Photo of cleaning brushes
When it comes to cleaning the house, why use toxic chemcials when natural alternatives are safer and as effective? [Image: tanakawho - Wikimedia Commons]

A cleaner, greener home – without chemicals!

10 August, 2011

Not many of us love to do housework. It can be time consuming, it can be messy and it can back breaking. But it is also a necessary part of keeping our environments and ourselves hygienic and inhabitable.

A clean home is a healthy home and if you are reading this today it is probably because you are interested in better, safer, greener ways to keep your home clean.

At the same time you may be thinking you are too busy to make substantial changes in the way you clean. You may be asking yourself will it really make a difference if I choose a ‘green’ way to clean my home? The answer is yes. Almost everyone can benefit in some way – for instance through less exposure to harsh chemicals – from a change in the way they approach household chores.

In fact, green cleaning brings with it a range of benefits including:

  • It costs less – by using readily available ingredients like baking soda and vinegar to clean your home you will find you spend less on everyday cleaners.
  • Less backache – When you make it yourself there are no heavy bottles to carry home. Suddenly bringing in the groceries becomes less onerous.
  • No heavy perfumes – fragrances used in cleaning products are significant triggers of asthma as well as headaches. Going fragrance free may have the knock on effect of improving your health.
  • Self-sufficiency – Not having to rely on commercial cleaners is emotionally freeing. Suddenly all those commercials that try to sell you toilet cleaner as a cure for a dead-end love life seem remarkably silly.
  • A cleaner home – genuinely cleaner that is. Instead of washing away dirt with toxic chemicals, or masking unpleasant smells with other smells, you will really be getting your home clean.
  • Nothing dangerous under the sink – a much safer way to live, especially if you have children.
  • A cleaner planet – you’ll be doing your bit – relatively effortlessly – to keep the planet in good shape for future generations.

Most people spend about 90% of their time indoors, largely in their homes.  While indoor air pollution can be caused by any number of things, from the presence of a smoker, to the use of formaldehyde-laden particleboard furnishings, a primary cause is the use of household cleaners.

It’s ironic that while most of us scrub and dust and polish to keep our homes clean and keep germs and dirt at bay, the truth is that many of the products we use to achieve a clean and germ free home are more risky than the germs and the dirt themselves.

It is ironic, for instance, that while most modern cleaning products will remove surface dirt and sometimes germs, they make the air and surfaces dirty with volatile organic chemicals, hydrocarbons, chlorine and more.

Several chemicals found in everyday household cleaners have been implicated in adverse effects on human health. Unfortunately labelling laws are much less strict for household products and manufacturers are allowed to hide behind the concept of trade-secrets and so are not obliged to list everything that goes into their products.

This means that you may never know if your glass cleaner, dish detergent or spot remover contains these chemicals, and if so in what concentration.

However, studies from environmental groups and independent research scientists have shown that the majority of household cleaners do contain a range of harmful ingredients and that they can ‘bioaccumulate’ – in other words get stored in the body – to a level where they may cause ill health.

While it is not so easy to avoid chemicals present in our water supply or the pollution spewing from factories and cars it is possible to do something about the chemicals you use in your own home – once you know a bit more about them.

Not so clean cleaners

While most of us sympathise with the need to keep environmental pollution to an absolute minimum, our resolve often disappears at the supermarket where brightly packaged products promise to transform our homes into spotlessly clean aromatherapy spas.

But consider what’s in the bottle.

The following is a list of toxic chemicals commonly found in cleaning products. If you are at all worried, try making the switch to the natural alternatives suggested at the end of this article.


In the home these can be found in all purpose cleaners, disinfectants, glass cleaners, metal polishes, air fresheners, disinfectants and degreasers. There are many kinds of alcohols, including:


Commonly found in: Antiseptic and antibacterial formulations. It’s clear and colourless and very flammable.

What are the risks?  Ethanol in itself is probably the least worrying of all the alcohols. it can be naturally derived and is a useful solvent. But accidents happen, and ingestion in large amounts can cause nausea, vomiting and coma.

Isopropanol or isopropyl alcohol

Commonly found in: These petroleum derivatives are used in disinfectants and grease removers.

