Tag

natural cleaning

Home and Garden, Natural Cleaning

Could Cleaning Your Home Be Damaging To Your Health?

green cleaning products

green cleaning products

I’ve got a great guest post today for you from Georgina at Ethical Consumer, on how cleaning our homes could be bad for our health.  It’s not all doom and gloom – Georgina offers some health friendlier shop bought and natural alternatives to try to make your home fresher and cleaner without any negative effects.  

An Englishman or woman’s home is their castle.  And when it comes to our ‘castles’ we like to keep them clean.  The average Brit spends around 4 hours a week scrubbing and scouring to keep their home in tip-top condition.  Modern cleaning products claim to make this cleaning a doddle with the promise of a no-effort clean but are these claims as squeaky clean as our houses?

Georgina Rawes from Ethical Consumer reports on the dirty ingredients and toxic chemicals that keep our homes looking clean.

Convenience at a cost

Enter any large supermarket and you’ll see a large array of cleaning products each claiming to make your life easier, clean your home better and to save you time.  We’re used to modern convenience with our cleaning gadgets and we want short-cuts to save us time on our mundane chores, but how much thought do we give to the chemicals that we spray and squirt around our homes?

It can be alarming when we see the hazard labels on products we use every day or week: irritant, corrosive, oxidising and toxic, but if we use the chemicals correctly then they are safe – right?

Not according to recent research from Natural Resources Defense Council in California whose research discovered 45 different toxic chemicals present in household dust.  Chemicals such as phthalates, hormone disrupters that affect reproductive systems and are linked to developmental problems in babies.  The source of these toxic compounds: household chemicals and personal care products.

Exposing the dirty truth

At Ethical Consumer, we’ve produced reports on over 40,000 companies, brands and products on all aspects of ethical behaviour.  For our household cleaning analysis, we ranked 41 popular household cleaners against 23 different criteria, one of those being toxic chemicals.

Unlike personal care or food and drink products, manufacturers are under no obligation to provide a detailed list of the ingredients in their cleaning products.  This lack of transparency makes it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions on avoiding toxic chemicals, although EU legislation stipulates that companies do need to list the full ingredients on their website.

Across our analysis, three main toxic chemicals emerged as the most concerning and ubiquitous and so our rankings focused on those.

The toxic trio

Parabens
This additive is used for its antifungal and preservative properties, extending the shelf-life of cosmetics and cleaning products.
As an indication of its toxic potential, five parabens have been already banned from cosmetics by the EU, but they are still found in many cleaning products.

Absorbed through the skin and through inhalation and ingestion, parabens have strong links to hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.  Breast cancer charities have highlighted their presence in breast tumours where they thought to increase the growth of cancer cells.

Triclosan
This pesticide is an antimicrobial agent used in many cleaning products.  It is known to affect thyroid hormone function disrupting the regulation of metabolism and normal breast development.  It is also an irritant to skin and eyes and may have a possible link to bacterial resistance.  Its use is already banned in soaps in the US and is restricted in use in many toiletries in the UK, yet its use is not prohibited in cleaning products.

Phthalates
A common chemical used in synthetic fragrances, phthalate toxicity is linked to developmental problems in babies, a recent study cited a correlation between pregnant women with high levels of phthalates and children with markedly lower IQ levels.  And again, as an endocrine disrupting chemical, phthalate is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer

The good, the bad and the toxic

Despite the mounting evidence of the harmful effects of these and other synthetic additives, the use of toxic, persistent compounds is widespread in our cleaning products.  Our ethical ranking table exposes the brands that continue to use these harmful chemicals and provides ethical ‘best buys’ for those companies who ban their use:

how toxic are household cleaners

The toxic

Sadly, some of the most popular brands performed very badly. UK manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser who manufactures Vanish, Dettol, Windowlene and Cillit Bang had no policy on removing triclosan, parabens or phthalates from their formulations.  Even more shocking is that this lack of corporate responsibility comes after their disinfectant humidifier chemicals were found to have led to the death of nearly 100 people in South Korea.

Proctor and Gamble also performed badly having no policy to remove parabens or phthalates from products such as Viakal, Flash and Comet.

Unilever, who produces brands such as Domestos and Cif, do not use phthalates and had a clear plan for the removal of triclosan.  However, they had no clear strategy to remove parabens from their formulas.

