When you have a new baby, your house might seem a lot dirtier than it did before. The first time your little one stuffs a dust bunny or a desiccated housefly in her mouth is often a low point in parenting.
Before you start scrubbing every surface in sight, consider that obsessive cleaning with caustic household cleaners has its own drawbacks. Harsh household cleaners can affect a baby's eyes, airways, skin, and more.
"Parents need to know that there can be a trade-off between a sterilized kitchen and their baby's health," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.
There is good news. By making simple changes and practicing child-safe cleaning, you can keep your home clean without exposing your baby to unnecessary risks. For an exhausted mom, it’s a win-win: a healthier baby without loads of extra housework.
What's the Problem With Household Cleaners?
Household cleaners with harsh ingredients don't only kill germs and get out tough stains. They can affect your baby's health in a number of ways.
- Eczema. A baby's skin is sensitive, and studies have found that irritants and allergens in household cleaners and detergents can cause skin irritation.
- Airway irritation. Powerful fumes from household cleaners can irritate your baby's airways, making allergy or asthma symptoms worse. Some cleaning chemicals in schools have been linked with higher rates of asthma, says Lunder.
- Eye irritation. Household cleaner fumes can also irritate your baby's eyes, causing redness and watering. If splashed directly into the eyes, some cleaners can cause serious damage.
- Allergies. Some researchers believe that having a home that's too clean can increase the long-term risk of allergies in a child. It's called the hygiene hypothesis. Without some exposure to germs, a child's immune system might not develop normally. Instead, it becomes hypersensitive and begins to overreact to harmless allergens, like pollen or dander.
- Poisoning. Every year, more than a million kids under age 5 swallow poisons like household cleaners, sometimes with devastating effects.
- Unknown health effects. Some household cleaners have fragrances that contain chemicals like phthalates. While we don't know what their health effects are for sure, some studies have found a possible connection between phthalates and disrupted hormone levels.
"What's surprising to so many parents is that we don't have good safety testing for a lot of the chemicals we use every day," Kenneth Bock, MD, pediatric neurotoxicologist and codirector of the Rhinebeck Health Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "We don't really know what they might be doing to our kids." To be cautious, many parents try to reduce their use of household cleaners that contain harsh chemicals.
Tips for Child-Safe Cleaning
There are lots of good ways to practice child-safe cleaning. Keeping your child in good health and your home clean doesn't mean you need to go crazy scrubbing every doorknob, says Neeta Ogden. Here are a few tips.
- Choose safer household cleaners. Experts say that you should look for household cleaners that are less caustic and friendlier to both the environment and the body. Look for "green" and "nontoxic" cleaners, or products that say, "petroleum-free," "biodegradable," "phosphate-free," "VOC-free," or "solvent-free."
- Less is more. Many household cleaners can be diluted with water and clean quite effectively, says Ogden. Diluting a cleaner is an easy way of making it less harsh and better for child-safe cleaning.
People often assume that better household cleaners will cost more. Here's where diluting a cleaner has another benefit. "If you're diluting a cleaning product and using less of it each time, you could really save money," Lunder tells WebMD.
- Skip the antibacterial soap. Despite the popularity of antibacterial soaps, plain old soap and water will get the germs off just as well. Antibacterial soap not only contains chemicals you don't need, but in the long term it may increase the risk of creating tougher, resistant bacteria.
"It's like dipping your kids' hands in penicillin constantly," says Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician and author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. "It's really not something you need to do."
- Don't use spray-on carpet cleaners. According to experts, chemical carpet cleaners contain a lot of ingredients that can become trapped in a carpet. For child-safe cleaning, use a steam cleaner with water and no detergent.
- Make your own cleaning agents. Yes, it might sound a bit Little House on the Prairie, but it's actually easy to make your own household cleaners. What's the advantage? You know exactly what's going in them. You can make a good kitchen cleaner out of baking soda and a little soap. Diluted vinegar is good for cleaning windows.
- Make sure others understand your cleaning regimen. If you have help at home -- like a babysitter or a cleaning service -- make sure that they understand your approach to child-safe cleaning, Lunder says. Show them the household cleaners you use and how and when you would use them.
- Stop dirt from getting in the house. Make sure that you wipe your feet as you come in the house -- it will keep out dirt as well as any contaminants from outside. Better yet, take off your shoes as you come in the house. The floor won't get as dirty and you can clean less often.
- Don't clean with the kids in the room. When you're a harried parent, it's tempting to multitask -- to spray cleaner on the table while your baby is having snack. It's much better to use household cleaners without your child in the room. Make sure to ventilate it before your kid comes back in.
When you first shift to child-safe cleaning, there's one thing you might miss: that clean smell. Lunder points out that what you used to smell wasn't really "clean" anyway.
"That smell is just chemically produced," says Lunder. "Real clean doesn't have a scent."
Adopting a child-safe cleaning routine might not keep your house as fresh-smelling as an (artificial) pine forest or lemon grove. It might not keep your bathroom as antiseptic as an operating room. But it could have real health benefits for your kids, both now and in the future.