When it comes to health, clean is usually synonymous with good. After all, eating clean does wonders for our bodies, and cleaning our homes (even if it’s just a crazy weekend spree) is how we keep our living space safe and healthy. Right? Well, that depends.
Unfortunately, many of the household cleaning products we use to clean our homes are full of toxic chemicals, some of which aren’t even listed on the labels. In fact, some products labeled nontoxic or natural are a lot like wolves in sheep’s clothing—they can appear more innocent than they really are.
Because labeling for these products is unregulated, manufacturers can simply throw buzzwords like clean, green, nontoxic, and natural on labels, even if the formulas contain toxic chemicals and harmful ingredients, explains Debra Lynn Dadd, consumer advocate and nontoxic living expert.
“There is no agreement on what toxic and nontoxic actually mean.”
That’s a huge bummer for brands that are actually formulating safe products, because it can be hard (not to mention confusing!) for the average consumer to distinguish between them and the posers. To further complicate matters, there’s the great definition debate.
“There is no agreement on what toxic and nontoxic actually mean,” Dadd says. “The legal definition of toxic is that it kills more than 50 percent of the animals it’s tested on.”
There are a variety of tests used to determine the toxicity of chemicals, but each has its own set of flaws, including animal cruelty, false assumptions, and, in some cases, a narrow focus on the worst-case scenario (death) that completely ignores other potential health effects. So really, you can’t get too caught up in the semantics.
“We have to redefine how we look at these terms,” says Lara Adler, environmental toxin expert and educator. “Maybe a product isn’t lethal, but it could be toxic on a cellular level, and that’s leading to a systemic health issue.”
The Real Deal on the Risks
Some manufacturers argue that the amount of toxic chemicals in a formulation is so small, it’s not harmful. Which might be true if we were exposed to only one product, just one time, over our entire lives. But the reality is we’re exposed to hundreds of chemicals in dozens of products all day, e’ry day.
“Although these toxic chemicals may be tolerated individually and in small doses, problems can arise when one is exposed to them in combination or in larger doses over a period of time,” says Frank Lipman, M.D., an expert in integrative and functional medicine and the founder of Be Well.
Adler puts it like this: Your body is like a rowboat with a hole in it. It’s constantly filling up with water (the chemicals). The smart thing to do is to fix the hole, but we’re spending all our energy bailing the water out to save the boat, and thus our bodies aren’t able to naturally detoxify like they were made to do. In this case, you might not be able to plug the hole in your boat, but if you can at least slow the inflow of water (chemicals), then your body’s natural process of detoxification can be far more effective.
Everyone’s tolerance level is different depending on genetics, nutritional status, and previous contacts with chemicals, so this type of exposure can manifest in different ways. Some toxic chemicals used in cleaning products have been linked to conditions such as birth defects, autoimmune disease, thyroid disorders, asthma, and even cancer.Congenital malformation and maternal occupational exposure to glycol ethers. Occupational Exposure and Congenital Malformations Working Group. Cordier S, Bergeret A, Goujard J. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 1997, Aug.;8(4): 1044-3983. Epidemiology of environmental exposures and human autoimmune diseases: findings from a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Expert Panel Workshop. Miller FW, Alfredsson L, Costenbader KH. Journal of autoimmunity, 2012, Jun.;39(4): 1095-9157. Self- reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: a case-control study. Zota AR, Aschengrau A, Rudel RA. Environmental health : a global access science source, 2010, Jul.;9(): 1476-069X. Women using bleach for home cleaning are at increased risk of non-allergic asthma. Matulonga B, Rava M, Siroux V. Respiratory medicine, 2016, Jun.;117(): 1532-3064. Lipman notes that some of the most common symptoms include hormone imbalance, skin irritations, allergies, and chronic inflammation.Contact allergens and irritants in household washing and cleaning products. Magnano M, Silvani S, Vincenzi C. Contact dermatitis, 2010, May.;61(6): 1600-0536. Chemical-induced inflammation and inflammatory diseases. Parke DV, Parke AL. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health, 1997, Feb.;9(3): 1232-1087.
Your Action Plan
Don’t throw every product out of your now-forever-dirty windows just yet. Making healthy changes to slow that inflow of harmful toxins is actually way easier than you’d think.
1. Start small.
If the thought of overhauling your entire home and throwing out all your cleaning products makes your head spin, take a deep breath. “You don’t need to do it all at once,” Dadd says. “Try replacing one toxic cleaning product this week when you stop reading this article and just get used to that. Then next week, replace another one and so on. Take it one step at a time.” So how do you know what to chuck? Move on to step 2.
2. Read labels.
Treat household cleaners the same way you do packaged food: Pick them up and read the ingredients and fine print, suggests Adler. Don’t fall victim to buzzwords or assume complicated terms are dangerous chemicals. If the ingredients aren’t listed, do your research. Even natural products use some chemicals to formulate their products; they just don’t use toxic chemicals.
If you really want to geek out, check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide to healthy cleaning and handy label decoder.
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“It’s much easier to learn what’s not toxic than it is to learn all the chemicals you need to avoid,” Dadd says. She swears by five simple and safe ingredients: baking soda, white vinegar, Bon Ami cleanser, organic lemons, and essential oils.
DIY not your thing? We get it. “One of the best brands is Seventh Generation,” says Dadd, who’s been recommending it for years. Other labels such as J.R. Watkins, Green Works, The Honest Company, Murphy Oil Soap,Orange Glo, and Method are free of the toxic chemicals commonly found in most cleaning products but do still contain some synthetic fragrances or preservatives.
4. Rely on trustworthy resources.
Nowadays we have this crazy little thing called the internet, but with so much information out there, it can feel overwhelming. The good news is trustworthy organizations and advocates have done all the hard work for you, so it’s easier to make a change. “I recommend using the EWG website to help you determine which products are least toxic,” Lipman says.
You’ll also find a wealth of information on the websites of our experts Debra Lynn Dadd, Lara Adler, and Frank Lipman.
5. Change to affect change.
“The only way to really affect change in this space is to take action that’s going to impact the manufacturer’s bottom line,” Adler says.
If you boycott buying home cleaning products with toxic chemicals, brands will be forced to listen and change formulations if they want to be profitable. Likewise, if you support retailers and brands that are doing good, the industry will take note, and hopefully, follow suit.
We know it can feel overwhelming, but educating yourself and making a few small, simple changes to the things you buy and use every day can make a huge impact on your personal health and the health of the environment.
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