Cleaning Product Toxins & How to Make Your Own Safe Products

© Copyright 2006 Bee Wilder

You are what you eat, digest and absorb through inhalation and the pores of your skin. The skin is the largest organ of the body. When the liver is overworked, the skin takes over the elimination of toxins.

Unfortunately, many toxins are not that easy to get rid of, and overall health and all of the body’s organs suffer.

According to the National Research Council, "no toxic information is available for more than 80% of the chemicals in everyday-use products. Less than 20% have been tested for acute effects, and less than 10% have been tested for chronic, reproductive or mutagenic [and carcinogenic] effects."

Did you know that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) depends upon industry-sponsored tests in order to approve of products allowed onto the market? Well, in 1981 one company was found guilty of falsifying over 90% of more than 2,000 studies, and those products are still readily available. Who knows how many more "so-called" scientific tests have been falsified before and since that time?

It requires a team of scientists, 300 mice, more than $300,000 US and two to three years to determine whether one single suspect chemical causes cancer. Governments are at the mercy of economic agendas. Whenever there is a question of industry interests versus health or government regulations, industry always wins.

That, in addition to the fact that up to 99% of toxins are not required to be listed on labels. This is mainly because the products do not make any claims about safety. So you can safely assume that products that do not make specific claims about safety are unsafe!

One million poisonings per year in Canada alone are due to household cleaner ingestion. Some are fatal. The number one cause of household poisoning is dish detergent.

Each time you wash your dishes, some residue is left on them. The residue accumulates every time your dishes are washed. Your food picks up part of the residue, especially if your meal is hot. Dishwashing liquids are labelled "harmful if swallowed" for a very good reason.

With all of these dangers well documented and well known, industry still spends millions of dollars each year to convince us that we need these products. And it is much more dangerous and expensive to dispose of these toxins in hazardous waste dumps, which are few and far between.

Governments acknowledge that those cleaning products are hazardous, but regulation only requires labels to indicate combustible, corrosive, poison or caution.

Cleaning products are among the few household products regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission under the 1960 Federal Hazardous Substances Labelling Act. According to this law, cleaning products that are harmful to human health must carry various warnings on their labels.

If a cleaning product contains a chemical that is hazardous, it must by law specify the degree of toxicity by use of a signal word (DANGER:POISON, WARNING or CAUTION). In addition it must state "the common or usual name or the chemical name…of the hazardous substance or of each component which contributes substantially to its hazard."

Other labelling requirements include a statement telling users how to avoid the hazard (and, if necessary, safe use instructions), name and location of the manufacturer or distributor, instructions for handling and storage of packages that require special care, and a warning to keep out of the reach of children.

Manufacturers are required to keep records of all adverse health effects associated with the substance they produce.

There is no federal law requiring pre-market safety testing by the manufacturer, however, and the hazards of some products have not been revealed until after complaints have been received by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The real safety or danger of cleaning products is difficult to assess because manufacturers are not required to list exact ingredients on the label.

You can’t look at a label to be sure, for instance, that a certain furniture polish doesn’t contain nitrobenzene (a substance commonly used in furniture polish that could be fatal if swallowed), or that a mild-and-mildew cleaner is free from pentachlorophenol (another commonly used deadly substance), however, these ingredients should be listed on an a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

Some product ingredients, though, are protected by "trade secrets" and those cannot be found by the government and poison-control centers!

The best information we can get from poison control centers is general lists of the chemicals commonly used in specific categories of products, but which brand name products do or do not actually contain these substances is anybody’s guess, unless the manufacturer voluntarily reveals the product’s ingredients.

You may be surprised at how dangerous some products are, especially ones that you use in your home on a regular basis.

