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Coming Clean About Cleansers

by Berkeley Wellness  

Every home has its cache of cleaning products—for bathroom, kitchen, dishes, floors. But what’s in them? Are they harmful only to germs?

Cleaning products contain chemicals that allow oils and dirt to dissolve in water so they can be rinsed or wiped away. They also often contain bleaches and abrasives. Many contain terpenes, which come from the volatile oils of plants (such as pine or lemon), used as fragrances or solvents. When vaporized, terpenes can combine with other air pollutants (ozone, for example) to create hazardous compounds such as formaldehyde (a carcinogen). Other cleaning products contain solvents called glycol ethers, which can be respiratory and eye irritants.

So it’s no surprise that studies have found that household cleansers, as commonly used, can be major contributors to indoor air pollution. Most cleaning products, including the “green” varieties, have proprietary formulas and thus list few, if any, ingredients on their labels. Some do say what’s not in them: no chlorine, for instance, or no phosphates.

Keep it safe

This doesn’t mean you should avoid cleansers. The main thing is ventilation. Follow these tips:

  • Ventilate the room during and after cleaning, especially if you’re doing heavy, lengthy tasks like scrubbing shower walls, and if you have breathing problems. Run the exhaust fan in the bathroom and open the window, if possible. Small rooms are more of a problem than big ones: there’s less air to dilute the harmful chemicals.
  • Use the smallest amount of cleanser to get the job done.
  • Rinse surfaces thoroughly with water after cleaning.
  • Recap containers right away.
  • Read labels: many warn about hazards and provide directions for safer use.
  • Never mix cleaning products—especially any containing chlorine bleach with ones that contain ammonia, which will produce toxic fumes.
  • Aerosols and pump sprays put breathable particles in the air, so consider wearing a disposable face mask if you use these products.
  • If you have a choice, avoid products with fragrances, which are often terpenes (pine oil, lemon scent and more).
  • Remember that plain soap and water, a vinegar solution or baking soda can often do the job. You don’t need a dozen different cleansers.

Go green?

Such terms as “natural,” “green,” “ecologically friendly” and “nontoxic” have no legal definition and thus no meaning on a label. Often it’s hard to tell whether a product is being sold as healthy for the environment or healthy for you. As with all products, be wary of extravagant sales claims. The “biodegradable” detergent with a “green” label may be no more or less biodegradable than a conventional product. There is no health advantage to a product made with plant oils over one made with petroleum.

There are some good “green” products, though they often cost two to three times as much as regular cleansers. They, too, should be used sparingly and according to directions. One resource is, which provides information about environmentally safe products.