By Holly Lucille, ND, RN

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it can also be a gateway to health risks. In our zealous war on germs, many Americans have taken to using harmful, toxin-packed cleaners that do more harm than good. While you may feel like extra-strength, heavy duty cleaners are the only way to really tackle dirt and germs, the fact is that stronger chemicals come with bigger potential hazards.

Unlike food and personal care products, household cleaners are mostly an unregulated industry. Manufacturers get free rein to use whatever they want in their formulations—and with no obligation to list their ingredients. The result is that customers have no idea what they are spritzing, wiping, and scouring with when they spruce up their homes.

In the most recent iteration of its Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the Environmental Working Group evaluated more than 2,000 cleaning products and found almost three-fourths of the new batch of products contained ingredients that may have serious respiratory implications. All-purpose spray cleaners were the worst offenders.

Other worrisome revelations: One-fourth of all the products contained chemicals linked to cancer. A fifth of the products analyzed were considered hormone disruptors, chemicals that interfere with our endocrine and reproductive systems. And humans aren’t the only victims of pernicious chemicals. Over half the products the EWG tested had serious implications for the environment, including being toxic to our waterways and aquatic life.[1]

Manufacturers defend their products by arguing that the amount of the toxins in each household cleaner is minute. But multiple products, along with chronic exposure, add up cumulatively to what’s called the body’s toxic burden. The chemicals we come across in all aspects of daily life leave residues that can be detected in our blood, urine, and even breast milk.

We don’t yet know what the long-term effects of this daily cocktail of chemicals amounts to, so erring on the side of caution is the safest bet. A logical place to start? Weeding out the “dirty” ingredients that lurk in your cleaning supplies. Below are five of the worst offenders, along with healthier—but just as effective—alternatives.

Bathroom Top Toxin: Phthalates

  • Where they’re found: Phthalates are a huge class of chemicals that give fragrances their staying power. Typically, any product that boasts fragrance on its product, unless otherwise specified, contains phthalates. This includes laundry detergent, wipes, cleaners, air fresheners, and even toilet paper. Fragrance is one of the ways cleaning products inspire brand loyalty. But that lemony scent isn’t exactly natural—it’s a synthetic aroma engineered by combining dozens of chemicals, many of them risky. Fragrance is a sneaky, catchall ingredient: To protect their proprietary formulations, companies can avoid disclosing what’s in their scent.
  • Worst offenders: Febreze, Glade air fresheners, Simple Green Naturals Multi-Surface Care, Lysol, scrubbing bubbles
  • The dirt: Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Even at low doses, phthalate exposure during pregnancy can affect reproductive and neurological development. One of the most recent studies out of Harvard University suggests that when pregnant women are exposed to phthalates, it can hamper fetuses’ proper development and growth. Although exposure to phthalates mainly occurs through inhalation, it can also happen when products are absorbed by the skin. [2]
  • Cleaner Choices: Steer clear of aerosol or plug-in air fresheners and choose fragrance-free or all-natural organic products whenever possible. There are several alternative ways to improve your home’s scent. Open windows periodically; add more plants, which naturally detoxify the air; or try a diffuser filled with a few drops of an organic essential oil.

Living Room Top Toxin: 2-Butoxyethanol, 2-Hydroxyethanol

  • Where they’re found: Heavy duty multipurpose cleaners, window cleaners
  • Worst offenders: Simple Green, Windex, Pledge, Shout, Woolite carpet stain remover
  • The dirt: These two petrochemicals are part of a category of glycol ethers, heavy duty solvents with a signature sweet smell, used to cut through dirt and grease. In California, 2-butoxyethanol is listed as a hazardous ingredient. The EPA lists some of the risks of glycol ethers as narcosis, pulmonary edema, severe liver and kidney damage, and neurological symptoms.[3] According to the EWG, occupational studies indicate that men exposed to glycol ethers on the job have a higher risk of reduced sperm counts. Pregnant women exposed on the job are more predisposed to have babies with birth defects.[4]
  • Cleaner choices: A spritz of diluted vinegar wiped down with newspaper is a tried-and-true glass cleaner. If you prefer ready-made formulas, try Citra Solv, Green Shield, Ology, and Bon Ami products, which all score an A on EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, or try Airbiotics, which also makes a safe all-purpose cleaner.

