Are household cleaning products making you sick?
Posted on April 17 2019
When we had our babies, we were suddenly acutely aware that we were spraying, wiping and immersing most surfaces in our home with chemicals that had names we could barely pronounce and modes of action that we were totally in the dark about. To reassure ourselves that the 40,000 chemicals currently permitted to be used in the manufacture of household cleaning products in Australia must surely be safe, we did some reading. Far from reassuring, the information we uncovered – without much effort at all - was extremely disturbing.
Through our - sometimes obsessive - use of household cleaners, we ingest, inhale and absorb strange chemicals all day, every day, which adds to the burden of our livers, which must detoxify and process these chemicals. Even basic detergents can cause us harm and because they’re designed to be fat-soluble, they can hang around inside our bodies for a long time.
The most frequent ailments linked to common, household detergents include irritations to the skin, eyes and respiratory systems. Some can inflame eczema conditions, cause conjunctivitis or even corneal damage and can directly irritate the linings of our airways. Some animal studies showed negative impacts of high dosage of certain detergents on reproductive success, although this result was not consistently observed across studies.
Other common chemicals used in household cleaning products, such as ammonia, chlorine, and sodium hydroxide can also directly irritate the lining of our airways and have been linked to the development and triggering of asthma, especially in children. In fact, regular (daily) use of household cleaners doubles our chances of needing to see a doctor about breathing difficulties.
Perhaps one of the most concerning groups of chemicals found in commercial cleaning products (and many cosmetics) are fragrances. These chemicals are volatile (i.e. they float about in the air) and major sources of allergens and asthma triggers in the home. Exposure to fragrance chemicals has also been associated with headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, nausea and other respiratory and neurotoxic symptoms. Fragrances also often contain phthalates, which interfere with hormonally regulated processes in our bodies and can affect reproductive health and fertility. Phthalates have been linked with obesity, endometriosis in women and sperm quality in males.
What struck us most, however, in our reading, was that there are ‘no known effects’ of many chemicals on human health simply because no rigorous studies have ever been performed. Sometimes, the mere absence of evidence is all that is required for a chemical to be considered safe. Furthermore, many of the chemicals in household cleaning products break down into different chemicals and may persist in various forms in our environment for a long time, once they’ve been flushed down your drains. We are using chemicals, every day, that have been inadequately tested for safety, or never tested at all.
There are better ‘natural’, ‘non-toxic’ and ‘biodegradable’ options on offer at most supermarkets these days, although these terms and labels are quite ambiguous and not strictly regulated, so manufacturers often rely on consumer trust for these brands. Furthermore, when you buy any cleaning products off the shelf, once it’s finished, you’re left with a single-use plastic bottle and spray mechanism to dispose of. A while back we tried to keep and reuse our old spray bottles, however, they were mostly such poor quality that they stopped working soon after the original product was gone and we ended-up throwing them out anyway.
A good option is to pop into a zero waste scoop shop (where you can buy grains, dried fruits and chocolates per gram in paper bags or BYO containers), which often also sell cleaning and cosmetic products in bulk for you to refill your reusable spray bottle or storage container. You might be able to request an ingredients list from these guys and do your own research about the relative safety of those versus single-use products form the supermarket.
But for us, the safest, cheapest and by far the easiest solution has been to make our own cleaners from scratch. Here are our favourite two recipes (which so many in our WHB community have already adopted and love):
Multipurpose surface spray Bathroom cleaner
1 cup water I cup water
1 cup white vinegar ½ cup white vinegar
3 drops eucalyptus oil (antimicrobial) 2 tablespoons baking soda
3 drops lavender oil (fragrance) 15 drops tea tree oil
These recipes are very easy, very cheap and much safer for our home. We estimate that we save about $100 p.a. by not having to purchase these products anymore.
But the greatest benefits of these DIY cleaners are the health benefits. Apart from no longer exposing our family to chemicals with the potential to do us harm, these sprays are much safer to have around a home with young children. Recently, one of our sons sprayed himself in the face with the multipurpose surface cleaner. After an initial moment of panic, we realised that (1) we knew what every single ingredient in the cleaner was and (2) that he would be absolutely fine. There were no panicked calls to the poison’s info line, no eye rinses or skin washes. We didn’t need to worry. And that kind of peace of mind in a home with small children, is priceless.
It took us a while to take the plunge, but we’ve never looked back and this remains one of our favourite life hacks that really helps us live wealthier, healthier and better. Grab a DIY clean LIFE HACK PACK now.