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List of Ingredients to Avoid in Cleaning Products

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toxic ingredients in cleaning supplies
source: Emilian Robert Vicol

Last week we talked about ingredients to avoid in the food we eat, but one of the first green changes I actually made was to switch to homemade cleaners. I mostly did it because I’m cheap (some people are frugal, but really, I’m just cheap), but as I’ve learned more about the harmful effects of many common cleaners on both the environment and our bodies, I’ve become even more committed to natural cleaners.

We’ve talked before about “greenwashed” products — products which claim to be natural or organic on their labels but still contain harmful ingredients — and it can be confusing to figure out which is which while you’re standing in the aisle staring at rows and rows of cleaning products.

Here’s a list of harmful ingredients you want to avoid with a brief description of why you want to avoid them:

Alkylphenol Ethoxylates (APEs)

Alkylphenol ethoxylates are synthetic surfactants used in cleaning products, detergents, pesticides, lube oils and some personal care products. They’re also known as nonoxynol, octoxynol, nonylphenol, octylphenol, nonylphenol ethoxylate, and octylphenol ethoxylate.

APEs are considered moderately toxic if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Additionally, they are suspected endocrine disruptors, meaning they may interfere with the hormones in our bodies.


Although ammonia is a naturally occurring compound, it is also manufactured as an ingredient in cleaning products, fertilizers and smelling salts.

Ammonia is considered highly toxic if swallowed or inhaled. It is considered a possible carcinogenic and is a known asthma trigger.

Butyl Cellosolve (Butyl Glycol, Ethylene Glycol, Monobutyl)

Butyl cellosolve is found in all-purpose, spray and abrasive cleaners including glass cleaners, oven cleaners, spot removers and air fresheners.

It’s consider highly toxic when inhaled and has been linked to reproductive and neurological issues.

Chlorine Bleach (Sodium Hypochlorite)

Chlorine bleach, also known as sodium hypochlorite, chloramine, hydrochloric acid or trihalomethanes, is used as a disinfectant. It is also found in pesticides, refrigerants and anti-freeze.

Although one of the most commonly used cleaners, chlorine is considered moderately toxic if swallowed, and the byproducts have been linked to respiratory diseases and certain cancers.

Glycol Ethers (Ethylene Glycol Mono-butyl Ether, EGBE or 2-butoxyethanol)

Glycol ethers are found in cleaning sprays and liquid soaps.

They are considered a possible carcinogenic and have been linked to asthma, rhinitis, eczema and anemia. Additionally, animal studies have shown that they may cause reproductive issues, including low sperm count and birth defects.

Monoethanolamine (MEA), Diethanolamine (DEA) or Triethanolamine (TEA)

Monoethanolamine, diethanolamine and triethanolamine are added to some detergents to make them non-irritating to the skin.

These chemicals can react with other chemicals to form a known carcinogen, nitrosodiethanolamine, which has been linked with stomach, esophagus, liver and bladder cancer. (They’re more prevalently found in personal care products, which we’ll talk about in a couple weeks.)


Phenols are found in air fresheners, laundry products, disinfectants and more.

These chemicals cause skin irritation, muscle weakness, tremors, paralysis, respiratory arrest, pulmonary distress, liver and kidney damage and even severe burns.


Phosphates are found in laundry detergent and some cleaning products.

High levels of phosphates in streams, rivers and oceans kill marine life and alter the ecological system. They have been phased out of many products because of the danger they pose to waterways, but they’re still found in some.

Phthalates (fragrances)

Phthalates are found in a wide variety of products, including plastics, toys, personal care products and, yes, cleaning supplies, mostly as fragrances.

Phthalates are possible carcinogens and have been linked to reproductive issues in male rats.


Triclosan is the main ingredient in most antibacterial products.

It kills both good and bad bacteria and contributes to bacterial resistance, which is bad for everybody. It’s also been linked to endocrine abnormalities, asthma, allergies and eczema, and it has been found in both umbilical cord samples and breast milk.

These days, it’s hard to find dish soaps without triclosan, but we avoid them pretty faithfully. Read more about triclosan here.

Have you taken steps to green your cleaning routine or is this new to you? What other ingredients do you avoid?