Is household cleaning bad for you? According to a new study published in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care, it could be comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day – especially for women.

After observing the long-term effects of cleaning in more than 6,000 adults over the span of 20 years, researchers found that women exposed to chemicals found in common cleaning products while cleaning at home or working as cleaners experienced accelerated decline of certain lung functions.

Keeping a clean house is a necessary step in providing a safe living environment. Through proper cleaning and disinfection in the kitchen, for example, contact with disease-causing bacteria from raw or undercooked meat, shellfish, fish and eggs can be reduced. But the products we use to clean the house can also have unintended health consequences.

But don’t toss out all your sponges just yet. While news of these findings is significant, it doesn’t mean you should stop cleaning your home. On the contrary, this study highlights the importance of practicing safe cleaning.

Where are the potential health risks? 

While household cleaners tend to be more dilute and less potent than their industrial-strength counterparts, many do contain some of the same potentially harmful ingredients. And while both children and adults are susceptible to the consequences of toxic chemical exposure, children are more so because of their smaller size, rapidly growing bodies and immature immune systems.

Some chemicals that may be a concern include:

  • Ammonia
  • Aerosol propellants
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Hydrochloric and other acids
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Paradichlorobenzenes (PDCBs)
  • Petroleum distillates
  • Phenols
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like:
    • Turpentine
    • Nitrobenzene
    • Toluene
    • Methylene
    • Chloride
    • Formaldehyde
    • Ethylene glycol

These compounds can be found in floor and carpet cleaners, degreasers, toilet/tub/tile cleaners, room deodorizers, oven cleaners, furniture polishes and waxes, laundry detergents and disinfectants.

Choosing safe cleaning products

The good news is that safer cleaning products are available. To start, be sure to read all labels well. Do not assume a green bottle labeled “natural” is toxin-free. Also consider the following pointers to avoid purchasing toxic cleaners:

  • Consider products with:
    • Citrus or plant-based oils: orange and lemon for degreasing, tea tree and eucalyptus for disinfecting and olive for polishing
    • Enzymes to break up drain clogs
  • Choose products that list all
  • Make your own cleaning products from non-toxic ingredients such as baking soda, club soda and white vinegar.
  • Focus on cleaning; disinfect only when necessary. Good cleaning habits will mean you won't need to disinfect nearly as often.
  • Do not use chemical carpet cleaners.
  • Use chlorine bleach sparingly. Consider using fragrance-free, non-chlorine bleaches containing hydrogen peroxide instead.
  • Choose unscented cleaning products. Sometimes fragrances are added to mask the smell of toxic cleaners. Furthermore, fragrances themselves can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks.
  • Be wary of concentrated cleaners that advertise safety only when used under certain conditions.
  • Avoid cleaners carrying a "danger" or "warning" label.

Manufacturers of cleaning products are required to prepare a Material Safety Data Sheet containing information about a product’s health, fire, reactivity and specific hazards, from a score of zero (minimum) to four (severe) in each category. For household cleaning products, avoid any product with a score higher than two in any category.

Techniques for safer cleaning

You can also use these safer cleaning techniques to protect yourself, your family, even your pets:

  • Avoid using too many cleaners and dilute the products you do spray in the bathroom.
  • Always open windows and turn on fans when using cleaners or other chemicals.
  • Read product labels carefully and be sure to follow the manufacturers' directions on how they should be used. (i.e. How to dilute the solution, if necessary, and how long to leave it on the surface).
  • Use bleach properly. Bleach is effective against germs, but it isn't safe for children or pets. When using a 10 percent bleach solution, wash the surfaces with hot, soapy water afterwards. Bleach solution must also be made fresh and used within 24 hours.

Visit the US Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database website to find this and other helpful information on common household cleaners.


Content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.