What are the risks?  Ingestion or inhalation can cause headaches dizziness, depression nausea vomiting and in large amounts coma. People whose jobs expose them to high concentrations of isopropanol have a higher incidence of sinus and throat cancers. As little as an ounce is fatal if swallowed by a small child. Isopropanol can aid the absorption of certain other chemicals into the system.


Commonly found in: This solvent is found in perfumes, windshield-washer fluid and antifreeze.

What are the risks?  When ingested can cause blurred vision, headache, stomach pain, weakness, blindness and in large amounts death.


Commonly found in: Glass cleaners, all purpose cleaners, disinfectants, floor cleaners, furniture polishes and metal polishes. Also found in drain cleaners, kitchen cleanser, oven cleaner and toilet bowel cleaners.

What are the risks?  Irritating, and in some cases damaging, to the eyes nose and lungs.  On contact with the skin can cause redness, rashes and even burns.  A poisonous chemical that must never be mixed with bleach, as the combination results in toxic chloramine gas.


Commonly found in: Cleaners, disinfectants, laundry bleaches, toilet bowel cleaners, tub and tile cleaners. Also known as chlorine bleach or sodium hypochlorite. Found in nearly every household and used for a variety of cleaning and laundry jobs.

What are the risks?  Bleach is one of the household cleaners most frequently implicated in household poisonings. It can irritate the skin and when ingested the mouth oesophagus and stomach. Over the longer term chlorine and its by-products have been associated with birth defects and even cancer.

Butyl cellosolve

Commonly found in: Heavy-duty all purpose cleaners, degreasers and window cleaners.

What are the risks?  This solvent is easily absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. Once inside you it can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system when absorbed into the body via the bloodstream.


Commonly found in: Disinfectants, furniture polishes, detergents and water softeners. Often used in small amounts in many products as a preservative.

What are the risks?  The off-gassing of formaldehyde from furnishings, decorations, plastics and household cleaners is a common indoor pollutant.  Can cause nasal stuffiness and itchiness, red teary eyes, nausea, headache and fatigue. Has been associated with cancer in animals.


Commonly found in: Degreasers, dry-cleaning fluids and floor cleaners.

What are the risks?  There are several different types of glylcol,s from the non-toxic to extremely toxic.  Many irritate the skin, nose, eyes, and throat.  They easily inhaled and also quickly absorbed through the skin.  Repeated exposure can cause fatigue, nausea, and tremors.  They have been linked to damage of the kidney, liver, central nervous and reproductive system.

Hydrochloric and Phosphoric Acid

Commonly found in: Toilet bowel cleaners, metal polishes, bathroom cleaners limescale removers.

What are the risks?  Irritating to eyes, nose and throat. Can cause side effects such as wheezing, sneezing and a feeling of being suffocated.  Can dissolve and destroy skin tissue. Splashes and spills can result in burns, permanent scarring and if in contact with the eyes blindness.

Hydrofluoric acid

Commonly found in: rust removers and aluminium cleaners

What are the risks?  Easily penetrates the skin and body tissues – may even reach the bone. It’s a dangerous acid that causes no warning signs of pain.

Lye (Sodium hydroxide)

Commonly found in: Bathroom cleaners, toilet bowel cleaners, oven cleaners and drain cleaners.

What are the risks?  The sodium hydroxide used to make your bath soap has been neutralised by combining it with fatty acids. The largely undiluted sodium hydroxide used in many cleaning products will quickly damage skin. Mixed with acids it will release harmful vapours. Lye is corrosive, alkaline and poisonous. If accidentally splashed in the eyes it will cause blindness.

PDCBs (paradichlorobenzenes)

Commonly found in: Toilet fresheners, mothballs, room deodorants and industrial strength odour controllers, and insecticides.

What are the risks?  PDCBs are irritating to eyes and nose and toxic to ingest. Vapours can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, mental confusion, excessive sweating and urinary irritation.  Particularly toxic to small children and infants who have experienced severe toxic reactions to being dressed in clothes stored in mothballs.


Commonly found in: Dry cleaning fluids and spot removers.

