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You don’t need unsafe chemicals for a squeaky clean home. Arm yourself with these better-for-you formulas—they’re just as effective.

Brigitt Earley
April 17, 2018

Keeping your house clean is a dirty job. But did you know that some of the products you use to scrub your counters, toilets, windows, and other household surfaces could actually be detrimental for your health—especially for people with kids, pets, or skin sensitivities?

Many cleaning products contain ingredients that could lead to side effects, says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. "While some [cleaning products] cause skin irritations, others may cause more serious and chronic conditions that affect the lungs or are known to be carcinogens," she tells Health.

The American Lung Association recommends limiting your exposure to ammonia and chlorine bleach, as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be released from different cleaning products, such as some air fresheners, dry cleaning chemicals, and oven cleaners. Other ingredients to avoid, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG): formaldehyde (sometimes listed as formalin), diethanolamine, triethanolamine, 1,4-dioxane, quaternium-15 and quaternium-24, and sulfuric acid.

If a cleaning product is emitting fumes from these compounds, you might feel a tickle in your throat, feel the urge to cough, get a headache, or experience burning or tearing of the eyes, nose, or throat, says Lori Shah, MD, a transplant pulmonologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. More severe or chronic symptoms are possible, too, particularly with long-term use or in someone with an underlying health condition.  

Since reading the itty-bitty letters on bottles can be difficult (and isn’t always practical in a hurry), keep an eye out for certain buzz words on a product's packaging. Phrases like "harmful if swallowed," "use in a well-ventilated area," "keep away from children or pregnant women," and "use gloves" can provide clues that a formula contains potentially harmful ingredients. And if a label states it could be fatal if inhaled, you should avoid it, says Dr. Jaliman.

No matter what you’re cleaning with, always use gloves to protect your hands and lessen the risk of contact dermatitis (rashes, hives, and other skin irritations). The best gloves are cotton-lined, says Dr. Jaliman. If you don’t have gloves readily available, use a large rag or sponge to limit your exposure with the product.

Becky Rapinchuk, the blogger behind Clean Mama and author of Simply Clean: The Proven Method for Keeping Your Home Organized, Clean, and Beautiful in Just 10 Minutes a Day ($20; amazon.com) tells us that she often makes her own cleaning products using household ingredients like white vinegar and baking soda. One of her go-to DIYs is a window and mirror cleaning spray that contains 3 drops of peppermint essential oil, 1 ½ cups of water, 1 ½ tablespoons of white vinegar, and 1 ½ tablespoons of rubbing alcohol mixed together in a spray bottle.

If making your own cleaning products seems too time-consuming, however, the good news is that you can still find effective cleaning products.

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