Read this *before* you start sanitizing your house.

By Maggie O'Neill
April 27, 2020
Advertisement

We're all in the cleaning mood nowadays, whether we like it or not. It's a good habit, of course, now that COVID-19 is a regular part of our lives; but sometimes cleaning products can cause just as much harm as the protection they provide—and more doesn't always equal better.

One of the main concerns when it comes to using household cleaning products is mixing them improperly. Even when two products are safe to use on their own, mixing them can be harmful to your health. "These [cleaners] can be pretty strong. They do have health effects," Diane Calello, MD, executive and medical director of New Jersey Poison Center and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Health. And some combinations—while still harmful to most—can be especially dangerous to those with certain health conditions, like asthma, COPD, and lung disease. Additionally, people who have recently had a lung transplant and older people are more likely to suffer from these combinations, according to Dr. Calello, due to decreased respiratory function.

Overall, a good rule of thumb is never to mix any cleaning products—but according to Dr. Calello, these five combinations should be avoided at all costs.

Bleach + vinegar

“Bleach and vinegar is a common mishap,” Dr. Calello tells Health. When mixed, bleach and vinegar produce chlorine gas. “When you breathe in, [chlorine gas] generates acid in the lungs,” says Dr. Calello (you don’t need a chemistry degree to guess that isn't healthy). Symptoms you would notice if you made this mistake include: burning eyes, a burning sensation in your throat, deep breaths that feel painful, coughing, and an increasingly difficult time breathing easily.

Bleach + ammonia

It’s also important to avoid mixing bleach with ammonia, which is found in many household cleaning products like window cleaners and floor waxes. (Tip: Always look at the ingredients label before mixing or using multiple household products). Mixing bleach with ammonia could result in the release of toxic chloramine gas—which also generates acid in your lungs when inhaled, says Dr. Calello—and can be fatal, according to the US National Library of Medicine. Mixing bleach with ammonia can cause chest pain and shortness of breath, and it requires immediate medical attention.

Drain cleaner + drain cleaner

We’ve all been there: You have a tiny bit of a product left, and you don’t want that to go to waste, so you mix that with product from a new bottle. This is a harmless way to behave if you’re working with ketchup, but if you do this with drain cleaner, it could produce a fairly strong chemical reaction, says Dr. Calello. It can generate heat and leave you with burns on your skin. (Because it’s a dangerous substance, Dr. Calello says you should never handle drain cleaner without gloves on, and the U.S. National Library of Medicine has the same advice.) If you can’t seem to get your kitchen sink drain clean, think about calling a plumber for help with that chore—it’s not worth mixing chemicals that could end up poisoning you.

Vinegar + hydrogen peroxide

Both of these products can be used to clean dishwashers. (Vinegar can take a foul smell out of your dishwasher, and hydrogen peroxide can kill mold in it.) But you should always make sure you don’t mix the two products in your dishwasher—or anywhere else. “It does generate a weak acid [and] can create skin, eye, and respiratory irritation,” says Dr. Calello.

Bleach + rubbing alcohol

In case this wasn’t made clear above: Bleach can be very dangerous. You can’t just be mixing it with whatever disinfectant you pull from the back of your laundry room shelf, and rubbing alcohol is yet another substance that doesn’t play well with bleach. The pair, when mixed, can generate “a chloroform-like compound,” Dr. Calello says. "It’s not likely to be strong enough, for example, to cause anybody to pass out," says Dr. Calello, but, she continues, it can cause irritation of the eyes and skin.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter