You know you should probably switch to non-toxic cleaners, but without the nitty gritty of why, it’s hard to hustle up the motivation. After all, the cleaners you buy usually say they’re “green” or “natural”, so they can’t be all bad, right?
I mean, those ones aren’t giving you cancer or anything, are they?
The bad news is, they actually can be all bad. And even if they’re not, they may be mostly bad. Green-washing is rife, and “natural” does not mean non-toxic, or even ecologically sound. It might mean, for instance, that added to the chemical cocktail, your cleaning product contains .02% organic essential oils. Excellent. Now can we get rid of the rest of the chemical cocktail please?
Check this out:
Over 80,000 chemicals are now registered for use in Australia (40,000 industrial chemicals) and accessed via everyday consumer products including foods and food packaging, clothing, building materials, water, cleaning products, personal care products. Yet 75% of these have never been tested for their toxicity on the human body or the environment. (Public Health Association of Australia, Environmental Exposure and Human Health Policy)
Seventy-five percent have never been tested for safety. What the?
The problem is, the toxicity of these chemicals – even the one that have been tested – is not necessarily immediately obvious. Some of them affect some people acutely, with things like headaches, asthma attacks and irritability. But the most concerning effects generally are the long term ones. The ones that are made worse by years of exposure in numerous products, and sometimes to the interaction of different chemicals, so that we can’t easily trace them back to a single offender.
Oh, and if you are not in Australia? Don’t get excited. The statistics are similar wherever you are, though there are slight differences, in terms of what chemicals are allowed and labelling requirements, between countries. Europe tends to be more cautious than we are, for instance.
The good news is, making your own DIY cleaners, ones that really work and don’t have these harmful chemicals, is actually quite straight forward. (Download my free non-toxic cleaning printables to get started easily.)
Ready for some more bad news? Okay, I’m going to tell you about some of the ingredients your everyday cleaners likely contain (if you haven’t made the switch already), and what they can do to you and your family.*
What are the products you use daily doing to your health?
Most commercial dishwashing liquids contain “fragrance”. You might wonder what that means, since a fragrance can contain anything from dozens to hundreds of synthetic chemicals. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know just what they are, since fragrances, or “parfums” are considered trade secrets, and ingredients don’t need to be listed.
However, we do know that fragrances are a common cause of sensitivities and acute reactions such as headaches, migraines, coughing, wheezing, skin rashes and irritation. They’ve also been linked to behaviour problems in children.
Most commercial dishwashing liquids also contain SLES (sodium laureth sulphate) a surfactant (meaning it helps dissolve oils and hold dirt in suspension so it doesn’t just resettle on your dishes). Unfortunately, it can also be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide, potential carcinogens.
“Dioxane… happens to be one of the most potent synthetic carcinogens ever studied [and] causes damage to development, reproduction, and the immune and endocrine systems at infinitesimally low doses (in the low parts per trillion). Toxicological studies have not been able to establish a ‘threshold’ dose below which dioxane does not cause biological impacts.” (The Toxic Consumer)
Most dishwashing liquids also contain petroleum based dyes, some of which are known carcinogens, and which can penetrate the skin. And of the 11 other chemicals The Chemical Maze lists as common in dishwashing liquids, nine get the sad face code, meaning best avoided (no double sad faces here though!).
Make your own
I have to admit that I haven’t tested a DIY dishwashing liquid I like yet, so this is not on my non-toxic cleaning printables. As commercial brands go, I like ecostore’s, but I don’t pretend to have tried a wide variety. If you want to try making your own, you can try The Chemical Maze’s advice by mixing 2 tbsp castile soap with 2 cups water, then adding 1tsp of vegtable glycerin, all in a reusable bottle (I haven’t tried this recipe yet). Optionally add 5-10 drops of lavender oil (or I would use Lime or Lemon myself) for a pleasant fragrance that doesn’t have dozens of chemicals mixed in, and for its antimicrobial effect.
Automatic dishwasher powder
“Dishwasher powder is one of the five most common causes of accidental poisonings of young children in the home.” (The Chemical Maze, 2nd Edition)
Dishwasher powder can contain chlorine, which means the steam that leaks out of your dishwasher can include chlorine gas, along with that artificial fragrance. Common ingredients listed in The Chemical Maze include two that get the double sad face (ie the worst rating): benzotriazole and nitrilotriacetic acid, which is banned in the US. Both are harmful if swallowed, the former is a suspected of respiratory and neurotoxicity, the later of kidney toxicity. It is also a recognised carcinogen, and toxic by inhalation and skin contact.