Here are some common ingredients in commercial household products:

Ammonia Fatal when swallowed
Ammonium Hydroxide Corrosive, irritant
Bleach Potentially fatal if ingested
Chlorine Number one cause of poisonings in children
Formaldehyde Highly toxic; known carcinogen
Hydrochloric acid Corrosive, eye and skin irritant
Hydrochloric bleach Eye, skin and respiratory tract irritant
Lye Severe damage to stomach and esophagus if ingested
Naphtha Depresses the central nervous system
Nitrobenzene Causes skin discoloration, shallow breathing, vomiting, and death
Perchlorethylene Damages liver, kidney, nervous system
Petroleum Distillates Highly flammable; suspected carcinogen
Phenol Extremely dangerous; suspected carcinogen; fatal taken internally
Propylene Glycol Poison; main ingredient in antifreeze
Sodium hypochlorit Potentially fatal
Sodium laurel sulfate Carcinogen, toxin, genetic mutagen
Sodium tripolyphosphate Irritant
Trichloroethane Damages liver and kidneys

It is obviously imperative that all product ingredients for cleaning products are listed, particularly if they are toxic. Simply warning consumers that there is a danger does not give us enough information to make an informed choice.

Industry has been argued that consumers won’t know what the words mean anyway, or that we will be "alarmed" if we know that the product contains certain toxic substances, but it is better to be informed rather than ignorant–we have a right to know what we’re buying.

Also required on the label by the Hazardous Substances Act are first-aid instructions, but don’t rely on them in an emergency. A study done by the New York Poison Control Center found that 85% of product warning labels they studied were inadequate.

Some labels list incorrect first-aid information, and others warn against dangers that don’t even exist. Environmental effects of cleaning products are not required on the label.

Oven Cleaners – These are one of the worst substances used in households today! They contain lye and ammonia which eat the skin, and the fumes linger affecting the respiratory system. The residue intensifies the next time you heat your oven as well.

Disinfectants – These are usually phenol- or cresol-based. They deactivate sensory nerve endings and they attack the liver, kidneys, spleen, pancreas and the central nervous system (CNS). It takes over a year to eliminate the unhealthful affect of spraying 2-1/2 ounces, even with heavy cross ventilation.

Air Fresheners interfere with your ability to smell by releasing nerve-deadening agents or by coating nasal passages with an oil film. Usually this is methoxychlor, a pesticide that accumulates in fat cells and over-stimulates the central nervous system.

Some other common ingredients includes P-dichlorobenzene, naphtha-lene and formaldehyde. Fresh, organic citrus juices, spices and essential oils do a better job, and they are risk-free.

Chlorine is a lethal substance. Even scientists will not handle it without protective gloves, face masks and ventilation, yet it is in most store-brand cleaners, including laundry soap, dishwasher soap, dish detergents, hand cleaning liquids, etc.

And chlorine is added to our drinking water and swimming pools in order to cleanse and purify them. In fact the harmful effects are intensified when the fumes are heated, i.e. Jacuzzis, hot tubs and swimming pools.

Formaldehyde is in almost all cleaning products, including laundry detergents, toothpaste and shampoo. Laundry detergents contain phosphorus, enzymes, ammonia, naphtha-lene, phenol, sodium nitilotriacetate and countless others. These chemicals can cause rashes, itches, allergic reactions, sinus problems and more. The residue left on your clothes and bed sheets is absorbed through your skin, as is everything else you touch.

How to Avoid Toxic Cleaning Products

Conversion Table

5 ml = 1 Teaspoon 250 mL = 8 fluid ounces or 1 cup
15 ml = 1 Tablespoon 500 mL = 16 fluid ounces or 2 cups
50 ml = 2 fluid ounces or 1/4 cup 1 litre = 1 quart or 4 cups
125 mL = 4 fluid ounces or 1/2 cup 4.5 litres = 1 gallon

Make Your Own Cleaners

Very effective cleaning can be done with a few simple ingredients you probably already have around your kitchen, i.e. baking soda, lemon juice, and distilled white vinegar.

