Chemicals in the home
Ever wondered where you can go to check the ingredients in your cleaning and home products?
Well the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is the place. It is a not for profit organization in the United States. It is a highly regarded reference point for detailed ingredient, chemical and product information. They have a dedicated blog to kid safe chemicals which is although USA focussed is worth checking out.
Our Community Partner Ecostore has compiled the following reference list for common ‘nasty’ chemicals you will find in many home products. It’s worth checking what you’re exposing your family to, after all, the skin is your bodies largest organ. Our ‘nasty’ chemicals list also references whether the chemical is particularly harmful to the environment as well.
“Not all chemicals are bad – water is a chemical after all – but it can be difficult at times to decide what’s safe and what’s not. That’s why we practice the precautionary approach – if there is any doubt about the safety of an ingredient for people’s health or the environment, we will find a safer alternative. We believe if a natural or man-made chemical raises concerns of harm to our health or our planet, precautionary measures should be taken – even if not yet fully established scientifically” ecostore founder Malcolm Rands
Watch Malcolm’s short LiveabilityLIVE video about creating a Healthy Home.
The Nasty Chemicals List
Benzotriazole is classified as a suspected human carcinogen by the Health Council of the Netherlands. It has also been shown to cause contact dermatitis and can be very irritating to eyes.
Due to its low biodegradability and low absorption tendency, it is only partly removed in wastewater treatment. This can result in significant amounts of benzotriazole being discharged into waterways, where it is toxic to aquatic life.
1. Health Council of the Netherlands: 1,2,3-Benzotriazole. Health-based recommended occupational exposure limit. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands, 2000
2. Pillard, D. A., Cornell, J. S., Dufresne, D. L., & Hernandez, M. T. (2001). Toxicity of benzotriazole and benzotriazole derivatives to three aquatic species. Water Research, 35(2), 557-560.
Ammonia is a strongly alkaline substance that can be corrosive to the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, mouth and digestive tract.
1. Public Health Statement on Ammonia, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registory
Ammonium Hydroxide – alternative name for Ammonia
Tallow is a modified form of animal fat. It is often used in soaps and can be a precursor to ingredients used in fabric softeners.
It is preferable to use products that are not tested on animals, or endanger animals in any way. Therefore make sure the product doesn’t contain tallow-derived ingredients.
Benzalkonium chloride is a known irritant associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergies.
It has the potential to cause permanent damage if in contact with eyes and highlighted as especially dangerous for people with asthma or skin conditions such as eczema.
It is found in many household disinfectants and cleaning products and and at the concentrations used in household cleaners, can lead to the development of resistant bacteria in the home. It is toxic to birds, fish, aquatic invertebrates and not readily biodegradable.
1. Kanerva, L., Jolanki, R., & Estlander, T. (2000). Occupational allergic contact dermatitis from benzalkonium chloride. Contact Dermatitis, 42(6), 357-358.
2. Swan, K. C., “Reactivity of the Ocular Tissues to Wetting Agents”, Am. J. Ophthalmol., 27, 118
3. Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Alkyl dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride (ADBAC). U.S. Environmetnal Protection Agency Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, pp. 114
Cocamide DEA and cocamide MEA are commonly found in detergents and personal care products. They act as foam stabilizers to boost foam and produce long lasting bubbles, creating the illusion of better cleansing performance.
They have allergen properties that may cause contact dermatitis in people who have skin allergies. They can also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, a suspected human carcinogen.
1. Fowler JF (March 1998). “Allergy to cocamide DEA”. American Journal of Contact Dermatitis 9 (1): 40–1.
2. Danish EPA. “Survey of liquid hand soaps, including health and environmental assessments.” Survey of chemical substances in consumer products 69 (206).
Cocamidopropyl Betaine (CAPB) is a high foaming surfactant commonly found in many products such as Dishwashing Liquid, Shampoo, Hand and Body washes & Bubble Bath. It is preferred by manufacturers because it is cheap & effective.
However, because of the manufacturing process it can contain the impurities amidoamine and dimethylaminopropylamine, which have been shown to cause skin irritant and allergic contact dermatitis.
Due to its skin sensitization potential, CAPB was voted Allergen of the year 2004 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
1. Brand, R., & Delaney, T. A. (1998). Allergic contact dermatitis to cocamidopropylbetaine in hair shampoo. Australasian Journal of Dermatology, 39(2), 121-122.
