These Home Products Might Be Hurting Your Health

This might look like a cool prop on the set of Doctor Who, but would you want to clean your bathtub with it? © Josh Dickinson.
Despite what Hugh Grant may have led you to believe, love actually isn't all around — chemicals are. They form everything you can sense, from your morning latté to the air you breathe. These are the good guys and  the bad guys, and there's a whole lot of the latter hiding out in cleaning products.

No, we're not referring to the hospital-grade disinfectants you've seen on CSI . We're talking about the everyday household helpers you use to tackle spilled wine or a grimy shower. Many of these store-bought cleaners are manufactured with harsh ingredients that can be harmful to your health. What's worse, some companies even circumvent consumer-oriented government regulations for the sake of their bottom line. One surefire way to know you're not unknowingly consuming beaucoup toxic stuff? Go the DIY route: That way, you always know exactly what's in your products, which is more than we can say for the mass-produced alternatives out there — even if they're marketed as safe and eco-friendly. We're highlighting three green cleaning products you can make yourself in lieu of the synthetic counterparts you should avoid — and we'll tell you why. Get ready to get your science on.

Skip This: Your All-Purpose Cleaner
An all-natural citrus spray is an effective eco-alternative to store-bought cleaners. © Josh Dickinson.
When it comes to cleaning supplies you always have in your arsenal, DIY-ing gives you way bigger bang for your buck. "The majority of spray cleaners are mainly composed of water; you're just paying for the fancy bottle and shipping cost," says Alexandra Gorman Scranton, the director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth

Beyond the budgeting aspect, many of these all-purpose cleaners contain antibacterial chemicals that are deemed hazardous for the body. "Since ingredient disclosure is not required by law for cleaning supplies, the majority of companies aren't being as up-front as they can be," says Samara Geller, a representative at the Environmental Working Group. "Most of the time, [ingredients are] just dubiously labeled as 'fragrance,' 'surfactants,' or 'dyes'." Even when brands get caught for using harmful substances, they can skirt around the issue via regrettable substitution — replacing the chemical of concern with another one that hasn't been tested for safety.

We asked Scranton to help us identify the questionable chemicals used in many all-purpose cleaners. These products have been known to contain ammonium quaternary compounds (quats), a common disinfectant that has been linked to the exacerbation of asthma and antibiotic resistance, as well as a decrease in fertility in miceAlkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), synthetic surfactants that have been reported to cause reproductive problems and multiplication of breast cancer cells, are also present. If these findings seem alarming to you, try this Hello Natural cleaner recipe that's made entirely out of edible ingredients from your pantry. The refreshing citrus fragrance and natural pink color are just the cherries on top.
© Josh Dickinson.
Make This: Grapefruit Anti-Bacterial All-Purpose Cleaner

Peel of 1 extra-large grapefruit
Glass canning jar
About 2 cups white vinegar
Grapefruit seed extract or tea tree oil


1. Peel the fruit and cut away what you can so you have only the pith and colored part of the peel.

2. Place the peels in a glass canning jar and cover with vinegar. 

3. Put a lid on the jar and let it sit for about a week somewhere dark and cool, such as a cabinet. You’ll notice the vinegar start to change color and smell like grapefruit.

4. Strain the vinegar and transfer it to the spray bottle. 

5. Fill the rest of the bottle with water and add about 6 drops of tea tree oil. 

6. Shake gently before using to mix things up. You can substitute with grapefruit seed extract for better dissolution.

Skip This: Your Oven-Cleaning Spray
The stuff that's in your oven spray is a lot worse than alien slime. © Josh Dickinson.
Anyone who's ever had to scrub down an oven knows that it's no easy task. In fact, "how to clean oven racks" is the eighth most-searched cleaning question on Google, according to internal data provided by the search engine. A quick lookup of the oven-cleaner subcategory on EWG's product database indicates that over 91% of manufactured ones scored an F rating — posing the highest risk of creating environmental and health hazards. Many of them contain ethanolamine, a respiratory irritant, and sodium hydroxide, a corrosive chemical that can cause skin burns and eye damage. More often than not, they come in the form of aerosol cans and consist of hydrocarbons and compressed gases, which are known contributors to climate change.

In search of a smart solution with a smaller carbon footprint, we enlisted Wendyl Nissen — green-living expert and owner of a line of homemade "Green Goddess" cleaning products — to create a natural paste formula. With this minty-fresh cleaner, ridding your kitchen of grease stains won't feel like a chore at all.
© Josh Dickinson.
Make This: Peppermint Cleaning Paste

2 cups baking soda
2 tbsp cream of tartar
4 tsp liquid castile soap (or dishwashing liquid for a less-green option)
1/4 cup water
several drops of peppermint essential oil

1. In a bowl, mix together baking soda with cream of tartar. 

2. In a jug, mix 4 teaspoons liquid castile soap with water.

3. Slowly pour into the powders and mix with a fork until you have a paste. Add more water if needed.

4. Add a small amount of peppermint essential oil and stir to combine.

5. Store in an airtight container and use to clean kitchen ovens, bathtubs, and toilets. If it dries out, just add a little more water to return it to a paste.

Skip This: Your Air Freshener
You are what you breathe in, and with the lack of detailed labeling on many room fragrances, you don't know what you're inhaling. © Josh Dickinson.
With benign scent names like "vanilla" or "fresh cotton," it's hard to imagine that room sprays and air fresheners can pose a threat to your health. But, "many air-care items on the market contain asthmagens (substances that can aggravate or even cause asthma)," says Geller. Scranton notes that brands can opt to keep their fragrance ingredients confidential to protect scents that are "trade secrets." This recipe from The Organically Clean Home uses only botanical oils (and vodka!) to deliver an equally soothing scent.
© Josh Dickinson.
Make This: Lavender & Lemon Room Spray

1 cup water
1/2 cup vodka
10 drops lavender essential oil
5 drops lemon essential oil
Spray bottle

Combine ingredients and pour into a 16-ounce container with a spray top. Spray about 8 inches away from any linen that needs a little refreshing. Store in a cool place for up to 2 months.

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