10 toxic cleaning products and their natural alternatives
The smells of cleaning products, disinfectants, and laundry soaps for many people are hallmarks of a clean home. While the overpowering smell of furniture polish or laundry soap may evoke certain pleasant associations or childhood memories, those familiar scents are mostly toxic. They are comprised of everything from reproductive disruptors to phthalates and allergens. Air fresheners alone release more than 100 chemicals and create adverse health effects in an estimated one-fifth of the U.S. population. Lysol aerosol sprays send corrosives and respiratory irritants airborne that can cause developmental problems, harm vision, and pollute waterways.
The sodium hydroxide in most commercial drain cleaners eats through the very pipes it’s intended to clear while burning all organic matter along the way. And a 2018 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found the toxins in household cleaners can lead to childhood obesity. Nevertheless, toxic cleaning chemicals are ubiquitous in supermarket aisles and big box stores—and people keep buying them. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards are known for being lax, and greenwashing or subpar “green” products has left consumers with limited options.
Using ratings from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), scientific studies, and other authoritative sources, Stacker compiled a gallery of 10 toxic cleaning products and their natural alternatives. All the natural items listed are highly accessible and utilize as little waste as possible, keeping in mind that many containers for cleaning products don’t get reused or recycled. Furthermore, plastic waste ending up in landfills does not biodegrade.
Keep reading to learn more about 10 toxic cleaning products, their natural alternatives, and how people can make their own cleaning products that are safe for their home, family, and backyard.
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Toxic product: Bleach
Chlorine was discovered in 1774 by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele; a year later, chlorine-based bleaches were released throughout Europe for whitening fabrics. Bleach was being used as a disinfectant and deodorizer by the 1820s, leading to its widespread use for sanitizing and cleaning.
Despite its uses for cleaning and disinfecting, bleach can become toxic very quickly. Breathing in bleach odors can harm the respiratory system, particularly so in those with allergies or other respiratory conditions. Bleach that winds up in soil or waterways raises pH levels significantly and can kill plant and animal life. The cleaning agent is also corrosive, capable of burning skin or eating away at stainless steel or fabric. Bleach rarely causes any significant issues if used in well-ventilated areas and small doses. However, frequent use of bleach (like cleaning the bathroom with it every day), inhaling it, mixing it with ammonia or vinegar, or disposing of bleach by pouring it down a drain or on the lawn outside can cause extensive physical and environmental damage.
Natural alternative: 3% hydrogen peroxide
Since its discovery in 1818, hydrogen peroxide has been used widely around the world as a natural disinfectant and bleach. Its first commercial use was as a bleaching agent for hats and to restore paintings. Mixed with vinegar or used on its own, household-strength (3%) hydrogen peroxide makes for a powerful, all-purpose cleaner. It can clean glass without streaking. It can be mixed with hot water for cleaning floors (1 gallon hot water, 1 cup peroxide), and it can be used on its own to clean toilet bowls, bathtubs, showers, and countertops.
Where to buy: Amazon, $11.75 for 1 gallon
Toxic product: Glass cleaner
Most commercial glass and surface cleaners contain a solvent called butyl cellosolve, a hazardous substance that, as a carcinogen, is not safe for humans in any amount. Products such as Windex also contain fragrances that are harmful to marine life.
Natural alternative: Vinegar
Vinegar is nothing more than an acetic acid solution derived from diluted alcohol (whether from beer, rice, or wine, among other products). The acetic acid is what gives vinegar its taste and smell—and also what makes vinegar a great, all-natural cleaning product and germ-killer. It can be used alone or spruced up with essential oils. Vinegar works equally well on just about any cleaning job, save five. Never use vinegar on stone, ceramics, pearls, computers, or phones—and don’t mix vinegar with bleach (the combination creates a toxic, chlorine gas).
Toxic product: Cleaning wipes
Most popular, disinfectant cleaning wipes contain quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”), which can irritate the respiratory tracks, harm the skin, and have been linked to cases of asthma, reproductive issues, birth defects, and antimicrobial resistance. Cleaning wipes are also often not biodegradable and can cost more—and be less effective—than their alternatives.
Natural alternative: Cloth diaper inserts
Microfiber cloths do as well as wipes for buffing out smudges, general cleaning, and disinfecting, and they don’t smudge glass. But ultimately microfiber cloths are made from (hopefully recycled) plastic, which means they’re ultimately not biodegradable even if they save water throughout their use.
Cloth diaper inserts are eco-friendly, highly absorbent, and can withstand years of use. They can also be tossed in with any regular load of laundry, saving cash and water throughout their use. To use, spray the area with vinegar or 3% peroxide, and wipe clean. For those who would rather make their own cleaning wipes and cleaning solution, it’s easy to do with some isopropyl rubbing alcohol, essential oil, vinegar, and old towels.
Where to buy: Amazon, $23.74 for a pack of 12
Toxic product: Surface cleaners
The fragrance chemical galaxolide present in many surface cleaners such as Pledge, Windex, and Scrubbing Bubbles has been found to be a contaminant in waterways as well as an endocrine disruptor. A 2015 study published by the Journal of Hazardous Materials found extended exposure to galaxolide caused cellular, tissue, and genetic damage to zebra mussels. S.C. Johnson, purveyor of the aforementioned brand names as well as Glade, Shout, and OFF!, in 2018 set a three-year window to phase galaxolide out of its products.
Sudsing agents diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) are skin-penetrating toxins also present in many cleaning agents.
Natural alternative: DIY all-purpose cleaner
Distilled water, vinegar, and sprigs of fresh herbs or drops of citrus-scented essential oils are all it takes to make your own, nearly free, DIY all-purpose cleaner. Store the solution in a vessel from a used-up cleaning bottle (or buy a glass jar with a sprayer that you can use over and over). Just remember—never spray marble or granite with vinegar.
Where to buy: Amazon, $10.44 for three-pack of glass bottles with sprayers
Toxic product: Toilet bowl cleaner
Toilet bowl cleaners are among the most toxic of home cleaning products. Many name brands contain eye and lung irritants (phosphoric acid, sulfates) and are highly corrosive. Because these products go directly down the drain, they are also highly contaminating for groundwater, soil, and highly toxic for plants and animals. Nutrients from cleaners like this can also wash into water bodies, contributing to toxic algal blooms.
Natural alternative: Baking soda
To clean a toilet bowl naturally with practically zero elbow grease and at almost no financial cost, sprinkle baking soda into the bowl, add vinegar, close the lid, and walk away for 30 minutes. After half an hour has passed, use a toilet brush to scrub away stains.
Where to buy: Amazon, $27.54 for 1 gallon of baking soda2018 All rights reserved.