Used for: Disinfecting everything you can think of, ranging from kids’ toys to toilets.
Nasty inside: Tricoslan, an endocrine (hormone) disrupter that doesn’t break down easily (it kills bacteria and bacteria are often the agents of biodegrading). Excessive use of potent chemical disinfectants to sterilise everything in the home is probably associated with asthma and other autoimmune problems, as an over-clean home leads to a bored, restless immune system that starts reacting to non-threats.
Natural cleaning alternative: Soap and water will do most of the cleaning and kill most of the germs you need to worry about. Vinegar, salt, ultraviolet light (sunshine), boiling water and strong alcohol are other natural disinfectants.
Used for: Nearly every sort of cleaner imaginable, mostly because it can work up a grease and grime busting lather in all sorts of water – even hard water – without getting gunky white scum all over everything.
Nasty inside: Phosphate. This is more of a nuisance in the water system, as it breaks down very slowly and allows too much algae to grow in the waterways, leading to environmental problems. Also, detergent in general is harsher on the skin and hair, leading to dry hair (the least of your problems) and cracking, flaking itchy skin.
Natural cleaning alternative: Soap won’t form that ghastly scum if it is used alongside a water softener such as washing soda. Alternatively, look out for reduced phosphate or phosphate-free cleaning products such as laundry powder.
Product: Synthetic fragrances
Used for: Air fresheners. Also used in a range of other cleaning products such as those spray on kitchen cleaners and bathroom cleaners because the active ingredients in these products pong. Baby products. Cheap perfumes and cosmetics.
Nasty inside: Toluene, which is a probable asthma and allergy trigger. Synthetic musk, which does all sorts of peculiar things to the hormones if you are exposed to too much of it.
Natural cleaning alternative: Make your own natural cleaners and add essential oils. Open windows to remove pongs. Use essential oils, pot pourri and fresh flowers to scent the air delicately. Don’t overuse perfume – just a few dabs on the pulse points will be adequate.
Used for: Dry cleaning fluid, spot cleaning treatments. Found in all sorts of common household products.
Nasty inside: This really depends on the solvent in question. There are half a dozen different types (or more) and each has its problems. The chlorinated ones are the worst – one of these can cause permanent brain damage if too much is inhaled.
Natural cleaning alternative: Oddly, mineral turpentine – which isn’t exactly natural – is one of the least harmful solvent. Strong alcohol also makes a decent solvent for everyday household cleaning. Don’t dry clean clothes or toys unless it is absolutely essential. Eucalyptus oil makes a good spot treatment.
Product: Ammonium compounds
Used for: Floor cleaners, glass cleaners and bathroom cleaners.
Nasty inside: Ammonia gas in itself is pretty awful if inhaled. It is positively lethal if mixed with chlorine. Avoid if you have chlorinated water and never mix ammonia-based cleaners with chlorine based cleaners. However, ammonia breaks down easily and doesn’t last long in the environment.
Natural cleaning alternative: For window cleaning, use dilute vinegar. For cleaning floors, use warm soapy water. For cleaning the bathroom, either use baking soda or use vinegar. If you have to use ammonia based products, make sure that the area you are cleaning is well ventilated.