WebMD Health News

Cleaner Safety: What’s In That Bottle?

woman with cleaning supplies

Oct.20, 2017 -- Consumers may soon have a better idea about the chemicals in the cleaning products they’re spraying, wiping, and mopping around their homes.

California this month became the first state in the country to require manufacturers of the products to list certain chemicals on labels. The law, known as the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017 could bring more transparency to the industry and help consumers know whether products they buy contain chemicals that could harm their health and the environment.

The move comes amid concerns that some cleaners contain toxic chemicals that in large quantities could cause health problems. In the short term, these chemicals may cause skin and lung irritation. Some studies have linked regular exposure to long-term health problems like hormone disruption, asthma, and cancer.

Yet the labels don't always show which ingredients are inside those colorful bottles.

"It's hard to know what's in cleaning products. There are no federal regulations that require manufacturers to disclose all of their ingredients to the public," says Samara Geller, a database and research analyst with the Environmental Working Group.

The new law requires manufacturers to disclose product ingredients on company websites by Jan. 1, 2020, and on product labels a year later.

"This law will help the public avoid products with known chemicals of concern and especially help those people who are sensitive to chemicals that can trigger allergies or make them worse," Geller says.

A recent study by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research of more than 55,000 working nurses in the U.S. found regular exposure to bleach and other disinfectants raised the chance of having lung diseases.

The study found that 37% of nurses used bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds (also known as “quats”), and other disinfectants weekly, a routine that was linked to a 22% higher chance of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Some of these chemicals -- including bleach and quats -- are also common ingredients in household cleaners. Past research has linked the weekly use of home cleaners to asthma development, but whether their use also contributes to COPD isn't yet known.

In a statement, the American Cleaning Institute -- an organization that represents household and industrial cleaning product manufacturers -- says it is concerned about the bill's reliance on lists of suspect chemicals that have not been vetted in the United States. Many of the claims about health problems linked to cleaning products "lack merit and scientific rigor and promote false fears about products that are used safely and effectively by millions of people every single day," says Brian Sansoni, the group's vice president of sustainability initiatives.

He says cleaning product manufacturers will prepare to comply with the law over the next 2 to 3 years. However, he adds that the industry already shares more information than ever about its ingredients through product labels, websites, and toll-free numbers.

Another industry organization, the Consumer Specialty Products Association, wrote in a statement that it "applauds" California Gov. Jerry Brown for signing the act, which "could potentially serve as a national model for other states and major retailers."

Although the new law only covers the state of California, it will likely prompt manufacturers to include the labels on products shipped to all states. New York is also close to launching industry guidance that requires the disclosure of ingredients in home cleaning products sold in that state.

"There is a good chance manufacturers will choose to roll out California-compliant labeling nationwide. Company web pages … would also probably be synced so that the displays are the same for web users across the country," Geller says.

How to Make Sense of Product Labels

Most major companies have started to list ingredients online but not necessarily on labels, an Environmental Working Group review found. Of particular concern are ingredients in fragrances, which may contain any combination of thousands of different chemicals. 

Until there are clearer labels on cleaning products nationwide, you might have to do some online sleuthing to find out what's in the cleaners you buy. The Environmental Working Group has a database of safety ratings and ingredients for more than 2,500 home cleaning products. The National Library of Medicine also has a household products database you can search.

"We always encourage people to look on a product-by-product basis," says Geller. Products can vary widely within brands, she says.

Even if the ingredients aren't on the label, words on the package can give you clues about its safety. "What I look for is that it's biodegradable. That means it's not going to last a long time or persist in the environment," says Jennifer Sass, PhD, a senior scientist in the Natural Resources Defense Council Health Program. "It's less likely to include really harsh ingredients."

Other words to look for are "fragrance-free," "dye-free," "chlorine-free," and "non-petroleum-based."

