Like many Americans, I grew up in the age of oversanitation in a house full of home cleaning products. As I shared in my book, Eat Dirt, my mom regularly scrubbed down our kitchen counter with household bleach. The sink was so shiny that it sparkled, and our floors were spotless. She didn’t do this to hurt us; she thought it was keeping us safe. Years later, many of the clients I met in my practice had the same “kill-all-germs” standard for their homes. After all, it’s what they thought would best protect their families.
In reality, there are lots of reasons to forgo store-bought home cleaning products. The latest example? Regular, long-term exposure to spray cleaners increases a woman’s risk of lung damage similar to that of smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes a day.
Home Cleaning Products Study: The Main Takeaways
The study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, investigated home cleaning products, including sprays and other cleaners. Although the study didn’t look at products’ impacts on lung cancer risk, it did aim to find out how cleaners damage the lungs and impair function.
In the first-of-its-kind study on home cleaning products, Norwegian researchers turned up some important findings. Here are the key takeaways: (1)
The study looked at 6,000 women over a 20-year span.
It investigated the long-term impact of cleaners on respiratory health, including lung function decline and airway obstruction.
Scientists looked at both people cleaning at home and people who cleaned as a profession.
The study looked at forced expiratory volume in one second, which is how much air you can blow out of your lungs in a second.
They also looked at forced vital capacity. That’s how much air you can blow out of your lungs after taking a big, deep breath.
Although both of these breathing factors declines naturally with age starting in the mid-20s, the study found regularly using cleaning chemicals accelerated lung decline.
Cleaning as little as once a week from home over 20-years initiated significant lung damage.
People cleaning professionally for a job experienced lung damage on par with smoking 20 cigarettes daily for 10 to 20 years.
The researchers hypothesize that cleaning products’ irritating ingredients cause damage through different avenues, including:
Triggering immune system dysfunction
Setting off inflammation in mucous membranes
Damage to the airways on the cell, structural and tissue level
Environmental Working Group’s science review of the study provides some recommendations: (2)
Save money and your lungs by simply using fewer cleaning products. Store-bought cleaner manufacturers aren’t required to disclose all ingredients, so there’s no way of really knowing what’s in a specific mixture…and how it’ll affect your health in the short- and long-term.
Avoid spray cleaners when possible. If you must use them, spray onto a cloth first to reduce the number of tiny droplets you breathe in.
Use microfiber cloths or microfiber cloths and water to do your dusting.
The Dark Side of Home Cleaning Products
The study linking cleaner use to cigarette lung damage should certainly give you pause. But there are dozens and dozens of other peer-reviewed, published studies outlining how harmful cleaning products impact our bodies. Perhaps the scariest part? Cleaner manufacturers don’t have to disclose all of the ingredients in products. And we just don’t know what health effects stem from the way all of these questionable ingredients mix with each other. Here’s what we do know. Let’s take a look at some of the ways toxic cleaning products can damage your body.
Immune System Dysfunction
I talk about this study a lot, including in Eat Dirt. One animal study published in Science in 2012 demonstrated the harm that can result from living in a too-sterile environment. Researchers observed two groups of mice: the first group was bred with “germ-free” immune systems that lacked gut bacteria; the second group was given normal, healthy exposure to good and bad bacteria. When they were tested, the germ-free mice had much higher levels of inflammation in the colon and lung regions compared to the mice with normal germ exposure (who had healthy immune responses).
The germ-free mice had also developed symptoms similar to ulcerative colitis and asthma. But the good news is, once the germ-free mice were exposed to normal amounts of bacteria two weeks after birth, their immune system response balanced out, and the animals healed from their inflammatory conditions. (3)
Lung-Penetrating Air Pollution
Did you know cleaning your home with household cleaners available in most stores can actually create hazardous air conditions inside of your home? A 2006 study published in the journal Indoor Air found home cleaning products often contain high levels of volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs.
The study authors noted that these cleaners often harbor glycol ethers, which are regulated toxic air contaminants. Terpenes are other problematic chemicals lurking in cleaners. These can easily react with formaldehyde and ultrafine particles in the air to create lung-damaging ozone. (4)
Limonene and linalool are two synthetic fragrance terpene chemicals often used in citrus-scented products. (5)
A Chinese study of nearly 2300 students from 21 different schools found that frequently using cleaning products in the home increased the likelihood of kids having rhinitis, an inflammation of the nose lining, by 29 to 97 percent.
