As a society, we have become obsessed with disinfectants, and as a result, we use far more household cleaning products than is probably necessary to maintain a clean home. For many, the fear of germs is worse than the fear of what chemicals might be present in their products, while for others, the very idea of those chemicals inspires a desire for a better alternative. Some people simply never think about it. If you’ve ever wondered what chemicals are in most cleaning products and where they come from, you might be surprised to find out.
One of the primary chemicals in many household cleaning products is chlorine bleach, or sodium hypochlorite. Sodium hypochlorite is a chemical compound formed by the absorption of chlorine gas in a sodium hydroxide solution. Chlorine bleach is an effective disinfectant and stain remover, but it is not without drawbacks. Chlorine bleach is toxic if ingested, it can burn the skin and eyes upon contact, and the fumes can burn mucus membranes. Hypochlorite has also been found to be carcinogenic when mixed with organic materials.
Another common ingredient in household cleaners is surfactants, which are usually organic compounds. They are frequently used in dishwashing liquids and shampoos. Though surfactants are not toxic, they are generally petroleum-based products, though some are made from vegetable oils. Though surfactants are not harmful to breathe or harmful to the skin, there are questions surrounding the biodegradability of surfactants and their long term effect on the environment.
Phosphates are minerals that soften water and are very effective at cleaning. Most laundry detergents and several other types of household cleaners once contained phosphates. However, most states in the US have banned the use of phosphates in detergents and cleaners.
Fomaldehyde is another chemical compound found in some household cleaners, but it is included as a preservative, not as a cleaning agent. Other chemicals commonly found in cleaners include ammonia; nitrobenzene, which is a toxic organic compound frequently used in furniture polish; and phenol, or carbolic acid. Most ingredients in household cleaners are chemical compounds that are manufactured for other uses as well.
Typically, the chemicals in cleaners are found in small amounts and diluted with water. This does not necessarily make them safe, and proper measures should be taken for the safe use and storage of all chemical cleaning products. Ingestion of common household cleaners by children accounts for well over half of the phone calls made to the poison control center. Always keep cleaning products out of the reach of children.