Not so spotless

Grab a nearby cleaning (or personal care) product.

If it bothers to list its ingredients, you will see it consists of a sometimes quite dazzling collection of mysterious chemicals. Many people assume that these impressive lists compose substances that, since they are being sold, are known to be safe to use. The truth is:

  • Most of them contain dangerous chemicals that pollute our homes and the environment, poisoning groundwater, air and soils and seeping into our bodies as we inhale them and absorb them through our skin, and sometimes ingest them. (See more below.)
  • Very little is known about exactly how the effects of years of exposure to these chemicals accumulate to contribute to diseases such as cancer and asthma; even less about how the myriad chemicals we spray and pour and sprinkle on and around us interact. Essentially, we have turned our homes into uncontrolled chemical laboratories.
  • What is known, however, is that many household products contain chemicals that are recognized as toxic, carcinogenic and as irritants. (See more below.)
  • Use of these products is linked to many diseases and syndromes including respiratory problems, nervous disorders, skin ailments, reproductive abnormalities and cancers. (See more below.)
  • A 15 year study found that women who work in the home have a 54% higher death rate from cancer than those who work outside the home. It concluded that this is as a direct result of greater exposure to common household cleaning products (Toronto Indoor Air Conference 1990).

A brief history of synthetic chemicals

  • Since World War Two there has been a massive increase in the production of new synthetic chemicals.
  • Many are created from petroleum and coal tar, and were originally developed for use in chemical warfare. However, they have made their way into many other applications (for example, chlorine, the first weapon of chemical warfare, which is in many household cleaners).
  • More than 100,000 synthetic chemicals are now used in consumer products. Approximately 1,000 new ones are added each year.
  • Very few of these chemicals have been tested for safety. According to the US National Research Council, “no toxic information is available for more than 80% of the chemicals in everyday-use products. Less than 20% have been tested for acute effects and less than 10% have been tested for chronic, reproductive or mutagenic effects.”
  • Almost none have been tested for long-term, combined or accumulated effects, nor for their effects on unborn children.
  • In Europe, the EU’s 2006 Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation aims to assess the toxicity of all chemicals sold in Europe in quantities of more than one tonne per year, by 2018. 29,000 chemicals were expected to be pre-registered. But when pre-registration ended in 2008, more than 140,000 substances were listed.
  • In the meantime, these chemicals, including many that are known to be harmful, even lethal, are nevertheless in common use in an array of products, many of which you probably have in your home.

So it should come as no surprise that most poisonings involve everyday household items such as cleaning supplies, cosmetics and personal care items.


Consider this data from the 2000 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centres’ Toxic Exposure Surveillance System:

  • 89% of all poison exposures occur in the home.
  • 53% of poison exposures occur in children under six.
  • The two most common forms of poison exposure for children under six are: cosmetics and personal care products (e.g. nail polish, deodorant, soap) and cleaning substances (e.g. laundry detergent, floor cleaners).
  • Even for adults, household cleaning products are the third most common poisons (after pain medicines and sedatives).

Even without accidentally ingesting these products, by choosing to buy and use them we are constantly exposed to them in our homes, exposing ourselves to long-term effects. Indoor air pollution levels can be up to 500 times that of outdoors. Many studies have shown how hundreds of synthetic chemicals are now commonly found stored in human adipose tissue, forming a build-up of toxins that is linked to cancers and other diseases that have been massively on the rise at the same time as we’ve been using more and more of these products. (As just one example, formaldehyde, common in household products, has accumulated in our bodies so that we now take much longer to decompose. Formaldehyde is an irritant and carcinogen that is linked to a number of health problems and is found in fabric softeners, dishwashing detergents and many many other products. If listed at all, it is often called by other names on labels.)

Outside our homes these poisonous substances continue to cause problems. They:

  • leach into groundwater systems,
  • wreak havoc with wastewater treatment
  • and contaminate the soil. (See more below.)

Personal “care”(?)

  • Cosmetics and skincare products which we spray or smear directly onto our skin also contain many of these dubious chemicals and are almost always diluted with mineral oils (by-products of the petro-chemical industry) which have no therapeutic value.
  • Harsh cleaning agents destroy the skin’s acid mantle and strip the skin of moisture, which is then falsely replaced by a smothering layer of mineral oil and silicones.
  • The molecules of these oils are too large to penetrate the skin, instead forming a smooth synthetic layer that actually dries out the lower layer of skin, clogs pores and stops the skin from its natural processes of respiring (expelling wastes and toxins and drawing in nutrients).
  • Trapped oils turn rancid and combine with trapped toxins and to (ironically for the “beauty” industry) speed up the aging process and increase chances of skin irritations and cancer.
  • To increase the shelf life of these products, many also contain parabens, which mimic estrogen and have been linked to cancer, especially breast cancer.

More information


  • Read a list of common harmful ingredients found in household cleaning products here.
  • See here for a list of harmful ingredients commonly found in personal care products and here for another.
  • See a list of recognized carcinogens here.
  • To find out about their contribution to allergies, look at this and this.
  • For two of many articles about cancer risks see here and here.
  • Some quick statistics on cancer rates:
    • “Based on rates from 2005-2007, …1 in 2 men and women [in the USA] will be diagnosed with cancer of all sites during their lifetime.” US National National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program
    • “Cancer rates [worldwide] could further increase by 50% to 15 million new cases in the year 2020, according to the World Cancer Report, the most comprehensive global examination of the disease to date.” World Health Organisation (The report also states that a major cause of this increase is the rise of unhealthy Western lifestyles spreading to other countries.)
  • To read about how anti-bacterials lead to the rise of superbugs, see for example here, here and here.


  • To find out more about how our health and life on earth is being affected by our production, use and disposal of these products, a good place to start is the Greenpeace-commissioned report on consumer products, which you can download here. Greenpeace was unable to grade any of the major brands of personal care or household cleaning products anything other than red (containing harmful pollutants).
  • To read about some of the health and environmental risks posed by household cleaners, see here.
  • A personal note: Sure, you’re not going to save the environment or halt global warming simply by changing your cleaning and personal care habits, but it’s still a good thing to do. Since we did this, there are whole aisles of the supermarket, whole shops, we no longer have any need to step into. Along with the personal liberation this brings, that means that if you and us and enough other people do this, those whole aisles, along with the polluting industries they support, will just disappear. The gunk they sell will not be produced, or used, or released into the air and water to contaminate them and be taken in by and harm other organisms, including us. Stuff will not be produced if no-one buys it. It is as simple as that. (And who knows, we may even help save the environment and halt global warming…)
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