Look for label symbols that indicate you’re buying a cleaner whose ingredients probably pose less harm to humans and whose claims have been verified by an independent certifier. Examples of certified claims include Certified Biodegradable, Design for the Environment, Green Guard, and Green Seal. In Consumer Reports’ latest Ratings, cleaners from Green Works, whose labels bear the Design for the Environment seal, and Seventh Generation, whose labels disclose all of their ingredients, were among the better spray cleaners. “Don’t rely on labels that claim the product is ‘natural,’ which doesn’t always mean the product is not toxic or nonirritating,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. “For starters, there is no nationally accepted standard definition of the word ‘natural’ for cleaning products—and not all natural products are problem-free.”
Air it out
Open the windows when using household cleaners. Products that unclog drains might contain sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid, which can irritate or burn your skin and eyes and irritate your nose and throat. Scouring powder might have chlorine bleach, which should never be mixed with other cleaners because of the risk of forming toxic gases, which can cause severe respiratory irritation. Oven cleaners might have potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, both of which are extremely irritating to the eyes, lungs, and skin.
Some household cleaners and air fresheners emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemical gases that can pollute the air and cause headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms. Some VOCs are suspected carcinogens, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a recent study, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and elsewhere measured the VOCs emitted by different concentrations of general-purpose, glass, and bathroom cleaners used for 10 minutes in small and large bathrooms with and without ventilation.
The VOC concentrations they recorded for most of the tasks fell into the “discomfort” range, suggesting that the cleaners can significantly contribute to poor indoor air quality, according to the study, which was published in the Nov. 30, 2010, issue of Environmental Health. And the VOCs hung in the air the longest in the small, unventilated test bathroom, potentially exposing anyone who entered it to the chemicals more than 20 minutes after cleaning ceased. In addition to dizziness and headaches, other key symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include eye, nose, and throat irritation, fatigue and nausea. So when you clean your bathroom, be sure to leave a door or window open or turn the vent fan on, and wait awhile before letting others use it.