What is Really Lurking Under Your Sink?

The Truth about Toxic and Non Toxic Cleaners SustainableSuburbia.netYou 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.) If that’s not your thing, another option is to switch to cleaning with high quality microfibre and water. You really can get away with doing MOST of your everyday cleaning without anything else. (Note though, I am not talking about the 10 cloths for $2 you might get at the local hardware store, or even the 2 cloths for $10 from the supermarket, which not only won’t clean as effectively, let alone disinfect, but will wear away as you use them sending microplastics straight down the drain.)

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?

Dishwashing liquid

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 ecostore’s, seems okay, and is the only supermarket brand I have found without SLES. I prefer the Norwex dishwashing liquid, which is very concentrated, but cost-wise, if you are going to be using that regularly I’d honestly recommend signing up as a consultant. 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. 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.

Also, most people these days seem to buy dishwasher tablets, which, unless you have very hard water, means you will be using far too much per load.

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. Again, I’ve found the Norwex dishwasher powder more effective, and in canberra water I only need 1tsp or less, so it is very cost effective too. And because it is not horribly caustic like most dishwasher powder, it is better for the longevity of your dishes too!


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.

Most commercial laundry detergents also contain fillers, which can be made from a wide variety of ingredients and are often the cause of skin irritations.

Spot and stain removers often also contain several known carcinogens, and have six common ingredients that get the double sad face.

For safer laundry options download my printables (for DIY recipes) or check out this article.

 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 or consider switching to an EnviroCloth and water for most times you would need to a general purpose spray.

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.

Alternatively, Norwex microfibre takes 99% of the grease, grime AND bacteria off surfaces, and (once rinsed and hung to dry) the silver in the cloths then go to work to “self-purify”, preventing bacterial growth.

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? And, if you’d rather use Norwex, that is also going to save you money, since it’s generally a “buy once, use for years” kinda thing. Of course, things like laundry powder don’t work quite that way, but even their laundry powder is VERY cost effective. One 1kg bag last’s my family of 5 over 4 months!

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 🙂

  12 comments for “What is Really Lurking Under Your Sink?

  1. October 8, 2013 at 8:24 am

    I use Bi-carb and a squirt of white vinegar in my dishwasher, everything is squeaky clean, smells fresh and not cloudy, and cost is a fraction of what dishwasher tablets cost… and the best part – zero toxins.

    • Kirsten McCulloch
      October 8, 2013 at 9:35 am

      That sounds great Lisa. Back when my dishwasher worked (in the good old days!), I used to use vinegar as rinse aid too (the idea of a chemical cocktail in my rinse water was too much for me even then!), but I never tried DIY powder. Glad to hear it works for you.

  2. October 8, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Its really scary to think that these chemicals and toxins are in the cleaners we use. I make m own cleaner with Eucalyptus oil.

    • Kirsten McCulloch
      October 9, 2013 at 8:02 am

      It is, isn’t Bec? Good for you for making your own!

  3. October 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    I love your website Kirsten, there is so much great info here!

    It’s a great resource for anyone wanting to change their lifestyle to a more Earth friendly one.

    MC xo

    • Kirsten McCulloch
      October 9, 2013 at 8:02 am

      Thanks Miss Cinders, much appreciated 🙂

  4. October 9, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I have to say I used to have the head in sand approach when it came to chemical products, but now I have kids I look at things much differently!!

    • Kirsten
      October 10, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      Yes, having kids does make you look at things a bit differently doesn’t it Emily? Or if can, anyway.

  5. October 9, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    My guilty secret is fabric softener. I just love the smell it adds to our clothes, and now I’m concerned that it’s actually a terrible thing.
    Why does it all have to be so hard?

    • Kirsten
      October 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Good question Jess! You’d really think it shouldn’t be so hard, wouldn’t you. Then again, you wouldn’t think there’d be 1000s of chemicals in use in every day products that have never been safety tested!

      I like to put essential oils in my rinse sometimes with vinegar- I’ve read other people talking about making up a litre of vinegar and adding around 30 drops of essential oils (lemon and orange maybe, or I would add Eucalyptus oil, cause that’s just the fresh washed smell to me, or some people use lavender), and using 1/2 cup per wash. I just chuck a few drops in at the time. BUT, it doesn’t really last past drying. It’s just nice when you’re hanging them out.

  6. October 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Quite a shocking list, but great read – people are very often oblivious to the harm they are exposing themselves too! As an asthmatic, I actually wonder how much chemicals in cleaning product contribute to my asthma.. ..what better time to take the test and see!

    • Kirsten
      October 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      Yes, I have read of asthma often being exacerbated by fragrance chemicals especially. And Ammonia or course, and no doubt numerous others.

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