Colgate-Palmolive performed best in the big brand categories with no parabens, triclosan or phthalates used in their cleaning products. However, they ranked low down in our scoring due to their poor policies in other areas.

The good

A number of smaller brands performed well in our ranking with Greenscents, Libby V-concentrate and Bentley Organics, all offering organic and vegan products that also achieved our best rating for animal testing.  Bio-D, Faith in Nature, Libby Chan and Earth Friendly Products are all vegan and cruelty-free.

All of these products had clear policies that confirmed that their products did not contain the toxic trio of parabens, triclosan and phthalates, as well as a focus on natural and organic ingredients.  In the instance of the Libby Chan products, probiotic, edible chemicals provided a completely different take on natural cleaning products.

Reducing toxic dust for a cleaner home

There are a number of things that you can do to reduce toxicity levels in your home:

  1. Use fewer cleaning products, switching to microfibre cloths can reduce the cleaning products needed whilst providing a thorough clean, and they’re washable and reusable too.
  2. Check ingredients and make the switch – know what you are using by checking the ingredients on cleaning products and ditching brands that don’t make the grade.
  3. Make your own natural cleaners – with just a few simple ingredients such as lemon juice, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda you can make a whole host of natural cleaning products. The Ethical Consumer website for the DIY toxic cleaning kit and check out this post on natural cleaning product recipes from Moral Fibres.
Home and Garden, Natural Cleaning

Is Borax Safe For Cleaning With?

what is borax substitute

Today let’s talk borax,  Specifically, is borax safe for cleaning with.  You see, in my green cleaning kit, I always have a box of borax to hand.  It’s a handy ingredient to have when there are so many uses for borax around the house.

Yet every time I mention borax here on the blog a well-meaning person or two often comments, telling me that I shouldn’t be using it in my home or encouraging Moral Fibres readers to use it in their homes.  Often claims are made that borax is dangerous, and effects on fertility are cited.

I genuinely appreciate this concern, I really do.  And not wanting to risk mine or my family’s health, or the health of Moral Fibres readers, I have done quite a bit of research into if borax is safe to use around the house.  I thought I’d share the results of my research here in the hope it can be helpful.

First off, it’s critical to mention that in the UK and EU you can no longer buy borax.  In 2010 the EU reclassified the ‘Borate’ group of chemicals that Borax belongs to as potentially hazardous to health, so it is no longer available as a cleaning and laundry product.  Instead, you can only buy “Borax Substitute”.  We’ll get on to the what is borax substitute question in a moment!

The Science Part

Let’s look at the chemical differences between Borax and Borax Substitute:

What is Borax?

The chemical name of Borax is Sodium Tetraborate.  The borate at the end there signifies it’s a boron compound, and all borates can be considered derivatives of boric acid.  Borax occurs naturally, being produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes.

What is Borax Substitute?

The chemical name of Borax Substitute is Sodium Sesquicarbonate.  Sodium Sesquicarbonate is a mixed crystal of Sodium Carbonate (washing soda) and Sodium Bicarbonate (bicarbonate of soda).  It has a similar pH to borax and is gentler than Sodium Carbonate yet stronger than Bicarbonate of Soda.  The water bound up in the crystal means that the product is cold water soluble, unlike Sodium Carbonate which cakes with cold water.

is borax safe

Is Borax Substitute Safe?

Sodium Sesquicarbonate is included on the INCI list of cosmetic ingredients.  Well known for its water softening properties, cosmetically it has traditionally been used in bath salts and bath bombs, hair care products and deodorants.

Outside of the cosmetics sphere, it’s often used in swimming pools, in water treatment plants, and as a phosphate-free replacement for cleaning.  Apparently, in Japan, people are going crazy for Sodium Sesquicarbonate for it’s cleaning properties.  Perhaps they read Moral Fibres? ;)

Surprisingly, it’s also used in food.  Sodium Sesquicarbonate, is, in small amounts, FDA approved as a food additive in the US, where it’s used as an acidity regulator, anti-caking agent and as a raising agent.  Interestingly, it’s not food approved in the EU or Australia.

It’s long history aside, what about its safety?

This report is probably the most comprehensive I’ve found on the safety of borax substitute.  It’s four pages long, so in case you don’t have the time or inclination to read it, borax substitute is not considered to be harmful to health or the environment.  They have found it may cause slight irritation to sensitive skin, it may irritate the eyes if the dust gets in them and could be harmful if ingested in large quantities, but apart from that, there are no main concerns.

