Toxins in household cleaning products to avoid

Toxins in household cleaning products to avoid

Photo: / @claybanks

There is a plethora of cleaning products on the market. How are we to know which are the best? You may have chosen a product based on great reviews or simply because it gets the job done, without considering which ingredients it’s made of. But… what if I told you that your cleaning products may be causing more harm than good? 

A lot of companies promise to remove stains or clean 99.9% of germs, so we think these would be the best products to choose from. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Have you ever wondered how a product is killing all but 0.1% of bacteria and viruses? Which ingredients are going into these products to make them as effective as they claim to be? It’s important we become aware of some of the most common toxins found in our everyday cleaning products.


Ammonia is a colourless gas with a distinct odour that is used as a building-block chemical. It occurs naturally through the air, soil, water, plants, animals, and humans. Our body makes ammonia to break down protein-rich foods then gets converted to urea, which our body eventually releases through urine. This chemical also occurs naturally as a part of the nitrogen cycle to help fertilize plants. 

Since this is a naturally occurring substance, it’s safe to put into our products, right? Nope- ammonia is often a very concentrated form in commercial cleaning products. We worry about it because it can enter our body’s system through the three major pathways: inhalation, ingestion, and absorption.

Inhaling ammonia can cause burning and irritation of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract at high concentrated levels. Someone exposed to high levels is likely to experience coughing, throat irritation, and general fatigue. Ingesting ammonia infrequently occurs but it will cause corrosive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach. As for absorbing ammonia, if any of these cleaning solutions or disinfectants are used without gloves and get onto the skin, they can cause skin irritation. In high concentrations, ammonia may even cause burns and severe injury.

Ammonia is a common ingredient in polishing agents for bathroom, glass cleaners, disinfectants, floor cleaners, all-purpose cleaners- pretty much any cleaner. 


Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic substance released by preservatives and commonly added to cosmetics and cleaning products. It’s another colourless gas with a strong odour that breaks down quickly. It also occurs naturally in the environment; humans and most living organisms produce small amounts. When exposed to this substance in high doses, that’s when it becomes a concern. 

 A label might not always state formaldehyde. Like most chemicals, it can appear as different names. Formaldehyde may be hiding under other names, such as:

  • Formalin
  • Formic aldehyde
  • Methanediol
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene glycol
  • Methylene oxide

Many of these names are unknown to most consumers, which makes it much more difficult when shopping. 

Why should you be concerned about the high levels of formaldehyde? If you use the Environmental Working Group database and search this ingredient, it scores a 10. This is the worst rating EWG gives to ingredients. This shows that there is sufficient research proving formaldehyde to be a very toxic ingredient to your health. 

The primary pathway this toxin gets into our body is through inhalation. The product omits formaldehyde into the air and we breathe it in high doses. Exposure causes symptoms including watery and burning eyes, coughing, sneezing, nausea, and skin irritation. 

If that isn’t enough, cancer research has found that inhaling formaldehyde in higher concentrations can cause cancer, specifically in a workplace setting where exposure is at high concentrations for an extended period. Several studies have found a link between formaldehyde exposure and cancer of the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat), and an increased risk of leukemia. There is something the consumer can do about this, though. It’s best to look for products with clean ingredients that don’t contain harmful chemicals typically found in cleaning products. 

Household products containing formaldehyde include:

  • Bleach
  • Dish soap
  • Detergents
  • Plug-in air fresheners

Good news: Deciphering harmful ingredients in labels isn’t an easy task and there are marketplace websites, including Change Market, that do the work for you. All of their products on their website are free from harmful chemicals and 100% plant-based; you can have peace of mind buying and knowing the health of you and your loved ones is a top priority. 


The word fragrance is a vague term; it’s an umbrella term for multiple other ingredients. The ingredient “fragrance” listed in your personal care and cosmetic products likely contains dozens of potentially harmful chemicals. For marketing purposes, companies are legally able to do this. Why does a company hide ingredients, within another? A sneaky tactic that most consumers aren’t aware of.  

We all want pleasant smelling products, but our health seems to pay the price. It’s very difficult to find products without the ingredient “fragrance” in them as they are in nearly everything. This includes: 

  • Shampoos & conditioners 
  • Body wash
  • Toothpaste
  • Hand & body lotions
  • Air fresheners
  • All-purpose cleaners
  • Candles

Be aware of the different kinds of labelling when it comes to advertising. Many products will say “scent-free” or “unscented” but, that doesn’t mean you’re avoiding the harmful chemicals they put in with “fragrance”. It has to be labelled “fragrance-free” or be a trusted, 100% natural or organic product.

Why should we be avoiding fragrances? What is so bad about the chemicals they put into it? Most fragrances contain synthetic compounds called phthalates, which are plasticizing agents. Yes, that’s right. There are tiny plastics in the face wash you use on your face every morning. These synthetic compounds cause allergies, asthma, skin irritation, and even cancer- specifically testicular and liver cancer.

Apart from health concerns, products containing fragrance pose a serious threat to the environment. They’re not natural substances, and we often add them back into our ecosystems through our pipelines. Every time you take a shower with that lovely smelling fragrance soap, the remaining product washes off into the drain and right back into the earth.

Good news: Natural alternatives are appealing to our senses but aren’t detrimental to our health. You could even do DIY cleaning products (i.e., diluted vinegar is an alternative cleaning solution) and avoid label reading altogether. If you want to buy cleaning products on the market, good ones to start with are Eco-Max, Ola Bamboo, and Ecoideas. Change Market offers a selection of non-toxic cleaning products that you can feel good about.

Beware of Greenwashing

Photo: / @cremajoe

What is greenwashing? This is when a company spends a lot of time and money marketing their products as environmentally friendly, rather than actually taking steps to reduce their detrimental impact. This tactic is deceitful, and the goal is for people to choose these products (which are usually more expensive), thinking they are making a conscious and better decision. 

This is extremely frustrating as many companies appear to be eco-friendly and healthy, when in fact, they may not be. A person who is new to purchasing environmentally-friendly products can be left confused or tricked into buying products that may still be harmful. 

Greenwashing isn’t a new term, though; it has been around since the 1980s. Back then, consumers didn’t have the internet to fact-check the information. Because of flexible marketing tactics, it’s still not easy. 

What is the difference between greenwashing and green marketing? Mentioned above is what greenwashing is but, there is a difference when it comes to green marketing. Green marketing is what we want to see; the companies are more likely to be honest, practical, and provide products that meet the requirements they are claiming (i.e., free of toxins). People are often getting mislead, but there are ways to avoid greenwashing.

The first thing to look out for is fluffy language, including “eco-friendly”, “organic”, and “natural”. These terms are used loosely, and the regulations for a company to put these terms on their labels aren’t always clear.

Another common strategy is suggestive pictures. A company will use green impression photos to promote the product when in fact, what you’re purchasing looks nothing like the picture. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Lastly, companies will use scientific and difficult language to confuse the average consumer. Not everyone does their research, and most people don’t understand what half the ingredients are on the label. This is where marketplace websites that do the research for you will come in hand. 

These are only a few ingredients and market strategies you need to know if you’re looking to purchase products for your home that give you peace of mind. You want to feel confident and trust that the products you’re buying will not be detrimental to you or your family’s health and reduce your environmental impact. Nature does so many beautiful things for us and has many benefits to help sustain our species, so we must thank it. Our environment takes care of us, so let’s say thanks and take care of it! 

expert references

The facts about ammonia
The important difference between unscented and fragrance-free
The list of 18 toxic cleaning chemicals in everyday products
What cleaning products contain ammonia? by Andrew Palermo
What is formaldehyde?
What is greenwashing?

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