This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

Are Your Cleaning Products Damaging Your Health?

And what role do eco-friendly products play?
Not all cleaning products can cause chemical burns.
Tatomm via Getty Images
Not all cleaning products can cause chemical burns.

Chemical, after chemical, after chemical -- our cleaning products are a tricky business.

Whether it's the 'toxic' warning labels on the bottles, the long list of strange ingredients that all seem to end in 'oxide', 'ethylene' or 'chlorite', or the strong citrus-like smell that lingers through your house, our household cleaning products don't give off a friendly vibe.

In fact, they often give off a dangerous vibe, forcing us to question -- are my cleaning products damaging my health?

Fortunately, according to Ian Rae, Organic Chemist and Professor for the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne, most of the chemicals in our everyday household cleaning products are actually safe.

"Most of them are safe in a health sense to use -- they're safe in the quantities we're exposed to," Rae told HuffPost Australia.

Paul Bradbury

"Normally the warning information on the back refers to just the most dangerous chemicals and it might say things like wear gloves, wear glasses, or if you get it on your hands wash with water."

What chemical ingredients should we try and avoid?

According to Rae, we need to keep an eye out for products containing bleaches, including products with hypochlorite which is often found in disinfectants.

"Bleaches are the most dangerous if they get on your skin, very few of the others are dangerous in the quantities that are in there," Rae said.

"Hypochlorite products have caustic soda in them and that's quite dangerous so you have to be very careful about splashes, if you leave it on your skin for more than a few minutes, it will damage the skin causing a chemical burn."

When it comes to detergents, Rae explains they are more common than people think, are often found in shampoos and hand soaps and are generally safe ingredients.

What happens if I breathe in the products or they get on my skin?

If we do come into contact with the ingredients in our household cleaning products, according to Rae they won't actually cause any long term damage unless they are ingested.

If you drank half a litre of these products, they'd do you a lot of damage inside but it's an unrealistic scenario ... the general rule is to minimise exposure.

"Let's say you take a substance or a powder and put it on the surface to clean and then you get a bit on your hand, that's not usually a problem," Rae said.

"Keep in mind these things are water soluble, so they can be washed off wherever they get to."

As these products cannot be absorbed into the body, itchy skin or itchy, sore eyes are the most common symptoms of irritation from cleaning products. In terms of surface sprays, Rae explains the only sufferers are people with high sensitivity.

"The common scenario is you're spraying something and you get it over your face by accident, you breath it in and it makes you cough -- but they're short term things," Rae said.

"If you drank half a litre of these products, they'd do you a lot of damage inside but it's an unrealistic scenario."

Can we use the products more safely?

Firstly, avoid mixing the cleaning products with other chemicals. According to Rae, all household cleaners already have a mixture in the product so adding other ingredients could cause more harm.


Secondly, don't overuse the substance.

"Often they don't tell you how much to use -- they might tell you how to dilute it with water, but they don't actually tell you how much to use on your toilet bowl or kitchen bench," said Rae.

"That's up to you -- the best advice is don't use more than you need to."

Lastly, if you know you're sensitive to the ingredients in your cleaning products, wear gloves or masks to avoid inhaling particles or getting the substance on your skin.

"The general rule is to minimise exposure," Rae said.

What are eco-friendly cleaning products and where do they fit?

Despite evidence our household cleaning products won't cause substantial harm to your health, if you want to be extra safe, there are such things as eco-friendly substances.

According to Rae, cleaning professionals are more likely to use personal-friendly products rather than chemicals they regards as 'nasty'.

"I've spoken to cleaners who have said they don't use commercial cleaning products -- they never use bleach, for example, and cleaners have a higher exposure than everyone else," Rae said.

"Some use orange peel oil which is acting as a solvent in mixtures -- it is more eco-friendly, they're just natural oils, and natural oils are safer than harsh chemicals."

Jessica Bragdon, founder of Koala Eco, a family-owned business that develops 'natural' cleaning products told HuffPost Australia that eco-friendly products generally contain plant-based ingredients, rather than synthetic chemicals.

"Natural cleaning products can be created from high concentrates of pure essential oils, combined with quality plant-derived biodegradable ingredients," Bragdon said.

Bragdon uses peppermint oil in her Koala Eco products.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Bragdon uses peppermint oil in her Koala Eco products.

"If using essential oils, the product aromas often come only from the essential oils, so no artificial fragrances, colors or harsh chemicals."

Bragdon explains along with essential oils, natural cleaning products may contain safer ingredients such as vinegar, sugar-based biodegradable alcohol and bicarbonate soda.

"Essential oils in particular are effective antibacterial alternatives to thousands of mainstream chemical-laden products -- especially when combined with other natural biodegradable grime-fighting ingredients, essential oils are equally (or more) effective than toxic chemicals," Bragdon said.

"There's a reason why a lot of ordinary products have warnings on their labels about being hazardous -- if we are using harsh chemicals on bathroom and kitchen surfaces, are we really cleaning them?"

Alongside Koala Eco, ecostore, a natural home and skin care product range, use organic substances and sustainable practice to create safer cleaning products, while Eco Green use natural anti-bacterial substances in their products that are non-caustic and non-toxic.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

While most eco-friendly products are just that -- eco-friendly, Rae explains we need to be careful that the substances in eco-friendly products do not cause harm to aquatic organisms.

"Sometimes the detergent and fungicides are actually toxic to aquatic organisms -- they don't usually say that on the label though," Rae said.

"Some people like to think they're closer to the natural product than processed products so they'll head for products that talk about the materials as natural and not products of the chemical industry -- its partly a selling point, but they might not actually be any better off because chemical products don't cause much damage."

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