Cleaning Guides

​​Common Chemicals in Household Cleaning Products

Katerina Morozova /

Do you ever wonder about this or that product before you start your routine house cleaning? What kind of ingredients does it contain, are they harmful, are you using too much of the product? You likely are, otherwise, why read this blog post in the first place?

You are not alone, mind you. In today’s modern world, that being Australia or any other country of the first world, we have an abundance of products on our shop shelves. Each promises incredible results with minimal effort on your part. Advertisers almost make it sound like magic. You spray this or that spill, and Voilà, it’s gone without a trace. But the dark reality is, that as effective as these cleaning products may be, they are just as harmful.

But how can that be? Aren’t there regulations in place? Well, the answer is both yes and no. You see, while there are certain industry regulations, not all of them require the disclosure of all ingredients in cleaning products. The explanation as to why is very simple – trade secrets. Sadly, even products labelled as “green” or “natural” may include substances that can cause health issues and you don’t even suspect it.

But there is hope, for you are here in search of the truth. One half of the truth is that the majority of people don’t fully understand the substances listed on product labels. The other half is you can become better educated on the matter of chemicals in cleaning products, so you can make better buying decisions. Read on, and become enlightened on the types of common cleaning product ingredients, their uses, and potential risks to your health and the environment.

The role of chemicals in cleaning supplies

There is a reason as to why we have such a rich selection of chemical ingredients in our common household cleaners. The point is not to poison us, of course, but rather to be strikingly effective in removing dirt of all kinds as well as the germs that follow it.

Disinfectants, for example, target and remove harmful bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens often found on different surfaces. In a similar manner, antibacterial agents combat germs and prevent the spread of potential illnesses and infections. So it’s not all bad news.

Grease, grime, soap scum and other unthinkable impurities would have become a permanent fixture in your home if it weren’t for the antibacterial properties of the synergy between potent disinfectants and cleaning agents.

Common types of chemicals found in cleaners

Each cleaning product is comprised of various ingredients all working together in a delicate balance to achieve a specific result – either to remove a stain from a surface or to sanitise the surface. The ingredients on their own fall into several categories, 9 of which can be considered the main types of cleaning chemicals.


These reduce water’s surface tension and thus allow it to penetrate more easily. One of the most popular surfactants is sodium lauryl sulphate, or SLS for short. Although they make the cleaning easier, their main downside is that you may get skin irritation if you don’t use gloves.


Tough stains and residues are banished by solvents such as alcohols and glycol ethers; however, you should always keep your room well-ventilated whilst using them. You don’t want to damage your lungs, do you?


You have likely noticed that some products give off a rather fresh and inviting smell after you’ve used them; well, that’s where fragrances come into play. Still, you need to be vigilant as some synthetic fragrances contain artificial scents and can trigger allergies.


These ingredients raise the alkalinity or pH of a product and thus increase the cleaning power of your commercial cleaner. That’s how you have products that remove hard water minerals easily just several minutes after you’ve applied them.


Enzymes, or probiotic cleaners, break down the molecular structure of stains so you can wipe them away without having to scrub like crazy.


There is no way a combination of deadly ingredients would remain safe and stable inside any bottle unless you have preservatives. They also keep the chemical cocktails from spoiling over time and from getting contaminated by microorganisms.

pH adjusters

pH adjusters are extremely effective at balancing the acidity or alkalinity of cleaning solutions yet ensure that those same solutions remain gentle to your skin. The second part of the sentence is quite the shocker, isn’t it? 

Anti-bacterial or disinfecting ingredients

As their name has already hinted, these ingredients are designed to banish germs and bacteria from the surfaces of your home. Some people would recommend vinegar in this case, but does vinegar kill bacteria and germs?

Alkaline cleaners

Chemists have designed alkaline cleaners to easily cut through organic residues the likes of which include fats, greases, oils and a wide range of soils. With that said alkaline cleaners can also cause chemical burns if they touch your skin, so keep that in mind.

Acid cleaners

Mineral deposits on surfaces are always a nightmare to remove and require tons of elbow grease, but acid cleaners make that as easy as can be. Besides that, acid cleaners also dissolve oxides and tarnish from metal surfaces, thus restoring your faucets to their former shine.


Oxidisers release oxygen upon contact with organic matter and by doing so, break down complex organic stains. The oxidation process removes stain colour and leaves surfaces brighter.

Reducing Agents

If it weren’t for reducing agents, most of the ingredients so far would have destroyed any surface they’ve touched. And that’s the role of reducing agents; they counteract oxidising agents and prevent damage to the materials they are supposedly cleaning.

Foaming agents

When mixed with water, foaming agents form foam and bubbles and it’s not just for mere effect either. Foam and bubbles “trap” dirt particles within the foam, preventing the particles from resettling and allowing them to be rinsed away more effectively.
All of these chemicals can be used for regular cleaning as well as once in a while. Whatever the case, however, they are still toxic ingredients which represent a severe health hazard if used irresponsibly.

Common harmful chemicals found in household cleaning products

Reading and understanding product labels empowers you to make the right choices about what products you should bring into your home. In Australia, regulations around product label practices for household cleaning products exist to ensure transparency and consumer safety. However, as you already know, the extent of these regulatory standards may vary, and some gaps, unfortunately, still exist. For instance, according to The Therapeutic Goods Administration “General cleaners and sanitisers that do not make disinfectant claims (except those for use on medical devices) are not regulated by the TGA.”