Basic tips on how to use them for a particular purpose are given under the individual product entries that follow. A good comprehensive how-to do-it-yourself natural cleaning guide to have on hand is Clean & Green, which gives around 500 formulas for making your own cleaning products. Clean and Green: The Complete Guide to Non-Toxic and Environmentally Safe Housekeeping (Paperback) by Annie Berthold-Bond is available for $9.95 US.

Organically-grown natural/renewable ingredients. Cleaning products made from organically-grown ingredients are just starting to become available. Look for them in natural food stores.

Natural/renewable or hybrid-natural ingredients. Natural food stores now have full cleaning products departments–go to your local store and choose from a wide variety. Supermarkets also have a few natural cleaners, such as the chlorine-free scouring powder and gallon-size bottles of vinegar that can be used for cleaning.

Though some "natural" cleaning products are not made entirely from renewable resources–they may contain some minor ingredients made from non-renewable resources–they generally list their ingredients, so you can look them up and find out their original source. Look for cleaning products certified "biodegradable" by Scientific Certification Systems.

Nontoxic/non-renewable ingredients. There are a number of new cleaning formulas that, while not made from renewable ingredients, are less harmful to health than standard cleaning products. Most stores that sell cleaning products now sell some brands labelled "non-toxic."

These can generally be relied on to be relatively safe to use, but may have been made from toxic chemicals in their manufacture (one very popular "non-toxic" cleaner is actually made from a toxic chemical, diluted with water to the point where a toxic warning label is no longer required).

Toxic ingredients. These are easy to spot because they usually have warning labels and don’t have the ingredients listed.

Vinegar Is An Excellent Cleaner!

Vinegar naturally cleans like an all-purpose cleaner. Mix a solution of 1 part water to 1 part vinegar in a new store bought spray bottle and you have a solution that will clean most areas of your home. Vinegar is a great natural cleaning product as well as a disinfectant and deodorizer.

Always test on an inconspicuous area. It is safe to use on most surfaces and has the added bonus of being incredibly cheap. Improperly diluted vinegar is acidic and can eat away at tile grout. Never use vinegar on marble surfaces. Don’t worry about your home smelling like vinegar. The smell disappears when it dries. Here are some uses for vinegar in the rooms of your house. Use it in the…

Bathroom – Clean the bathtub, toilet, sink, and countertops. Use pure vinegar in the toilet bowl to get rid of rings. Flush the toilet to allow the water level to go down. Pour the undiluted vinegar around the inside of the rim.

Scrub down the bowl. Mop the flour in the bathroom with a vinegar/water solution. The substance will also eat away the soap scum and hard water stains on your fixtures and tile. Make sure it is safe to use with your tile.

Kitchen- Clean the stovetop, appliances, countertops, and floor.

Laundry Room- Use vinegar as a natural fabric softener. This can be especially helpful for families who have sensitive skin. Add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle in place of store bought fabric softener.

Vinegar has the added benefit of breaking down laundry detergent more effectively. (A plus when you have a family member whose skin detects every trace of detergent.)

Lemon Juice Has Many Uses

Lemon juice is another natural substance that can be used to clean your home. Lemon juice can be used to dissolve soap scum and hard water deposits. Lemon is a great substance to clean and shine brass and copper. Lemon juice can be mixed with vinegar and or baking soda to make cleaning pastes.

Cut a lemon in half and sprinkle baking soda on the cut section. Use the lemon to scrub dishes, surfaces, and stains. Mix 1 cup olive oil with 1/2 cup lemon juice and you have a furniture polish for your hardwood furniture.

My favorite use for the fruit is to put a whole lemon peel through the garbage disposal. It freshens up the drain and the kitchen.

Baking Soda – Cleans & Deodorizers

Baking soda can be used to scrub surfaces in much the same way as commercial abrasive cleansers and it can be used on furniture and carpets. Baking soda is great as a deodorizer. Place a box in the refrigerator and freezer to absorb odors. Put it anywhere you need deodorizing action. Try these three kitchen ingredients as natural cleaning products in your home.

