On the Safety of Cleaning Products

I had the great privilege of working with adobe yesterday while doing maintenance on our outdoor oven. While I’m terrible at plastering it was a great pleasure to work with this elemental and ancient building material that consists of just clay from the ground, sand, straw and water. There’s no need to gear up like an astronaut, with a respirator and gloves, as there is when working with concrete.

The same day I showed Kelly Christopher Schwartz’s video on the use of soap as a wood finish. Solid wood and soap are also basic, safe materials. With a soap finish on solid wood there’s no out-gassing composites and no danger to the worker applying the finish. While these materials require more maintenance and work, they aren’t going to kill you. In fact, you could argue, their use makes the world a better place.

Contrast this with our post-industrial modern life and all those toxic cleaning chemicals which promise convenience but come with significant risks to ourselves and to our environment.

How do cleaning products clean?
Most cleaning products consist of detergents that lower the surface tension of water and/or acids or bases that dissolve calcium and fatty substances. Some acids act as disinfectants and bases also inhibit the corrosion of metal. Solvents (such as alcohol) also dissolve fatty substances. Other chemicals are added to cleaning products such as water softeners, to help dissolve certain minerals, as well as fragrances and preservatives. Commercial cleaning products consist of some combination of these categories of ingredients.

Cleaning products are harmful to human health through direct exposure and also through contributing to poor indoor air quality thanks to the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are found in cleaning products in the form of fragrances, solvents, disinfectants and softeners. Also, when used improperly at too great a concentration, some cleaning products can cause the degradation of materials resulting in the release of more VOCs. Many products can also trigger asthma.

Disinfectants are considered to be the most hazardous category of cleaning products (1). And many cleaning products contribute to the pollution of our watersheds and oceans. Here in Los Angeles what you flush down the sewer ends up in the ocean, with some, but not complete treatment.

Assessing indoor air quality as well as the adverse health effects of commercial cleaning products is difficult and involves many factors such as building ventilation, temperature and what’s being cleaned. This is not even to address new ideas about the symbiotic relationship between microorganisms and human life that are disrupted by an over-reliance on disinfectants. The complexity is so great that I have doubts that we’ll ever wrap our heads around what cleaning products are safe and which ones should be avoided.

Rather, the problem is less about science and more about economics and environmental ethics. I think we have, with cleaning products, another example of the distortion of capitalism and markets. The need to develop “new and improved” products leads to ever more and needless complexity. Previous to the dark Satanic Mills of 19th century industrialism, floors were simply swept, carpets (if you could afford them) were taken out and beaten and surfaces were washed with soap and water. It might seem like more work but even that may be a myth when you consider that you didn’t have to take a third job to afford all the gadgets and chemicals that constitute our modern life.

We seem to have distorted ideas of cleanliness dating back to the reformation and related to a strain of Calvinism that has morphed into a questionable, secular version (2). But this thoughtstyling would have to be the subject of a much longer post.

I’m wary of so called “green” products because they are subject to the same rules of the marketplace that dictate novelty, brand extension (gag) and manipulative advertising. Some “eco” products are definitely better for us and the environment but there’s also a lot of deceptive marketing. Multiple trips to the massive Natural Products Expo West disabused me of any notion that so-called “eco-friendly” products lie outside the ruthless and destructive dictates of our neo-liberal hellscape. Instead, when we buy these eco cleaners, we often get a cocktail of ingredients we don’t need with a needless veneer of virtue signalling.

The Bottom Line
Here, at Root Simple headquarters, we rely on a basic set of cleaning products that includes such boring commodities as white vinegar and baking soda. We’ll publish the complete list in a separate blog post later this week.

I appreciate that commercial kitchen and medical facilities need to use disinfectants such as bleach. Most of us don’t need such powerful disinfectants in our homes unless you or another household member has a compromised immune system. If you do need to use bleach or other strong disinfectants, please use the proper dilution and open windows.

For More Information
The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive and searchable guide to cleaning products and a letter grade for safety if you’d like more information on all those silly products you can find at our overstocked and not-so-super supermarkets.

Leave a comment


  1. I look forward to your list! After much research, I really think that soap, vinegar, maybe some rubbing alcohol and bartenders’ friend (oxalic acid, so a stronger acid), do the trick 99.9% of the time. And elbow grease – lots of elbow grease. I recently had to help my mom clean her new apartment, which had a smokey wood stove in it and the walls were covered with soot (so gross). Rubbing alcohol turned out to be the best solvent for that job. It’s not enough to be anti-“chemical,” it’s better to know your chemicals!

    • Agreed. Your list is, pretty much, what we use and what we will be writing about later this week.

  2. Thank goodness for EWG!

    I find a good rule of thumb when shopping and having to make an impromptu decision is packaging: If a “green” product has a shiny green label, it’s probably not green. It turns out that green dye is one of the most toxic. Beige or brown labels are more likely truth windows.

    And if the word “green” or “eco” is in the label, it’s probably greenwashing. We use a mix of water, alcohol and vinegar with a little bit of corn starch and soap for nearly all our cleaning needs.

  3. (incidental but you should definitely be using a respirator if you’re mixing adobe from dry ingredients. clay particles are small enough to cause silicosis. the effect is cumulative, so once is probably not going to kill you, but if you’re doing regular repairs and you already live in a particle-rich environment…you really don’t want to give yourself potters lung)

  4. You got me started on the vinegar, water, baking soda path many years ago and I’ve never looked back. So much safer for everything and everybody, and cheap too! I was reminded of this lesson last week when I controlled an incipient ant invasion through some judicious application and placement of peppermint essential oil. Did the trick and no one had to die! The ethics of everyday life….

  5. We used to have to use an antibacterial spray at work and some makes would make me cough if I was sitting on the other side of the room. Luckily it’s been decided that detergent and water will do the job just as well (cleaning tables before preschool children eat their snack) which is so much better.

  6. “We seem to have distorted ideas of cleanliness dating back to the reformation and related to a strain of Calvinism that has morphed into a questionable, secular version (2). But this thoughtstyling would have to be the subject of a much longer post.”

    I’m very much interested in this.

    I’m very much on board with using natural (non-commercial) cleaners. However, my in-laws (immigrants from Mexico) and my husband (first generation American) don’t believe that they are sufficient. I wonder if our penchant for vinegar, plain soap, and baking soda comes from a place of privilege, where we don’t believe we need to use bleach to clean everything to prevent disease. I think there is a big class/cultural component to cleanliness and I’ve been pondering it lately, but it’s a surprisingly complex issue to unpack by oneself.

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