Kitchensink Chemistry: How To Read Cleaning Product Labels, and Avoid Poisoning your Household.

Via elephantjournal dotcom
on May 29, 2008
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Author’s disclaimer: I am not a chemist, not even close. Neither are you, probably. And we shouldn’t have to be, to keep our homes and offices clean. But the underside of most sinks has more chemicals than a pre-WWII laboratory!

We don’t think much about what’s under our sinks. But we should: just take a look at the back of a bottle of Formula 409 and you’ll see what I mean. Many of us care about our food intake, our personal care products and our car pollution—but then we pour bleach down the drain or into our washer. Besides, bleach has zero real cleaning capability. The dirt remains—and the bacteria comes back even stronger after we’ve “killed” it.

Many of us have heard that indoor air quality is far worse than outdoor air, even on polluted days—so we need to be smart about what we use to clean our homes. Every time you clean something with traditional products, you leave a bio-film on the surface that builds up over time, and each time you touch that surface the chemical bio-film rubs off onto your skin. Ick.

Bill Capsalis, a.k.a. “the Godfather of Natural Products,” has done more product testing than you have.
For more:



Glossary of Common Terms: 

Biodegradable:A potentially meaningless term. All things degrade over time, even chemicals…even nuclear waste (it has a half-life of 500,000 years or so). A label that reads “biodegradable” is telling the truth—but the question is how long will it take to degrade?

Readily Biodegradable:That’s more like it. This means the product will break down much faster (months vs. years).

Non-toxic: Like “natural,” a vague if not meaningless term. If it’s a chemical of any kind, it’s toxic. There are, of course, widely varying levels of toxicity.

Not tested on animals: Every chemical product approved for use around humans has been tested on animals by someone, somewhere—or it wouldn’t have been approved for use.

Fresh Scent of Nature! The smell of clean is…no smell at all. If you love a “clean smelling” house, use products with pure essential oils. You can tell if the product has pure essential oils by how long the smell sticks around. Ten minutes is fine. Ten hours? Uh-oh.



When it comes to your children, pets, countertops and floors, be sure to read labels before buying. Avoid these chemicals:

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (A.P.E.s): Common in detergents and disinfectants, they’re suspected hormone disruptors.

Ammonia is poisonous if swallowed, irritating to respiratory passages when inhaled and can burn skin on contact.

Antibacterial cleansers containing triclosan may be contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant germs.

Butyl cellosolve(a.k.a. butyl glycol, ethylene glycol monobutyl) is poisonous if swallowed and a lung-tissue irritant.

Chlorine bleach (a.k.a. sodium hypochlorite), an all-purpose whitening agent, can irritate the lungs and eyes and become toxic organochlorines in waterways.

Diethanolamine (D.E.A.) can combine with nitrosomes (often-undisclosed preservatives) to produce carcinogenic nitrosamines?? that penetrate skin.

Fragrance frequently contains phthalates, chemicals linked to reproductive abnormalities, liver cancer, and asthma in children.

Phosphatessoften water for detergents…and contribute to algae blooms in our waterways, which kills fish dead.

Sodium hydroxide—found in drain, metal and oven cleaners—is irritating to the eyes, nose and throat, burning tissues on contact.

Sodium lauryl sulfate, a common sudsing agent, can penetrate the skin and cause contact dermatitis. Whatever that is, it sure don’t sound good.



For centuries, we cleaned without colored, chemically-synthesized cleaning agents. Though today’s marketing tells us that only chemicals kill germs, these easy-to-make, inexpensive cleaning agents can be just as effective and won’t put our pets, children, water or air at risk of being poisoned:

> Multi-Purpose Surface Cleaner =Combine equal parts water and white vinegar in a spray bottle. Great for kitchen and bathroom countertops, floors and backsplashes (for more scrubbing power, warm up until barely hot and let soak on soap scum and hard water stains)

> Toilet Bowl Cleaner = Undiluted white vinegar.

> Green Windex = Combine equal parts water and rubbing alcohol, plus one tablespoon white vinegar in a spray bottle. Use to clean windows, mirrors, chrome fixtures or ceramic tiles.

> Furniture Polish =Two parts olive oil + one part lemon juice in a spray bottle will dissolve dirt and stains while waxing and protecting the wood. Also makes great shoe polish!

> Ovens and Tough Grease = Baking soda applied to a damp sponge makes for a handy, non-scratch alternative to abrasive powder cleaners.

> Air Freshener = The rind of one orange or lemon. Grind one through the garbage disposal for an instant drain freshener.

> Unclog Drains = Pour one or two handfuls of baking soda followed by 1/2 cup white vinegar down the drainpipe and cover tightly for one minute. Á la elementary school science fair, the chemical reaction will clear any obstructions. When the bubbling subsides, rinse with super-hot water.

> Laundry = For fabric softener, add 1/4 cup of vinegar to the washing machine’s rinse cycle. Add 1/2 cup of lemon juice to the rinse cycle to brighten colors. Reduce the amount of laundry detergent per load: add 1/2 cup of baking soda to the wash.

> Bleach = Hydrogen peroxide-based bleaches break down to water and oxygen in wastewater.

> Sponges? = Don’t use sponges (which store bacteria). Tear up old tees (etc.) and use ‘em for rags. Then wash and reuse.






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8 Responses to “Kitchensink Chemistry: How To Read Cleaning Product Labels, and Avoid Poisoning your Household.”

  1. Rick Gilbert says:

    I manage a facility that collects household hazardous waste. this includes pretty much all of the “chemicals to avoid” listed here.

    one of the main problems with household cleaners is found in the erroneous instruction to “look at the back of a bottle of 409.” well–go ahead, look at it. you won’t find any ingredients listed! so many of our household cleaners don’t list the ingredients on the label. the labeling requirements in the US are pathetic.

    By law, a pesticide product must list its active ingredient, but many of the “inert” ingredients can go unlisted, and these aren’t always benign. many people think “Simple Green” is a good alternative, but it’s main ingredient is butyl cellulose–a chemical listed in your article.

    consumers should seek out the MSDS of products in their home to check the contents, and even then it’s not a perfect answer–some chemicals are guarded by proprietary secrecy.

    one final note: at my hazardous waste facility, we tend to segregate for further testing cleaners and other products that claim to be “green” or “natural” but don’t list ingredients. they tend to be quite acidic or caustic.

    you’d be amazed at the volume of waste we get in on a busy summer day, and the toxicity of these items. we receive elemental mercury, hundreds of pounds of liquid and solid pesticides (including DDT and other banned materials). our average customer brings in close to 100 pounds of waste.

    keep up the good work.
    Rick Gilbert
    Port Orchard WA

  2. Navi says:

    Wow. I really, really appreciate this article. I was first shocked at chemical content when I read the back of the weed-killer bottle which my grandfather uses in his garden. Its instructions warned the user to not inhale, not be around the grass for 12 hours afterward, and when done spraying to take off all clothes and wash them immediately, separate from all others!

    I’m in the garden often and I have found basic soap to work wonders as a pesticide (I highly recommend “Basic H” for just about anything) and pepper to deter some small animals. Well, if you want a perfect, weed-free lawn which is all one species of grass (which I personally detest), then get some exercise and dig out the unwanted items. Do a little research, find which grows well with what, etc.

    The great thing about switching to chemical-free cleaning is that it’s cheaper, healthier, safer, and surprisingly easy. Getting more people to be household-cleaner-conscious should be an easy task!

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