I think we can all agree that there’s nothing quite like a sparkling clean home. But what if you discovered that those very cleaning products are hazardous to your health? Somehow, the crystal-clear windows, gleaming floors, shiny kitchen, and squeaky-clean bathrooms aren’t quite so appealing. And as my patient Alicia discovered, products that are supposed to help eliminate bug-borne illnesses can backfire in unexpected ways.
Cleaners That Contaminate
Now you may be wondering, just how dangerous are conventional cleaning products? The answer depends on how often you use them and how weather-tight your home is. If you tend to keep the windows and doors shut year-round, product fumes can accumulate to dangerous levels. Chemical pollutants in the air inside homes can be as much as 70 times higher than those outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since we typically spend most of our time indoors — in a house, apartment, or office with little ventilation — we spend hours and hours in an environment loaded with these toxins.
Of course, people aren’t the only ones affected by the chemicals in cleaning products. With manufacturers churning out antibacterial everything, experts are concerned about the creation of superbugs, bacteria that have evolved a resistance to the chemicals designed to conquer them.
If creating superbugs isn’t bad enough, there are other downsides to using conventional cleansers. The vast majority of Americans believe cleaning products have been safety tested. And why wouldn’t they? Safety testing is required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). But the testing is almost always done by the manufacturers themselves. In all fairness, the tests aren’t necessarily flawed or biased; however, testing by a third party with no economic interest in the product is the gold standard, and these tests are far from that.
4 Steps to Eliminate Dangerous Toxins
Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to avoid chemical-laden cleaners. Here are four steps I recommend to my patients who want to eliminate these dangerous toxins from their lives.
1. Avoid any product labeled antibacterial.
Problem: Right now, Americans waging war on germs use a staggering amount of antibacterial products, hundreds of millions of pounds per year, according to some experts. But trying to kill all bacteria could be a big mistake for several reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, antibacterial products can create indestructible superbugs, something no one wants.
And there are other downsides to antibacterial products. Take hand sanitizers, for example. Some studies show that they don’t always work as well as soap and water. Personally, I don’t want to use something that doesn’t work. But I found something even more disconcerting: A recent study determined that triclosan, the active ingredient in many antibacterial products, has a profoundly negative effect on our immune system’s natural killer cells, our primary defense against virus and tumor cells. To me, that’s a real red-flag warning about the safety of these supposedly beneficial products!
Solution: Good old unscented soap and water has worked for centuries, and there’s no reason to change now. In fact, the phrase “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” comes to mind!
2. Shop for cleaning products carefully.
Problem: When it comes to certain dangers, cleaning products are clearly marked. But if you don’t understand the terminology, warnings can be confusing. Example: What is the difference between a product labeled “danger” and one that carries the warning “caution”? According to the EPA, “caution” means fatalities can occur if more than two tablespoons are ingested, while anything labeled “danger” or “poison” is so deadly that just a few drops can be lethal.
In between the two, there’s the term “warning.” Just one teaspoon of these products can be deadly. And these terms apply only to adults. It takes far less to poison a child or an animal. In spite of the labels, household products poison about two million people each year, and more than half of them are children.
Other than these legally required warnings, manufacturers of conventional cleaning products usually provide little health information. If you want to know what ingredients a product contains, for example, you’re on your own. Most mainstream product labels neither include ingredients nor do they have to, thanks to trade-secret laws that protect these “recipes.”
Solution: Read, read, read the labels! Don’t fall for pseudo-healthy “green-washed” products created by companies hoping to profit from the nontoxic cleaning movement.
Terms like “biodegradable” and “natural” are legally meaningless, so they can be used on products loaded with petrochemicals and toxins. Also, don’t be fooled by terms like “free,” “clear,” “gentle,” and so on. I just discovered that a major manufacturer’s fragrance- and dye-free laundry detergent contains a known carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) called 1,4-dioxane.
Instead, concentrate on the ingredients. On safe cleaning products, they are usually listed. Most of the ingredients should be recognizable names — citrus or coconut extracts, for example — not what appear to be answers to a chemistry quiz. If you have questions, contact the manufacturers. Those with nothing to hide should give you straightforward answers.
3. Go homemade.
Problem: Nontoxic cleaning products are too expensive or hard to find.
Solution: You can make safe cleaning products yourself. There’s nothing better than plain old soap and water or the stuff our grandparents used — baking soda; borax; essential oils, such as lavender; lemon and other citrus extracts; distilled white vinegar; vegetable soaps or dyes; and linseed oil (see recipes below).
You will need some refillable spray bottles and a bucket or container for mixing, but you’ll have the peace of mind that comes with not worrying about your home’s chemical contamination.
Problem: With years of exposure to literally thousands of different chemicals, our bodies have to work overtime to remove these substances. And those that aren’t eliminated tend to be stored in body fat, where they may contribute to a long list of health conditions, including obesity, various cancers, breathing disorders, and more.
Solution: Because of that, I urge you to review my earlier newsletter on detoxification for ideas on how to help your body get rid of chemical contamination that has accumulated over the years.
And here’s some timely advice: Take advantage of spring’s abundance to stock up on organic fruits and vegetables, an excellent way to reduce your body’s toxic load. Meanwhile, rest assured we’ll revisit this and related topics in the future to help you further reduce your exposure to dangerous chemicals.