Can cleaning products really make you sick?

There are claims circulating online about everyday household products causing everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s, allergies and asthma. But do we really need to worry or is it an urban legend?

If you read the back of some common cleaning products, there are often warnings they can be corrosive, should be used in a well ventilated area, and can cause harm to your skin. But it’s the extraordinary claims online that cleaning and everyday products like shampoo and toothpaste are causing everything from cancer, Alzheimer’s, damage to vital organs, even allergies and asthma, that have some people really worried.

This information often comes from those selling, or promoting natural products, but according to Dr Ian Musgrave, a molecular toxicologist who works at the University of Adelaide, natural isn’t always safer. He says there is no need to worry about the cleaners under our kitchen sink, or the soap in the shower, if these products are used for their intended purpose.

Household products: the facts

According to Dr Musgrave there is a lot of misinformation out there, but there’s no good evidence to suggest cleaning and other everyday products used for their intended purpose could be harmful to your health.

“They’re (safety authorities) constantly looking at these products and most of the studies show the sort of exposure we have to the types of common chemicals we’re using is not associated with serious illness,” says Dr Musgrave.

“With several sites out there, they’re playing on fears when they talk about household cleaning products,” says Dr Musgrave. “They either use outdated information or they’re using information that applies only when you’re feeding rats industrial quantities of these chemicals and it’s not relevant to use in Australia.”

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in many household products including dishwashing liquid, disinfectant, beauty products, shampoo and toothpaste. At high levels formaldehyde can be a carcinogen (cancer causing substance). But according to Dr Musgrave, the amount we’re exposed to in household products is so low there is likely no risk at all to our health.

“The amount you’re exposed to in household products is less than you’d be exposed to by eating a pear or an apple, as pears and apples naturally have formaldehyde in them.”

Sodium laurel sulphate is a detergent that is used in a variety of cleaning, bath and cosmetic products. In the past there have been claims that sodium laurel sulphate causes cancer, cataracts and blindness. However those making these claims appear to have confused it with another substance.

“Some of the safety concerns that have been circulating were based on a misquotation of an original scientific study that showed nothing of the sort,” says Dr Musgrave. “It will not cause cancer, cataracts or blindness - that’s an urban legend that is circulating.”

Dr Musgrave says finding reliable information on the internet can be extremely hard.

“The good information is buried in scientific journals or in very dry reports from the European union,” he says. “Even if you find that real information for most people it’s really hard to interpret.”
cleaning brushes body

Are natural products safer?

Not necessarily, according to Dr Musgrave.

“There is a lot of play on the concept of how natural cleaning products are good for you, but unfortunately some of the most toxic substances on the planet are natural,” Dr Musgrave says.
“Saying something is natural doesn’t mean it won’t necessarily be toxic,” he says.
Eucalyptus oil is a popular treatment for colds and flu. One supposed remedy involves putting a drop of two of eucalyptus oil on a sugar cube and sucking it. 

“Over the short period of time and at this low dose it is ok, but one person upped the dose to five drops a day, and had serious liver damage,” says Dr Musgrave.

Not to mention the impact on your teeth from sucking on sugar constantly!

Dr Musgrave says small amounts of eucalyptus oil are incorporated into cough lozenges, cough syrups, toothpastes, mouth washes and as a flavour ingredient in foods. Products with 25% or more eucalyptus oil must be labelled poison.

Products like lavender oil also have the potential to cause dermatitis (an itchy skin condition).
This doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to use natural products, however it’s important to remember to apply common sense when you’re using any cleaning product – whether it’s natural or not.
“A lot of the natural products, they’ll work but the reason we use more modern detergents is that they can sometimes be better at lifting dirt and so on than others,” says Dr Musgrave.
Tips to use household products safely:
  • Read and follow the directions on all cleaning products
  • Use the right concentration (dilute products as directed)
  • Use heavy duty products in well ventilated areas
  • Don’t consume or rub products in your eyes
  • Consider wearing rubber gloves, face masks and protective eyewhere for certain cleaning products
We don’t need to be afraid to use cleaning products, as long we use some basic common sense.
“You wouldn’t recommend to anyone to eat a bar of soap a day, you obviously don’t drink them (cleaning products) or squirt them in your eyes,” Dr Musgrave says. “Following the instructions on the bottle and using common sense should result in no excessive exposures.”
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Bupa Home Insurance is distributed by Bupa HI Pty Ltd ABN 81 000 057 590 an authorised representative of the issuer, Insurance Australia Limited ABN 11 000 016 722 AFSL 227681. Any advice is general only and does not take into account your personal circumstances. Consider the  Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) to see if this product is right for you.

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