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8 Scary Cleaning Chemicals to Avoid

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8 Scary Cleaning Chemicals to Avoid

The average household contains about 62 toxic chemicals, say environmental experts. We’re exposed to them routinely — from the phthalates in synthetic fragrances to the noxious fumes in oven cleaners. Ingredients in common household products have been linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive disorders, hormone disruption and neurotoxicity.

Manufacturers argue that in small amounts these toxic ingredients aren’t likely to be a problem, but when we’re exposed to them routinely, and in combinations that haven’t been studied, it’s impossible to accurately gauge the risks. While a few products cause immediate reactions from acute exposure (headaches from fumes, skin burns from accidental contact), different problems arise with repeated contact. Chronic exposure adds to the body’s “toxic burden” — the number of chemicals stored in its tissues at a given time.

No one can avoid exposure to toxic chemicals altogether, but it is possible to reduce it significantly. In the following pages, experts weigh in on the worst toxic offenders commonly found in household cleaning products, and offer ways to swap them for healthier, safer options.

How to Make a Non-Toxic Cleaning Kit

1. Phthalates

Found in: Many fragranced household products, such as air fresheners, dish soap, even toilet paper. Because of proprietary laws, companies don’t have to disclose what’s in their scents, so you won’t find phthalates on a label. If you see the word “fragrance” on a label, there’s a good chance phthalates are present.

Health Risks: Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood had correspondingly reduced sperm counts, according to a 2003 study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard School of Public Health. Although exposure to phthalates mainly occurs through inhalation, it can also happen through skin contact with scented soaps, which is a significant problem, warns Alicia Stanton, MD, coauthor of Hormone Harmony (Healthy Life Library, 2009). Unlike the digestive system, the skin has no safeguards against toxins. Absorbed chemicals go straight to organs.

Healthier Choice: When possible choose fragrance-free or all-natural organic products. Beth Greer, author of Super Natural Home, recommends bypassing aerosol or plug-in air fresheners and instead using essential oils or simply opening windows to freshen the air. Besides causing more serious effects like endocrine disruption, “Aerosol sprays and air fresheners can be migraine and asthma triggers,”  she says. Also consider adding more plants to your home: They’re natural air detoxifiers.

Gender-Bending Phthalates

2. Perchloroethylene or “PERC”

Found in: Dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet and upholstery cleaners.

Health Risks: Perc is a neurotoxin, according to the chief scientist of environmental protection for the New York Attorney General’s office. And the EPA classifies perc as a “possible carcinogen” as well. People who live in residential buildings where dry cleaners are located have reported dizziness, loss of coordination and other symptoms. While the EPA has ordered a phase-out of perc machines in residential buildings by 2020, California is going even further and plans to eliminate all use of perc by 2023 because of its suspected health risks. The route of exposure is most often inhalation: that telltale smell on clothes when they return from the dry cleaner, or the fumes that linger after cleaning carpets.

Healthier Choice: Curtains, drapes and clothes that are labeled “dry clean only” can be taken instead to a “wet cleaner,” which uses water-based technology rather than chemical solvents. The EPA recently recognized liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as an environmentally preferable alternative to more toxic dry-cleaning solvents. Ask your dry cleaner which method they use. For a safer spot remover, look for a nontoxic brand like Ecover at a natural market, or rub undiluted castile soap directly on stains before washing.

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Read more: Health, Health & Safety, Home, Household Hints, Non-Toxic Cleaning, ,

By Jessie Sholl, Experience Life

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

214 comments

+ add your own
1:39AM PST on Feb 5, 2014

I just can't believe why people still use chemical cleaning products. I'm shocked that most of the cleaning companies use toxic cleaners. Two weeks ago I booked expert cleaners in London, who use eco-friendly tools and techniques.

9:37PM PDT on Sep 9, 2013

Amei saber como substituir os produtos de limpeza.Obrigada!

3:51PM PDT on Jun 13, 2013

Thanks for the info. Great addition, Sheila D.

3:24PM PDT on Jun 13, 2013

One point that should have been mentioned, unless I missed it somewhere, is that these same chemicals can be even more harmful to your pets.

3:12AM PDT on May 21, 2013

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3:11AM PDT on May 21, 2013

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3:09AM PDT on May 21, 2013


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5:52AM PDT on May 15, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

9:07AM PDT on Mar 14, 2013

Useful information. I certainly do not want to face any health issues due to the use of chemical-based cleaning products. Fortunately, Go Cleaners do not use such, and they are the only ones cleaning my Canonbury home. Learn more about Go Cleaners Canonbury - http://gocleanerslondon.co.uk/domestic-cleaning/central-london/canonbury. Spot-on tips from an expert in the field of dangerous chemicals.

6:10AM PST on Mar 1, 2013

thanks! We use Honest Company :) so we are good

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And one more thing - how come they never did these studies on gay people?

Interesting article, thank you!

Cool and refreshing.

Marie W. Marie W.
on Watermelon Ice Cubes
33 minutes ago

Glad there was a happy ending. Hope the previous owners where charged with animal abuse and cruelty…

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