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Household Cleaners and Detergents

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 10 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Household Cleaners And Detergents

As we clean and polish our homes, buffing up and dusting down, we could be coating every surface in a fine layer of toxins. In fact studies have shown that the air we breathe inside the average home can be up to 10 times more polluted than that outside.

This is because most proprietary household cleaners and detergents contain a potentially lethal cocktail of chemicals.

Let’s take a look around the house and see what some of the products contain.


We use all kinds of detergents around the home. Unless ‘eco-friendly’ versions, most are bad for us and some are positively dangerous.

Laundry detergents – either liquid or powder - are made up of many different chemicals designed to lift dirt, soften clothing, and make them smell ‘clean’. They contain a mix of surfactants (which help water and cleaner to penetrate fabric), detergents (which makes the ‘soap’), builders, which are added to remove oily dirt and ‘stubborn stains’ as well as bleaches, brighteners (which make your whites ‘look whiter’) and antiredisposition agents (which help the dirt not to re-disperse on the material). However, they were largely developed from the waste materials of the petroleum industry, can contain carcinogenic properties, and pollute groundwater. Dishwasher detergent doesn’t fare much better.

They use phosphates which are harmful to the aquatic environment in that they cause algae to bloom in water and kill marine life. They also contain chlorine in a concentrated form which can cause skin burns, irritations, eye problems, and damage to airways. Other chemicals can include polyethylene glycol (PEG) and plyacrylates which can potentially become carcinogenic if contaminated with 1.4 dioxane.

Antibacterial Cleaners

Antibacterial cleaners do what it says on the tin – they kill harmful bacteria and are most often to be found in hand wash solutions or sprays designed for the kitchen and bathroom. However, they contain a substance called triclosan which is a type of dioxin found in a wide range of household cleaners and which has been linked with damage to the endocrine and immune systems. There is also a danger of triclosan mixing with the chlorine in tap water to firm deadly chlorinated dioxins. So switch to using ordinary soap and water as studies have shown them to be just as effective.


Sodium Hypochlorite, or bleach as it’s more commonly known, is used in various dilutions and quantities in many household cleaners and detergents. Most commonly, it’s a mixture of chlorine added to lye. It acts as a powerful corrosive, and can be damaging to eyes, skin, lungs, and respiratory tract.

If mixed with ammonia, vinegar or other acid-based cleaners, it can give off deadly toxic fumes (chloramines gas) and cause asthmatic symptoms and a burning sensation or vomiting, if inhaled.

Toilet Cleaners

Toilet cleaners can include bleaches, sprays, liquids, and solid blocks for the cistern. They are amongst the most concentrated of all forms of household cleaner and all are highly toxic. Between them they may contain naphthalene, muriatic acid, oxalic acid, lye, bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds, cationic detergents, and sodium bisulphate. You don’t really need to know the chemical names to understand that all are harmful to the skin and eyes, cause nausea if ingested and naphthalene is a probable carcinogen. If you have to use these sorts of cleaners, then remember to do so in a well-ventilated room and wear gloves to protect your skin.

Limescale And Mildew Removers

Mildew removers work by using an insecticide called Paradichlorobenzene or PDCB for short. It has been proven to harm the liver in animals, and is also toxic to us. Exposure to PDCB will irritate the airways, burn the skin, cause headaches, nausea, and sleepiness.

Furniture Sprays

Furniture sprays are mainly solvents which help to clean a surface, and have added ingredients to help prevent dust and dirt from re-settling. They also have nasty chemicals in them, which because they are usually in spray form, are easily ingested by the user.

Nitrobenzene can be found in floor and furniture polishes and has been linked to cancer and birth defects. Turpentine (turps), can cause damage to the central nervous system, the bladder and kidneys. Morpholine is a corrosive chemical which could cause blindness if sprayed in the eyes. It is also highly irritating to the airways and harmful to the liver and kidneys. Found in some furniture polishes, it could become carcinogenic if it is mixed with nitrates (which are added to some products as preservatives).

So What Now?

Familiarise yourself with the chemicals in your household cleaners and detergents and avoid using them if you can. Switch to greener products or use good old fashioned warm water and elbow grease!

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