How do I know if my household cleansers are safe?

Before you spray that cleanser in your home, know if there are any precautions you should take.
Before you spray that cleanser in your home, know if there are any precautions you should take.
Comstock Images/Getty Images

Keeping a clean home has gotten a little more complicated over the years. Those germ and grime busters that reside under your sink may be effective at getting the gunk out of your oven or the stains off your tile and grout, but there's a chance that they could make you sick, too. The green movement has multiplied the options we have available and increased public scrutiny about what goes into household cleansers. That lemon-scented solution your mom used to love may still be a great, safe choice, but when you know more, you may want to embrace a less caustic and potentially dangerous way to tidy up your home.

Although the landscape of consumer products is always changing, the government and consumer watchdog groups are working to bring information to light that will help you make safer choices about the household cleansers you buy. There are also measures in place to get dangerous products off the market once they've been identified. Because identifying hazards officially and dealing with them is a process that can take some time, it pays to rely on your instincts, stay informed and err on the side of caution when it comes to household cleanser safety.

You're the first line of defense in keeping your family safe from potentially dangerous substances in your home and out. The tools and information on the next pages will help you understand more about household cleanser safety. Clean is good, but clean and safe is even better.

 

Safety Concerns with Household Cleaners

Store your cleansers all together and out of reach of your children and pets.
Store your cleansers all together and out of reach of your children and pets.
Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

There are a number of important things to consider when evaluating household cleanser safety. Most importantly is your family's safety. If you're doing the cleaning, you're probably the one with the greatest risk of dangerous exposure. This is true of cleaners that are completely legal and effective for their intended use. If you use lots of cleaning products and clean often, your exposure is greater than it would be if you cleaned less often. No one is advocating that you maintain a dirty home in order to be safer, but recognizing that the nature of cleaning solvents is to kill germs and thwart what are sometimes natural processes means accepting that there may be some potential risk involved when you use them.

If you haven't checked the directions and cautions on your household cleansers' product labels recently, you may want to do that before you use them again. A cleanser may be safe if used within the narrow guidelines spelled out on the label, but unsafe when used in higher concentrations, or without proper protection or cleanup afterward. There may also be problems when different cleansers are used together. For example, mixing bleach and ammonia releases a toxic gas where using either alone is relatively safe.

You may want to evaluate the environmental safety of your cleaning products, too. That caustic oven cleaner might be a whiz at removing baked on grease, but a poor choice for your local aquatic eco-system. More and more, we're realizing that what we dispose of, either down the drain or in local landfills, doesn't really go away. If you want the natural world to be vigorous for your children's children, adopting a more eco-friendly approach by expanding your personal definition of cleanser safety is a good first step.

Toxic Household Cleaners

Many household cleansers have the potential to make your family sick or worse. Drain cleaner, oven cleaner, soap, bleach and other cleaning products can be toxic if not handled properly.

Even when they're handled in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, some cleansers are inherently safer than others.

To determine the risks to your family, read labels carefully. If you still have questions, check the manufacturer's Web site for more information, or look for a listing about the product at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Household Products Database Web site for more information [source: HHS].

When you're performing cleaning tasks, make cleanser safety a top priority by employing these household cleanser safe practices:

  • Read the directions on the label carefully and follow all instructions.
  • Never repurpose cleaning solvent containers for other uses in the home.
  • Don't use cleansers in areas where food is being prepared.
  • Dispose of solvents and packaging responsibly.
  • Make sure there is adequate ventilation in areas where you use household cleansers. Employ a portable fan to circulate the air if there's no window in a room where you'll be cleaning. This is particularly important in small rooms, like bathrooms.
  • Use cleaning products in the recommended concentrations only.
  • Minimize exposure to solvents by using rubber gloves and goggles where indicated.
  • Never mix different cleaning products together unless directed to do so.
  • Use caution when trying out new cleaning products. Some preparations can cause reactions in sensitive individuals, so always do a test first.
  • Be careful when cleaning the areas your pets frequent. Whenever possible, opt for cleaning products that state they're pet-friendly.
  • If children live in or frequent your home, store all cleansers in a safe and secure area.
  • Perform adequate cleanup after using cleansers. This includes rinsing surfaces to remove solvent residue and washing or disposing of towels, sponges, mops and other equipment or supplies.

You probably clean your home regularly using specific products and practices. Making household cleanser safety a priority by developing a strategy that you use every time you clean is one of the best ways to ensure that you're protecting your family and yourself.

Green Household Cleaners

The green movement has led to a whole new niche market for eco-friendly and all-natural products. Although most green household cleansers are probably effective and safe to use, don't assume that all natural always means good or safe. Nature is full of "natural" substances that are still pretty bad for living things, like poisons, and the best way to make sure you're bringing truly safe products home is to do your homework. Check the ingredient lists on green products as you would for any other household cleansers you'd consider buying. If any ingredient is unknown to you, find out more.

In the last couple of decades, cleaning product manufacturers have become more and more preoccupied with offering goods for sale that use tightly focused chemical compounds to perform very specific tasks. One nice by-product of the green revolution is the re-emergence of the all-purpose cleaner. Finding eco-friendly cleaning products that can still perform multiple functions saves you money in the long run, in part because you can buy these products in larger quantities and waste less. This tactic also cuts down on packaging in landfill and wholesale transportation costs.

You might consider using some basic, benign multi-taskers if you're thinking about going green with your household cleansers. Lemon juice is an effective mild bleach that can remove stains from textiles, and a solution of white vinegar and water makes a handy disinfectant spray. These are examples of safe ingredients that you can lots of different ways to clean your home.

Green cleansers usually employ biodegradable alternatives to caustic chemicals that are also more child-, pet- and nature-friendly. When household cleanser safety is a top priority, there are lots of good options that are simple and green.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Consumer Reports. "Keep the Kids Safe While Spring Cleaning." 3/26/10. 3/31/10.http://blogs.consumerreports.org/baby/2010/03/spring-cleaning-this-weekend-keep-the-kids-safe-poisoning-products-child-baby-safety.html
  • EPA. "Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products: A Guide For Federal Purchasers." 2/2/10. 3/30/10.http://www.epa.gov/epp/pubs/cleaning.htm#why
  • HHS. "Household Products Database." Undated. 3/30/10.http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov/
  • Laumer, John. "Is There An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Caustic Drain Cleaners?" 1/17/06. 3/30/10.http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/01/is_there_a_ecof.php
  • NYC.gov. "Safeguard Your Home From Harmful Products." Undated. 3/30/10.http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&safe=active&q=cleansers+safe+site:.gov&start=10&sa=N
  • PHMSA. "How to Stay Safe at Home." Undated. 3/28/10.http://www.phmsa.dot.gov/staticfiles/PHMSA/DownloadableFiles/Files/KidZone.pdf
  • Publications International. "14 Green Kitchen Cleaning Tips." HowStuffWorks.com. Undated. 3/28/10.https://home.howstuffworks.com/14-green-kitchen-cleaning-tips.htm
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