14 Toxic Ingredients In Cleaning Products + How To Spot Them!

I've said it many times before, I love to clean! And when I started my green journey over 20 years ago the first thing I learned was just how many toxic ingredients were hiding in some of my favorite cleaning products.

There is a concoction of chemicals present in cleaning products that are harmful both to us and the planet, to help you reduce your exposure to toxins, I'm highlighting the 13 Ingredients To Avoid In Cleaning Products and how to spot them!

I have broken this list down and tried to make it simple to follow. A lot of the time the actual ingredients are not listed on the bottle and that's because legally, in Canada, companies are not required to label their products. So, in many cases, you just don't know. I hope this simple & quick guide helps. Remember when in doubt ask, and if a company is not willing to provide you with the information you need, move on!

2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE)

What is 2-Butoxyethanol?

This is a colorless, flammable liquid that is used as a solvent. Solvents are used in cleaning products because they can remove dirt without much scrubbing effort. It's typically found in paints and coatings and is part of a family of "glycol ethers." This is also found in personal care products like hair dyes, nail polishes, nail polish removers, and skin cleansers!

What cleaning products contain 2-Butoxyethanol?

Found in glass cleaners, laundry stain removers, carpet cleaners, automobile cleaners, windshield wiper fluid, degreasers, oven cleaners, and rust removers. Obviously, these are ingredients to avoid in cleaning products.

Potential Health Risks:

Health Canada has listed this chemical as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act because it can harm our health. "Health Canada identified indoor air and skin contact with cleaning products as the main pathways of exposure. Regulations limit the concentration of 2-BE in most household cleaners to 5 or 6 percent, but higher concentrations are permitted in other products, notably and laundry stain removers (up to 22per cent)." This chemical breaks down more slowly in water and soil than it does in air. It can move out of contaminated soil and move into groundwater.

How to spot it on a label:

Butyl Cellosolve; Ethylene Glycol, 2-BE

A woman cleaning the bathroom. Pin

Coal Tar Dyes

What are Coal Tar Dyes?

They are derived from petrochemicals and can contain trace amounts of heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, and lead. These are synthetic dyes that are used to change the color of the product, think lavender laundry soap that's bright purple. Dyes in cleaning products contribute to indoor air pollution and can be absorbed through the skin or ingested from soap residue left on dishes. Not only are they found in cleaning products, but in cosmetics like hair dye, shampoo's made to treat psoriasis, and dandruff, it's even found in lipstick.

What cleaning products contain Coal Tar Dyes?

Soaps, laundry detergents, and all-purpose cleaning products.

Potential Health Risks:

Coal tar is known to be a human carcinogen, which means there is a potential to cause cancer. They absolutely do not need to be in cleaning products! Coal Tar Dyes can bioaccumulate (build up in the environment over time) and can wreak havoc on ecosystems and aquatic life.

How to spot it on a label:

Look for names that may be preceded by FD&C and D&C. Other names include: P-phenylenediamine, coal tar solutions, naphtha, estar and benzin B70.

Banner for an eco cleaning challenge.Pin

MEA (monoethanalomine), DEA (diethanolamine), TEA(triethanolamine)

What are MEA, DEA and TEA?

Known as ethanolamines these are common emulsifying ingredients found in cleansing agents. Masterclass describes what emulsifiers are perfect. "To emulsify is to force two immiscible liquids to combine in a suspension—substances like oil and water, which cannot dissolve in each other to form a uniform, homogenous solution." It's present skincare products like shampoo, lotions, sunscreen, and makeup!

What cleaning products contain MEA, DEA, and TEA?

Dish soap, liquid laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, oven cleaners, glass cleaners, surface cleaners, and floor cleaners.

Potential Health Risks:

The issue is these ethoxylated alcohols can also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxine, a possible human carcinogen that can persist in the environment. MEA is known to induce asthma in workplace settings. DEA is a mild skin and severe eye irritant. Other studies have shown a link between lover tumors and this toxin.

How to spot it on a label:

MEA (monoethanolamine), DEA (diethanolamine), TEA(triethanolamine)

a woman cleaning the kitchen. Pin

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)

What is Nonylphenol ethoxylated?

Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPEs) are surfactants used in some commercial and institutional detergents that enhance their effectiveness. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act lists these chemicals as toxic substances.

"Environment Canada required companies to develop plans to reduce NPEs in cleaning products (as well as textiles and pulp and paper products) by 95 percent by the end of 2010 but stopped short of banning these chemicals. As of July 2010, only 63 percent of manufacturing facilities subject to the planning requirement had met the target, although the use of these chemicals in products has declined significantly."

What cleaning products contain Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPEs)?

Stain removers, car wash products, all-purpose cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, liquid laundry detergents, degreasers, and air fresheners.

Potential health risks:

Studies have shown a link between breast cancer cells and these toxins. They have also been found to harm reproduction in fish and other aquatic life. They are also known as endocrine disruptors.

How to spot it on a label:

Nonylphenol (NP) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)

Fragrance/Parfum

What are fragrance chemicals?

