Is Cleaning Actually Clean?

Is Cleaning Actually Clean?

Stains, grime and fingerprints – a  detective’s best friends, my worst enemy. A clean house to me is a happy and healthy house. Streaks on my bathroom mirror, cat hair settling on the dining room table, cat hair on my sheets!– these are the things which keep me up at night. Pre-vegan I depended on Windex and Tide. I never questioned either the values of the companies who manufactured these products or the ingredients found in the products themselves. I trusted these companies in my belief that clean was clean.

Clean, though, is not clean. Clean can kill you. In fact studies now show that the air outside is less toxic than the air in our homes if we use commercial cleaners. I visited the site for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and learned that “every 13 seconds a poison control center in the US gets a call about a possible poisoning,” and that “more than 90% of these exposures occur in the home. Poisoning can result from medicines, pesticides, household cleaning products, carbon monoxide, and lead.” So lets read that again: Every 13 seconds a call goes into to a poison control center and the number 3 reason for that call is household cleaning products. Woah!

In addition, the majority of all these household cleaning products in which we so confidently trust have been tested on animals – which doesn’t conclusively prove either positively or negatively that the chemicals below can cause “acute or immediate hazards such as skin and respiratory irritation, watery eyes, chemical burns, and even cancer.” Instead, even if the chemicals below choked, burned or flat-out killed a small domestic rabbit, cat or dog in lab tests, that chemical is still in the cleaner and could still poison your own pets or children.

Good grief.

A brief but not exhaustive list:

  1. Phthalates: “MOUNTAIN FRESH! LEMON SCENTED!” Phthalates often hide behind the word “FRAGANCE” in cleaning products (and is not on the label) and according to the CDC phthalates have been linked to asthma, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues. That’s about it. Yum, that crisp lemon scent seems even fresher today.
  2. Perchloroethylene or “perc:”  Gets in bed with dry cleaners and spot removers – according to the EPA, breathing PERC for short periods of time can adversely affect the human nervous system.  Effects range from dizziness, fatigue, headaches and sweating to incoordination and unconsciousness.  Contact with PERC liquid or vapor irritates the skin, the eyes, the nose, and the throat. Breathing perchloroethylene over longer periods of time can cause liver and kidney damage in humans. Repeat exposure to large amounts of PERC may cause cancer. Why dry clean? Most clothes can be washed in cold water and isn’t your health worth a wrinkle or two?
  3. Triclosan: Disguises itself as “antibacterial” in liquid hand soaps and dishwashing detergents – promotes growth of drug-resistant bacterial, may disrupt hormonal functions, found in high numbers in lakes where it destroys natural algae. According to the University of Davis, tricolsan impairs muscle function and skeletal muscle contractility. Standing is so over-rated. Get rid of anything with the word ANTI-BACTERIAL in it…want a list? To name a few: Dial® Liquid handsoap and bodywash; Tea Tree Therapy™ Liquid Soap; Clearasil® Daily Face Wash; Dermalogica® Skin Purifying Wipes; DermaKleen™ Antibacterial Lotion Soap; CVS Antibacterial Soap, Ajax Antibacterial Dishsoap, Kimcare Antibacterial Clear Soap, Bath and Body Works Antibacterial Hand Soaps, Gels and Foaming Sanitizers.
  4. Quarternary ammonium compounds or “quats:” Makes your clothes soft in the dryer but has all the same health and environmental risks of tricolsan and according to the Chemical Safety Database quats cause skin and respiratory irritation and haven been found to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with hormone function within the body. Third, they are toxic to aquatic life, and our oceans are our life blood. Use Pine-Sol or Fantastik and a fish dies when you wash the product down the drain.
  5. 2-Butoxyethanol: Want your window cleaner to smell fresh? Add 2-Butoxyethanol. However according to the EPA, in addition to causing sore throats when inhaled, at high levels glycol ethers can also contribute to narcosis, pulmonary edema, and severe liver and kidney damage. Simple Green and Windex are two offenders to definitely avoid.
  6. Ammonia: Having shiny home-decor bling and windows can also lead to chronic bronchitis and asthma. According to the NY Dept. of Health, ammonia is corrosive. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in the air causes immediate burning of the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract and can result in blindness, lung damage or death. Inhalation of lower concentrations can cause coughing, and nose and throat irritation. Swallowing ammonia can cause burns to the mouth, throat and stomach. Skin or eye contact with concentrated ammonia can also cause irritation and burn. Windex! Mr. Clean …. You can smell ammonia when you clean, it may be tough on dirt but its terrible on you.
  7. Chlorine aka Bleach: Those cute little scrubbing bubbles are hiding many a toxin including chlorine which may be a thyroid disrupter. Chlorine also gets into the skin and lungs fast causing chest tightness, wheezing, dyspnea, and bronchospasm. Severe exposures may result in noncardiogenic pulmonary edema, which may be delayed for several hours. Clorax can be your best friend or worst enemy. Tread carefully.
  8. Sodium Hydroxide: Also known by its nom de guerre: LYE. Sodium hydroxide can cause severe burns and heaven forbid this stuff gets in your eye.  Sodium Hydroxide is extremely damaging to human tissue. Most often found in oven cleaner (try baking soda instead) and often has a big POISON mark on it – so don’t consume it.

Animal by-products in cleaning supplies? The big one is animal fat which shows up in a couple of products – animal fat aka dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride (TALLOW) is used to make your clothes softer and is either impregnated into dryer sheets or added to liquid fabric softener. If you really have such unforgivable static cling and “stiff as a board” clothes try vinegar and a fabric dispenser ball. Animal fat also shows up in plastic bags to aid in their ability to slip apart –yes, animal fat. Instead just go to and get your own forever-use, never sticky bags printed with cute animals – save the earth and animals. Go Fat Free.

After having read all this, you’re asking: is there a better way to have a clean clean?

Fortunately yes. Finding cleaning products which are earth and animal-friendly has never been easier. At least a half-dozen brands have crossed into the mainstream and are selling cruelty-free, non-toxic, biodegradable products at big box retailers such as Target. An internet search will quickly identify another few dozen boutique brands that can be mail ordered. And if you really want nothing to do with any of that, clean is as close as your last salad. The most basic and best cleaning products can be found multi-tasking in your own cupboard. What are these magic products? Vinegar, baking soda and lemons. And if you like scent, essential oils. Tea-tree oil is a magical anti-bacterial and lavender helps you clean calmly.

To be fair, I use a combination of both types of cleaning products. For my dishwasher and washing machine I shop for brands which are biodegradable, such as non-toxic liquid soaps, but for my countertops and sinks I do-it-myself because anything I want near my toothbrush I want to be able to also use to brush my teeth. Thank you baking soda.