To double and triple check, I kept up with my research, wanting to dot the i’s and cross the t’s if you will.  What I found was that the Environmental Working Group has, despite gaps in their data, classified Sodium Sesquicarbonate as low risk, with no serious issues identified.  Similarly, the PAN Pesticides Database has so far found no risk.  Meanwhile, this scientific journal found that in high doses (in rats) it caused conjunctivitis and it caused skin irritation but is safe to use in cosmetics.

My conclusion?  I’m perfectly happy to use Borax Substitute in my house for all my green cleaning needs, whilst adhering to the general principles of storing cleaning products – away from children and pets.

Is Borax Safe?

Now that we’ve established that Borax Substitute is safe, this is all well and good for my fellow UK and EU readers, but what about my American, Australian and other worldwide readers?  As I’m recommending Borax Substitute, but unaware if Borax Substitute is available in your country, I feel like I’ve got a duty of care to find out if Borax (the Sodium Tetraborate stuff) is safe too?

So, is borax safe?  Turns out the is borax safe question is a bit harder to answer.  It’s a bit of a grey area, so if you are US or Australian based, I’m afraid you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Is borax safe?  Let me present the facts:

Studies cite that they have tested either sodium tetraborate or boric acid.  However, if you remember from the science part at the top of this article, sodium tetraborate is not boric acid, it’s a derivative of boric acid.  There’s quite a bit of a difference, chemically, but the studies are vague.

Boron is an element essential for human health – pivotal for healthy bones, joints, and dental enamel, and for regulating the absorption and metabolism of several elements – including magnesium, calcium and phosphorous.  You can even buy boron food supplements, and any excess boron tends to be excreted out of the body, suggesting that boron, and it’s derivatives, do not bio-accumulate in the body.

Borax is commonly used in natural laundry powders.  When you look at one conventional alternative to natural laundry powder – detergent capsules – there were reports of 1,500 cases of poisoning from detergent capsules in three years.  The same article reports that one child a day had to be hospitalised in 2012 and 2013 as a result and that one child died.  I haven’t thus far been able to find any deaths directly attributable to borax.

The EU has banned borax on claims of impacts on reproductive health, following studies on mice and rats at high (abnormally high) ingested doses.  The only study I can find looking at the potential impact of human reproductive health is this one, that crucially relates to boric acid, not borax, investigating the reproductive effects of boron exposure in workers employed in a boric acid production plant.

The study found that the factory workers, representing worst-case exposure conditions to boric acid/borates are considerably lower than exposures which have previously led to reproductive effects in experimental animals.  No ill-effects on the worker’s reproductive health could be found.  The study concluded that “dose levels of boron associated with developmental and reproductive toxic effects in animals are by far not reachable for humans under conditions of normal handling and use“.  Therefore even if you are handling borax all day every day, like these workers are, you are unlikely to encounter any problems.

Borax is not a known carcinogen, but like borax substitute, it can be a skin irritant to sensitive skins.  I think it’s also important to bear in mind that many things we have in our homes are harmful in high enough concentration.  Salt, for example, is harmful, even lethal in high doses, yet we quite happily sprinkle it on to our cooking.  I wouldn’t recommend eating borax at any dosage.  There are reports of borax inhalation irritating airways.  I wouldn’t recommend inhaling borax.  Some people seem concerned about the effects of clothes washed in borax.  However, borax is poorly absorbed through undamaged skin.  Your rinse cycle on your washing machine should also take care of rinsing away any excess borax.

What’s The Answer?

I don’t want to tell you if it’s safe for you to use borax or not.  I don’t feel it’s my place.  Instead, I want to present the facts so that you can make up your mind.  Personally?  Is borax safe?  Based on what I’ve found out, if stored out of the reach of kids and pets I would be quite happy to use it in my house.  I personally feel that conventional laundry powders and liquids and bleach-based cleaning products pose more of a risk to human health and to waterways, but that is just me.  I’d encourage you to do your own research to work out was if using borax is best for you or not.

What are your thoughts?  Is borax safe?  Are you happy using borax substitute?  Do you feel happy using it in place of Borax?  If so, what do you use borax for?

ps: I have written a book on green cleaning – packed full of recipes for natural cleaning for all around the home.  You can check it out here!