increasing awareness of the health hazards posed by chemicals with a push by the public to reduce the toxins in our homes and lives has unfortunately caused cleaning product manufacturers to change their marketing to include terms like “green,” eco-friendly,” “environmentally friendly,” “natural,” and “sustainable” on their packaging.  

The use of this misleading packaging is rampant because the buzzwords used are not regulated or defined. While some cleaners may in fact be safer for the environment, many still can cause diseases or poor health for humans, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and developmental delays in children.

Does this mean natural cleaners aren’t free of toxic chemicals?

To help you nail down the most efficient and effective spring-cleaning strategy, I will attempt to answer that question.

To begin with, many people believe natural cleaning products are safe because they believe these products are free of chemicals. In fact, walking down the cleaning products aisle at the grocery store you will see numerous products labeled as “natural.” Truth is, just because something is made with natural ingredients does not mean that it is toxic-free. Cleaning product ingredients and formulations can vary significantly from one product to another.

"It’s extremely important to carefully read labels before you roll up your sleeves this spring."

While many natural cleaners are indeed formulated with ingredients derived from plants or minerals, which makes them safer for human health and the environment compared to conventional cleaners, it’s important to note that most of these natural cleaners are not free from toxic substances. These toxic substances include preservatives.

Preservatives are chemicals added to cleaning products to help prevent spoilage. While considered safe in small amounts, preservatives can pose risks if used improperly or in large quantities.

Another common misconception is that fragrance, a substance intended to convey a scent, comes from natural sources like plants and fruit. In truth, fragrance is manufactured and can be composed of tens to hundreds of chemicals listed as the generic term “fragrance” on the product label.

Go ahead, take a sniff. Does your multi-purpose cleaner have a pleasant, lemon-like smell? Citrus—whether it’s lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit—ranks as number one among scents.

While some citrus-scented cleaners contain essential oils extracted from real citrus fruit, most don’t have a drop of fruit in them. Instead, they are manufactured using chemicals that closely match the real thing, like limonene and linalool. These chemicals can react with other chemicals to form harmful pollutants like formaldehyde. Clean doesn’t have a smell.

Most natural cleaners also contain boric acid as a cleaning and disinfecting agent. However, boric acid can be toxic if ingested and can cause skin and eye irritation. The toxicities of boric acid are based on the amount of boron it contains, which information labels unfortunately do not provide.

Likewise, although sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is derived from coconut oil, it can still be irritating to the skin and eyes, especially in concentrated form. Because SLS is a foaming agent, many products use it to give a foaming action during cleaning. If you are using a foaming bathroom cleaner to remove soap scum and grime from your shower, you’re probably using something with SLS.

"Spring cleaning should be part of a healthy home, not a detriment to it."

What all this means is that it’s extremely important to carefully read labels before you roll up your sleeves this spring. Make sure to research the ingredients in any cleaner—natural or not—to ensure it meets your safety standards. EWG’s database is a good place to start. Remember that manufacturers use colorful images, product names, and claims that give their product a “health halo.” So use proper ventilation and protective gear when handling any cleaning product to help minimize exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

Wait a minute—aren’t cleaning product manufacturers required to list all ingredients?

The federal government does not require cleaning product manufacturers to list all ingredients on labels. They are required to disclose key ingredients that are considered hazardous, but proprietary formulations and trade secrets allow manufacturers to withhold specific ingredient information. Clorox Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner, for example, lists 99.7250% of ingredients as “other.”

But it’s more than that. Many chemicals are not regulated under current federal laws. In fact, and this may surprise you, of the 81,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the U.S. only 1% have been tested for human health and environmental hazards. Plus, non-hazardous ingredients that are not required to be tested can still have human health and environmental implications.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law passed by Congress in 1976, gives the EPA the authority over reporting and testing chemicals. But, incredibly, TSCA has done just the opposite and protects the chemical industry more than the consumer. That’s because, in part, the ability to grandfather in chemicals reduced the effectiveness of the act.  

Some people might be asking: Are special interest groups speaking up?

To be sure, there has been a growing push for greater transparency in recent years, with many consumers and advocacy groups advocating for clearer labeling and more comprehensive ingredient lists.

In recent years, the state of California, for example, passed several laws to ensure truth in advertising through labeling requirements. Manufacturers that sell in California can no longer hide deceptive advertising designed to deceive consumers and are held accountable if they do. Hopefully, this will expand across the country.

However, there is pushback from the chemical companies for Congress to enact a bill that will preempt the California law.

That’s why it is so crucial that we toss the toxins ourselves. When it comes to your home, the name of the game is making it healthier, not just cleaner.

Though chemicals are everywhere in our lives, steps can be taken to lower this exposure. Alternatives exist to deep clean every inch of your place this spring without chemicals—such as an innovative water-only technology from Advanced Vapor Technologies called TANCS® that science says beats the pants off bleach. And Branch Basics makes topnotch products free of preservatives and fragrances.

Do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to assume cleaning product manufacturers are not deceptive. Be wary of the labels “green,” eco-friendly,” “environmentally friendly,” “natural,” and “sustainable” because in the realm of cleaning products, they are solely used for marketing and have no regulation. We must be informed consumers, especially when it comes to products that we use around our families. Spring cleaning should be part of a healthy home, not a detriment to it.