Household Cleaning Ingredients to Avoid

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triclosanFor health and environmental reasons, many of us do our best to eat organic produce and free-range meat, or even give up meat altogether. Likewise, we may try to be conscious of the body products we use, making sure that they do not contain harmful or irritating ingredients. While we pay attention to what we ingest and what we use on our bodies, we may be less mindful of the household cleaning products we use, thinking that they will not harm us anyway.

On the contrary, they can harm us. Conventional household products are a big source of indoor air pollutants due to their ingredients. They contain irritating and even carcinogenic components that enter our bodies through inhalation and skin contact. After usage, the harmful ingredients persist in the environment, cause harm to nature, and eventually end up in our bodies through the food we eat.

Have a look at your current cleaning products and when shopping, carefully study the ingredients listed on the cleaning products you may consider buying. There are many alternative products in Belgium (and elsewhere) found in conventional supermarkets or alternative shops. Here is a list of some ingredients from conventional household cleaning products to avoid:


Phosphate is a water-softening agent commonly found in laundry and dishwashing detergents. It contributes to algal blooms in bodies of water, which lead to oxygen deprivation and eventual death of aquatic life. This phenomenon of eutrophication is currently a critical threat to the Baltic Sea and the long-standing call to ban phosphates in detergents in the EU is intensifying. It is interesting to note that Germany has banned phosphates in laundry detergents as early as the 1980's.

Alkyl Phenol Ethoxylates (APEs)

These are surfactants often found in laundry detergents, stain removers and all-purpose cleaners. They are suspected hormone disruptors. They biodegrade into alkylphenols which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms.

Ammonium Quaternary Compounds

These compounds are often found in all-purpose cleaners. They are corrosive, can cause severe allergic reactions, can produce systemic toxicity and can cause asthma.


This ingredient is often found in anti-bacterial dishwashing products, as well as in personal care products with anti-bacterial properties. It may cause skin irritation and it is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity. It may disrupt thyroid functions even at low levels.

Triclosan is toxic to aquatic organisms and bioaccumulates in fish tissue. It also bioaccumulates in human tissue and has been detected in blood, urine and breast milk samples of humans. It degrades into other toxic compounds including the dioxin methyl triclosan and chloroform, which are both suspected carcinogens.

While its necessity and its efficacy (compared to plain old soap and water) have not been established, triclosan has been overused in consumer products to a point that it may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA)

These ingredients are in detergents and cleansers to create suds. They can react with nitrosomes (preservatives which are often undisclosed) and produce carcinogens which enter the skin. DEAs can affect hormones and cell-functioning and development.

Glycol ethers (such as butyl cellosolve and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether)

Conventional spot removers, all-purpose cleaners and glass cleaners often contain this type of solvent. When they evaporate, they are easily absorbed by the skin and eventually accumulate in fatty tissues. They can cause hormone disruption, birth defects and infertility. It is also a lung-tissue irritant.

Synthetic Perfumes/Fragrance and Phthalates

Most harmful chemicals have long complicated names but don't be fooled when you see the single word "fragrance" or "perfume." When synthetically produced and not sourced from natural essential oils, fragrance is actually a concoction of many chemicals, even numbering up to the thousands.

Petrochemical-sourced fragrance ingredients are poorly degradable, affect aquatic life and insects and accumulate in our food chain.

Phthalates are common components of synthetic fragrances. It is believed to disrupt the endocrine system and it mimics the female hormone estrogen. Long-term exposure to this chemical may cause liver and kidney damage.


This ingredient is added to household cleaning products because it is a grease cutter. Moreover, it leaves a streak-free finish, making it a common component of glass and stainless steel cleaning products. It should be avoided because it is highly irritating to the lungs and respiratory passages. It can burn the skin on contact.

Bleach (sodium hypochlorite)

This whitening-agent is a lung irritant and can burn eyes and skin. It has been linked to breast cancer, reproductive problems and learning and behavioral problems in children.

When chlorine bleach combines with organic compounds in waterways, it can form harmful byproducts that are linked to cancer.

1,4 Dioxane

Unlike other ingredients, this carcinogenic contaminant does not appear on ingredient labels because it is an unintended byproduct during the manufacturing process. In a test of household and personal care products commissioned by the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association (OCA) in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009, some products of known 'green' brands surprisingly contained 1,4 dioxane.

To avoid possible exposure to 1,4 dioxane, it is best to avoid products with the following ingredients: PEG (polyethylene glycol), polyethylene, polyoxyethylene, sodium lauryl ether sulphate/sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and alcohol ethoxylates. In general, avoid ingredient names with "-eth-" and "-oxynol-. "

To view the results of OCA's study, go to:

Go to for OCA's safety guide as of May 2009.

There are ecolabels which certify that certain harmful ingredients, like the ones on this list, are not present in your cleaning products. Watch out for Sunbeam's April Newsletter to learn more about what ecolabels to look for when shopping, as well as, what simple ingredients and cleaning products you can make at home to avoid introducing toxins into your home.


Websites of the ff: The Green Guide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Working Group, Santa Clara Basin Watershed Management Initiative, Helium, Organic Consumers Association, World Wildlife Fund and Nature Clean Living.
Natural Solutions Magazine, April 2008 issue

This article was originally published in the March 2010 edition of the Sunbeams Newsletter.

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