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What's in Household Cleaners?

Posted on November 3, 2013 by Rachel Tardif There have been 0 comments

It’s a common sight in most households: a cabinet full of colorful bottles that promise to degrease your kitchen, remove soap scum from the shower, or get grass stains out of a shirt. But what’s actually in all those bottles? The labels list ingredients with mysterious chemical names and abbreviations as well as frightening warnings about fumes and ingestion. It can seem impossible to sort out what’s dangerous, both to your family and the environment, so below we’ve compiled a list the hazardous chemicals that can be found in household cleaning products.


Surfactants are a broad class of molecules that disrupt the surface tension of liquids as well as the interfacial tension between liquids and a solid. They have both a hydrophilic (water loving) and hydrophobic (water repellant) end, which means they are able to remove stains that otherwise could not be dissolved in water. They are the most important part of any cleaning product, and are found in all sorts of cleaners, especially all-purpose cleaners, detergents, fabric softeners, and stain guards.

The same qualities that make surfactants excellent cleaners also make them a potential hazard to the environment. They encourage water penetration in the soil and can help disperse other environmental toxins. Some are also known to damage aquatic organisms by interfering with the properties of membranes.

Notable dangerous or damaging surfactants-

  • Alkyl phenol ethoxylates/alcohol ethoxylates (APEO): APEOs are found in liquid detergents in the U.S., although they are banned in commercial products in other parts of the world. In the sewage system or environment they break down into a class of chemicals called alkylphenols, which are oestrogenic, meaning they mimic naturally occurring hormones. Oestrogenic compounds can disrupt the endocrine systems of fish, birds, and other wild animals.
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA): PFOA is a chemical most associated with the production of non-stick cookware, but it is also the main ingredient in a number of fabric stain guards and carpet cleaners. In laboratory experiments, PFOA has been shown to be a carcinogen and to be disrupt the immune and endocrine systems of fish and mice. At the moment, PFOA is not legally recognized to be harmful to humans, but an EPA investigation is expected to publish its findings in 2012.
  • Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS): PFOS is a chemical similar to PFOA that is also used as a fabric stain guard and carpet cleaner. It has been shown to disrupt the immune and endocrine systems, and high concentrations have been found in a variety of wildlife species worldwide. A correlation has also been found between high PFOS concentrations in humans and chronic kidney disease. Due to pressure from the EPA, American manufacturers have phased out the use of PFOS, but it can still be found in cleansing products manufactured abroad.


Phosphates are a specific class of molecules that can act as surfactants and water softeners. Several types of phosphates are commonly used in household cleaners as stain removers and degreasers. When disposed of, these chemicals break down into different forms of phosphorus, a chemical essential for life. In waterways, this phosphorus is then utilized by algae and other microorganisms, which leads to unchecked growth and large algal blooms. This process, called eutrophication, is extremely disruptive to natural ecosystems and can cause permanent damage to waterways.

Notable phosphates-

  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP, E339): TSP is a stain remover and degreaser that was used widely until the 1960s, when its use was widely restricted due to environmental concerns.
  • Sodium triphosphate (STP, sometimes STPP or sodium tripolyphosphate or TPP): commonly used in detergents as a water softener.


Common household bleach is chlorine-based and usually consists of sodium hypochlorite diluted to 5.25%. When properly diluted and disposed of it poses little environmental danger, but can be hazardous to plants and wildlife when concentrated. It can also be dangerous to keep in your home: as with all cleaning products there is the risk of accidental poisoning to children and pets. In addition, bleach is irritating to the skin and mucous membranes and can release highly toxic fumes when mixed with other cleaners like ammonia.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are organic chemicals with a high vapor pressure, which means they are likely to evaporate and enter the air at room temperatures. There are a wide variety of VOCs, including some released from natural sources such as mold, and their health effects are highly variable. At high enough concentrations, they can have effects ranging from eye, nose, and throat irritation to organ damage and cancer. They are most dangerous in enclosed areas such as homes and office buildings where they can build to high concentrations. Most commercially produced solvents, deodorizers, and disinfectant sprays contain VOCs, but they likely won’t be listed anywhere on the label.

Notable VOCs-

  • Formaldehyde: This dangerous carcinogen is more commonly found in building materials and adhesives, but some furniture polishes also contain formaldehyde.
  • Perchloroethylene: Also known as perc, this chemical is the main cleaning agent used in dry cleaning. It can cause dizziness, fatigue, and headaches and is linked to high levels of cancer in dry cleaning employees.

Petroleum Distillates

Like their name suggests, petroleum distillates are a class of chemicals distilled from oil. There are obvious environmental concerns surrounding petroleum distillates: the mining of oil is incredibly destructive to natural systems and is a source of greenhouse gasses. Many of them are also toxic when released into the environment. Exposure to distillates can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation, and they are also very dangerous if ingested – products containing petroleum products are required to list them on the label in case of accidental poisoning.

Notable petroleum distillates-

  • Naphtha: This distillate is a main ingredient in a variety of solvents and cleaning fluids, particularly industrial degreasing solutions. It’s also used as fuel for camp stoves, lanterns, and torches.
  • Mineral spirits: Also known as white spirit or Stoddard solvent, mineral spirits are also used as a solvent and degreaser.

Most cleaning products will not list all the ingredients on the label, so be sure to look on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website to see if these chemicals are present in the cleaning products in your home: http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov.

This post was posted in Blog and Green Library, Green Cleaning, Health and Safety and was tagged with bio-based cleaners, bleach, HEALTH SENSITIVE, NON-TOXIC, VOCs


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