Monday, 18 January 2010

Cleaning without chemicals part 1 - what is in my everyday household cleaner?

In a discussion on the ecocornwall Facebook page about chemical cleaning products, I was made aware of the 'cocktail effect' induced by mixing different chemicals together to create a particular product. To look into this further, I have simply dug an all purpose spray cleaner made by one of the major cleaning product manufacturers out of my cupboard and examined the ingredients that make up the spray. Here they are:

<5% Nonionic surfactants
A surfactant is actually a blend of 'surface active agent' - basically it becomes active when sprayed on a surface and cuts through grease and grime (I sound like an advert don't I - terrible!) That's fine but what is it exactly, where does it, or they, come from?
According to Wikipedia:
"Some surfactants are known to be toxic to animals, ecosystems and humans, and can increase the diffusion of other environmental contaminants.Despite this, they are routinely deposited in numerous ways on land and into water systems, whether as part of an intended process or as industrial and household waste." 

This one was quite confusing. But from the research I've done they don't sound too nasty. Basically phosphonates prevent the build-up of limescale. I get the impression that they are used as an alternative to phosphates, which are harmful to fresh-water environments because they encourage the overgrowth of algae. I'm not too worried about these personally.

We all know what soap is, it's a detergent (meaning simply that it cleans). I don't know what type of soap as it doesn't say, and that could be good or bad.

According to the Archives of Dermatology, in a study conducted into 'Antimicrobial Allergy from Polyvinyl Chloride Gloves' (washing up gloves made from PVC, otherwise known as 'marigolds'), this chemical is 'a biocide that is mainly used in industrial settings'. A biocide just means a substance that is capable of killing living organisms, so I strongly suspect that this is the antibacterial agent.

Perfume, Citral, Hexyl Cinnamal, Linalool and Limonene
These are all used to make the cleaner smell 'nice'. Apart from perfume, which could a mixture of various chemicals, Citral, Hexyl Cinnamal come from plant extracts, namely plants such as Lemon Verbena and Chamomile, while Linalool is also found in nature. Limonene is a chemical that according to Wikipedia has not been found to be carcinogenic, although it is a skin irritant. What I want to know is why my cleaner needs so many fragrances to make it smell good.

The general impression I get is that, although the cleaner does make use of natural plant extracts, it also uses some quite harsh, synthetic chemicals that are less than beneficial for both us and our surrounding environment. I don't like the fact that all these chemicals are listed in teeny-tiny writing, and that words like 'soap' are used instead of the actual chemical. I know this is done because companies have the right to preserve their secret formulas, but in the interest of public health?

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