Are Cleaning Products That Smell Good Bad for Your Health?

Artificial scents don't just cover up foul odors, they may also mask harmful toxins

If a house smells clean that means it’s clean, right? Not necessarily. A new report from a women’s health watchdog group suggests that scented cleaners may leave behind toxins more harmful than the messes themselves.

Artificial fragrances have been added to cleaning products for decades. But Women’s Voices for the Earth, a national organization that’s working to lower women’s exposure to toxins, says consumers are offered very little information about ingredients that may be hazardous to their health. In a new report released in June 2010, the group analyzed 37 peer-reviewed scientific studies and identified three potentially harmful groups of ingredients that may be found in the cleaning products under your kitchen sink: Synthetic musks, which can build up in the body and potentially disrupt hormones and break down the body’s natural defenses; phthalates, additives used to keep fragrances fresh that have been linked to reproductive problems; and allergens that can cause a array of reactions.

“Any one [of those] products can cause a range of adverse health effects,” says Anne Steinnemann, Ph.D., a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering who has studied dozens of common household cleaners. (Her studies were included in the report.)

Steinnemann found that even unscented products are not always fragrance free, and cleaners labeled “green” or “natural” can have just as many chemicals as conventional brands. In a 2009 study she published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Steinneman found that every scented product she tested emitted chemicals that various federal agencies classify as toxic or hazardous. If these toxins were found in food products, says Steinnemann, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would require that those ingredients be listed on the label, but cleaning products are under no such regulation. That may soon change, though.

Will Lawmakers Take Action?
Women’s Voices for the Earth says it commissioned and released this report in order to gain support for proposed Federal legislation, the Household Product Labeling of 2009. Currently awaiting action in Congress, the bill would require manufacturers to list all ingredients in household cleaning products sold in the U.S. (They're already required to do so for products sold in European Union member countries.)

So how can you tell which cleaners are safe in the meantime? It's not so easy. Steinnemann and Women’s Voices for the Earth aren’t naming names, but Steinnemann says she’s tested products made by manufacturers who claim to disclose all ingredients and found that they do not.

The one sure way to get away from potentially dangerous toxins: Use time-tested products like baking soda, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. Annie B. Bond, author of Better Basics for the Home and green living expert (, suggests making your own all-purpose cleaner. Fill a spray bottle with 2 cups of water and a teaspoon of washing soda (found in the laundry section near the borax). If you want to add a scent, mix in a few drops of an essential oil, like lavender. Bond recommends the brand Aura Cacia. “To test if the oil is pure, meaning not synthetic, drop it on blotter paper. If it stains, it isn’t pure,” says Bond.

The bottom line: Whether scented or unscented, most household cleaners stink for your health. Until legislation is passed requiring manufactures to list every ingredient in their cleaning products, your safest bet is to make your own or stick to products we know are non-toxic, like borax and unscented castile soap.

What kind of household cleaners do you use? Are you thinking of switching? Chime in below!

Like This? Read These:
- Making Your Own Household Cleaners
- Keeping the Kitchen Clean, Naturally
- 21 Tips for Building a Sustainable Kitchen
- 5 Ways Your Workout is Killing the Environment
- 7 Ways to Go Green While Getting Lean

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