Spring is here! And with it comes “spring cleaning season” — a time to declutter, organize and give everything a good scrub. Maintaining a clean home is important for indoor air quality and overall well-being, and while that frenzy can be satisfying, many commercial cleaning products we use can be harmful to our health, especially our lungs. 

We’re not here to rain on your spring-cleaning parade! Instead, we’ll explore our understanding of “clean,” explain hidden dangers of household chemicals and cleaning products and detail how using them can impact your health. Luckily, there are many “safe cleaning” options so you can clean your home without using harmful chemicals. So, put down the bleach and grab your trusty vinegar bottle and microfiber cloth — it’s time to spring clean for a healthy home and healthy lungs.  

What Is “Clean” Anyway?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, clean means “free from dirt or pollution.” But ask anyone how they know something is clean and you might get answers like, “I know it’s clean when I smell bleach” or “It’s only clean when I use [insert specific product name].” 

With the help of product advertisements, cultural and social influences and lived experiences, many of us have come to associate cleanliness with a certain quality — perhaps a particular scent or a specific brand of cleaning product. Product manufacturers spend millions of dollars claiming their cleaning products are the only ones that will get the job done. They entice you with new scents and fragrances (who doesn’t like the sound of “Hawaiian Paradise”?) and new ways of using their products (why yes, I do need that all-in-one floor cleaner — it will cut my work in half!).  

But they don’t want you to know how harmful some of their products are. Many household cleaning products are unnecessary, expensive and harmful to your health. Very basic supplies that you likely already have in your kitchen can take the place of most of the cleaning products you buy (more on this later).  

Cleaning, Disinfecting, Sanitizing – Oh My!

While we’re on the topic of definitions, it can get a little muddy when we start talking about managing germs, so let’s understand the differences in these common terms: 

  • Cleaning: Removes dirt, dust, crumbs and germs from surfaces and objects. Soaps or detergents are used to clean and can remove some germs but does not necessarily kill all the germs. 
  • Disinfecting: Kills germs on surfaces and objects. Disinfecting uses chemicals (disinfectants) such as bleach and alcohol solutions to kill germs. Typically, disinfectants need to sit on the surface/object for a certain period of time to kill the germs. Disinfecting does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces.
  • Sanitizing: Lowers the number of germs to a safe level as determined by public health standards or requirements. For example, restaurants must follow specific sanitization procedures to ensure safe food preparation. Sanitizing is done by either cleaning, disinfecting or both. For example, using a dishwasher to sanitize dishes or using an antibacterial wipe on door handles and light switches.   

For a typical household, we recommend focusing on cleaning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that sanitizing or disinfecting is likely unnecessary unless there are sick people in your home. You may need to sanitize more if you have an infant or child in the home, or someone with a compromised immune system. Disinfectants can have harmful ingredients such as quaternary ammonium compounds (aka, “quats” or “Q.A.C.s”), which have been linked to the development of asthma and could contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. It’s best to avoid disinfectants if you can.

Harms of Household Cleaning Products

Many popular cleaning products, including disinfectants, abrasives, detergents and polishes contain a cocktail of chemicals, including:

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): These are often found in air fresheners, disinfectants and all-purpose cleaners. Fragrance and scents are a major source of VOCs. Learn more about VOCs through our brief video.        
  • Solvents: These are degreasers and stain removers that can irritate the respiratory tract.
  • Acids: These remove hard-water deposits and discoloration on certain metals. Products containing acids can cause serious burns and eye injury if not handled properly.
  • Surfactants: These are cleaning agents that help lift dirt and grime. Synthetic surfactants can be harsh on the skin and can emit VOCs. 

Often, product labels do not contain all the ingredients. For example, a manufacturer can list “fragrance” as an ingredient, but not disclose the hundreds of individual chemicals that go into making that fragrance. It is difficult to know what exactly is in any given product, given that these product labels are not required to disclose everything.  

Chemicals can be harmful by themselves, but when products are mixed — like when toilet bowl cleaner, bleach and window cleaner are used to clean the bathroom — the airborne chemicals can create toxic gas that can lead to chronic breathing problems or even death. This is especially true of bleach and ammonia. 

Health harms from exposure to these chemicals, especially VOCs, are well-documented. Everything from irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, headaches and breathing problems to long-term health problems like reproductive harm, nervous system damage and even cancer. Individuals with lung diseases, such as asthma or COPD, are more vulnerable to these effects. Professional cleaners, children and people with underlying health conditions are also at higher risk of serious health effects from exposure.   

VOCs can persist in our homes, lingering for hours, days or even months after use. Factors such as the amount and type of product used as well as ventilation rates in the home can contribute to how quickly (or slowly) VOCs dissipate in our indoor air.  

Safer Cleaning: Alternatives for a Healthy Home

The good news is that you don't have to sacrifice cleanliness for lung health. There are many effective and safe cleaning solutions available. You may already have the ingredients to make your own low-cost, safer cleaning products:

  • Baking soda: sodium bicarbonate is an abrasive and a deodorizer.
  • White vinegar: an acetic acid that is a natural disinfectant. 
  • Castile soap: made of plant oils, this is a gentle and safe all-purpose cleaner. 
  • Washing soda: sodium carbonate is a natural cleaner and water softener. 

Using one or more of these ingredients, along with some good old-fashioned elbow grease can tackle most cleaning jobs around your home. Access our Safer Cleaning Recipes for more details on how to create your owner cleaning products. 

Making your own safer cleaning products offer several advantages:

  • Safer for your lungs: They contain fewer or no VOCs and toxic chemicals, reducing the risk of respiratory irritation and other health problems.
  • Safer for your skin: These ingredients are gentler on the skin, reducing the risk of irritation or allergic reactions.
  • Safer for the environment: They are eco-friendly and less toxic to the environment.
  • Just as effective: Safer cleaning products can be just as effective as conventional cleaners for most cleaning tasks, and they’re much more affordable.

Safer Cleaning Tips

Making the switch to safer cleaning is easy. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Inventory your cleaning supplies: Identify and dispose of any harsh chemicals you no longer need. Even some products labeled "green" might contain small amounts of VOCs or other harmful chemicals. Avoid products that contain words like “POISON,” “DANGER” or “WARNING” on the label. 
  2. Safely dispose of any unwanted cleaning supplies: Drop off any unwanted products at your local household hazardous waste disposal sites. Check with your local municipality for more information. 
  3. Embrace the power of vinegar and baking soda: This versatile duo can tackle many cleaning tasks from degreasing surfaces to cleaning windows and disinfecting surfaces.
  4. Invest in a good quality microfiber cloth: These cloths are effective for cleaning without the need for additional cleaning products. A damp microfiber cloth is one of the best ways to eliminate dust in the home. 
  5. Get cleaning! Roll up your sleeves and start cleaning with these safer products.  

Breathe Easy with a Safer Cleaning Routine

Taking control of your indoor air quality through safe cleaning practices is an investment in your lung health and overall well-being. By challenging what we think “clean” means (hint: it’s not a scent), and making the switch to safer cleaning products, you can protect yourself, your family and the environment.   

Happy spring cleaning! For more information, visit: www.lung.org/cleaning-products.

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