Thanks to clever marketing tactics designed to make us spend, spend, spend, we’ve been conditioned to think that a clean house and clean clothes and clean sheets have to smell clean. The problem is that the ingredients used to make these things have any smell at all – whether they’re synthetic or natural – can cause more problems than they solve. The big concern with cleaners is often asthma or allergies, but studies have found that they can also form formaldehyde. Yup, your laundry detergent, air fresheners, and cleaners may be exposing you to a carcinogen.
VOCs, Formaldehyde, and Cleaners
Cleaning products are known to release VOCs – volatile organic compounds – into the air as you use them. Some VOCs are harmless, but many are quite harmful to our health. They are linked to asthma and cancer, for example. In a small study done by Environmental Defence, the VOC levels in homes after cleaning increased by 120% with conventional cleaners. Even “green” cleaners increased VOC concentrations, but only by 30%.
Now, you might be thinking, OK, what can I look for on a label to avoid these chemicals?
Here’s the problem: cleaning products in Canada and the US do not have to disclose ingredients on the label. At all. Which means that some brands will disclose partial ingredients making you think it’s the whole story. But most conventional products don’t list any (or they provide useless information like “non-ionizing surfactant” and “naturally-derived fragrance”).
The other issue is that the VOCs can react to other chemicals in the air to form entirely different substances. Like formaldehyde.
Many cleaners contain a class of VOCs known as terpenes. These can be synthetic, but they can also be naturally occurring in essential oils (sometimes listed on labels as linolool and limonene). When these VOCs are exposed to high levels of ground-level ozone, which is produced by vehicle exhaust, they react to form formaldehyde.
Let’s Take a Step Back
Before you start panicking, there are a few things to note:
- Concentrations of both the terpenes and the ground-level ozone have to be high enough. This means that homes in urban areas or close to highways are at higher risk, especially in the summer months.
- Longer-lasting products, like plug-in air fresheners, will have a higher overall exposure than one-time use cleaners.
- The amount of formaldehyde formed is low; however, we are exposed to formaldehyde from other products in our homes, especially newer homes or remodelled kitchens (formaldehyde is often used in particle board products). It is often used in non-iron clothes and bedding too (gross).
What You Can Do
As I’ve discussed in this blog post, there are some very real health concerns around synthetic fragrance ingredients. They increase our exposure to carcinogens, asthmagens, allergens, and hormone disruptors. And while asthmatics may react immediately, other effects can take a long time to manifest.
My advice is to reduce the use of fragrance around your home in general. This can be a combination of body care, cleaning products, air fresheners, etc. And when you are cleaning, open windows and/or run your exhaust fan to help dilute any VOCs that are formed to get them out of the breathing space.
Want to know how healthy and green your cleaning products really are? Download my list here!