What you need to know about toxic cleaning products
We wouldn’t drench our kitchen benches in petroleum or spray a bottle labelled “carcinogen” into our showers, but are we doing a similar thing by using conventional household cleaning products? Many experts think so. Research by the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed that more than 150 chemicals commonly used in our homes are associated with allergies, cancer, psychological disorders and birth defects, while Kidsafe NSW says common household cleaners and chemicals are causing 95 per cent of childhood poisoning incidents.
Plus, let’s not forget the eco impact — all these chemicals literally go down the drain, interfere with the waste treatment process and can end up polluting rivers, bays and oceans. This whole process can hurt marine life, vegetation and, in turn, us!
Many conventional cleaning products also contain non-renewable-petroleum ingredients (which have been linked to cancer and other health risks). If every household in Australia replaced one 800ml bottle of petroleum-based cleaner with a plant-based one, it would save enough barrels of oil to heat around 500 homes.
Unfortunately, cleaning product companies don’t have to list all ingredients on their products, making it harder to know what’s really safe and what’s not. Clue words on labels that scream “I’m full of harmful chemicals!” include “hazardous”, “corrosive”, “flammable”, “danger” and “irritant”.
The truth about germs
Toxicologist Dr Peter Dingle has spent more than 20 years studying the effects of chemicals and says we’ve become obsessed with killing germs and every kind of bacteria under the sun, despite the fact that each surface houses billions of bacteria, 99 per cent of which are actually beneficial.
“I’ve seen ads on TV for spray cans that say, ‘You can spray this on a surface and wipe it over and it will get rid of the bacteria’ and this is all hype because the bacteria will be back on that surface within seconds. And, because you’ve actually upset the balance, you’re probably going to end up with more toxic bacteria. So people think they’re doing the right thing by hygiene but they’re actually doing the complete opposite.
“Whether an antibacterial solution has been used or not, if the surface is left moist, bacteria will begin to reproduce there within 30 minutes or so. The truth of the matter is you don’t need antibacterial treatments on benches in homes — just keep them clean and dry,” says Dr Dingle.
So what are the alternatives to harmful chemical cleaners?
Natural & eco-friendly options
1. Natural, commercial cleaning products
You can buy these from healthfood stores and most supermarkets. Ingredients to look for include citrus and plant-based substances, salts, essential oils and sodas; and no: triclosan, phosphorous, phosphates, ammonia, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, diethanolamine, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, naphthalene, propane, isobutane, sulphuric acid or dioxins.
A handy guide is if you can’t easily pronounce an ingredient (and it’s not a Latin botanical-sounding name — eg Citrus sinensis is the botanical name for sweet orange essential oil), there’s a good chance it’s a synthetic (and most likely nasty) one.
2. Microfibre products
These come as mops, cloths, gloves, toilet bowl cloths, dusters, dish washers, window cleaners and car and barbecue cleaners — and they clean almost anything! And the best part? You only need water.
Microfibres are finer than human hair and bring more water in contact with whatever’s being cleaned (which is what detergents do). They loosen dirt and trap it in the fibres but are environmentally friendly and reusable, and the denser the cloth, the more fibres there are to trap dirt.
But don’t just take it from me. Dr Dingle conducted a five-year study on microfibre products and found they reduced dust in the house and picked up 99.999 per cent of the bacteria on a surface. He also found that conventional antibacterial cloths (sponges and dishcloths with “antibacterial ingredients”) actually had more bacterial growth after six hours than microfibre ones.
3. DIY green cleaning products
This is the cheapest and best way to clean. Just follow the recipes below for a clean, non-toxic, eco-friendly house.
- All-purpose cleaner: mix 2 tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. Dr Dingle says vinegar is the most effective thing to sterilise and control mould at home.
- Bleach (for clothes): soak clothes overnight in 1 cup of lemon juice and ½ bucket of water.
- Drain cleaner: pour ½ cup of bicarbonate of soda and 1 cup of white vinegar down the drain. Plug, leave for 30 minutes, then pour down a jug of boiling water, followed by ½ cup of white vinegar to remove any remaining odour.
- Oven cleaner: spray white vinegar into a warm oven. Sprinkle with bicarbonate of soda, leave to bubble, then scrub. Prevent messy spills by lining the oven floor with a sheet of aluminium foil. Change as needed.
- Microwave cleaner: cut 2 lemons in halves and place into a microwave-safe bowl with water. Place in the microwave set on high for 5 minutes, then remove bowl and wipe down the sides with a clean cloth. You will now have a steam-cleaned microwave with a lemony fresh smell.
- Laundry detergent: mix â…“ cup of grated, vegetable oil soap with â…“ cup of washing soda. Dissolve in hot water in a bucket and top up with water. The mixture will set to a soft gel. Use 2–3 cups per wash.
- Toilet bowl cleaner: soak white vinegar in toilet bowl for 10 minutes, then scrub away lime scale with a sturdy toilet brush; or clean with 115g of castile soap mixed with 2 cups of bicarbonate of soda, 4 tablespoons of water, ½ teaspoon of essential oil (optional) and 2 tablespoons of white vinegar (add this last).
- Window and mirror cleaner: mix ½ cup of white vinegar with 1 litre of water. You can rub the mirror or window dry with newspaper. Use soapy water as a pre-wash if windows are grimy.
- Air freshener/purifier: burn pure essential oil in an aromatherapy oil burner or get some plants! NASA did a two-year study and found that some plants absorb toxic chemicals from indoor air. The most effective are English ivy, spider plant, Boston fern and Madonna lily.
- General tip: Dr Dingle recommends cleaning areas of concern with hot water above 70ï‚°C (hot tap water is usually hotter than this), as most harmful bacteria found in homes grow in temperatures of 15–50ï‚°C.
Olivia Richardson is a natural health and eco lifestyle writer and a former editor of Australian Natural Health magazine.
For more great home ideas, why not check out our Wellbeing Directory
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