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Where do the Chemicals Used to Make Cleaning Products Come from?

By J. Beam
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By anon354739 — On Nov 11, 2013

I would like to enroll in a short course on how to mix hygiene and household cleaning products such a, dishwashing liquids, detergents and others of light industrial use. Where can I register? Can you please help me!

By golf07 — On Nov 14, 2012

I haven't found anything that works better than bleach to get my laundry white. I tried some other safe non-bleach products but was disappointed in the results. Instead of things turning out white, they looked yellow.

If I could find something that worked as well as bleach, I would definitely use it. If I didn't use bleach in my laundry I have no idea how I would keep my sons baseball uniform looking clean.

By honeybees — On Nov 14, 2012

I never used to think much about the cleaning products I used. If they were economical and worked I never gave a thought as to how they affected me or what happened once they went down the drain. Now I am much more aware about the chemicals that are in the household products I use, and have switched to cleaning products that are environmentally friendly. At first I was surprised that they worked as well, but I have found they do work just as well as other products I have used.

By Mykol — On Nov 13, 2012

I have noticed something interesting since I began using organic cleaning products. Now when I walk down the aisle of the store that has all the cleaning products I am very sensitive to the scents and smells.

This never used to bother me before, but now it seems so strong. I don't know if it is the chemicals used or the fragrances they use, but I immediately start sneezing. Once I move to a different aisle I no longer have a problem. I do pay a little bit more for the organic cleaning products, but sure feel a lot better about using them for myself, my family and pets.

By julies — On Nov 12, 2012

Many years ago I was introduced to a company that made their own environmentally friendly cleaning products. This was long before being green was popular. I have used these products for many years, and just a few years ago they were talked about on the Oprah show as one of her new favorite things.

What I love about using these products is they work great and are very economical. Since the all purpose cleaner comes in a concentrated form, it lasts me for a very long time. I also don't have to worry about the chemicals that are in most cleaning products on the market.

When my kids were young I didn't have to worry about them getting into the cupboards and getting a hold of products that were toxic to them. Now there are more safe cleaning products to choose from than there were many years ago, and I am glad to see the positive changes that have been made in this area.

By KaBoom — On Aug 19, 2012

@strawCake - Well, shampoo hurts if you get it in your eye, but it doesn't actually burn your skin on contact like bleach does!

That being said, I actually try to use natural and non-toxic cleaning products for another reason. I read somewhere that all the disinfectants we're using are helping create super germs and lower our immune systems. So I've stopped using them around my home.

By strawCake — On Aug 18, 2012

I know most cleaning products have chemicals in them, but I have to say, I just don't care. As long as you take proper precautions while you're cleaning, you shouldn't run into any problems. For example, you shouldn't get most things in your eye. Shampoo burns if you get it in your eye, but I don't plan to stop using that any time soon either!

Plus, I just don't have to the time to make homemade cleaning products every time I want to clean up something around my home. So I'll probably continue to use regular cleaning products, chemicals and all.

By Monika — On Aug 17, 2012

@SZapper - You're right that you can make a lot of cleaning products at home. I've found a ton of recipes online for environmentally safe cleaning products that can be made using stuff that's easy to find at the store. I've also switched to natural cleaning products, and I've found them to be just as effective as the chemicals.

By SZapper — On Aug 17, 2012

I actually did a bunch of research online about cleaning products a few years ago. I was pretty disturbed by what I found out. First of all, most of them are tested on animals, which I don't agree with. Second of all, the chemicals in most cleaning products are pretty scary.

I switched to natural cleaning products a few years ago, and I've never looked back. There are a few brands that I buy that are natural and non-toxic, but sometimes I make my own stuff. You can do a lot of things around the house with vinegar and baking soda!

By anon89101 — On Jun 08, 2010

Not much info on ammonia.

By anon10721 — On Apr 01, 2008

Do Household cleaners and personal hygiene products have dioxins or PCB, PCDD oe organochlorine chemicals in them?

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