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Are cleaning products and ingredients harmful to health?

Are cleaning products harmful to health?You can be confident that the cleaning products you buy are thoroughly assessed to ensure they are safe to use.

By law, manufacturers must make sure the products they sell are safe for people to use, provided they are used correctly and according to the instructions.  

If a product is found to be unsafe, manufacturers must take it off the market.

Hazard and risk 

It’s important when thinking about safety to understand the difference between hazard and risk. A hazard is something that can cause harm, and risk is the chance that it will cause harm. 

Hazard

Most things have hazards – even vinegar and lemons – in that they could cause harm in certain circumstances. Lemon juice is safe enough to eat, though only in small doses, and please don’t squirt it in your eye – that really hurts and could cause short term harm.

Risk

What matters for safety is that things shouldn’t pose any real risk of harm when you use them normally. Even if you misuse or have an accident with a cleaning product – getting it in your eye or mouth for example – the effects, though unpleasant and maybe painful, are invariably temporary.

Why you should read the label 

They tell you what the hazards are

If cleaning products have hazards then they must be labelled by law with standard symbols and warning phrases. If lemons had to be labelled like cleaning products, they would have to carry a Corrosive warning! These hazard labels flag up things to be aware of – they’re not something you need to steer clear of.

And they help you understand the risk

Manufacturers confirm that their products are safe before they are put on the market by conducting a risk assessment. There are also regulations that require systematic risk assessment of ingredients, and if any are shown to pose risks that cannot be controlled when used in products they will be banned.

Things you may have read about

Of course, you may see stories in the media which suggest cleaning products cause all kinds of harm, often invisible and long-lasting. All suggestions of this kind are checked, as are the many scientific studies that are quite rightly conducted to keep asking questions about safety. Here are some of the things you may have read, and a few facts to help you spot the myths and the scare stories and put what you read into a sensible perspective:

"Contains chemicals"

Indeed so! Everything, but everything, is made of chemicals, which are molecules made up of atoms of the 90-odd chemical elements of which the entire planet is made. Whether things are naturally occurring, or man-made – wood, flowers, paint, rocks, plastic, coffee, skin, milk – they are all just combinations of chemicals. So if anyone offers you a product that is “chemical free”, tell them to think again. The Royal Society of Chemistry has a £1 million prize – waiting unclaimed – for whoever who can show them a product that is truly ‘chemical free’.

Check out what Sense About Science has to say in its booklet “Making sense of chemical stories”.

"Toxic products and ingredients"

Over 400 years ago, Swiss physician Paracelsus realised everything is toxic given a high enough dose, and that ‘only the dose differentiates a poison from a remedy’. This is the basis of the science of toxicology and it holds true today with very few and specific exceptions.

Toxicity is measured carefully

To make sure products are safe to use, cleaning product manufacturers examine the toxicity of each and every ingredient. They calculate what dose someone might possibly receive when using the product, through each route of exposure: skin contact, breathing in vapour, even ingestion of residues. They make sure there are wide margins of safety between the possible dose and one that could cause harm.

Many surprising things are toxic

Many common and naturally occurring substances are surprisingly toxic. For example, we wouldn’t think of salt as toxic, but it’s twice as toxic as alcohol, and only a little less toxic than paracetamol. Aspirin and caffeine are 10 times more toxic still. Cyanide is just 15 times more toxic than these two – just 15 times the weight of aspirin or caffeine would be as fatal as a lethal dose of cyanide.

Yet people take aspirin and drink coffee every day with real benefit rather than harm, and apples are regarded as positively healthful even though the pips contain cyanide.

The toxicity of detergent ingredients varies, but in the main their toxicity is modest. For example, surfactants (the main cleaning agents like soap) are five times less toxic than aspirin or caffeine.

So to say a product contains a toxic ingredient or ‘toxic chemical’ is often saying nothing at all.

Ingredients getting into / building up in the body

Cleaning product makers ensure that any trace amounts of ingredients taken up during use of products – via the skin, inhalation or ingestion – do not keep building up or give levels that might cause harm.

We are made of chemicals

Our bodies are entirely made of chemicals, mainly proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but also a bewildering array of over 100,000 other substances. Some of these are essential to life, while thousands of others are substances in transit to being recycled or excreted. They are breakdown products from the chemical reactions in our cells that rearrange the atoms and molecules of the food we eat and make us living, breathing people.

Looked at individually, these naturally occurring substances vary from innocuous to highly toxic. Some, such as the histamine released into our blood when we have a sudden fright, can kill us – for example through anaphylactic shock. Others, such as the formaldehyde that’s in our blood as a waste product from our metabolism, are known to be human carcinogens.

The key: what toxic effects does any chemical have?

So the mere presence of a chemical in the body does not mean it is doing harm. What matters is what toxic effects it can have at what levels and whether the levels present create any risk of these effects actually occurring.

Whether a substance builds up in the body depends upon how quickly it is metabolised (broken down) and excreted. One example is carotene, which gives carrots their orange colour. People who consume large amounts of carrots or carrot juice can find their skin going orange because they are taking in the carotene at a faster rate than their bodies can get rid of it. But even that doesn’t mean the carotene is doing any harm.

The skin is a highly effective barrier which substances don’t easily penetrate. That’s why few medicines aimed at internal organs can be given through the skin.

Chemical Cocktails

Every living thing is made of chemicals, so life revolves around mixtures of chemicals, and exposure to such mixtures is nothing unusual. Living cells are highly complex ‘chemical cocktails’ in their own right.

The way chemicals affect the body is complicated, and can be seen in the way we manage pain. To reduce a patient's pain a doctor can prescribe paracetamol, ibruprofen and codeine together at appropriate doses, without a patient suffering any ill effects. Each of those pain killers works in a different, complex way, but they don't necessarily add up to being more dangerous all together. You have to take too much of any one of them for that particular drug to cause an overdose.

The same applies to the 'chemical cocktails' we read about in cleaning products: the toxic effects of different substances in a mixture normally don’t add together.

Irritants

Many substances, both natural and synthetic, can produce irritant effects on skin, on the eyes or on the respiratory tract for example. For example, if you get soap in your eyes they will sting briefly, and cutting a raw onion makes your eyes water because the volatile chemicals released irritate the eyes. Various garden plants come with warnings that they can irritate the skin.

Irritant effects are not allergic effects. Irritant chemicals do not cause allergies or allergic reactions, though in some circumstances they can make symptoms worse and respiratory irritation may trigger an asthma attack.

Safety for children

Safety assessments also take children into account. Their lower body weight can reduce safe doses and there is a need to consider the possibility of subtle effects on development. But in considering possible effects of long term ‘chronic’ exposure to substances on children, it has to be remembered children are only children for a few years of their lives.

Allergies

Click here for more information about cleaning and allergies.

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