Sustainability| 3 min read

Harmful Chemicals In Household Cleaners To Avoid (And What To Use Instead)

Looking to live environmental-ish at home? Avoid these 6 ingredients.
WRITTEN BY Tayllor Henczel

Looking to give your household cleaners an environmental-ish detox? Want a guide to help steer you away from ingredients that aren’t earth-first? Here’s a list of 6 harmful chemicals in cleaning products and what you can use instead.


Where it’s found: fragranced household products like dish soap, air fresheners and even toilet paper. If you see “fragrance” on a label, there’s a good chance there are phthalates in there — companies aren’t required by law to list phthalates in the ingredients.

The impact: phthalates are called “endocrine disruptors,” meaning they mess with the hormones in all living things, both humans and wildlife. They’re known to cause reproductive toxicity in humans and animals, and when exposed to the environment tend to settle in soil and sediment. They can be absorbed through inhalation, but also through your skin — when you wash your hands with scented soap, for example. Unlike the digestive system, your skin doesn’t have any defense against toxins. They’re absorbed straight into your organs.

The alternative: choose fragrance free or all-natural organic cleaning products. Ditch the artificial air fresheners, and opt for a diffuser and essential oil blends instead.

Perchloroethylene (PERC)

Where it’s found: dry-cleaning chemicals, spot removers, and carpet and textile cleaners.

The impact: PERC is considered a neurotoxin (it damages nerve tissue) and a possible carcinogen. You’re usually exposed to PERC through inhalation, like right after you pick up your clothes from the dry cleaners or had your carpet cleaned. When released into the environment, it can leach into soil and contaminate water sources for humans, plants and animals.

The alternative: you can take your “dry clean only” textiles to a “wet cleaner” instead. They use water-based technology instead of chemicals. Try an eco-friendly spot cleaner, or rub castile soap on stains before throwing your clothes in the wash.


Where it’s found: dishwashing and antibacterial soaps.

The impact: it can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, since it’s so aggressively antibacterial. It may cause hormonal disruption, and it’s considered a possible carcinogen.

Over 95% of the uses of triclosan are in cleaning products that end up going down the drain. Because of this, triclosan is the most common contaminant not removed by typical water treatment plants. The compound can combine with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform, a probable human carcinogen. It’s highly toxic to different types of algae, vital organisms for complex aquatic ecosystems, and has been detected at high concentration in earthworms and fish.

The alternative: when you’re on the hunt for hand sanitizer (who isn’t these days?) look for ones that are alcohol-based and don’t contain triclosan. Stick to simple, all-natural soaps and detergents that have a short list of ingredients.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATS)

Where it’s found: fabric softeners and dryer sheets, antibacterial products

The impact: QUATS create the same problem as triclosan, as they breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s also a skin irritant. They’re linked to causing dermatitis and lung disorders.

Fortunately, most QUATS are eliminated during water treatment, but not completely. They have a high aquatic toxicity, so they can be harmful to water-dwelling wildlife like algae and fish.

The alternative: skip the fabric softener and dryer sheets. We have an entire blog dedicated to fabric softener you can read up on. As far as the dryer sheets, give dryer balls a try. Not only are they non-toxic, but they’re reusable. You can add a few drops of essential oils to the dryer balls to give your laundry natural scent.


Where it’s found: multi-purpose, kitchen and window cleaners.

The impact: it can cause sore throats when inhaled, plus contribute to narcosis, lung issues, and severe liver and kidney damage. There’s no law making it mandatory to list 2-Butoxyethanol on the ingredient list. Animals are actually more sensitive than humans are to 2-Butoxyethanol — studies have shown that it causes red blood cell damage and hemolytic anemia in wildlife through inhalation, skin exposure and ingestion.

The alternative: going with all-natural cleaners or making your own will eliminate the problem.

Sodium Hydroxide

Where it’s found: oven cleaners and drain decloggers.

The impact: it’s extremely corrosive — it will burn your eyes or skin at contact. Inhaling sodium hydroxide causes extreme, long-lasting sore throats. Sodium hydroxide isn’t friendly for the planet either. A high concentration in water has an effect on the pH, and will have toxic effects on aquatic wildlife, like algae and fish.

The alternative: scrub out your oven using equal parts salt, baking soda and vinegar. For a clogged sink, try using a manual drain snake.


Check out our interview with Tru Earth — the creators of the plastic jug-free, eco-friendly laundry detergent strips, plus wool dryer balls and more — where we talk sustainability at home and eco-friendly laundry practices.

Looking for some DIY household cleaners? We’ve got some instructions on how to make seven common household cleaners, chemical-free.


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