These are bad news and are found in almost every product you have at home in both your bathroom and kitchen! Fragrances can come from nature, think essential oils or they can be synthetically made. Essential oils are by far the better choice but keep in mind they can cause allergies in some people.

More than 3,000 chemicals are used in fragrance mixtures. They are used to either create scent or mask it.

What cleaning products contain fragrance or parfum?

Pretty much any conventional cleaning or beauty product that has a scent. Laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and deodorizer. Air fresheners contain a potpourri of fragrance chemicals, in some cases including cancer-causing benzene and formaldehyde, as well as phthalates and numerous VOCs.

Potential health risks:

Phthalates are typically present in parfum and perfumed products. Phalates have been in the news a lot and many companies have removed these suspected endocrine disrupters. Glass cleaners and floor polishes contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP). The European Union classifies DBP as very toxic to aquatic organisms.

How to spot it on a label:

Perfume/Fragrance or parfum. Phthalate, DEP, DEHP, and DBP.

Phosphates

What are phosphates?

Phosphates are used as "chelating agents" whose job is to prevent minerals in hard water from interfering with cleaning. They help to soften the water by preventing magnesium and calcium ions present in tap waste from binding with surfactants.

What cleaning products contain Phosphates?

Bathroom cleaners, laundry detergents, and dishwasher detergents.

Potential Health Risks:

When phosphates enter our waterways they can promote the growth of algal blooms which can increase weed growth and cause the oxygen levels to drop killing fish and other aquatic life. Definitely a chemical we want to avoid in cleaning products.

How to spot it on a label:

Sodium Tripolyphosphate

laundry products in a basket. Pin

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

You will find these two ingredients on most lists referring to toxic ingredients in cleaning products you should avoid and for good reason!

What are SLS and SLES?

These are surfactants that aid in removing oil and first from surfaces, they also give our products that foamy lather we are so accustomed to.

What cleaning products contain SLS and SLES?

Dish soap, liquid laundry detergents, cleaning towelettes, and toilet bowl cleaners (as well as
sudsy cosmetics).

Potential Health Risks:

Studies have found that SLS and SLES are toxic to aquatic life. But there is still no real data showing their effect on human health. Some studies have shown that in concentrations grate than 1% there is a chance of eye and skin irritation.

The issue lies in the manufacturing process, SLES can be contaminated with ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen) and 1,4-dioxne a "possible" carcinogen. Since the consumer will not have access to this information on the bottle, I'd avoid both of these ingredients.

How to spot it on a label:

Sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium salt, ammonium laureth sulfate, sodium n-dodecyl sulfate, dodecyl sulfate, and sodium dodecyl sulfate.

Sodium hydroxide (also known as lye and caustic soda)

What is sodium hydroxide?

Sodium hydroxide is a bad cleaning ingredient that is a white solid that dissolves in water to produce a strongly alkaline solution. Sodium hydroxide is used to produce soaps, rayon, paper, products that explode, dyes, and petroleum products. DYK, chlorine bleach is produced by combining chlorine and sodium hydroxide!

What cleaning products contain Sodium hydroxide?

Disinfectants, toilet bowl cleaners, oven cleaners, drain openers, and bathroom cleaners.

Potential Health Risks:

Studies have shown that when humans are exposed to this ingredient to avoid in cleaning products they can suffer from burned eyes, skins, and lungs. It's known to be highly corrosive and long-term exposure can lead to chronic health issues. In larger quantities, it can also change the PH balance of water, harming aquatic life. A body of water in BC is still suffering the effects of a spill.

How to spot it on a label:

Caustic soda, lye, Sodium hydroxide.

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate

What is Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate?

This is a solid chlorine bleaching agent that is sometimes used in water treatment plants. It's a really harmful ingredient found in cleaners.

What cleaning products contain dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate?

Disinfectants, deodorizers, surface cleaners, and toilet bowl cleaners.

Potential Health Risks:

It's highly corrosive and can cause severe skin, eye, and respiratory problems. Studies have found that this chemical can damage our kidneys and can be highly toxic to aquatic organic creating long-term, irreversible damage.

How to spot it on a label:

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate, sodium chloride

Triclosan (TSC)

This is probably one of the worst offenders for toxic ingredients you should avoid in cleaning products. It's in numerous cleaning and skincare products because it acts as a preservative and can also mask or prevent odors. It was first used by surgeons thanks to its antibacterial properties and it's one of the worst cleaning products.

What cleaning products contain Triclosan?

Disinfectants and dish soaps as well as antiperspirants, hand sanitizers, laundry detergents, facial tissues, and even toothpaste.

Looking for amazing eco products that are free from triclosan, check out:

Zero Waste Toothpaste
Zero Waste Deodorant
All-natural hand sanitizers
DIY Disinfectant Wipes
The Best eco-friendly laundry detergent

Potential Health Risks:

Triclosan is a "suspected endocrine disrupter that can mimic or interfere with the function of hormones". On top of that, because it's an antimicrobial agent there is concern that its extensive use in consumer products is contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, thus limiting treatment options for microbial infections.

