What's in my cleaning products?

Chemicals in cleaning products help them to do their job effectively, making cleaning easier for you! Read on for a guide to cleaning product ingredients.

Updated 23 March 2023


AuthorBy Cleanipedia Team

Reading Time5 minutes

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We’ve all asked this question before: what exactly am I cleaning with? More often than not, we buy cleaning products based on experience: ‘X worked well on a grass stain last month’, or ‘Y made my countertop sparkle, and so we buy them again. Instead of making choices out of habit, we encourage you to read on for more information on the most common chemicals in cleaning products and the role they play in your household cleaning products. In doing so, you might be able to re-associate the word ‘chemical’ with positive, safe cleaning practices!

Key ingredients in household cleaning products

These three ingredients – surfactants, fragrances, and preservatives – are commonly found in cleaning products. Here’s a bit more about them, why they’re used, and why active ingredients of cleaning products used at home are safe.

Surfactants: cleaning or foaming agents.

More specifically, surfactants give a product the ability to remove dirt from clothes, skin, and dishes alike. In short, it’s what does the dirty work in your home cleaning chemical products.

We only use those that not only clean well, but are also safe for use in home cleaning products. Even so, there are also strict biodegradability criteria that must be met. On top of that, risk tests have shown that even with the widespread use of surfactants, they currently pose no threat to the environment.

Some surfactants (known as SLES and SLS to the technical among us), have come under a lot of scrutiny. Every study or investigation has shown that these ingredients are safe.

As with any cleaning chemical, prolonged exposure to surfactants can cause skin irritation. Reputable brands have made efforts to curate products to minimise the risk of irritation.

Fragrances: ingredients designed to make cleaning products smell better

The addition of fragrance to cleaning products makes them more appealing to the senses. Over time the smell of a clean home becomes associated with the fragrance ingredient in your favourite products.

Scent preferences vary around the world: creating fragranced products people enjoy is both an art and a science. Our teams work in close partnership with leading fragrance houses to develop great smelling ingredients for use in our products.

We only use high-quality ingredients that meet global standards set by the International Fragrance Research Association (IFRA).

Preservatives: ingredients added to – you guessed it! – preserve products

Just as you use cleaning chemicals to clean bacteria, mould, and dirt, so the product itself has to be protected from growing its own bacteria and yeast. There are a variety of different preservatives with fantastic names like benzisothiazolinone, dimethyl-dimethyl hydantoin, and phenoxyethanol. For any readers unfamiliar with chemical tongue twisters, the important bit is that these ingredients are chosen to meet a particular product’s needs so that when you use it at home, it is safe and effective.

In addition, preservatives are tested for safety both at Unilever and by external experts before any ingredient is allowed to make it into a product and into your home. Global standards for product quality and safety are strict.

What ingredients are in the products in my home?

Laundry products, surface cleaners, and bleaches contain chemicals to be able to tackle the most common issues in clean-conscious households. Even though we all use them, it’s good to know how they relate to the ingredients outlined above, how they work in your home, and whether they’re sustainable. Here’s what to look out for when you’re shopping:

  • Laundry products: here we are talking about phosphate-free products as required by regulation, combined with what you’re looking for personally. The active ingredient in laundry products is either enzymes (bio) or our good old friend soap (non-bio). More on the difference between bio and non-bio can be found here.

  • Surface cleaners: multi-purpose sprays will always contain surfactants, the main foaming and catalyst for clean (see above). The best part about this kind of product is that there is no threat to the environment. Surface cleaners have surfactants with long chemical names but don’t let the long version intimidate you – these ingredients are in products you use everyday, from face wash to oven cleaner. Their impact on the environment is constantly monitored and many brands have a sustainability initiative to keep consumers informed and confident that they’re making the right choice. Cif is a great example.

  • Bleaches: This amazing, effective, and necessary cleaning chemical is the best way to ensure germs leave for good and has the chemical ability to break down completely in water. Not only is bleach safe for your home, it degrades easily and has a low impact on the environment. Bleach works because it contains key ingredients like sodium hypochlorite, a resilient disinfectant that attacks germs, viruses, and microorganisms alike. The entire range from Domestos for kitchen and bathroom contains bleach, meaning it works well and goes back into the environment seamlessly.

The most common cleaning chemicals are there for good reason: without preservatives, these products would have adverse effects on your home. Surfactants serve to break down dirt and grime both visible and invisible, and fragrances quickly become associated with a clean home. Armed with this information, we hope you’ll find shopping for your favourite household cleaning products and keeping the environment in mind an easy task.

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

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