Is cleaning damaging your health?

30 May 2019

Could your pristine home be making you ill? Many popular cleaning products are dangerously toxic – discover the natural alternatives that really work.



Half a century ago, when women were routinely expected to be housewives, it was tacitly acknowledged that scrubbing and polishing were less than thrilling. ‘How often do you clean your oven?’ enquired Woman’s Realm in 1966. ‘Use Kleenoff and clean it half as often!’ But now – after what feels like a too brief respite from the tyranny of devoting our day to scouring the loo – we once again find ourselves obsessed by cleaning. Even if we love the satisfaction of a pristine home, is this hygiene mania actually healthy, or have we gone too far?

The Instagram cleaning craze – Mrs Hinch and more

Instagram is riddled with ‘cleanfluencers’ showcasing gleaming surfaces and under-sink hooks to an enchanted audience. Leading the spotless way is Mrs Hinch (Sophie Hinchliffe, 29, from Essex), whose 2.4 million followers jump at her every recommendation for antibacterial disinfectants, carpet sprays and bin powders. Who dares confess a prior ignorance of bin powders?

Mrs Hinch endlessly entertains with a fantastic array of tumble-dryer sheets, wipes, bleach, mildew spray, mops and sponges – and a favourite cloth christened Dave – all lovingly discussed and fawned over. She’s charming, chatty and clear that cleaning helps control her anxiety. Her book, Hinch Yourself Happy: All the Best Cleaning Tips to Shine Your Sink and Soothe Your Soul, is a bestseller.

Also cleaning up is Lynsey ‘Queen of Clean’ Crombie, who has a hygiene compulsion (unfortunately born of trauma), a starring role in Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, and 138,000 Instagram followers. One fan asks, ‘Do you ever worry about all the chemicals you’re exposed to all the time?’ Crombie responds that 80% of her cleaning is ‘home-made and natural’. For the ‘disgusting greasy dust’ that accumulates on the top of kitchen cabinets, she advises warm water, white wine vinegar and washing-up liquid. But washing-up liquid contains chemicals.

Can your house be too clean? 

How does our fetishisation of a home chemically sprayed and steamed to sterility impact on our health? After all, we’re told a little dirt boosts our gut bacteria and benefits our immune system. Should we not fuss over every speck on the kitchen counter? Shrug if the grandchildren eat with unwashed hands?

Graham Rook, emeritus professor of medical microbiology at UCL (University College London), has information to satisfy both clean freaks and those more laissez-faire. But to comprehend how hygiene impacts our health, he says, we first need to understand our biology and history.

To function correctly, our immune system requires what Professor Rook calls ‘data input’ from a vast range of micro-organisms in our natural environment. Much of our immune system is located in the gut, where it farms our healthy bacteria (the microbes that co-evolved with us over millions of years), which help us to function optimally.

The benefits of bacteria

Less exposure to beneficial ‘dirt’ – bacteria in the natural world – has reduced the diversity of our microbiota and made us more prone to allergies, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory disorders. ‘It was noticed as far back as the 19th century that farmers were less likely to get hay fever,’ says Professor Rook. ‘It was more likely to occur among wealthy town dwellers.’ The gut microbiota is also impoverished, and immunity compromised, by antibiotics and poor diet.

Were you a parent, asks Professor Rook, who’d sterilise a dummy if your baby dropped it – or did you suck it yourself and pop it back in their mouth? Passing on maternal microbiota (in utero, by vaginal birth, via breastfeeding) is a crucial part of that data input. However, the assumption that, as Professor Rook says with exasperation, our homes are ‘too clean for our own good’ and it’s safe to ‘abandon hygiene’ is false.

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Strike a cleaning balance

‘Hygiene and vaccines have done more than anything medicine has come up with to preserve life, and hand- washing is absolutely crucial. It stops the spread of nasty infections.’ He advises ‘targeted hygiene’. ‘If you’ve been pulling the guts out of an uncooked chicken, then extensive hand-washing is advisable. If you’ve been in the garden, it probably doesn’t matter very much.’ Either way, soap and water is best.

Are you strict about germs or do you let the dog share your pillow? Professor Rook cites Danish research that found ‘the more cats and dogs in the house, the less likely you are to have eczema, asthma or hay fever in the family. This is presumably because the animals bring some of the natural environment into the house, and you’re breathing it in. But that doesn’t mean you should stop cleaning the house.’

Yet, happily for some, extreme cleaning is futile. Professor Rook isn’t aghast at the revelation that my cat sits on the kitchen counter. On reflection, he’d discourage it, but suspects it would make no difference to my family’s health as we are clearly cat-kissing types.

‘House-cleaning needs to be rational. The idea that you can have sterile surfaces is nonsense. There are organisms everywhere, and most are completely harmless, even beneficial.' 