The researchers calculated kids’ “total chemical burden” by adding up the total time of exposure to 14 different home cleaning products. The rhinitis symptoms were worse as total chemical burden increased. (6)
It’s well known that people who clean to make a living face an increased risk of developing asthma. But did you know using cleaning sprays at home is also linked to new cases of asthma? A 2010 review study published in the Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology found strong evidence linking not only professional cleaners but also homemakers and healthcare professionals, to work-exacerbated and new-onset asthma. The study author noted that the following products may be particularly relevant to asthma symptoms:
So what’s triggering these lung ailments? Researchers believe it could be a sensitization effect and/or the irritating features of the ingredients. (7)
Add in the dangers of synthetic scents often used in cleaners, and it’s easy to see how home cleaning products can lead to chest tightness, wheezing and other respiratory ailments. (8)
If you’re looking for natural rash home remedies, it could be as simple as switching up your cleaning routine.
Unfortunately, contact dermatitis-triggering ingredients are common in cleaners and laundry products. Preservatives like methylisothiazolinone are among the worst offenders. And be careful: This one is often found in cleaning and laundry products marketed as “natural.” (9, 10)
Poisonous Gases & Beyond
It’s not just the cleaning products themselves, but how we often mix them that leads to potentially disastrous health threats. The dangers of bleach range beyond its own initial respiratory threats. One of the biggest dangers? It doesn’t play well with other popular cleaning chemicals. One common mistake is mixing chlorine bleach with a cleaner containing ammonia. (Glass and floor cleaners often contain ammonia.)
This creates chloramine gas. In fact, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia warns that just a few whiffs of this chemical mixture can set off 24 hours of symptoms, including: (11)
Eye, nose, throat and airway irritation
Mixing chlorine bleach with an acid-based cleaner also creates chlorine gas, another irritant, but with more serious and longer-lasting effects than chloramine. This is why I suggest you never mix store-bought cleaning products. Think about it. Even mixing white vinegar with bleach could create this hazardous gas, along with acids found in drain openers, oven cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners.
More Toxic Mixtures
The American Lung Association warns that even natural fragrances like citrus can react and create hazardous indoor air quality conditions.
If levels of ozone are high inside of the house, cleaning ingredients, particularly natural and synthetic forms of citrus, can react to create formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Toxic microparticles are also created, which can lodge into your lungs.
According to the American Lung Association, ozone can worsen asthma and other lung diseases while fine particles cannot only make asthma worse but also increase heart attack and stroke risk. (12)
How to Find & Create Safer Cleaner Products
Since our chemical regulations are outdated and don’t properly protect us from toxic cleaning products, how can we find safer solutions? Here are the top recommendations:
Most people don’t need industrial disinfectants for home cleaning. Use ingredients like white vinegar, baking soda and castile soap for cleaning purposes. When you do need a more potent cleaner, use germ-killing essential oils, including a thieves oil blend. (Make sure they are safe to use around children and pets.)
When in doubt, choose unscented products.
If you do use essential oils, avoid use on days with high ozone. And don’t use air filters in your home that create ozone.
Avoid antibacterial soap, including the active ingredient triclosan and ingredients used to replace triclosan.
Don’t always trust “green” or “natural” cleaners. A 2015 study found many contained carcinogens, toxic fragrances and VOCs similarly to regular store-bought cleaners. (13, 14)
Look at EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to see how your cleaners rank and to find safer alternatives.
Final Thoughts on Home Cleaning Products & Health Threats
In 2018, Norwegian researchers released a first-of-its-kind study linking long-term exposure to cleaning products to significant lung damage.
Cleaning the home as little as just once a week triggered lung decline.
People who cleaned more regularly (such as people who clean for a living) experienced lung damage on par with smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 10 to 20 years.
The damage was measured by declining levels of exhalation breath and a weaker one-second expulsion of air from the lungs.
The damage is believed to occur to the immune system, to the actual airway tract and due to chronic, low-level inflammation triggered by the cleaning products.
Dozens of other studies link common home cleaning products to asthma, immune system dysfunction, autoimmune diseases, cancer and other ills.
Dust with a microfiber cloth and water and utilize other natural cleaners like castile soap, white vinegar and baking soda.
Most households don’t require harsh disinfects to kill all germs. That can actually damage our health in many cases, in my opinion.
Certain essential oils possess antibacterial and antiviral properties if you do need a more potent natural cleaner. Just be sure you choose oils that are safe to use around kids and pets. And make sure they don’t interact poorly with certain medical conditions.
If you are going to purchase store-bought cleaners, check EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaners to check out safety scores and choose a better product.