Let’s shed light on some of the common health hazards that lurk in commercial cleaning products, often advertised as the end all be all:

  • Ammonia – because of its effectiveness in cutting through grime, ammonia is present in a wide range of household cleaning products. However, ammonia toxicity is no laughing matter. If you happen to inhale even a small percentage of its fumes you can suffer irritation to your respiratory system or more serious health issues. That’s why, for the love of all that is good, you must use it in a very well-ventilated room or look for an eco-friendly alternative.
  • Chlorine bleach – this potent disinfectant designed to kill germs on the spot and whiten surfaces has its own chlorine dangers. Inhalation or skin contact with chlorine bleach can result in irritation, respiratory problems, and, in some cases, even chemical burns. That’s why you should always dilute your bleach, as well as use it in a well-ventilated room. Definitely never mix it with other cleaning products, as then the result will be catastrophic.
  • Phthalates – These chemicals are often used in fragrances to enhance scent longevity and they do a good job at it. However, prolonged exposure to phthalates has been proven to cause hormonal disruption and reproductive issues, so choose products labelled as phthalate-free. This way you will minimise phthalate exposure, especially in indoor environments where fragrances are prevalent.
  • Triclosan – Triclosan is an antibacterial agent commonly found in personal care and cleaning products. Despite its antibacterial properties, or maybe because of them, it has the potential to disrupt ecosystems and promote antibiotic resistance. With that said, opt for triclosan-free products whenever you can.
  • Lye – Also known as sodium hydroxide or caustic soda, is a strong alkaline compound found in cleaning products such as drain cleaners and oven cleaners. If it comes into contact with your skin or eyes, it can cause severe irritation. Always handle lye-based products with extreme caution, wear protective gear, and store them securely out of reach of children and pets.
  • 2-Butoxyethanol – This is a solvent commonly found in household and industrial cleaners. Mind you, prolonged exposure to high levels of 2-Butoxyethanol can lead to respiratory issues, skin irritation, and headaches. Use products containing this chemical in well-ventilated areas and wear protective equipment at all costs or switch to an eco-friendly cleaning alternative like citrus-based cleaners.
  • Sodium Hypochlorite (Bleach) – Sodium hypochlorite, the active agent in bleach, is effective in killing germs and disinfecting surfaces; however, it can result in skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems, and environmental pollution if you aren’t careful. Always follow safety precautions and dilution instructions on the product label and avoid mixing it with other household chemicals.
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate – Sodium lauryl sulphate is a surfactant commonly found in cleaning and personal care products. While generally considered safe in low concentrations, it can cause skin and eye irritation in people who are more sensitive to it. So, choose products with lower concentrations of sodium lauryl sulphate or opt for alternatives if you experience chemical sensitivity.
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds – also known as “quats,” are disinfectants commonly used in household cleaning products. While effective against bacteria and viruses, prolonged exposure to quats can lead to respiratory issues and skin irritation. If you have to, use quats according to manufacturer instructions, ensure proper ventilation, and wear protective gear when handling them.
  • Perchloroethylene – sometimes also called perc, is a solvent used in dry cleaning and some household cleaners. Chronic exposure to perc has been known to cause dizziness, nausea, and neurological issues. You can minimise exposure to perc by using dry cleaning services that use alternative solvents and always properly open your windows wide when using household products containing perc.

Environmental considerations

The shift towards eco-friendly alternatives is no longer some mere trend and doesn’t sound as far away into the future as it used to in the old days. The more time passes, the more the need to address it grows. Our beloved blue planet will find a way to heal itself from the environmental damage we have caused over the decades, but we, as a species, certainly won’t. Not in the long run, probably. If we truly want to save our home and thus ourselves, we need to start talking about:

  • Sustainability – we need to learn how to use the resources we have without depleting them or at least find alternatives which are just as good;
  • Reduced carbon footprint – the more we manage to reduce our toxic emissions, the better. Going for products which we know have a small carbon footprint is also the way to go;
  • Personal health benefits – health is not just what we consume and how we work out, but also what we put on our skin and what’s in the air we breathe. The less harmful chemicals and toxins, the better.

Biodegradability is not talked about too much, yet it is just as vital. Items that break down naturally over time reduce the burden on our landfills and ecosystems and that’s what we should be aiming for. On the other hand, materials that don’t degrade contribute to environmental pollution and are a threat to wildlife. You’ve likely seen numerous photos of helpless sea creatures trapped in six-pack rings; well that’s just 0.1% of the whole global mess.

Chemical runoff into water systems is another huge ecological problem we still haven’t found a solution for. Unlike your standard DIY cleaning solutions like cleaning vinegar and white vinegar, which won’t harm an ounce of soil if spilt on it, chemical pollutants from agriculture, industry, and everyday consumer products can contaminate waterways and seriously disrupt aquatic life and human communities downstream.


  • While household cleaners offer convenience and efficiency, they also pose potential risks to human health and the environment;
  • Improper use of cleaning products can lead to serious consequences like respiratory issues, skin irritation and or hormonal disruption;
  • While regulations exist, consumers should conduct their own research to identify safer cleaning alternatives.

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What’s been your experience with household cleaners and their ingredients? Are there any eco-friendly alternatives you’ve tried and found effective? Leave a comment below!

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