cleaning products blog

How Dangerous Are Common Household Cleaning Products?

This article was ghostwritten for Chelsea Cleaning. It is written in British English.

Few of us stop to consider how harmful the products we use to clean our houses might be, and yet these products are a big part of our daily lives. It’s little wonder that a South African study discovered that 21.5% of poisoning cases in children under the age of five were due to accidental exposure to household cleaning products1.

In many countries, including South Africa, regulations governing the production of these products are dangerously lax, with manufacturers seldom being required to alert the public to the potential dangers of their products.

As homeowners and parents, this is understandably alarming and in order to make the best choice for yourself and your family, it is essential that we all educate ourselves on the potential dangers so we can make healthier choices. Here, we list the most hazardous cleaning components to be aware of.


Commonly found in air-fresheners or fragranced cleaning products, phthalates are often not disclosed on the label due to proprietary laws protecting the ingredients of particular scents. Phthalates are known to be endocrine disruptors, which can lead to tumours, birth defects and developmental disorders.

Wherever possible opt for fragrance-free products or those which specifically state that they don’t contain phthalates. Alternatively, use essential oils or incense to freshen a room.


Triclosan is common in a wide range of cleaning products, most frequently being listed as an active ingredient in antibacterial products. It is an anti-microbial substance and its overuse is widely considered to be contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, otherwise known as superbugs. Triclosan is also suspected to be an endocrine disruptor, which can interfere with hormonal balance, as well as being highly toxic to aquatic organisms which makes its use controversial as most cleaning products end up in the ocean eventually.

Medical and scientific consensus is swinging away from the use of anti-bacterial products and in the United States, the FDA has banned 19 chemical compounds commonly found in anti-bacterial soaps, including triclosan.

The best and safest way to disinfect surfaces such as chopping boards is to use very hot water (over 72°C). White vinegar is also a very effective disinfectant, especially when combined with a mild hydrogen peroxide rinse (3%).


2-butoxyethanol is a glycol ether often found in window cleaners, degreasers and some multipurpose cleaners. Glycol ethers are a group of solvents which are commonly used in cleaners and paints.

2-butoxyethanol, which is also known as 2-BE or butyl cellosolve, has been shown to cause reproductive problems after prolonged exposure to high concentrations. 2-BE also causes skin and eye irritations and has even been associated with liver and kidney damage.

It is recommended that gloves and protective eyewear be worn when using products containing 2-BE. Better still, avoid products containing this component and use more natural alternatives. A powerful, all-natural degreaser for both household and industrial use, is the concentrated gel called Triple Orange, available online or at Wellness Warehouse.


Perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, is primarily used for dry-cleaning and in some upholstery cleaners. It’s commonly referred to as dry-cleaning liquid and exposure usually comes from inhaling the fumes.

Despite being widely used and considered to have a moderate to low toxicity, perchloroethylene or PERC, is classified as carcinogenic. It has been linked to increased risk of Parkinson’s and the development of liver and kidney tumours.

If possible, source a dry-cleaner that uses a different method, such as liquid carbon dioxide. Certain items of clothing and soft furnishings, which are marked as dry-clean only, can be hand-washed in cold water.


Chlorine comes in many forms, from common table salt (sodium chloride) through to deadly chlorine gas. Elemental chlorine, which is produced from brine by electrolysis, is used as a commercial bleach and can be found in many household cleaning products, including toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers and laundry whiteners.

Chlorine is primarily a respiratory irritant and can cause acute symptoms such as coughing, eye irritation and chest pains. It is essential that you avoid skin contact when working with these cleaners and never mix products containing chlorine bleach with those containing ammonia, this can potentially create chloramine gas, which can be fatal if inhaled.

Effective alternatives for a toilet bowl cleaner are borax powder or vinegar, while chlorine-free oxygen bleach powders are more readily available than before.

Quaternary ammonium compounds

Also known as quats, this is another type of anti-microbial that is found in fabric softeners and antibacterial cleaners and along with the same issue that triclosan poses as a contributor to drug-resistant bacteria; quaternary ammonium compounds are also a skin irritant.

An effective and completely natural alternative in the case of fabric softeners is white vinegar. It can be added to the fabric softener dispenser on your washing machine and it has the added benefit of removing soap residue from the inside of the machine.


Found in most bathroom and surface cleaners, Ammonia is an effective polishing agent and evaporates without leaving streaks. Despite this obvious benefit when it comes to cleaning, ammonia in high concentrations is an extremely harsh irritant and can cause respiratory issues after prolonged exposure, especially for the elderly or those already suffering from a respiratory illness such as asthma.

Reduce exposure to your skin when working with ammonia based products and avoid breathing the fumes by wearing a protective mask. Alternatives for polishing silver include toothpaste and for glass surfaces, diluted vinegar and newspaper work wonders.

Sodium hydroxide

Also known as lye or caustic soda, sodium hydroxide is highly corrosive which is why you might find it in oven and bathroom cleaners as well as drain openers and some disinfectants.

It is essential that you have adequate protection when using products containing sodium hydroxide as it can burn your eyes, skin and lungs. Wear gloves, eye protection and a mask if you make use of these products, particularly in an enclosed area such as a bathroom. Minimise the amount of time you are exposed to any fumes as well; inhaling these fumes can cause respiratory irritation.

Natural alternatives include vinegar for unblocking drains and baking soda as an oven cleaner.

At Chelsea Cleaning, we always opt for the more natural cleaning solution whenever possible. Contact us for a quote on professional, affordable, deep cleaning in and around Cape Town, as well as in the Helderberg.