Non-toxic cleaning products: what to look for

Here we discuss what a non-toxic cleaning product is and if chemicals in our cleaning products are harmful, or not. Read on to get the lowdown.

Updated 1 July 2019

Brightly coloured non-toxic cleaning products: what to look for

Key steps to using the right products

  • Always read the ingredients list before using any product and use products as directed on the label. The instructions are there for your safety.
  • Know what different ingredients are used for and whether they can be harmful - keep reading to learn more about this.
  • Avoid mixing products together. Some cleaners are perfectly safe to use but can produce toxic gasses if mixed with other chemicals.
  • Store chemicals away from children and pets. If you think anyone may have ingested bleach by accident, call a doctor immediately. Read more about bleach poisoning in our guide.

In order to sanitise and eliminate bacteria and germs, there are, by definition, chemicals in cleaning products. This will come as no surprise to you as a learned domestic advocate, but then you will also know that when the directions are followed, these ingredients pose no threat to you or your family. In fact, many cleaning supplies do not meet the definition of ‘toxic’, but cannot be labelled as ‘non-toxic’ either because of their chemical ingredients.

The definition of non-toxic is ‘not poisonous or toxic’; however, there is no standard for labelling products as such! Therefore, the expression has very little meaning in terms of consistency or accuracy. In this article, you’ll find information on some ingredients that are regularly identified as ‘toxic’ so that you can decide what is non- for yourself.

Are cleaning products harmful?

For your informed cleaning entertainment, we will now list and explain some of the most common ingredients that are often referred to as harmful chemicals in household products – but with the right information, you’ll be able to see them for what they actually are: effective, well-controlled tools for sanitation!

  • Phosphates: these compounds are derived from phosphorous, a naturally occurring mineral present in every phase of life. When the mineral combines with oxygen (which, thankfully, there is plenty of on this planet!), phosphates are the result. In terms of cleaning products, phosphates were used in many laundry detergents until we figured out that an excess of them in the water waste from laundry all over the world contributes to causing algae blooms ­– not as pretty as it sounds, but more on that here. As a result, phosphates have been banned in the UK and are only present in environmentally friendly forms, or replaced entirely.
  • Phthalates: pronounced “thah-lates” (we had to look it up, too), this family of chemicals can be present in the packaging of household cleaning products. Phthalates have an impressive ability to both toughen and add flexibility to plastic, making it safer to transport and store your favourite so-called harmful chemicals. Phthalates are not an active ingredient in the product itself. Read more about this fun word in our Ingredient FAQ.
  • Chlorine: this ingredient is a key component in household bleach. The active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite – the ‘chlorite’ bit at the end there indicates chlorine is part of the compound! Bleach is an incredibly effective (read more here) part of hygiene all over the world, but if it is used incorrectly, it can be harmful. As such, no product containing bleach can be labelled as non-toxic, but that does not mean it is guaranteed to cause harm so long as the label is read and the instructions for use are followed! Better yet, bleach has a low impact on the environment because its chemical composition allows it to break down almost entirely in water. So keep those toilets, showers, and sinks clean (we like Domestos bleach) without fear of the bleachy products going down the drain!
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate: otherwise known as SLS (or a slightly different variation called SLES), is an ingredient in your household products that causes foaming action! SLS is a surfactant: a ‘surface active agent’. The compound acts as a catalyst for water when it comes to breaking down fats and oils in the wash or on a counter top. The most common forms of SLS have a low impact on the environment, but there are variations in use that can cause problems. When you’re purchasing cleaning products, keep an eye out for products from reputable and environmentally friendly companies. Cif is a great example of responsible SLS use.

But, should I have these chemicals in my home?

We all want the best products when it comes to keeping your home clean and safe for your family to live in; there is nothing more important. Many times, this results in researching non-toxic and eco-friendly products in an effort to revolutionise the way we clean. We always encourage gathering as much information as possible because well-informed use is better than using a product because someone says you should. In terms of non-toxic products, the most important lesson is that ‘non-toxic’ is not an accredited label! With the information provided in this article to better understand ingredients and a commitment to using products according to their instructions, your home can be clean and non-toxic, on your terms.

For more information on the ingredients in products mentioned in this tip, visit What’s in Unilever Products here.

Use biocides safely. Always read the label and product information before use.
Originally published 19 July 2018