2. Mowad, C. M. (2001). Cocamidopropyl betaine allergy. American Journal of Contact Dermatitis, 12(4), 223-224.
Silicones are commonly found in both personal care and household cleaning products. They are multi-functional ingredients, for example, they can act as emollients in shampoos and de-foamers in dish tablets/powders & laundry detergents. Silicones are slow to degrade in the environment and may accumulate over time.
1. Lukasiak, J., Dorosz, A., Prokopowicz, M., Rosciszewski, P., Falkiewicz, B. 2005. Biodegradation of Silicones (Organosiloxanes). Biopolymers Online.
Commonly used to adjust pH in body care and household cleaners. It is a known skin, eye and lung irritant. Derived from non renewable resources
Lipase Amylase Protease
Enzymes are ‘eco’ ingredients that are designed to remove various stains in lower water temperatures. However we do not recommend using enzymes in any products that could come in contact with the skin such as laundry products. This is because enzymes can potentially cause irritation with skin contact.
1. Andersen, P. H., Bindslev-Jensen, C., Mosbech, H., Zachariae, H., & Andersen, K. E. (1998). Skin symptoms in patients with atopic dermatitis using enzyme-containing detergents: A placebo-controlled study. Acta Dermato-Venereologica, 78(1), 60-62.
Methylparaben Propylparaben Butylparaben
Parabens are one of the most widely used preservatives in personal care products including moisturisers, shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants. They are highly effective in terms of protecting products from microbes during their manufacture, storage and end-use.
However there are many health concerns associated with the paraben family ((e.g. methyl-, butyl-, ethyl- and propylparaben). They have been shown to mimic oestrogen and cause hormonal imbalance. They have also been associated with breast cancer, being found in trace amounts in breast tumour biopsies.
Their use is also of environmental concern, with paraben pollution being linked to genetic defects in animals, such as sex change in fish.
1. Golden, R., Gandy, J., & Vollmer, G. (2005). A review of the endocrine activity of parabens and implications for potential risks to human health. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 35(5), 435-458.
2. Harvey, P. W. and Darbre, P. (2004), Endocrine disrupters and human health: could oestrogenic chemicals in body care cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women?. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 24: 167–176.
3. Mikula, P., Kružíková, K., Dobšíková, R., Haruštiaková, D., & Svobodová, Z. (2009). Influence of propylparaben on vitellogenesis and sex ratio in juvenile zebrafish (danio rerio). Acta Veterinaria Brno, 78(2), 319-326.
Mineral oil is used as an emollient in various skincare products. It is the main ingredient in baby oil.
Mineral oil is cheap and easy to obtain, being a by-product of petroleum extraction. It is obtained from crude oil through distillation, which is the process that raw crude oil goes through in order to be converted into its useable components. It can come from many sources and there are various different ways in which it can be produced.
Because it is not always clear exactly what sources mineral oil has come from and what it has come into contact with during its production, it is difficult to determine whether or not it is safe for human use.
Optical brighteners are additives whose function is to make fabrics and other substrates appear visually whiter and hence “cleaner”.
The residual chemicals adhere to cloth fibers, and reflect UV light, giving fabric a clean, white appearance.
The health issues associated with optical brighteners are allergic reactions and skin irritation. Once entering the environment they are slow to break down and can accumulate in aquatic life.
1. Kramer J B, Canonica S, Hoigne J, Kaschig J. Degradation of Fluorescent Whitening Agents in Sunlit Natural Waters. Environmental Science & Technology 1996: 30: 2227-2234.
2. Ganz C R, Schulze J, Stensby P S, Lyman F L, Macek K. Accumulation and elimination studies of four detergent fluorescent whitening agents in bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). Environmental Science & Technology 1975: 9: 738-744
3. Osmundsen, P. E., & Alani, M. D. (1971). Contact allergy to an optical whitener, “CPY”, in washing powders. British Journal of Dermatology, 85(1), 61-66.
Phosphates act as builders to improve the performance of cleaning products. Because of their widespread use, they are becoming a major environmental pollutant.
The problems occur when waste water from washing machines and dish-washing machines enters the environment. Phosphates, being a plant nutrient, drives the excessive growth of aquatic plants.
This effect is known as “eutrophication”, and leads to competition between species for other nutrients such as oxygen and food. In severe cases, it can result in the death of ecosystems.