For a safer alternative The Chemical Maze recommends using a 50/50 mix of borax and bicarb soda (baking soda, for my American readers), with 20 drops of lemon or clove essential oil to two cups of the mix. Use 2-4 tbps per load.
Most laundry detergents and powders also contain synthetic fragrance. Other possible ingredients include bleaches and glycol ethers, which are petroleum derived and are suspected cardiovascular, reproductive, kidney, liver and neurotoxins. Some may be absorbed through the skin, so along with the Enzymes (another common ingredient) which break down skin oils and cause skin irritation, you better hope they rinse out well from your clothes! Some laundry detergents contain formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound (VOC) known to be carcinogenic and teratogenic, and which can cause dermatitis, asthma, headaches, and chronic fatigue. Some laundry products also contain nitrilotriacetic acid in Australia, which is banned in the US. Both of these get the double sad face in The Chemical Maze. Oh, and yes, you’ll find SLES here too, along with accompanying carcinogenic contaminants.
Spot and stain removers often also contain several known carcinogens, and have six common ingredients that get the double sad face.
General purpose cleaners
General purpose cleaners, along with window and glass cleaners, often include Ammonia which I am afraid gets the double sad face, and is toxic by skin contact and inhalation, and is suspected of respiratory, liver and neurotoxicity. All purpose cleaners can also contain Nitrilotriacetic acid, along with several other sad face chemicals.
For my favourite all purpose cleaner check out my DIY Citrus Spray ‘n’ wipe post.
Disinfectants & anti-bacterial products
No list like this would be complete without disinfectants. How we do so love to disinfect everything these days!
Now you know I am not a purist – I do not advocate becoming obsessed, lest you let all this information overwhelm you. I suggest making gradual changes as you can.
But please, please, stop using any products labelled as anti-bacterial. It’s not that killing bacteria is inherently bad (though it’s not inherently good either), it’s that many of those anti-bacterial products are doing two other things that are very bad: they’re poisoning you, and they’re breeding stronger, super bacteria.
Some of the worst chemicals you might find in disinfectants include triclosan, formaldehyde, phenylphenol, and glutaraldehyde.
Triclosan is closely related to dioxane (see above), and has been found in human breast milk and blood plasma. (source) And tricolsan only gets a single sad face in The Chemical Maze – the other three chemicals I’ve listed get the double one! Between them they can cause long term systemic effects including developmental abnormalities, endocrine disruption and reproductive problems, immune system dysfunction, asthma sensitisation and of course, cancer.
“Exposure to this synthetic pesticide [triclosan], which is currently found in the urine of 75 percent of all people tested, has been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, liver damage, and other health problems.” (Healthychild.org)
In the meantime, the alkalinity of plain soap makes a very good safe disinfectant that is sufficient for most home use – and is now used widely in hospitals as well. White Vinegar has been shown to kill 99% of bacteria and 80% of viruses, and several essential oils have also been found to be effective anti-microbials, with evidence to date suggesting bacteria maybe not develop resistance to them. So if you really do want a good anti-bacterial (say because your family have all had the dreaded gastro), try filling a reusable spray bottle with 500ml (2 cups) white vinegar and adding 5 drops each of lime, tea tree, clove and cinnamon essential oils (just as one example combination). Still, use it sparingly.
Now, if you’ve waded through this whole long article you deserve a star, or at least some more good news. So here it is: Making your own cleaning products is not only going to be better for your health, it’s going to be very much cheaper too. For instance, you might save as much as $40-80 every time you make some homemade laundry detergent (depending how much you make, and what brand you would otherwise buy). That’s not bad hey?
Now over to you: tell us your guilty secret – which commercial cleaning product are you loathe to get rid of? (And stop feeling guilty, I’m all about gradual, sustainable change here!) Or, tell us which product you’ve been inspired to switch out for something safer?
*There’s so much conflicting information on the net – or information that might be conflicting but it’s hard to know since many chemicals have so many different names. I am taking most of my information from The Chemical Maze, by Bill Statham & Lindy Schneider, Chemical Free Kids by Dr Sarah Lanzt, The Toxic Consumer by Karen Ashton & Elizabeth Salter Green, and safecosmetics.org/
Those book links go to Fishpond, but you can also buy some of them on Amazon, and I even got The Chemical Maze as an app for my phone! And the standard disclaimer applies – if you go and buy them through one of those links, I will get a small commission, and be suitably chuffed. 🙂
This post will be linked up with EssentiallyJess for IBOT, when I get to it 🙂