Cleaning Your Home Naturally: 5 Harmful Chemicals to Avoid

Natural cleaning tools on a kitchen counter

Regular household cleaning products contain toxic chemicals that are harmful to both the environment and your health. But how can we avoid them? Switching to a natural cleaning routine is one of the easiest steps to creating a chemical-free home and is much more eco-friendly. As with many things, knowing where to start can really hold you back from making the transition, so I’ve written a natural cleaning guide based on my own experience which I hope will be useful. Part one outlines the benefits of cleaning your home naturally with a list of harmful chemicals to avoid when choosing natural cleaning products.

The benefits of cleaning your home naturally

Low toxicity

Many conventional household cleaners contain toxic chemicals that pose a risk either to our immediate or long-term health. These can vary from skin irritation and chemical burns to a compromised immune system, fertility issues and other chronic conditions.

Most of these toxins fall into one of three categories:

  • Carcinogens – which cause or promote cancer.
  • Endocrine disruptors – which mimic or interfere with human hormones, sending altered signals within the body that can lead to cognitive development issues, birth defects, and several types of cancer.
  • Neurotoxins – which destroy nerve tissue and affect the function of the brain leading to neurological disorders including autism, ADHD, memory impairment, epilepsy, and dementia.

Cleaning with natural products lowers your exposure to toxic chemicals making them a safer choice to use around your home. 

Harmful chemicals washed up on beachBetter for the environment

The chemicals found in household cleaners are also toxic to aquatic life. Rinsed away after cleaning, waste treatment facilities are unable to remove many dangerous chemicals from the water. They are released into lakes and rivers killing off plant life, encouraging excessive algae growth and depleting oxygen in the water. Seabirds, fish and marine mammals are all affected by the toxic algal blooms that form as a result while the water becomes unfit for human consumption or even bathing.

Cleaning your home naturally is better for the environment because the ingredients are biodegradable, non-toxic, and lower in volatile organic compounds like glycol esters, limonene and hydrocarbons.  

Less packaging waste

Natural cleaning products tend to come in more eco-friendly packaging. Whether it’s recycled plastic or a cardboard box, these changes can make a real difference to the carbon emissions produced from packaging waste.

Making your own natural cleaning products is also a great way to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that ends up in landfill. Many of the ingredients can be bought in bulk with minimal packaging and, by re-using your plastic spray bottles, you can reduce your carbon footprint by as much as 3lbs of CO2 per cleaning product.

Child holding a rabbitCruelty free

Sulphates and other chemical substances in household cleaning products are often tested on animals to measure levels of irritation to the skin, eyes and lungs. Rabbits, mice and other lab animals are sometimes force fed these chemical ingredients to test the effect of ingesting the product.

Natural products don’t usually require this level of testing since they are safer to to come in contact with and are generally made from plant-based ingredients. Making your own natural cleaning products is the best way to guarantee cruelty-free cleaning but you can also look out for products with the Leaping Bunny logo which is the only internationally recognised certification for cruelty-free brands.

Harmful chemicals to avoid

With so many options available on the market, even 'natural' cleaning companies have begun to greenwash their products to appear safer and more eco-friendly than they actually are. An important part of switching to a natural cleaning routine is knowing which ingredients to look out for. Below are five commonly used chemicals to avoid.

1. Sulphates

Sulphates, including Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALS), are cleansing agents derived from the salts and esters of sulphuric acid – a highly corrosive substance that you wouldn't want touching your skin. Naturally occurring or synthetically produced, sulphates help to create the foaming effect in many everyday cleaning products and are found commonly in liquid soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents and even toothpaste.

Sulphates are surfactants – compounds that attract both oil and water – which help to break down grease and dirt so they can easily be rinsed away. The problem is that these harsh cleansers strip away the natural, protective oils from skin and can cause irritation, especially in those with sensitive skin. The Journal of the American College of Toxicology found that “severe epidermal changes” were observed on the skin of animals where SLS had been applied. SLES can also be contaminated with a substance called 1,4-dioxane, which is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Bathroom interior showing mirrors cleaned with ammonia2. Ammonia

Ammonia is an alkaline gas that dissolves easily in water. Because it evaporates quickly, ammonia is often used in glass and window cleaners as well as many conventional bathroom sprays to leave a streak-free shine. Once inhaled, it interacts with moisture in the skin, eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract to form ammonium hydroxide, a highly caustic solution that damages the cell membrane and causes severe irritation.

A study by The University of Bergen found that the use of ammonia and bleach  in household cleaning home can cause changes in the lung tissue, accelerating the decline of lung health. Even low concentrations of ammonia may aggravate cases of asthma, but exposure to high concentrations can lead to bronchial and alveolar edema, an accumulation of fluid in the tissue spaces of the lungs.

Synthetic fragrances in lab with phthalates3. Phthalates

Used as a solvent for fragrances in household cleaners and deodorisers, phthalates are known hormone-disruptors and can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women and infants. Certain phthalates have been linked to neurodevelopmental effects, reproductive abnormalities, respiratory issues, liver and kidney toxicity and cancer.

You may already have heard of the dangers of BPA since phthalates are used to make plastics more flexible, but there are many other forms to be aware of including pesticides in non-organic food, cosmetics, perfume, deodorants, air fresheners and laundry detergent. Look out for the word “fragrance” or “parfum" on labels. Unless a product is labelled “phthalate-free” or is scented with only natural botanical oils there is a good chance it will contain phthalates.

Laundry liquid being poured into a washing machine4. Formaldehyde

A volatile organic compound (VOC) that occurs naturally, formaldehyde is a powerful antiseptic that kills viruses and fungi. Dissolved in water, it produces a solution called formalin that is used as a preservative in cleaning products including floor polish, washing up liquid, laundry detergents and fabric softener. These preservatives release small amounts of formaldehyde into the product to stop harmful microbes from growing.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has officially classified Formaldehyde as a carcinogen. Evidence suggests that overexposure to the chemical can cause irritation, respiratory issues, nasal tumours, and leukaemia. It has been linked with the onset of Motor Neuron Disease a progressive neurodegenerative condition that causes loss of muscle control; and can otherwise damage the nervous system leading to depression, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, irritability, and attention deficit.

Formaldehyde is known by many names including:

Formalin, Methanal, Oxymethylene, Urea, 1,3-Dioxetane, Quaternium 15, Methylaldehyde, Methylene Oxide, Formic Aldehyde, Oxomethane Formalin and Phenol Formaldehyde

It is also present in a number of common preservatives such as:
Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Polyoxymethylene urea, Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, Bromopol and Glyoxal

5. 2-Butoxyethanol

A solvent found in window and glass cleaners as well as many multi-purpose sprays, 2-butoxyethanol helps to break down dirt and oil. It is a known respiratory irritant and can be acutely toxic, entering the body through the lungs or by skin contact. Extended exposure to 2-butoxyethanol can cause severe liver and kidney damage, narcosis and pulmonary edema.

2-Methoxyethanol and 2-Ethoxyethanol are two other glycol ethers to watch out for.

Chemical-free cleaning

The list of new chemical names is always evolving and with so many companies doing their best to disguise these dangerous substances on their ingredients list, the easiest way to avoid them is by making your own natural cleaning products. Although this might sound time consuming, it’s actually a lot easier than it seems and can be achieved with just a few simple ingredients that are fairly easy to get hold of including lemons, baking soda and white vinegar.

If you fancy having a go, I’ll be sharing my favourite natural cleaning tips and some simple, homemade cleaning recipes in part two of my natural cleaning guide.

Of course, if you're keen to dive in already, we have some really great eco-friendly cleaning tools on the store which you'll find here.