Sass recommends avoiding cleaners labeled with phrases like "extra cleaning power," "leaves a lasting fresh scent," or "kills germs." These are clues the product contains phthalates or antibacterial chemicals. Also, watch out for the words "corrosive" or "skin irritant," which warn that the product contains harsh ingredients, says Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA.

Safer Cleaning

You don't have to avoid popular cleaning products entirely, says Scott Masten, PhD, a toxicologist with the National Toxicology Program. "Just be more cautious about how you use them." He says you should use the smallest amount you need to do the job, clean less often if possible, and protect yourself with gloves, a mask, and proper ventilation.

Here are a few tips to cut your chemical exposure when you clean:

Keep it simple. The more you use chemical cleaners, the more their effects build up. Use the least number of cleaning products, and substitute basic, old-fashioned cleaners whenever you can. "Clean like your grandma. Use very simple ingredients," says Dodson, who received her doctorate of environmental science from Harvard. "There are times where regular baking soda and water can do a whole lot."

Follow directions. Most products are safe when you use them as directed. Read labels carefully and take proper care. If a product can irritate your skin, wear gloves while cleaning with it. If the cleaner needs to be mixed with water, dilute it properly. And never mix cleaning products unless the directions say to do so.

Increase ventilation. Don't use harsh chemicals like bleach in an enclosed space. "Put on your bathroom fan. Open a window," Dodson says. "Air movement will remove those chemicals.”

Consider your risks. Chemicals in cleaning products could be even more dangerous to certain groups of people. If you have asthma, you're pregnant, or you have young children at home, be even more cautious about the cleaning products you buy.

What to Look For

Here are a few cleaner ingredients to investigate before you shop:

Alkylphenols

Alkylphenols are chemicals that make laundry detergents sudsy. They're also in disinfectants and surface cleaners. The concern is they can be an endocrine disruptor -- which means they mimic the female hormone estrogen. In lab studies, alkylphenols caused breast cancer cells to multiply. There's also evidence they might lower sperm counts in male babies.

Ethanolamines and glycol ethers

Ethanolamines are in cleaners, degreasers, detergents, soaps, and polishes. Glycol ethers are in glass cleaners. In studies, both chemicals worsened asthma symptoms in people who are regularly exposed to them.

Triclosan

This bacteria fighter was once a staple in antibacterial soaps and detergents. At high levels, triclosan alters thyroid hormone levels in mammals. Another worry is that it can make bacteria more resistant to antibiotics, and harder to kill. Although many companies have phased out triclosan in their cleaning products, you'll still find it in sponges, mops, garbage can liners, and vacuum bags.

Sodium hypochlorite

This chemical is the main ingredient in bleach. It's also added to some multipurpose household cleaners and dishwashing gels. Sodium hypochlorite can burn your eyes and skin on contact. And if you mix bleach with a window cleaner or other product that contains ammonia, it produces a toxic gas that can cause serious injuries.

Quats

Companies add quaternary ammonium compounds -- or "quats" -- to fabric softeners and dryer sheets to make fabrics feel soft. These chemicals are also in some disinfectants. Quats not only trigger asthma symptoms in people who already have the disease, but they may cause asthma in healthy people.

Fragrances

The word "fragrance" tells you a product is scented, but it doesn't reveal which substances produced the aroma. A single air freshener can contain more than 60 different ingredients. Some scent-producing chemicals -- like phthalates -- can set off asthma, or trigger a skin rash in people who are sensitive. Terpenes -- chemicals that give pine and lemon cleaners their natural-smelling aromas -- can react with ozone in your home to form the cancer-causing chemical formaldehyde. Under the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017, companies will be required to list the ingredients in their fragrances. People who don't live in California should eventually be able to go online to find out which fragrance chemicals are in the products they buy.

Formaldehyde

Cleaning products don't contain formaldehyde, but some may release this gas when they're combined with other chemicals in cleaning products. Exposure to large amounts of formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals and humans. In smaller amounts, it can cause skin reactions and lung irritation.

WebMD Article Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD
© 2017 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.