1. Complexing agents, Environmental and Health Assessment of Substances in Household Detergents and Cosmetic Detergent Products, Danish Environmental Protection Agency.
A note about ecostore products and phosphates
Analytical analysis could sometimes reveal minute traces of phosphates in some of our products.We never add phosphates to our products however, some of the raw materials we use may contain low levels of phosphates. Phosphates are used by some of our raw material suppliers to aid production i.e to soften water. This means that phosphate can become chemically bound to the final product which is then supplied to our factory as a raw material.
For example, when using our laundry powder, there may be a very small amount of phosphate in your wash cycle (no more than 0.1g) Even though detectable levels of phosphate in our products are so low we are always reviewing our ingredient options with the aim of further reducing phosphate contamination.
Polyethylene glycol (PEG) and its related compounds are in widespread use in personal care products. They cover a wide variety of uses such as surfactants, emulsifiers and conditioners.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review found various impurities in PEG compounds, including ethylene oxide (known carcinogen), 1,4-dioxane (probably carcinogen), polycyclic aromatic compounds (atmospheric pollutants), heavy metals (e.g. lead, arsenic).
In spite of these contaminants, PEG compounds remain commonly used in personal care products.
1. Johnson, W., Jr. & Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. “Final report on the safety assessment of PEG-25 propylene glycol stearate, PEG-75 propylene glycol stearate, PEG-120 propylene glycol stearate, PEG-10 propylene glycol, PEG-8 propylene glycol cocoate, and PEG-55 propylene glycol oleate.” Int J Toxicol, 2001;20 (Suppl 4):13-26.
2. Black, R.E., et al. “Occurrence of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetic raw materials and finished cosmetic products.” J AOAC Int 2001;84(3):666-670.
Propylene glycol is used in laundry detergents as a hydrotrope – a substance that improves the solubility of surfactants in water.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (an independent US review body) found that propylene glycol can provoke allergic reactions in patients with eczema and other skin allergies. Extended exposure to propylene glycol has also been linked to the development of asthma and allergic reactions in children.
1. Choi H, Schmidbauer N, Sundell J, Hasselgren M, Spengler J, et al. (2010) Common Household Chemicals and the Allergy Risks in Pre-School Age Children
Sodium hypochlorite is a bleaching agent used in disinfectants and is the main ingredient in household bleach.
Sodium hypochlorite is highly corrosive and can cause serious damage if exposed to eyes and skin.
A recent study indicated that sodium hypochlorite and chemicals (e.g. surfactants, fragrances) contained in several household cleaning products can react to generate chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chlorinated compounds are emitted during cleaning applications, some of which are toxic and probable human carcinogens.
If released into the environment, it can break down in seawater to form hypobromite, which is toxic to aquatic organisms.
1. Odabasi, M. (2008). Halogenated volatile organic compounds from the use of chlorine-bleach- containing household products. Environmental Science and Technology, 42(5), 1445-1451.
2. R.E.D. Facts – Sodium and Calcium Hypochlorite Salts. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Sodium Laureth Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulphate is a strong surfactant used in many cleaning products.
It is a known skin irritant, and has been used in clinical studies to induce contact dermatitis, as well as enhance skin penetration.
Despite these effects, it continues to be used in applications where it comes into direct contact with and can remain on skin.
1. De Jongh, C. M., Jakasa, I., Verberk, M. M., & Kezic, S. (2006). Variation in barrier impairment and inflammation of human skin as determined by sodium lauryl sulphate penetration rate.
2. Kartono, F., & Maibach, H. I. (2006). Irritants in combination with a synergistic or additive effect on the skin response: An overview of tandem irritation studies. Contact Dermatitis, 54(6), 303-312.
3. 3. Gloor, M., Senger, B., Langenauer, M., & Fluhr, J. W. (2004). On the course of the irritant reaction after irritation with sodium lauryl sulphate. Skin Research and Technology, 10(3), 144-148.
Perfumes have been used for many centuries to provide pleasant aroma in various situations i.e. eu de toilette, air fresheners, religious ceremonies etc. The original perfumes were plant derived but with the industrial revolution the ability to produce synthetic aroma became viable.
The main issue with synthetic perfumes is the fact that they are derived from non sustainable resources. The flip-side positive is the fact that there is virtually no variation batch to batch with sensory profile- whereas natural essential oils are prone to variant because of environmental, location, harvesting, processing, seasonal etc factors
A note about ecostore products and synthetic perfumes
ecostore has chosen the old fashioned route where in most cases only natural essential oils are used to provide a pleasant sensory experience.