All Purpose Cleaner

Make your own. Mix one teaspoon liquid soap (see Soap) into one quart warm or hot water. A squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar will help cut grease.

Natural/renewable or hybrid-natural ingredients. Many available in natural food stores and green catalogs.

Nontoxic/non-renewable ingredients. Many available in natural food stores, green catalogs, and hardware stores.

Toxic/non-renewable ingredients. Don’t use products that contain ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, or artificial fragrances.

Basin, Tub & Tile Cleaners

Baking soda works great, or use a non-chlorine scouring powder (see section on it).

Natural/renewable or hybrid-natural ingredients. Not yet available to my knowledge, but watch for them in natural food stores and green catalogs. Look on the label for products certified "biodegradable" by Scientific Certification Systems.

Nontoxic/non-renewable ingredients. Some available in natural food stores, green catalogs, and hardware stores.

Toxic/non-renewable ingredients. Don’t use products that contain aerosol propellants, ammonia, detergents, or artificial fragrances.

Hydrogen Peroxide as a Bleach

See Oxygen Bleach below on how to use natural hydrogen peroxide to get spots and other stains out of clothes.

Bleach is used to prevent mineral deposits and soap scum from building up on fabrics. These causes them to look dull and dingy. Use a water softener to prevent build-up – see Water Softener section.

Natural/renewable or hybrid-natural ingredients. A few brands are available in natural food stores and green catalogs.

Oxygen bleach. These products usually have the prefix "oxy" in the name, or are referred to as "non-chlorine" bleaches.

Look for them in natural food stores. One popular brand is heavily advertised on television. These are made from natural minerals or hydrogen peroxide, which is made from non-renewable resources, but decomposes into hydrogen and oxygen.

If you want, you can also use straight hydrogen peroxide (available in drug stores and chemical supply houses) — it is used as textile bleach in industry.

Experiment with different concentrations in different amounts to find the level of whitening you need (start with a little at first–you can bleach something more, but once it’s bleached, you can’t undo it!) and be sure to mix it with a lot of water so you don’t get white bleach spots on your clothes.

Toxic/non-renewable ingredients. Don’t use products that contain sodium hypochlorite, lye, artificial dyes, detergents, fluorescent brighteners, or synthetic fragrances. Note warning on package label.

Natural Brooms

Natural broomcorn. Most brooms sold in hardware stores are made from natural materials and many broom handles are made from reclaimed scrap wood (whether so labelled or not). For a special broom, check shops that carry local crafts and craft fairs.

In some parts of the country, making brooms by hand from natural materials is a treasured Americana skill. I have a wonderful broom with a tree branch for a handle, carved with the face of the tree spirit.

Plastic broom bristles. Do not use–made from non-renewable resources, not biodegradable.

Carpet & Furniture Cleaner

Keep your rugs and carpets clean. Wipe up spills immediately before they become stains, and vacuum regularly to keep rugs and carpets fresh.

  1. For spills, rub promptly with mixture of vinegar and water (half and half).
  2. Sponge with clean water and pat dry.
  3. Clean stains immediately with cold club soda.
  4. Sprinkle cornstarch or baking soda on rug. Wait half an hour and vacuum.
  5. Pour salt on red wine spills. Vacuum when dry.
  6. Use club soda to remove stains.

To shampoo carpets or furniture put plain liquid soap in warm water. Use an egg beater to create lots of suds. Scoop up the suds with a sponge mop or a large sponge and apply. Rinse with clear water

Nontoxic/non-renewable ingredients. Not widely available, but a non-toxic carpet shampoo can be ordered by mail.

Toxic/non-renewable ingredients. Don’t use products that contain perchloroethylene, napthalene, ammonia, or detergents. Note warning on package label.

Dishwasher Detergent & Dishwashing Liquids

Use plain soap for hand-washing dishes – see Soap for information.

