Toxic Chemicals in Household Cleaners

Household cleaners contain many toxic chemicals which are hazardous to human health and/or the environment. Presently there are no regulations requiring the ingredients of the cleaning products to be listed on the label. This makes it very difficult to identify chemicals which should be avoided. Some chemicals which have been classified by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1999(CEPA) as being harmful to human health are regulated by Health Canada, limiting the concentration of these chemicals in cleaning and other products. CEPA is currently under review to better reflect the many recent scientific studies which indicate the harmful effects of many more chemicals linked to cancers and other chronic diseases.

Chemicals of concern found in household cleaners:

 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) Found in: glass cleaners, laundry stain removers, carpet cleaners, automobile cleaners, windshield wiper fluid, degreasers, oven cleaners, and rust removers.

Ammonia Found in: window cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bathroom cleaners, oven cleaners, stainless-steel cleaners, car polish, and all-purpose cleaners.

Coal tar dyes Found in: most types of cleaning products

MEA, DEA.TEA Found in: liquid laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, car wash products, degreasers, dishes soap, oven cleaners, and glass and surface cleaners.

Fragrance chemicals (These can be a mixture of any of 3000 chemicals) Found in: as laundry detergents, fabric softeners, deodorizers, glass cleaners, floor polishes, air fresheners, and most other cleaning products.

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) Found in: liquid laundry detergents, stain removers, all-purpose cleaners, air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, degreasers, and car wash products.

Phosphates Found in: dishwasher detergents, laundry detergents, and bathroom cleaners.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats)  Found in: bathroom cleaning products, all-purpose cleaners, fabric softeners, and degreasers.

Silica powder Found in: abrasive cleaning powders.

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate  Found in: toilet bowl cleaners, deodorizers, surface cleaners, and disinfectants

Sodium hydroxide (also known as lye and caustic soda) Found in: oven cleaners, bathroom cleaners, disinfectants, drain openers, and toilet bowl cleaners

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) Found in: dish soap, liquid laundry detergents, cleaning towelettes, and toilet bowl cleaners .

Triclosan Found in: dish soaps and disinfectants, as well as a wide range of products. Look for it listed as an “active ingredient” in antibacterial products.

Trisodium nitrilotriacetate Found in: bathroom cleaners and possibly some laundry detergents (more common in industrial formulations).

How can you determine the safety of the cleaning products you currently use?  One way is to read the ingredient list to see if the product contains any of the above ingredients. The following handy pocket guides list the most common harmful chemicals to avoid when choosing household cleaners.

Environmental Working Group (USA)                                                                                    Environmental Defence Canada 

An easier way is to determine the safety of the products you are currently using is to use the USA Environmental Working Group‘s data base  This data base rates the safety of over 2,500 cleaning products. You can search for a specific product e.g Tide Ultra Powder Detergent, Original or a particular brand e.g.Tide. The products are rated from A to F, A being products containing few/no known or suspected hazards to human health or the environment. Good ingredient exposure. F being products that contain potentially significant hazards to human health or the environment or have a poor ingredient disclosure.

Tips reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals in household cleaners:

  • Always wear rubber gloves when using cleaning products to prevent absorption through the skin
  • Do not using products in spray containers to avoid inhaling chemicals
  • Choose products with safer chemicals. Look for those which have fewer toxic chemicals
  • Choose products that are fragrance free
  • Replace commercial cleaners with baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice
  • Make your own cleaning products


 David Suzuki Foundation                                                                                        Environmental Defense Canada                                                                            Environmental Working Group                                                                                                                              Organic Consumers Organization