The European Union also classifies it as an eye and skin irritant. It's not that great for aquatic life either, studies have shown that it's very toxic and can react in the environment to form dioxins, which bioaccumulate.

How to spot it on a label:

Triclosan (TSC) and triclocarban (TCC)

Ammonia

What is ammonia?

Ammonia is a colorless gas that is very pungent and composed of nitrogen and oxygen.

What cleaning products contain ammonia:

All-purpose cleaners, window cleaners, stainless-steel cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bathroom cleaners, oven cleaners, and even car polishes.

Potential Health Risks:

If you have ever used this in your home you know how bad it can smell, it can irritate the lungs, throat, eyes, and skin and people with respiratory issues like asthma can be very sensitive to it. Some studies have linked it to kidney and liver damage. According to The David Szuki Foundaiuton:

"While ammonia also occurs naturally, the use of cleaning products containing this substance can result in higher levels of exposure to vapors than from natural sources. If ammonia is mixed with products containing chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite), highly poisonous chloramine gas is formed."

How to spot it on a label:

Ammonia

Silica Powder

What is silica powder?

This is an abrasive ingredient made from either sand or quartz. It's a natural mineral compound found in two forms crystalline or noncrystalline

What cleaning products contain silica powder:

Abrasive cleaning powders.

Potential Health Risks:

This dust is dangerous if inhaled. The International Agency for Research on Cancer does classify this as a known human carcinogen.

How to spot it on a label:

Sodium Silicate

Trisodium nitrilotriacetate

What is trisodium nitrilotriacetate?

According to Pubchem its " an organic sodium salt composed of sodium and nitrilotriacetate ions in a 3:1 ratio. It's used to soften water and as a replacement for sodium and potassium triphosphate in detergents, and cleansers.

What cleaning products contain trisodium nitrilotriacetate?

Some laundry detergents (most industrial) and bathroom cleaners.

Possible Health Risks:

Rated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen. In aquatic ecosystems, trisodium nitrilotriacetate can also cause heavy metals in sediment to redisolve and many of these metals are toxic to fish and other wildlife.

How to spot it on a label:

NTA, EDTA

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats)

What are Quats?

They are a group of chemicals used for a variety of purposes including preservatives, surfactants, antistatic agents, and active ingredients in disinfectants and sanitizers.

What cleaning products contain Quats?

Car wash products, liquid laundry detergents, stain removers, all-purpose cleaners, air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, and degreasers.

Potential Health Risks:

Can irritate the skin and make asthma worse. Some studies have shown these to be occupational hazards for people working in the cleaning industry. Some preliminary studies did show they can cause reproductive effects and they can persist in the environment too. Like triclosan, quats are anti-microbial agents and there is concern that their widespread use in household disinfectants and cosmetics is contributing to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, thus limiting treatment options for microbial infections.

How to spot it on a label:

Benzalkonium chloride, Benzethonium chloride, Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides (C12-16)
Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (C14 60%, C16 30%, C12 5%, C18 5%), Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chloride (C12-14), Alkyl dimethyl ethylbenzyl ammonium chlorides (C12-18), Didecyldimethylammonium chloride and Dioctyldimethylammonium chloride.

What characterizes toxic ingredients in cleaning products?

There is no doubt that the subject of what makes an ingredient toxic or not is a controversial one. Some ingredients like silica powder for example could be considered natural. When it comes to cleaning products there is very little legislation in place to protect consumers from the toxic ingredients in cleaning products that they might want to avoid. It can be really hard to differentiate between natural cleaning products or non-toxic laundry products, and that's because in Canada and the USA companies are not required to legally put the ingredients on the label, unlike skincare.

The problem is that individually small doses add up in the environment and contribute to our overall toxic burden, so even though some governing bodies deem some of these ingredients safe in small doses, odds are people are being exposed at much higher rates.

Cleaning products in my opinion should not come with warning symbols on the bottle, yet most of them do. Take a look at the FDA's Prohibited & Restricted Ingredients and Health Canada's Toxic Substance List.

To avoid greenwashing, take a look at the following organizations:

Ultimately it's up to you to decide which toxic ingredients in cleaning products you want to avoid, but the more awareness we can raise and the more we can support natural cleaning products, the better off we and the planet will be! And if you are looking for better alternatives, make sure to check out my favorite bulk stores online, they carry some of the best biodegradable laundry detergents, that are way better than conventional detergents.

And if you love to clean like me, you must take a look at these awesome articles:

How To clean a very stained toilet bowl naturally
Natural Laundry Stripping With Vinegar
How To Clean A Washing Machine Naturally Without Vinegar
How To Clean A Top Loading Washing Machine With Vinegar And Baking Soda
How To Clean A Mirror That Is Hazy, Naturally
Eco Benefits of Steam Cleaning (Plus the Best Handheld Steamers!)
Eco Friendly Cleaning Products That Disinfect

Or simply hit up the CLEANING category for more great cleaning content.

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