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15 Sneaky Ways Spring Cleaning Is Damaging Your Health

A clean home doesn't always equal a healthy home: Cleaning products can be loaded with dangerous chemicals. Read this before you spring clean this year.

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Ingredient labels don’t tell the whole story

Clean-living guru and author of A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures, Sophia Gushee says you’re not getting the full story from the product labels. “Federal laws protect confidential business information, so manufacturers are not legally bound to disclose all their chemical ingredients or all the potential health problems that the product may cause,” she warns. Gushee also believes we currently lack unbiased oversight that can help ensure cleaning products are safe: “What we do know about conventional cleaning products raises concern.”

Floor cleaning with mob and cleanser foam.T.Dallas/Shutterstock

Concentrations are key

While most common household cleaning products contain low concentrations of the active ingredients, the industrial-strength concentrations you can get in hardware and specialty supply stores are a real concern, points out Gerald F. O’Malley, DO, a Merck Manuals expert, professor of toxicology at Thomas Jefferson University. “For example, standard household bleach is a low-concentration (3 to 8 percent) of sodium hypochlorite, which is just an irritant to your mucous membranes,” he says. “Exposure to high concentration bleach (greater than 40 percent) is injurious if it comes into contact with the skin or eyes or if it is swallowed or deeply inhaled.” He recommends checking labels for the concentration of your bleach—and when in doubt or if you have an exposure, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Opened plastic window in room with view to green treesvadim kozlovsky/Shutterstock

Open windows while cleaning

No matter what room you are in, be wary of using cleaning products with the windows closed—your indoor air can quickly become hazardous. Acupuncturist Elizabeth Trattner, certified by the University of Arizona Center of Integrative Medicine on Environmental Medicine, shares that many common cleaning chemicals release toxic gasses; when you breathe them in, they can place a burden on your liver.

wet floor cleaningdaphnusia/Shutterstock

Don’t mix bleach

Leslie Fischer, an eco-living specialist, notes that certain chemicals when combined can be toxic and even deadly. “When chlorine bleach is added to ammonia… it creates a toxic fume that can be deadly,” she says. “Ammonia is not only found in household cleaners but also in urine. Putting bleach into a toilet can be very dangerous.” The Washington State Department of Health maintains a list of things you shouldn’t mix with bleach. Here are some more cleaning products that should never mix.

cleaning the toilet, concept for house cleaning services and domestic dutiesvitec/Shutterstock

Avoid the big toxins

The Environmental Working Group says that many cleaning products fail their test of safety, but three of the most commonly used yet dangerous and toxic cleaning products that receive an F-Failure rating for safety are drain cleaners, oven and grill cleaners, and toilet bowl cleaners. You can crosscheck the products in your cleaning stash on their site to see where they fall in safety ratings.

top view of baking soda with tooth brush and lemonfocal point/Shutterstock

DIY cleaners that are safe

Baking soda sprinkled into a sink cleans just as well as a product like Comet without the concern of chemicals. For windows and surfaces, try this simple and safe cleaner:

1 clean 32-ounce spray bottle

1/3 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup rubbing alcohol

3 1/2 cups water

Woman cleaning a window with cleaning sprayer.Vladimir Miloserdov/Shutterstock

Cleaning sprays can trigger asthma

Luz Claudio, PhD, professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has done a lot of research work on children’s asthma, and she’s particularly concerned about spray cleaners. “Some of these products contain chemicals that are known or suspected to be asthma triggers, such as ethanolamine and ammonium compounds,” she says. She adds that simple vinegar and water in a spray bottle work just as well as any chemical combo purchased in a store. Check out these other surprising uses of household vinegar.

The man pushed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher machine.Yunava1/Shutterstock

Even running the dishwasher can be toxic

“The more concentrated and scented dishwasher soap is, the bigger problems you’re going to have,” warns Trattner. “The hot water transforms those chemicals into gas in your nice airtight home. If you have allergies, asthma or any autoimmune disease, you should avoid conventional cleaners. Also avoid soft plastics in the dishwasher as well. The heat makes BPA and other petrochemicals which can outgas right in your kitchen.” Use healthy alternatives like DishwasherFresh, which uses food grade citric acid powder and sodium percarbonate and turns into hydrogen peroxide when mixed with water in the dishwasher. Don’t miss these surprising things you can clean in the dishwasher.

