Home Detox—Toxic Cleaning Product Ingredients and Safer Alternatives

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Home Detox—Toxic Cleaning Product Ingredients and Safer Alternatives

So you’ve purged your pantry, throwing out processed or packaged foods and items with artificial sweeteners, colorants, and preservatives. You’ve paid close attention to high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, MSG, and switched over to all organic. These are all great steps toward improving your health, but there’s tons of other places chemicals, toxins, and potentially hazardous ingredients are lurking in your home.

That’s why we are coming at you with a brand new series called Home Detox. We’ll be going room by room through a typical home, shedding light on items that are questionable that you might otherwise overlook. It’s our hope that you take a more careful consideration of the contents of your cupboards…and drawers and closets, purging items that can easily be replaced with healthier, safer alternatives.

Ready? We are! Let’s go.

Today we’re starting with cleaning products, revealing the scary ingredients hiding there, and also presenting cleaner (get it?) and healthier alternatives.

A typical roundup of cleaning products in one household can accumulate very quickly. Between glass cleaner, counter disinfectant, toilet bowl scrub, wood polish, mop spray, degreaser, dish soap, detergent, grout scrub, tile cleaner, etc., you can see how these items pile up before you even realize it. And what’s even scarier is that for each product, there’s an unfathomable amount of chemicals within. First, we’re going to break down some of the most commonly found ingredients in conventional cleaning products so you can avoid them.

Phthalates. Chemicals used as solvents or dissolving agents in products, or as plasticizers in packaging materials. Certain phthalates have been shown to affect the reproductive system.[1] Other studies show phthalate exposure is linked to early onset puberty, interference with natural hormone system functions, and reproductive defects.[2] Phthalates can be difficult to detect in products because they’re often used as a fragrance and companies are not required to disclose every ingredient in their trademarked scent. As a rule of thumb, avoid ingredient acronyms that end in P, such as BBP. The “P” usually stands for phthalate.

Choose instead essential oils for natural, healthy scents and more sustainable packaging, like glass, metal, and cloth.

Triclosan. A chemical in cleaning products linked to liver and inhalation toxicity as well as thyroid disruption.[3] Triclosan is found in nearly all conventional liquid hand soaps and dishwashing detergent, as well as hand sanitizer, acting as an antibacterial agent.3 Therefore, forgo antibacterial soaps. Research suggests antibacterial options are no better at ridding your home of germs than regular soaps to begin with.3

2-Butoxyethanol and 2-Butoxyethanol Acetate. Chemical used as a solvent in products like paint thinners and lacquers, but also household cleaners and liquid soaps.[4] Linked to impaired fertility and reproductive toxicity and considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.[5] Commonly found in cleaners, liquid soaps, furniture care products, lubricants and greases, and degreasers.4 Other common names include ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylene glycol butyl ether, ethylene glocol n-butyl ether, Butyl Cellosolve, butyl glycol, butyl Oxitol, gloycol butyl ether, and others. Common abbreviasions include BE and EGBE.[6]

Avoid these ingredients and abbreviations on labels, and use the EWG’s Guide to Health Cleaning.

Ammonia. A chemical that dries quickly and doesn’t leave streaks but is also a strong irritant. People most commonly affected by the use of ammonia include the elderly and those with lung and airway issues, such as asthma.[7] Ammonia is also poisonous if ingested and can burn skin. Cleaning products that typically contain ammonia include bathroom polishers, glass cleaners, and products boasting a streak-free sparkle.

Quaternary ammonium compounds. Also known as “quats,” known for making clothes and fabrics feel soft and comfortable but is also known a trigger for respiratory responses and is toxic to reproductive health.[8] Quats are most commonly used in conventional fabric softeners and dryer sheets.

Formaldehyde. Designated by the World Health Organization as carcinogenic, formaldehyde is often found in cleaning supplies to increase the product’s shelf life. In other instances, formaldehyde itself isn’t included in the product, but instead formaldehyde-releasing compounds that have the same preservative effect.[9]

This is just the beginning of a whole cocktail of questionable chemicals lurking in cleaning bottles under your sink this very second, and while we can’t possibly cover every single one of them, the message is clear: consumers must be responsible for educating themselves on the safety of the products used in their homes.

If you’re looking to purge your old cleaning supplies but aren’t sure what to use as replacements, here are some DIY recipes and alternatives to get you started:

Glass cleaner: ¼ c. white vinegar + 1 tbsp corn starch + 2 c. warm water

Dish soap: Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure Castile Soap (this one product could really replace the bulk of your cleaning supplies and only rates 1 on the EWG Skin Deep database)

Dish washer detergent: 2 parts borax + 2 parts washing soda + 1 part citric acid + 1 part salt + essential oils for scent

All-purpose surface cleaner: 1 c. water + 25 drops antibacterial essential oil blend

Tile and shower scrub: ½ c. baking soda + 2 tbsp washing soda + 2 tbsp borax + 3 tbsp liquid castile soap

All-purpose cleaner: Water + hydrogen peroxide + essential oils

Fabric softener: Wool dryer balls or 12”x12” flannel sheet soaked in white vinegar

Mop spray: 1 part distilled white vinegar + 3 parts warm water


[1] CDC (2015). Facsheet: phthalates. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/phthalates_factsheet.html.

[2] National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (2014). Phthalates: the everywhere chemical. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/assets/docs/j_q/phthalates_the_everywhere_chemical_handout_508.pdf

[3] EWG (n.d.). EWG’s guide to triclosan. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/research/ewgs-guide-triclosan.

[4] PubChem (2016). 2-butoxyethanol. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/2-Butoxyethanol#section=Top.

[5] Frack, L (2010). Could be hard to avoid these 7 cleaning ingredients, but you should try. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2010/03/could-be-hard-avoid-these-7-cleaning-ingredients-you-should-try

[6] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (1998) Public health statement for 2-butoxyethanol and 2-butoxyethanol acetate. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=345&tid=61

[7] Sholl, J. (2011). 8 hidden toxins: what’s lurking in your cleaning products? Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from https://experiencelife.com/article/8-hidden-toxins-whats-lurking-in-your-cleaning-products/

[8] Boyle, M. (2016). Skip the fabric softeners. Accessed Juned 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2016/05/skip-fabric-softeners

[9] EWG (2016). EWG’s guide to health cleaning. Accessed June 20, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/content/cleaners_and_health

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