What are the risks?  Perchloroethylene is a proven carcinogen in animals and suspected human carcinogen.  A common air pollutant in dry cleaning shops. Can cause light headedness, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea and tremors. Long-term exposure can cause liver and central nervous system damage.

Petroleum distillates

Commonly found in: Furniture polishes, metal polishes, oven cleaners.  Can also be in a product as a by-product of its manufacture. Benzene is commonly found in products such as washing up liquid as a contaminant.

What are the risks? There are a wide range of petroleum distillates such as benzene, toluene and naphthalene found in home cleaning products. They can irritate the skin, and temporarily desensitise nerve endings. Ingestion can be fatal.

Petroleum distillates also release dangerous and highly reactive molecules known as hydrocarbons into the air. Common reactions to hydrocarbon exposure include respiratory, skin and eye irritation, nausea, headache and, over the longer-term, nervous system damage and cancer.

Ingestion of products containing hydrocarbons can lead to a fatal form of pneumonia.

Phenol (Carbolic acid)

Commonly found in: Air fresheners, disinfectants, furniture polishes

What are the risks? Phenol is a suspected carcinogen.  Phenol can cause the skin to swell, burn peel or break out in hives. Ingested it can cause cold sweats, convulsions, coma and even death.  Usually only present in small amounts but even at a 2 per cent dilution it can cause gangrene, burning and numbness. Its use if being phased out and less toxic phenol derivative are now being used.


Commonly found in: Propellants such as propane, butane and occasionally still clorofluorocabons (CFCs) can be found in aerosol products, including air fresheners, furniture polishes.

What are the risks?  Although harmless when in contact with the skin but these propellants are easily breathed into the lungs and absorbed into the bloodstream. They are irritating to the lungs and in high concentrations can cause irregular heartbeats. Butane has largely replaced CFCs as the propellant of choice but this is still a toxic chemical. It can cause drowsiness and is narcotic in high concentrations.

Sulphuric acid

Commonly found in: Toilet bowel cleaners and metal polishes.

What are the risks?  This substance can produce severe skin burns even when diluted. Very dangerous when splashed in the eyes, has been known to cause blindness.

TCS (trichloroethylene)

Commonly found in: Spot removers and metal polishes.

What are the risks?  TCS is a carcinogen and narcotic. When inhaled it can cause dizziness and sleepiness and in some memory loss.  Irritating to the eyes and nose and cause skin to become dry and flaky and may produce rashes. Ingested it can cause vomiting, nausea and death.

Tested for safety?

If a cleaning product has made its way onto the shelf of your local supermarket, most of us assume that it must be safe. In fact, consumer surveys show that the vast majority – some 88% of those asked – believe that household products must be tested for safety before they can be sold, and 87% think manufacturers are required to list their products’ ingredients on labels.

Yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 43% of the most widely produced chemicals have no basic toxicity data at all, and just 50% have even preliminary screening data.  In fact, only a measly 7% of these “high production volume” (HPV) chemicals have a complete set of screening level toxicity data.

In the UK the environmental group Friends of the Earth agree. Their report Crisis in Chemicals noted that only 14% of HPV chemicals in Europe have a full set of basic safety data, 65% have incomplete safety data and 12% have no safety data at all.

When they are tested for safety chemicals are screened individually, not in combination—which is the way we encounter them in our household products, and in our environment.  Surprisingly, manufacturers aren’t required to have their products tested for safety by an independent third party before marketing them.

Also any testing that is performed is usually done by the manufacturer of that product. This is rather like allowing the wolf to guard the hen house and is a cause for increasing concern amongst health professionals and environmentalists.

If you don’t like the thought of cleaning your home with potentially dangerous chemicals, you don’t have to. There are safer, greener options.

Green cleaning – the basics

Your home should be a haven where you can rest and your body can repair itself.  Frustratingly, evidence is rapidly accumulating to show that it is not. Consider the conclusions of a US survey of 600 homes in six cities by Lance Wallace an environmental expert working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He found that the highest concentrations of twenty toxic or carcinogenic chemicals were up to 50 times higher indoors than outdoors.His follow-up work in this area also found that levels of toxins are higher indoors than out.

