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What's in our cleaning products?

Conventional cleaning products contain ingredients that might make our homes clean but that does not mean that our homes will be healthy. Contaminating the indoor air, mainstream products contain a mix of carcinogens, hormone disrupters, neurotoxic solvents, mood altering chemicals and reproductive toxins. Some would argue that as they've been tested and are 'safe', there is no need to worry. However a recent article in the Guardian found research linking a common chemical used in cleaning products to an increase in rates of Parkinson's Disease. This highlights that there is still so much that we don't know about the long term use and effects of these chemicals.

Many scientists regard household cleaning products as one of the most major sources of indoor air pollution and one of the most insidious threats to human health. If a cleaner claims to be able to instantly strip years of ground-in dirt and grease, think about what it could do to your body and the environment.

Let's take a look at the top chemical-laden offenders

  1. Air fresheners – One that the Sunny Jar team all personally hate. They release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. A VOC is a type of chemical that turns into a vapor or gas easily at room temperature. Hazardous to human health, they can cause eye irritation, headaches and long term adverse effects. The fragrances in air fresheners trigger allergies and asthma attacks, even in healthy people, as they contain hormone disrupting phthalates, a range of chemicals that bind the smell to the product. Avoid synthetic fragrances. Open windows and air your house as much as possible. If you prefer to have a scent, use a diffuser with essential oils for potpourri.

  2. Drain Unblockers – Drain unblocking agents contain some of the most corrosive household chemicals, including caustic soda, which can cause severe chemical burns. If it is ingested, it can destroy the oesophagus and throat and lead to death. Good old plunger and bicarb, vinegar and hot water will do the job

  3. Bleach – Chlorinated bleach is one of the most commonly cited dangerous household products. Bleach can cause chemical burns when it comes into contact with skin, and produces fumes that irritate the throat, nose, eyes and lungs, nose. Many bleach injuries are reported each year in the UK, as it is such a common cleaning agent. For people with asthma, bleach can trigger an attack. Use the more eco friendly option, oxygen bleach or hydrogen peroxide to whiten clothes.

  4. Fabric Softeners – Fabric softener is often marketed as a gentle product (the advertisements always seem to have babies or teddies!). However, it has many hidden health hazards. The chemicals and fragrances that they contain can cause people to experience skin rashes, headaches, respiratory irritation, watery eyes, sneezing, and even asthma attacks. Fabric softeners also work by coating fabrics, which can actually reduce the absorption of your towels. Simply do not use at all or replace with white vinegar.

  5. Toilet Bowl Cleaners – Toilet bowl cleaning products are full of toxic chemicals. Packed with acidic chemicals, they can harm your lungs when breathed in, and cause chemical burns when they come in contact with skin. Little and often is the best rule for cleaning toilet. Vinegar, citric acid and bicarbonate of soda will help keep your toilets germ free.

  6. Oven Cleaners – Oven cleaning agents are one of the most heavy-duty cleaning products that we bring into our home – and one of the most dangerous. They contain lye, ethers, Methylene Chloride, and petroleum distillates, all dangerous when inhaled. There is little secret about how to clean your oven naturally: the best is to clean it as often as possible using soap and bicarbonate of soda and a metal scrubber

Watch out for these chemicals


Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as a preservative, an antifungal agent and antimicrobial. They can be absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumours.

Parabens are linked to skin irritation, hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity and neurotoxicity.

The EU has banned five parabens from cosmetics but not the most common ones used in products – methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. However, it has restricted the amounts of these that can be used in products.


Triclosan and triclocarban can be used as an antimicrobial in cleaning products. Its use in toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorants, cosmetics and hand soaps is restricted by the EU.

Triclosan is classified as a pesticide and can affect the body’s hormone systems – especially thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism – and may disrupt normal breast development.

The EU classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes, and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, predicting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.

Quarternary Ammonium Compounds (aka QUATS)

Used in: Products labels as ‘antibacterial,’ as well as fabric softener liquids and sheets.

Health problems: Quats present many of the same issues as tricolosan, as they are another form of antimicrobial. They irritate the skin and can be harmful when breathed in.


Phthalates are a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are most commonly used to make PVC soft and flexible but are also in synthetic fragrances. Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant and laundry detergent. Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer.

Several phthalates have been banned in the EU but not all, including diethyl phthalate (DEP). Because the chemical constituents of ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ do not have to be listed on labels.

Avoid phthalates by choosing fragrance-free products or those free of synthetic fragrances. Use essential oils instead.

Finding out what’s in the products?

When you look for parabens, triclosan and phthalates on the label and try to avoid these chemicals or any others it can be really difficult to figure out what is what as

cleaning products only have to have a list of the main ingredient families in the product, and how much of each there is in the product in a series of weight ranges e.g. ‘Non-ionic surfactants < 5%’. But manufacturers also have to put a website address on the packaging of where you can get a list of each specific ingredient rather than just the families. Some more responsible cleaning products manufacturers list all their ingredients on their packaging. You can check the different chemicals' toxicity on research websites like PUBCHEM or SAGEPUB.

How can you avoid these chemicals?

Use naturally based ingredients products as much as possible. Bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, vinegar and natural soap are some of the natural ingredients that we use.

Make sure your home is well ventilated and open windows for at least 5 minutes every day, even in the winter. This will help reduce indoor air pollution.

Re-educate yourself to natural smells. Strong synthetic fragrances cover up bad smells without eliminating the bacteria responsible for the smell.

Reduce the amount of products you use, cut dish-washer tablets in half and so on… experiment and use common sense. You will save money too!

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