We clean our houses — some of us regularly.
But are we doing it to the detriment of our health?
There are countless studies about the hazards of cleaning chemicals and a slew of natural alternatives aimed at lowering our exposure to harmful chemicals.
Even without harmful substances as a hazard, other problems lurk in the form of the way we position our bodies while scrubbing — or even the tools we use.
How can you make household cleaning as safe as possible?
Know your cleaning products
A recent report found that using bleach even once a week boosts your risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by a third.
This research isn’t the first to link cleaning chemicals to health ailments.
Bleach, ammonia or quaternary ammonium compounds (a type of disinfectant), phthalates, and many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in typical cleaning products have all been linked to respiratory illnesses, including asthma, according to Allen Rathey, principal of The Healthy Facilities Institute.
He told Healthline that hazardous chemicals can be found in:
- bleach-based products
- degreasers containing 2-butoxyethanol, also known as butyl cellosolve or ethylene glycol butyl ether (EGBE)
Dust can also contain chemicals such as phthalates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report that EGBE can affect the blood.
Officials say the chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, potentially exposing persons handling the product to levels above the exposure limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of 50 parts per million (ppm).
EGBE is listed on NIOSH as possibly toxic to the eyes and skin, central nervous system, respiratory system, kidneys, and liver. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ATSDR) states it also affects development and reproduction.
Both the ATSDR and the CDC consider it a “hazardous substance.”
Further, scientists are concerned because EGBE doesn’t occur naturally, we don’t understand the implications of its widespread use indoors.
EGBE is just one of an array of reportedly harmful cleaners.
The Environmental Working Group called out several harmful products by name in its 2012 Hall of Shame report. The organization also lists more information about products it recommends.
Anne Steinemann, a professor at The University of Melbourne in Australia, has studied chemicals used in the cleaning process.
Her 2016 study in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health found that more than one-third of Americans report adverse health effects — such as migraine headaches and asthma attacks — when exposed to common fragranced consumer products such as cleaning supplies, laundry detergents, and air fresheners.
Dr. Ahmed Arif, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, said that most cleaning products emit volatile organic compounds that can irritate airways or cause cancer.
His research found that bleach, most toilet cleaners, and some glass cleansers were linked to asthma.
One product may not be too detrimental, but the potential for it to mix with another substance could create additional hazards.
“Mixing chemicals is never a good idea, but the most egregious mix is bleach and ammonia, as it produces very toxic gas,” Rathey noted.
Even if you aren’t mixing chemicals such as those, the wide range of chemicals legally in use means that they can mix inside our homes, and we “have no idea” the extent of those health impacts, Rathey added.
“Housework is harmful to your health when it creates exposure to unwanted substances,” Rathey said.
Is green cleaning safe cleaning?
An increased number of eco-friendly products may seem like harmless alternatives, but Rathey warned that they don’t guarantee you aren’t in danger.
Green-certified products, such as Green Seal and UL Environment, as well as green-recognized products, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice, are preferable to many noncertified products.
“But be careful with green-certified-type labels or statements, as green certification may or may not assure safety. It depends on the scope of the certification, and what is being certified,” Rathey said.
“Environmental impact and human safety in this context relate to exposures, and while green-certified products reduce exposures, they do not eliminate them,” he added.
“My research found that fragranced cleaning products called ‘green,’ ‘organic,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ and ‘all-natural’ emitted hazardous compounds similar to regular products,” Steinemann added.
Because most of us wind up cleaning our homes regularly, it’s vital to practice safe cleaning.
Those in the cleaning industry are at an increased risk for cleaning-related ailments, as they spend more time cleaning than the average consumer.
Rathey said be sure to wear gloves, long sleeves, goggles, and other protective gear — and to work in well-ventilated areas.
Steinemann advises using different products to limit exposure. She also recommends using steam to clean whenever possible.
Baking soda and vinegar are other natural cleaning ingredients.
Arif said to use wipes instead of spraying and to dilute products when you can.
Pay attention to position
Dr. Peter A. Ottone, a chiropractor from New Jersey, said to prepare for cleaning the way you would for a workout.
“Household chores provide similar strain to the body, so proper warmup is a must,” he said.
The way you vacuum, for example, can make a difference in how you feel.
Instead of anchoring your feet and twisting at the waist to vacuum a room, Ottone advises trying to keep the vacuum head in line with your core and moving your feet around to keep the vacuum directly in front of your body.
Using a step stool may prevent people from incurring injuries when trying to get to hard-to-reach spaces.
Another way to avoid injuries is to use both hands during activities in order to work each side the same.
“Only using one side of the body can lead to overuse syndromes, strains, and excessive load on joints and discs, leading to common back and joint injuries,” Ottone said.