Household cleaners with ammonia and bleach can irritate the eyes or throat, cause headaches, and have been linked to cancer, according to the American Lung Association. Cleaners that contain either bleach or ammonia include Windex, Scrubbing Bubbles, Lysol, and Pledge.
However, cleaning products that exclude chemicals like bleach and ammonia tend to cost a bit more. A 23-ounce bottle of Windex retails for $2.99 at Target. A 24-ounce bottle of Mrs. Meyer's ammonia-free window cleaner costs $5.49 at Target, or about 10 cents more per ounce. If you buy six bottles of Mrs. Meyer's a year, you would be spending almost double what you'd spend if you opted for Windex.
This might seem like a small price to pay if Windex were significantly more harmful to your health. However, that might not be the case, experts say. Cleaning products with chemicals that are typically thought of as dangerous are probably not damaging your health more than the "natural" or "greener" alternatives.
Plus, they might not clean as well, says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center: "You can pick up the natural ones with less chemicals, but if it doesn't say 'disinfectant,' it's just fancy water."
Here's how experts suggest you make the determination.
If you have been specifically advised not to use certain products due to the chemicals in them, then you should follow those instructions, says Galiatsatos. For most people, he says, using products with ammonia or bleach won't be dangerous.
"For the casual homeowner who pulls it out once a month, you're fine," he says. "It's not going to do anything harmful to you."
Established brands tend to do rigorous testing on their products, says Carolyn Forte, director of the home appliances and cleaning products lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute. "All the major companies do extensive safety testing," she says. "If you follow the directions on a product, then it is safe to use."
There are some cases where exposure to ammonia or bleach could lead to health problems. For example, if you must use cleaning products at your job, take precautions, Galiatsatos says. "If I'm using it every day for several hours a day because that's my job, then I should wear a face mask," he says. Without a mask, "it could take a toll over years."
If you are in a poorly ventilated area and there is a spill of concentrated ammonia, then that could lead to "potentially hazardous airborne ammonia exposures," according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.
Still, Galiatsatos says, "for the casual user, it's fine."
When it comes to efficacy, chemicals like bleach and ammonia might be a better bet, says Galiatsatos. "Things with bleach definitely disinfect better and definitely kill those germs better," than products without bleach, he says. The same goes for products with ammonia.
However, products that use more plant-based disinfectants are "getting better" at killing germs, Forte says. "As consumer interest in green cleaning has grown, companies have tried to put more research behind [those products]," she says. "In general, it is improving from what I've seen years ago."
It's important to read the labels on greener products she says, as they will tell you how quickly they disinfect. "Clorox wipes can disinfect a surface in seconds," she says. "Some of the more plant-based disinfectants need to sit on the surface for 10 minutes."
The proliferation of nontoxic cleaning products is a result of a mistrust in brands, says Neeru Paharia, an associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business whose emphasis include digital marketing and signaling through brands. "Consumers have a general feeling they can't always trust companies to look after their safety," she says.
Legacy brands are aware of this mistrust, which is why they buy up or start their own "greener" labels that appear to have no tie to the original brand. SC Johnson, for example, owns both Windex and Mrs. Meyer's.
If you're buying more natural products, read the label and make sure they have ingredients that actually disinfect, Galiatsatos says. For example, thymol, a component of the botanical thyme oil, is an effective disinfectant.
"If you're picking up these more natural products, if they don't say they are a disinfectant, all you're doing is cleaning the area and making it look shiny," he says.
Just because a product says it is "natural" or "green" on the label doesn't mean you should "throw all caution to the wind," either, Forte says. Vinegar, for example, is a natural cleaner, but if you get vinegar in your eye, she says, it's going to hurt.
"Everything, whether it comes from nature or petroleum, it's all chemicals," she says. "Water is a chemical. Green products include chemicals, too. In many cases they need cautionary and safety precautions. Even if your dishwashing detergent says it contains green ingredients, there are also other things in there to make it effective.
"No matter the advice, make sure you follow directions with respect to dosage."
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