Spic and Span: A Greener Approach to Cleaning Products

By Pennybacker, Mindy | E Magazine, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Spic and Span: A Greener Approach to Cleaning Products


Pennybacker, Mindy, E Magazine


There's nothing like a cleanser that actually works as advertised, bulldozing through dirt and leaving a surface sparkling clean. But conventional cleaning products can actually leave indoor air polluted with a toxic smog of petrochemical volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the synthetic fragrances used to mask them.

Think, then, what damage cleaning products used on a regular basis year-round can do in the enclosed space of a home, where VOCs can build up for months. "When they evaporate, they are transported directly to the brain, where they can be as intoxicating as ether or chloroform," says Kaye Kilburn, professor of internal medicine at the University of Southern California medical school. "They are palpably dangerous to health." In other words, when someone complains of being knocked out after cleaning house, it's likely more than just a turn of phrase.

Cleaning product VOCs, many of which are neurotoxins and known or suspected carcinogens and/or hormone disruptors, have been implicated in headaches, dizziness, watery eyes, skin rashes and respiratory problems. A Spanish study published in 2003 surveyed more than 4,000 women and found that 25 percent of asthma cases in the group were attributable to domestic cleaning work.

Here are some ingredients to avoid in cleaning products, and safer, simpler alternatives.

Detergents for Dishes, Clothes, Floors and Countertops. Most conventional soaps are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Some contain alkyphenol ethoxylates (APEs), suspected hormone disruptors that can threaten wildlife after they go down the drain. Inhalation of vapors from butyl cellosolve, used as a solvent to dissolve grease, may irritate the respiratory tract and cause nausea, headaches, dizziness and unconsciousness. As with an overly perfumed loved one, the synthetic fragrances in these products can make you sneeze and wheeze. "Fragrances are common allergens and repeated exposures can lead to onset of allergies, including symptoms such as skin and respiratory tract irritation, headache and watery eyes," says Dr. Harvey Karp, a Los Angeles pediatrician and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA. A family of chemicals known as phthalates, used in synthetic fragrances, have been found to produce cancer of the liver and birth defects in lab animals. Look on labels for safer and more eco-friendly ingredients such as grain alcohol as a solvent, and natural plant oils (olive, palm, pine, coconut, eucalyptus, citrus, peppermint or lavender) as a soap base.

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Spic and Span: A Greener Approach to Cleaning Products
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