Pour 1 cup of Baking Soda into the dishwasher and run it through the rinse cycle. It will help get rid of some of the grime that collects on the inside of the machine, as well as freshen the smell of the dishwasher.

Make your own Baking Soda Detergent: Mix together 1-1/2 tablespoons of Baking Soda with 2 tablespoons of Borax. Use in place of automatic dishwasher detergent.

Or sprinkle baking soda on top of dirty dishes after they are loaded, but before they are washed. Make sure some of the baking soda is sprinkled in the bottom of the machine. The baking soda will serve as detergent during the first wash, leaving you to only add the detergent for the second wash.

Natural/renewable or hybrid-natural ingredients. A few brands are available in natural food stores and green catalogs.

Nontoxic/non-renewable ingredients. A few brands are available in natural food stores, green catalogs, and hardware stores.

Toxic/non-renewable ingredients. Don’t use products that contain chlorine, artificial dyes and fragrances or detergents. Note warning on package label.

Drain Cleaners

To prevent clogged drains. Use a drain strainer to trap food particles or hair that might cause clogging. Do not pour grease down the drain (dump it into the garbage or into a "grease can" to be reused instead).

Baking Soda Option #1

Pour 1 cup of baking soda down the drain followed by 1 cup of hot vinegar. Try heating the vinegar in the microwave before adding it to the drain. Wait 5 minutes before flushing the drain with 2 quarts of hot water. You can repeat this process a few times if it is necessary. If this is the first time you have cleaned your drain in a long time it may be necessary to repeat the baking soda flush a couple of times.

Baking Soda Option #2

Try pouring 1 cup of baking soda and 1/2 cup of salt down the drain. Let this mixture sit in the drain for several hours, overnight is best, before flushing the drain with 2 cups of boiling water.

Tips for Baking Soda and Drains

Use baking soda that has been used in the refrigerator or freezer to help clean the drains and you’ll extend the use of something you otherwise would have just thrown away.

Use the same ideas to clean and freshen your garbage disposal. You cut the required amounts of baking soda, water, vinegar, and salt in half for use in your disposal.

Try putting baking soda down the drain without rinsing when you are going on vacation or even just a weekend trip. It will help reduce odors that may develop while you are gone. Flush the baking soda out of the drain with hot water or hot vinegar followed by hot water when you return.

Benefits of Baking Soda and Drains

Using Baking Soda to clean your drains and garbage disposal eliminates harsh chemicals that may leave odors and residue in your sinks.

OR use hydrogen peroxide. Pour one quarter cup 3 percent hydrogen peroxide down the drain. Wait a few minutes, and then plunge. Repeat a second time if needed. This has been known to open clogged drains that have defied other methods.

Mechanical means. Use an old-fashioned plunger. If the clog is further down the pipe, you can use a device that creates water pressure with water from your garden hose to push the clog through.

If worst comes to worst, use a mechanical snake or call a professional to bring in their mechanical equipment. Mechanical devices are sold in hardware and home improvement stores.

Biological means. These products are designed to remove soap, hair, grease and other organic materials that coat the entire length of pipe and cause slow drains. Enzyme action removes this build-up so pipes can flow freely. These are generally available in hardware and home improvement stores.

Toxic lye-based cleaners. Do not use. Drain cleaners are among the most toxic consumer products sold, and don’t even work as well as mechanical means to clear drains. Note "POISON" warning on package label.

Natural Fabric Softeners

Wear natural fibres. Fabric softeners are formulated to reduce static cling in synthetic fabrics and are unnecessary with natural fibres.

To make natural fibres softer, pour one cup of white vinegar into the final rinse water.

Natural/renewable or hybrid-natural ingredients. A few brands are available in natural food stores and green catalogs.

Nontoxic/non-renewable ingredients. Choose an unscented sheet variety that goes into the dryer (available in every supermarket) over a liquid in a plastic jug or an aerosol spray applied to dry clothes.

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