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What is in Upholstery Cleaners?

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 11 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Upholstery Cleaners Clean Upholstery

I’m sure none of us wash our curtains, carpets and sofa as much as we feel we should, but if you’re anything like me, every so often you look askance at the state of the soft furnishings and resolve to shake and vac…

Well before you do anything drastic, read this information and think again!

Whipping Up A Storm

When you sprinkle those little grime-busting grains onto your rug or whip up that clean-smelling froth to sponge onto your comfy chairs, you’re actually whipping up a concoction of noxious chemicals which could knock you out.Read on to find out more about the chemicals contained in domestic upholstery cleaners.


Most carpet and upholstery cleaners contain perchloroethylene or ‘perc’ for short and also variously listed as PCE, perclene, perchlor and tetrachoroethylene. It’s a colourless industrial solvent used mainly in the dry-cleaning business and is the culprit of the chemical smell your clothes can have after being dry-cleaned.

However, this solvent is a noxious substance which if inhaled it can cause nausea, dizziness, confusion and fatigue. In fact it has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a ‘possible to probable’ carcinogen while the World Health Organisation has listed it as ‘probably’ carcinogenic.

Research has been carried out on workers in the dry-cleaning industry exposed to Perc which strongly links them to increased incidences of cancer; however, that’s not all. Exposure to perc also increases a risk of liver and kidney damage as well as neurological problems.

The molecules in Perc are volatile and so when you spread the cleaner on your upholstery, the vapours remain in the air and contaminate the atmosphere. Once ingested or absorbed by the skin, they can enter the blood stream and have been found stored in fatty tissue, the liver, brain and breast milk.

Ammonium Hydroxide

Another ingredient of upholstery cleaners is ammonium hydroxide, a compound of ammonia, which usually comes in the form of a strong-smelling liquid. This chemical is highly corrosive and very irritable to respiratory tract, eyes and can burn the skin. It has also been found to kill fish and reduce oxygen in water.

Again, this chemical is thought to be carcinogenic and fumes are known to cause a feeling of nausea, disorientation, dizziness and drowsiness.

Alcohol Ethoxylate

A milder alternative used in some upholstery cleaners is Alcohol Ethoxylate but although possibly preferable to Ammonium Hydroxide, it nevertheless still causes skin and eye reactions and in stronger dilutions, induces nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and sleepiness. Ethoxylate is also harmful to the aquatic environment and is a known hormone disrupter to birds, fish and mammals.


Formaldehyde, better known as something that is used in the building industry, particularly in the manufacture of new furniture, is also found in upholstery cleaners. It takes the form of a colourless, pungent gas and has been banned in Sweden and Japan, although is found in all homes in the UK.

It can cause a range of adverse symptoms, even at very low levels, in some people including watery, irritated and burning eyes, dizziness, coughing, headaches, nausea, fatigue, skin rashes, wheezing, irritation to the nose and throat and allergic reactions.

Formaldehyde is banned in Sweden and Japan

Methlyne Chloride

Methylene chloride is a colourless liquid which has commonly been used as an aerosol propellant and although removed from many products, is still to be found in upholstery cleaners and fabric spot removers.

Regulated as a Hazardous Air Pollutant in America, it has been noted as a probable carcinogen and proven to cause harm to the central nervous system and prolonged exposure whilst pregnant greatly increases the chance of a baby developing leukaemia.

Disposing of Upholstery Cleaners

What do you do with the liquid cleaning solution when you’ve finished?

Put it down the drain, right?

WRONG! The chemicals in upholstery cleaners do not easily biodegrade and pass into our waste water system and polluting the groundwater. They should be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of in a safe manner. If in doubt, contact your local council to find out more.

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