Questionable Chemicals Found in Household Products

Many in Industry Question Study’s Findings, Say Fears Unfounded

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 07, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

March 8, 2012 -- Many cleaning and personal care products contain chemicals linked with asthma flare-ups or hormone disruption, according to new research.

On the list: sunscreens, vinyl shower curtains, and fragranced products.

"Consumer products in the home can be a significant source of hormone-disrupting chemicals and asthma-associated chemicals," says Robin Dodson, ScD, a research scientists at Silent Spring Institute. The research organization studies links between the environment and women's health.

The study is published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Dodson and her team suggest consumers should reduce their use of certain products found to be high in these chemicals for health reasons. However, industry groups say the study is flawed and the safety fears unfounded.

Chemicals in Household Products: Study Details

''Asthma is increasing, and we're still trying to figure out why," Dodson tells WebMD. Her team wanted to look at chemicals in household products that might be linked with asthma flare-ups - which are when a person with asthma has a mild to severe attack.

They also looked at chemicals known as hormone disrupters. Hormone disrupters mimic or change the body's own hormones. They can raise concerns for increased risk of certain cancers, Dodson says.

The researchers tested 50 different categories of products. They looked for 66 specific chemicals that have been linked with either asthma flare-ups and/or hormone disruption.

Among the chemicals:

  • Parabens (in cosmetics)
  • Triclosan (found in anti-bacterial soap)
  • Alkylphenols (detergents)
  • UV filters (personal care products)
  • BPA (containers)
  • Cyclosiloxanes (sunscreens, hair care)
  • Phthalates (plastic products)
  • Fragrances
  • Glycol ethers (cleaning compounds, cosmetics)
  • Ethanolamines (cleaning products)

They looked at 42 types of conventional products and 39 types of alternative products.

The researchers found 55 chemicals in all. According to Julia Brody, PhD, executive director of Silent Spring Institute, ‘‘we found 50 chemicals [of the ones on the list] in the conventional samples. Every conventional sample had at least one targeted chemical. We found 41 chemicals in the alternative products.’’

Among the products tested:

  • Cat litter
  • Pillow protectors
  • Diapers
  • Cleaners, including glass, floor, and surface cleaners
  • Laundry soap and dishwasher soap
  • Stain removers
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Shaving cream
  • Face lotion and cleanser
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Mascara
  • Vinyl and other shower curtains
  • Dryer sheets
  • Air fresheners
  • Perfumes
  • Nail polish
  • Sunscreens

The product labels weren't always accurate at identifying all the chemicals, the researchers say.

Chemicals in Household Products: More Findings

Some products had higher levels of the chemicals than others, Dodson tells WebMD.

Sunscreens and products with fragrances such as dryer sheets, air freshener, and perfume had the highest concentrations of the potentially hazardous chemicals, she says. "We found substantial levels of DEHP in the vinyl shower curtain," she says. "It was 28% by weight."

DEHP is a phthalate and a hormone disrupter. It has also been linked with respiratory symptoms, the researchers say.

"The pillow protectors, which a lot of asthmatics use, we found [had] DEHP 14% by weight," Dodson says.

Chemicals in Household Products: Perspective

The new research "confirms many of our concerns about the widespread use of suspect chemicals in consumer products, particularly air fresheners, dryer sheets, and sunscreens," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization.

She reviewed the findings for WebMD.

Because the chemicals are widespread, she says, "the findings remind us how difficult it can be to avoid exposure to these ubiquitous hazards."

There are some simple ways to reduce exposures, Dodson says. "Probably the easiest thing to do is just use fewer products," she says.

Switching from a vinyl shower curtain to a cotton or nylon curtain is another option, she says. They were free of the chemicals.

Using unscented or no-dryer sheets is another option, she says. Some sunscreens and hair products are fragrance-free, the researchers say.

Ultimately, consumers need more information on labels to figure out which chemicals they are being exposed to, Dodson says.

Chemicals in Household Products: Industry Speaks Out

The presence of the chemicals in household products proves nothing, according to Linda Loretz, PhD, senior scientist and director of safety and regulatory toxicology for the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group.

In a press release, she says: "Equating the mere presence of certain chemicals in products with potential harm is wrong and needlessly scares consumers about products that have a wealth of scientific data to support their safety."

Among other criticisms, she says that sunscreens are cited in the study as endocrine-disruptors based only on screening assays "with no proven relevance for humans." Ingredients found are at ''normal levels for sun protection" and are FDA-approved, she says.

The American Cleaning Institute also takes exception to the research. In a press release, the institute's Richard Sedlak says, in part, that ''the research does not demonstrate that proper use of these products is contributing to health and safety problems."

He says the industry is making more information available about cleaning product ingredients. Under the institute's Consumer Product Ingredient Communication Initiative, companies are voluntarily sharing more information about ingredients. This information is on labels or on company web sites, Sedlak says, or obtained by calling the company's toll-free number.

''Detection of ingredients in a product is not an indicator of risk," says William Troy, PhD, scientific advisor to the International Fragrance Association North America. The chemicals found, he says in a press release, were found in trace amounts and have been assessed for safety by the companies and considered safe when used as intended.

The American Chemistry Council also took exception to the research. In a statement, spokesperson Kathryn St. John says: "We are disappointed that the Silent Spring Institute would make unfounded claims about the health effects of very low-levels of government-approved chemicals used in everyday consumer products without facts to support their claims."

Show Sources


Robin Dodson, ScD, research scientist, Silent Spring Institute, Newton, Mass.

Dodson, R. Environmental  Health Perspectives, published online March 8, 2012.

Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst, Environmental Working Group.

News release, American Cleaning Institute.

News release, Personal Care Products Council.

News release, International Fragrance Association North America.

News release, American Chemistry Council.

© 2012 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info