Kitchen Top Toxin: Triclosan

  • Where it’s found: Tends to crop up in detergents and soaps labelled “antibacterial.”
  • Worst offenders: Dawn, Joy, Gain, and Up & Up dishwashing liquids
  • The dirt: Triclosan is linked with a trifecta of problems: bacterial resistance, hormone disruption, and aquatic damage.[5] Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned triclosan and triclocarban from hand and body soaps (manufacturers have a year to get it out of their products).[6] But apparently, the ruling does not apply to dishwashing liquid, which the EPA categorizes as pesticide.[7] Many companies, such as Palmolive, have taken it upon themselves to phase out triclosan from their dish soap. The ruling also does not include a range of other products that contain triclosan, ranging from fabric and plastics to toothpastes, deodorants, and shampoos.
  • Cleaner choices: Germophobes love the idea of a germ zapper, but mounting research shows that triclosan is overkill, literally. It performs no better than soap and water at cleaning germs. For dishwashing soaps, Earth Friendly Products, biokleen, Ecover, Seventh Generation, The Honest Co., and Mrs. Meyer’s all offer more biodegradable, greener alternatives.

Laundry Room Top Toxin: Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (a.k.a. “Quats”)

  • Where they’re found: Quats are difficult to spot on labels. Most manufacturers choose not to disclose their presence. But they are commonly found in fabric softener liquids and sheets, “antibacterial” cleaners, preservatives, surfactants, germicides, antistatic agents, and air fresheners.
  • Worst offenders: Downy, Bounce, OxiClean, Spic and Span, Lysol, Static Guard, Final Touch, Cling Free, Scrubbing Bubbles, Mr. Clean
  • The dirt: Quats, similar to triclosan, are disinfectants that can cause reproductive issues, breed antibiotic resistance, and are toxic to waterways. But they also function as a preservative that releases formaldehyde and can trigger asthma symptoms—even in people who have never had asthma.[8] Plus, quats may be the reason behind mystery rashes. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, quats were the most common cause of contact dermatitis of the hands.[9]
  • Cleaner choices: Natural fabrics, as opposed to synthetics, are less prone to static cling. Or you can try reusable wool dryer balls to reduce both drying time and (You can add a few drops of organic essential oils to the balls for a natural, phthalate-free scent.) If you can’t live without a liquid fabric softener, Attitude, Seventh Generation, Green Shield, Ecover and Dropps Fabric Softener Pacs, Scent + Dye Free all make savvy options.

House-wide Top Toxin: Chlorine

  • Where it’s found: Chlorine is also known as bleach, which is chlorine added to lye. The usual suspects are scouring powders, toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers, and laundry whiteners.
  • Worst offenders: Comet, Clorox, Ajax, Tide, Lysol
  • The dirt: Like phthalates, chlorine can be inhaled or penetrate the skin barrier. Numerous studies show contact with chlorine can cause severe damage to eyes, skin, mouth, and throat. It can also cause liver and kidney damage.[10]
  • Cleaner choice: The American Lung Association suggests soap and warm water is just as effective as bleach. Other options include baking soda as an excellent all-purpose scrub. And vinegar does a great job getting out tough toilet stains and disinfecting surfaces. If you prefer store-bought cleaning supplies, plenty of companies now make chlorine-free oxygen bleach products.


For natural cleaning options, try these homemade recipes from Chef Lauren Cox.












[10] Odabasi M. 2008. Halogenated volatile organic compounds from the use of chlorine-bleach-containing household products. Environmental Science & Technology 42(5): 1445-1451.

Holly Lucille, ND, RN
, is a passionate practicing N.D. and nationally acclaimed TV and radio host. She is also an educator, author and lecturer at various health institutions. Dr. Lucille is the past president of the California Naturopathic Doctors Association and was a recipient of SCNM Legacy Award and Daphne Blayden Award from the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.



*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.