‘House-cleaning needs to be rational. The idea that you can have sterile surfaces is nonsense. There are organisms everywhere, and most are completely harmless, even beneficial. Obsessive use of toxic chemicals is simply stupid. Antibacterial disinfectant doesn’t really do anything much at all.’ Emboldened, I confess to cleaning the hob with ‘mild’ washing-up liquid rather than the spray containing chlorine-based bleaching agents, perfumes and anionic surfactants (from petroleum-based sources) as it makes my throat burn and my nose itch. Professor Rook explains, ‘Your nose is itching because it’s telling you that there’s something there it really doesn’t want to be exposed to.’

It’s curious how stubbornly we resist our immune system’s hints. But we’re attached to our chemical weapons. Baking soda and vinegar is a much healthier alternative to standard washing-up liquid, which contains a host of skin irritants.

Cleaning chemicals and your lungs

Meanwhile, a multinational study conducted by researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway and published last year, showed that chemicals in household cleaning products caused a decline in lung function over 20 years equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day over the same period.

Øistein Svanes, the lead author, explains that lung function decline was found in women working as cleaners, and also ‘in women doing the daily routine of cleaning their own houses’. They didn’t study specific chemicals, but data suggested that exposure to cleaning agents was detrimental – and sprays were most harmful. Svanes says, ‘You’re spraying into the air and breathing in these particles.’

The study’s conclusion was that using microfibre cloths and warm water is sufficient. And though he concedes one might wish to use something a little stronger in the bathroom, he advises us to ‘minimise the use of chemicals’.

Eco-friendly cleaners

So what can we use instead? One company selling household cleaning products free from synthetic chemicals, preservatives, enzymes and synthetic perfumes – Bio-D – was founded by Michael Barwell, a former ship cleaner, who was required to wear a respirator to use industrial cleaners. Ethical Consumer Magazine notes that he founded Bio-D after realising many household cleaning products shared the same ingredients.

Meanwhile, lecturer in architecture and planning Christina Hawkes co-founded Greenscents with her husband Peter because the family suffered from skin allergies. It’s the only range of organic laundry and household products certified by Allergy UK (as well as The Soil Association, Cruelty Free International and The Vegan Society). Until they developed health problems, she hadn’t questioned the impact of cleaning products.

‘I grew up in the late 1960s, and my mother was bleach bonkers,’ says Hawkes. She recalls their cleaner coughing while cleaning the bathroom. ‘It was part of the landscape of cleaning. It wasn’t until my early twenties, doing the cleaning myself, I got contact dermatitis for the first time using standard products. It took me two years to get rid of it.’

The Greenscents’ range contains, for example, organic natural oils with antibacterial properties, and surfactants made from coco-glucoside, the fatty acids in coconut oil. And while their loo cleaner (made with aloe vera leaf juice and cider vinegar) won’t whiten like bleach, its effect is, Christina says, ‘noticeable and naturally clean’. All of their products contain ingredients that are also used in organic skincare. Their Castile Soap (glycerine, rosemary oil, citric acid) cleans bathrooms, kitchens and surfaces, but can occasionally double as shampoo or body wash. ‘I can wash my hands with it,’ says Hawkes.

No disrespect to the delightful Mrs Hinch, but it may be time to scale down our obsession with powerful cleaning agents and try something simpler.

Natural alternatives

• Removing stains from wood Mix lemon juice, white distilled vinegar and vegetable oil in equal parts. Rub the mixture in the direction of the grain, leave to dry, then buff with a dry cloth.

• Cleaning the loo Combine vinegar and a few drops of essential oil and spray the bowl, leaving for a few minutes. Sprinkle baking soda inside the bowl, and scrub with a toilet brush.

• Removing mould from grouting Apply a paste made with equal parts of lemon juice and baking soda, leave for two hours then rinse off.

• Cleaning the oven Add water to baking soda until it forms a thick paste. Apply to dirty areas of the oven and leave overnight. Scrape off the following day, then spray any residue with white vinegar and wipe with a damp cloth.

Harmful chemicals

Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate (SLES) Skin irritation and possible carcinogenic links.

Alkyl Sulphates, eg, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) Known skin irritants.

Synthetic perfumes, eg, 2-bromo-2- nitropropane–1, 3-diol Can trigger contact allergies, eg, eczema and dermatitis.

Ethyl alcohol Drying and irritating to the skin.

Chlorine bleach Irritating to eyes, skin, the respiratory tract and harmful to lungs.

Where to buy eco-friendly cleaning products

Bio-D products are available from biodegradable.biz 01482 770611

Greenscents products are available from greenscents.co.uk 01398 324225

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