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium laureth sulphate is a strong surfactant used in many cleaning and personal care products, from laundry liquid liquid and dish liquid to shampoos, body washes and baby products.
It is often used as a ‘gentler’ alternative to its more aggressive cousin Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS).
Although plant based (which means some ‘eco’ brands even use it), it is rather nasty for your health. Due to the synthesis process that it goes through, it has been found to be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a suspected carcinogen.
1. Black, R. E., Hurley, F. J., & Havery, D. C. (2001). Occurrence of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetic raw materials and finished cosmetic products. Journal of AOAC International, 84(3), 666-670.
Dyes are used to improve on the aesthetic appeal of a product. Dyes have been implicated in various health issues. As a general rule most common dyes in cleaning/personal care products are derived from non sustainable petrochemicals.
Tetra Sodium EDTA
For years, phosphates have been used to build efficacy in detergents. As the negative impacts of phosphorus in the environment became apparent, alternatives were found.
EDTA was effective and readily available, so its use became widespread. However it is in such common use that its environmental impacts are becoming apparent.
Due to its slow biodegradation, it can persist in the environment and impair the natural function of ecosystems.
It also has the ability to re-mobilise heavy metals such as lead that are contained in soil.
1. Zhiwen Yuan and Jeanne M. VanBriesen and. Environmental Engineering Science. May/June 2006, 23(3): 533-544
A note about ecostore products and tetrasodium EDTA
A minute amount of Tetrasodium EDTA is used in our bar soaps as an anti-oxidising agent. We only use what is needed, which means it is present in the soaps at less than 1% (one part per thousand). At the moment it is the only viable preservation option. Without EDTA, our soaps would become rancid very quickly, however we are always on the lookout for better alternatives.
All petrochemicals are derived from non-renewable resources and therefore detrimental to the environment. We place emphasis on the ones that are particularly bad for human health. We hope that doing this raises awareness of the nasty chemicals used in mainstream products. As consumers become more aware of these chemicals, pressure can be applied to manufacturers to ban them from use.
A note about ecostore products and toxic petrochemicals
ecostore believes in developing low hazard products which have minimal effects on both the environment and those who use them.
Triclosan is widely used in many personal care products to stop bacterial growth, from toothpaste to anti-bacterial hand washes.
It is classified as highly hazardous to people’s health by EWG. It is skin, eye and lung irritant, toxic to organs, and a hormonal disruptor. It can also contribute to the formation of hazardous by-products such as chloroform and dioxins.
Despite these concerns, studies have shown that plain soap and water are equally as affective as antibacterial soaps containing triclosan in preventing illness and removing bacteria.
Triclosan is toxic to aquatic bacteria at concentrations that can currently be found in the environment. Additionally, it inhibits photosynthesis in groups of algae that are responsible for a large part of the photosynthesis activity on the planet.
1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Factsheet – Triclosan: What consumers should know.
2. Aiello, A. E., Larson, E. L., & Levy, S. B. (2007). Consumer antibacterial soaps: Effective or just risky? Clinical Infectious Diseases, 45(SUPPL. 2), S137-S147.
3. Rule, K. L., Ebbett, V. R., & Vikesland, P. J. (2005). Formation of chloroform and chlorinated organics by free-chlorine-mediated oxidation of triclosan. Environmental Science and Technology, 39(9), 3176-3185.
4. Latch, D. E., Packer, J. L., Stender, B. L., VanOverbeke, J., Arnold, W. A., & McNeill, K. (2005). Aqueous photochemistry of triclosan: Formation of 2,4-dichlorophenol, 2,8-dichlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, and oligomerization products. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 24(3), 517-525.
Trisodium NTA, also known as nitrilotriacetic acid, is an alternative to Tetrasodium EDTA. NTA acts as a builder to improve the efficacy of detergents.
NTA is derived from non renewable resources, and has been found to be a possible human carcinogen. Experiments have shown that when administered in the diet of mice and rats, Trisodium NTA induced cancerous tumors in the kidneys and urinary bladder.
1. Report on Carcinogens, Eleventh Edition; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program.
- The Nasty Chemicals List from ecostore
- Feature image credit to ©iStock.com/Dean Mitchell