There is a crucial harmony that comes when everything coexists just as nature intended. Eastern cultures have long understood the importance of this balance and connectedness, but here in the west, our approach is historically a little more one-sided—generally focused on obliterating the bad to make way for the good. This is especially true when it comes to our views on cleanliness.
Sanitising our homes, workplaces, and bodies is often viewed as an all out war aimed at vanquishing every last germ that crosses our paths. This way of thinking fueled the creation of all the powerful antimicrobial cleaning products lining the shelves almost everywhere we shop.
Using these products may sound like a good plan at first glance—after all, don’t we want to get rid of germs that could make us unwell? Before you reach for that bottle of industrial strength cleaner, though, explore what science has to say about this question, and how failing to respect nature’s balance always comes at a cost.
Chemical Cleaning Products and Your Lungs
Many of us have developed a positive association with the scents everyday household cleaning products leave behind, especially if this is the way our parents cleaned. But the scary truth is that breathing in these chemicals year after year might make it a lot more difficult to breathe at all.
Scientists in Norway recently released a groundbreaking 20-year study of more than 6,000 participants that revealed a clear link between toxic cleaning product use and the risk of developing lung troubles. The more often women cleaned, researchers discovered, the more serious the effects to their lungs. Women who worked as professional cleaners suffered the most, incurring as much lung damage as would be expected in someone smoking 20 cigarettes every day. Exposure to strong cleaning products was associated with increased decline in both these major areas of lung function:
• FEV1 (forced expiratory volume in one second): This is the amount of air a person can forcibly breath out in a single second.
• FVC (forced vital capacity): This is the measure of how much air a person can forcibly exhale given as much time as they need to do so.
Researchers believe that the cause of this decline is likely due to cleaning chemicals irritating mucus membranes in the airways, which with repeated long-term exposure resulted in lasting negative changes to the airways themselves. Interestingly, no men in the study seemed to be affected. This may be because fewer men than women work as professional cleaners, and those who do may be exposed to different levels of chemicals than women who clean for a living.
Unfortunately, toxic cleaning products aren’t just tough on your respiratory function—they can absolutely decimate your (and your home’s) microbiome.
Antimicrobials and Your Microbiome
Many of the strong chemical ingredients in today’s cleaning products were put there specifically for their antimicrobial properties. The trouble with this strategy is that these chemicals aren’t selective—they kill probiotic organisms along with the types of bacteria we don’t want around. Some of these ingredients, such as parabens, ammonia, chlorine bleach, QUATS, Triclosan, and triclocarban, are absorbed through the skin in varying degrees—and once inside your body, they may upset your delicate microbial balance.
Triclosan and triclocarban turn up in human blood, mucus, and even breast milk—and they’re so prevalent that it’s estimated the odds are about 40% that they are in your body, too. The fact that these dangerous ingredients get into breast milk is particularly disturbing: one study found that the gut microbiomes of both nursing moms and babies were affected by Triclosan exposure, driving home how important it is to protect our guts by being mindful not only of what goes into our mouths, but also what we interact with in our environment.
Toxic cleaning chemicals can also easily find their way into soil, air, and water, and animal studies highlight the damaging potential for our planet’s wildlife. Zebrafish fed a diet infused with Triclosan experienced a dramatic alteration of their microbiomes after only four days. And when female rats were exposed to Triclosan during pregnancy and while nursing, both moms and pups developed gut dysbiosis.
In addition to specific negative changes in the gut that may be triggered by exposure to certain antimicrobials, it’s also important to consider the “hygiene hypothesis” and its implications for our overall health. Originally introduced in the late 1800s and gaining increasing respect in recent years, this theory presents evidence that we all need exposure to lots of different types of microbes in our environment in order to stimulate our developing immune systems as babies and children. Cleaning too zealously with antimicrobials leaves young immune systems with nothing to practice on, which over time can create vulnerability to troublesome microbial invaders—as well as sensitivity to foods or plants when an inexperienced immune system can’t tell if it’s being exposed to a friend or foe.
Super Cleaners and Superbugs
Since the root of physical and mental wellness lies in a balanced gut it’s troubling enough that antimicrobial cleaning products can wreak havoc with microbial health. Unfortunately, the consequences of this type of microbial warfare go much further. That’s because, as effective as they are, when you use these cleaners, you aren’t actually killing every single living organism. And the microbial species that do survive your chemical attack are the tiny subpopulations that are naturally resistant to antibiotics and antimicrobials.
In a balanced environment (internal or out in the world), friendly flora crowd out the bulk of microbial troublemakers, and the percentage of resistant undesirable microbes is too minute to do much harm. But when antimicrobials come on the scene, resistant bacteria gain a real advantage. As their neighbours die off, these “superbugs” that are especially difficult to kill have room to reproduce—and when their numbers grow large enough to impact your health, existing medications may prove completely ineffective.
Steer Clear of Toxic Chemicals
Cleaning product labels can be misleading, and many cleansers labeled “natural” or “gentle” are anything but. To protect yourself, your family, and our precious planet, here are a few of the most commonly used harmful ingredients to avoid:
• 2-Butoxyethanol: A common ingredient in kitchen, window, and multipurpose cleaners that can interfere with the health of your red blood cells.
• Ammonia: Found in glass and bathroom cleaners, ammonia can be very irritating to the eyes, skin, throat, and lungs.
• Chlorine Bleach: A potent antimicrobial and respiratory irritant, bleach is a major ingredient in mildew removers, toilet bowl cleaners, and scouring powders. Mixing chlorine bleach with ammonia can create highly toxic chlorine gas, so consider using hydrogen peroxide as a safer bleach alternative.
• Sodium Hydroxide: A known mucous membrane irritant, this is used in many oven cleaners and drain openers.
• Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): SLS is a detergent that creates the rich type of lather we’ve become accustomed to in cleansers, and is present in most shampoos and hand soaps. This ingredient can be very irritating to eyes, mouth, and skin.
• Fragrance: Although the term “fragrance” sounds innocent enough, it can refer to any one of thousands of chemicals linked to skin, kidney, respiratory, and cellular issues.
• Parabens: These antimicrobial, chemical preservatives are associated with negative effects in breasts, hormones, and reproductive areas.
• Phthalates: Commonly found in a host of cleansing products including dish soaps, detergents, and shampoo, phthalates have been shown to negatively impact respiratory health and reproductive function, as well as cause DNA damage.
• Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATS): Found in antibacterial household cleaners, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets. At least two studies identify QUATS as the cause of respiratory issues in cleaning workers.
• Triclosan: This antimicrobial agent has been used in a wide range of products including dish liquid, soap, deodorant, toothpaste and even mops. In addition to impacting microbial balance and infiltrating living tissue, Triclosan can also lead to increased sensitivity to the environment as well as harmful cellular and endocrine changes. Thankfully, the FDA recently banned the use of Triclosan (and its close relative triclocarban) in hand and body soaps, but you’ll still need to be on the lookout for these toxic ingredients in other products.
• Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Don’t let the word “organic” fool you! Inhaling these gases, which are frequently used in products including household cleaners, disinfectants, and air fresheners, can cause eye, liver, nervous system, respiratory tract, and skin troubles—as well as GI discomfort and challenges with equilibrium.
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