Household cleaners contribute substantially to this indoor pollution. In fact, many of the chemicals detailed in the EPA report can be found in your favourite bottle of all-purpose cleaner, as well as in your toilet cleaner, room fragrance and dish detergent. The problem has become such that scientists throughout the world consider household cleaning products one of the most important sources of indoor air pollution and one of the most insidious threats to human health.

The good news is that with a little forethought, levels of this type of indoor pollution can be largely within your control and household cleaning products are amongst the easiest types of pollutants to avoid.

Simple, inexpensive and green alternatives to “industrial strength” chemicals are readily available. While many different ‘natural’ ingredients can be used to clean safely and effectively there are certain basics you should always keep on hand.

Baking Soda

Chemists call this white powder sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3). Your grandmother might have mixed it with water, called it “a bicarb,” and drunk it to cure heartburn. That should tell you something about how safe it is.

In cleaning, baking soda does a lot of different things.

  • As a powder, it acts as a mild abrasive to help scratch off hardened dirt without scratching whatever it is you’re trying to clean;
  • It also dissolves in water without leaving a gritty film like other scouring powders do. And because it dissolves in water, baking soda gives you other benefits;
  • It is a mild a disinfectant with the ability to kill some bacteria and fungus;
  • It can help cut through grease;
  • Baking soda also softens water, helping your other cleaners clean and rinse more effectively.

Chemists might call vinegar a dilute solution of acetic acid (CH3COOH). When table wine turns “bad” it chemically changes into vinegar. You probably won’t drink it as a beverage, but you might mix it with a little olive oil to put on your salad.

Vinegar is a mild acid that cuts grease and disinfects by killing many types of bacteria, yeast, and moulds. It is also an efficient air freshener.

Most people confuse soap and detergent. Chemists originally developed synthetic detergents as an alternative to soap when the water used for cleaning is hard (contains magnesium or calcium) or acid is present.

The detergent that we buy from a store is really a synthetic detergent that has been manufactured from a variety of mineral products like coal tar and petroleum.

On the other hand, soap – for instance traditional castile soap – is a kind of mild detergent that is simple and made from natural products like vegetable oils and animal- or vegetable-derived fats. Used sparingly and under the right conditions soap is gentle and is a wonderful in cleaning agent that has a minimal impact on the environment.

You could also consider using liquid soap crystals which are an effective cleaner and degreaser and easily biodegradeable.


This can be bought from most chemists and while it is an effective cleaner it should be used with caution because, if consumed it can also be toxic at high levels.

Borax is an effective water softener and can be used in home made products to help soap work harder and rinse better; it is an effective mould and mildew remover and disinfectant can soften, and it can whiten clothes and help prevent odours.

Microfibre cleaning cloths

These new cloths are so useful that once you begin to use them you will wonder why you ever bothered to waste your money on anything else.

Water is the most powerful solvent in the world. The purpose of detergents is to bring more water in contact with whatever surface you are cleaning. Microfibres effectively do the same thing. Microfibres are finer than human hair and have a superior absorbency.

The combination of these properties means the cloth has a greatly increased surface area, bringing more water into contact with the cleaning surface. Used as directed they will leave most surfaces both clean and dry.

Many manufacturers have jumped on the microfibre gravy train recently so you can afford to be choosy about the cloths you buy. The best ones are denser and generally more costly. However they can be reused indefinitely and the more dense the cloth the greater its surface area – and the more fibres there are to trap dirt.

And finally…

Open a window

Fresh air is the best air freshener there is. To save money and environmental resources we have all become accustomed to living and working in sealed premises.  Unfortunately, sealing in the heat also seals in every smell, every chemical and gas which may be present in the environment.

Unless you live in a dreadfully polluted space, opening a couple of windows to allow cross-ventilation is always the best way to get rid of a bad smell. Even in winter this is unlikely to raise your heating bill significantly.

Elbow grease
There’s no getting around this one. Many natural alternatives work just as well as the more-hazardous chemicals you’ve been using all this time. But occasionally using non-toxic alternatives to conventional household cleaners means that at least some of the time you will have to scrub harder or longer.


  •  Neal’s Yard Remedies now produce a luxury range of completely natural home fragrance options – candles, diffusers and room sprays. Click here for more information.