modern kitchen, inside of the oven, openalexandre zveiger/Shutterstock

Beware of oven cleaning

Dr. Claudio warns that oven cleaners are notoriously harmful. Most have explicit warnings on their labels. Make sure to follow the label’s instructions to a letter; open windows and keep the exhaust fan running. And be sure to wear gloves and eye protection—the cleaners can release fumes that are irritating to skin and eyes. “My concern is that once users wipe off the cleaner and turn on the oven, the heat can release even more chemicals into the air,” she says. Instead, use lemon juice and water and a steel wool sponge. Check out this information before you use the self-clean option on your oven.

blue gel caps in hand for washing mashine, liquid coloured detergentssuaphotos/Shutterstock

Avoid synthetic scents in detergents

Trattner warns that long-lasting scents come at a price: “A large percent of synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum—crude oil,” she says. These include benzenes, aldehydes, toluene, and endocrine disruptors, which research suggests can cause disease, nervous system disorders, and allergies. Trattner recommends looking for alternatives, such as brands like Nellies Naturals, Ecover, and Seventh Generation. If you want a scent, she recommends organic lavender sachets from Trader Joe’s that are made with unbleached material and real lavender flowers. Here’s a list of some of the safest laundry detergents on the market.

sponge in kitchen sink under running waterasadykov/Shutterstock

Warm water and soap work fine

We often think that special products are needed for different rooms and cleaning projects, which just isn’t the case. Often, simple products like Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, warm water, and elbow grease work just fine on many household cleaning jobs, and that will cut your exposure to toxins and keep you from storing multiple bottles for various jobs. Make sure you’re not over-cleaning—check out this guide to the things we wash too much.

Using dry steam cleaner to sanitize floor carpet.Sergey Yechikov/Shutterstock

Ditch cleansers altogether and use steam instead

Many people underestimate the power of steam to clean, but it can be as, if not more, effective than using cleaning products. Plus, it’s 100 percent safe for humans and pets. According to Laurie Levitt of the steam-cleaning company Nugeni, “Steam cleaning significantly improves air quality and no irritants are emitted into the air nor left behind. Steam also kills dust mites, bed bugs, fleas, and their eggs and up to 99.9 percent of germs, bacteria, and viruses without the use of harsh chemicals.”

whites hanging from a clotheslineMargaret M Stewart/Shutterstock

Use the power of the sun

Fischer suggests using the sun to whiten textiles and items you would normally bleach during spring cleaning. “The sun is the best bleaching agent in the world!” she says. “I often have stains on my white linens since I am the mother of small children. When I lay them in the sun, stains are bleached out within a few hours. In addition, if you have a very stubborn stain, douse the stain with lemon juice and lay it in the sun. It also works well on textiles.” Here are some other things you can clean with lemon.

cinnamon in a wooden bowl of olive wood - Stock Imagedaniel stojanoski/Shutterstock

Use natural air fresheners

Nothing gives a spring-clean scent to your home like opening the windows for a while. Even if you live in colder climates, cracking a couple of windows for 15 minutes will freshen any stale interior, says Trattner. “Air fresheners, sprays, and anything that comes from the conventional grocery or specialty mall store are terrible on the immune system.” According to the National Institutes of Health, a survey of selected scented consumer goods found that the products emitted more than 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some that are classified as toxic or hazardous by federal laws. Products advertised as “green,” “natural,” or “organic” emitted as many hazardous chemicals as standard ones. Trattner recommends using 100 percent natural essential oils instead, or simply simmering a cinnamon stick or lemon and orange peels in a pot of water to make the house smell fresh. If you want to go further in detoxing your home, check out these houseplants that are beautiful to look at and help clean your indoor air.

Close-up Of Person's Hand Holding Bill At HomeAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Beware the store receipt after you buy your healthy cleaning items

Finally, after leaving the store with your healthy choices, watch out for that store receipt, warns Dr. Claudio: “Most store receipts are made with thermal paper which is coated with BPA (bisphenol A). BPA can be harmful if ingested or absorbed through the skin.” The danger is heightened for children. “Don’t put them near your mouth and better yet, don’t take a receipt unless you really need it,” she says. Here are some more sneaky things you touch every day that could be toxic.

Laura Richards
Laura Richards is a Boston-based journalist with a passion for storytelling, reporting, content marketing, and branding. She has written for Reader's Digest, The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe Magazine, Glamour, Martha Stewart Living, Woman's Day, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, and more. Her areas of specialty include health and wellness, lifestyle, parenting, and business and entrepreneurship.