The Harsh Reality of Household Cleaners

Today more and more cleaning products are advertised as exceptionally effective, while requiring very little elbow grease. All you have to do is simply aim, gently pull the trigger, and that’s it—the soap scum, mold, and germs magically disappear. While caught up in the excitement of these miraculous cleaning products, many people fail to realize they contain toxic, dangerous man-made chemicals and pesticides. Caution, danger, and warning aren’t written in bold on their labels for no reason—most common cleaners today can actually be very harmful to our health.

From Bleach to 409, household cleaners contain harsh chemicals that can cause bodily problems from short-term and long-term exposure. Chlorine, one of the most harmful cleaning products, is so widespread that it’s almost as if a house wouldn’t be considered a home without it. An ingredient in many cleaners, chlorine is also called hypochlorite, sodium hypochlorite, hydrogen chloride, and hydrochloric acid. Chlorine is an extremely dangerous substance that can cause permanent physical damage and even death. It is a strong irritant to the lungs and the mucous membranes and has been found to cause asthma. Recent studies have linked breast cancer to chlorine exposure; it was found that women with breast cancer had 50-60% higher levels of organichlorines (chlorination byproducts) in their breast tissue than women without breast cancer. As you can see, chlorine is no friendly cleaning product. In fact, the American Public Health Association unanimously passed a resolution urging American industry to stop using chlorine. Supermarket shelves are filled with a multitude of harmful cleaners in addition to chlorine products. Below is a chart of such cleaners and their dangers.

Product type Harmful Ingredients Potential hazards
Air Freshener and Deodorizer Formaldehyde Toxic; carcinogen; irritant to eyes, nose, throat, and skin; may cause nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, memory loss, and shortness of breath.
Disinfectant Sodium hypochlorite Corrosive; irritates or burns skin, eyes; may cause pulmonary edema or vomiting and coma if ingested.
Phenols Flammable; very toxic; respiratory, circulatory, or cardiac damage.
Ammonia Vapor irritating to eyes, respiratory tract, and skin; possible chronic irritation.
Drain Cleaner Sodium or potassium hydroxide (lye) Caustic; irritant; inhibits reflexes; burns to skin, eyes; poisonous if swallowed
Floor Cleaner Wax Diethylene glycol Toxic; causes central nervous system depression and kidney and liver lesions.
Petroleum solvents Highly flammable; associated with skin and lung cancer; irritant to skin, eyes, nose, throat, lungs.
Ammonia Vapor irritation to eyes, respiratory tract, and skin; possible chronic irritation.
Furniture Polish Petroleum distillates or mineral spirits Highly flammable; moderately toxic; associated with skin and lung cancer; irritant to skin, eyes, nose, throat, lungs; entry into lungs may cause pulmonary edema.
Oven Cleaner Sodium or potassium hydroxide (lye) Caustic; irritant; inhibits reflexes; burns to skin, eyes; poisonous if swallowed due to severe tissue damage.
Spot Remover Perchlorethylene or trichloroethane Slow decomposition; liver and kidney damage; perchlorethylene is suspected carcinogen.
Ammonium hydroxide Corrosive; vapor extremely irritable to skin, eyes, and respiratory passages; ingestion causes tissue burns.
Sodium hypochlorite Corrosive; irritates skin, eyes, respiratory tract; may cause pulmonary edema and skin burns.
Toilet Bowl Cleaner Sodium acid sulfate or oxalate or hypochloric acid Corrosive; burns from skin contact or inhalation; ingestion may be fatal.
Chlorinated phenols Flammable; very toxic; respiratory, circulatory, or cardiac damage.
Window Cleaner Diethylene glycol Toxic; causes central nervous system depression and degenerative lesions in liver and kidneys.
Ammonia Vapor irritating to eyes, respiratory tract, and skin; possible chronic irritation.

When we use chemicals on a regular basis they become part of our home environment. According to the EPA, indoor air is 2 to 5 times more contaminated than outdoor air. Not only do these chemicals pollute the air that we breathe inside, they leach onto our counter tops, floors, carpets, bathtubs, sinks, and walls. We also absorb them into our bodies when they come in contact with our skin. Without our consideration, our homes have become toxic habitats. Regularly breathing, smelling, and touching these chemicals puts our own health at risk, not to mention the health of spouses, children, and even pets. Just because we find these products on the supermarket shelves doesn’t mean they are tested for safety. In fact, most cleaners receive no testing for long term safety. After forty years of using chemical cleaners, we are beginning to connect asthma, cancer, nervous system disorders, and other diseases to their household use. Fortunately however, using chemicals for household cleaning is a relatively new practice and it is not at all a necessity. Natural cleaning alternatives, from laundry detergent to bathroom cleaners (and everything in between) are now available at practically all health food stores. These natural cleaners are biodegradable and human friendly.

The Toxins We Live With

by Tracy Rohland

The world is filled with potentially harmful substances. Most people do not pay attention to this fact and do not realize that many toxins surround us in our daily lives. But by understanding where and how they exist, it is often possible to avoid them.

The average American is constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis. These chemicals are present in everything from personal care products and household cleaners, to food and drinks, and to plant and garden products. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only a fraction of the more than 75,000 registered chemicals have gone through complete testing for human health concerns. Most are derived from petroleum and tar (two major sources of cancer-causing carcinogens) and have not undergone rigorous safety testing.

According to the AAPCC, the greatest number of poisonings in 1993 was due to cleaning products. Children are especially at risk as they crawl on floors, put things in their mouths, and have vulnerable immune systems. Pets are also at risk as they are prone to drink from puddles or toilets or even mop water.

In the kitchen and living room, some major sources of toxins include all-purpose cleansers, ammonia-based cleansers, bleach, brass or other metal polishes, dish detergent, floor wax or polish, and glass cleaner.

Numerous cosmetics and personal hygiene products contain hazardous substances. Examples include propylene glycol and sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (which are common in shampoos), and aluminum chlorhydrate (often found in antiperspirants, deodorants, and aerosol propellants). Fragrance and colors in lotions and soaps also pose a threat.

Some of these toxins have immediate negative effects such as nausea, headache or skin irritation. Others build up in the body over a period of years and can lead to such diseases as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s.

Several studies illustrate a link between aluminum buildup in the body and the development of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Aluminum is found in food, in the air, in makeup, and in aluminum foil and aluminum pans. Stainless steel pots and pans are safer cooking alternatives.

Plastic wrap and plastic containers can also be a concern. When food is heated up in plastic containers, the pores in the plastic open, releasing cancer-causing petro-chemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum) into your food. Using plastic wrap to cover hot, fatty or wet food has the same effect. It is best to use ceramic or glass containers to hold food.

Eliminating toxins from your everyday life can seem overwhelming. While it may be next to impossible to make your environment toxin-free, every little step you take toward reducing these toxins can ensure the health and safety of you and your loved ones. There are many safe and natural alternatives that you can buy at Down to Earth. Be sure to check the Health Tips section of the website for ideas.

Celebrate a Clean and Toxic-free Life: 10 Easy Ways to Go Organic this Month

by Tracy Rohland

September is National Organic Harvest Month and we at Down to Earth want to celebrate with you! Below are a few easy ideas to help you incorporate more organic foods into your life and have fun doing it:

  1. Start your day off with a special organic breakfast. You could make organic whole grain blueberry pancakes with organic butter and organic maple syrup (see recipe at the bottom). Serve organic fruit and yogurt on the side with organic juice or tea. Share it with a friend!
  2. Wash off the dirt AND the chemicals! Shower with soaps and shampoos made with organic ingredients. Dry off with an organic cotton towel.
  3. Make a plan to start an organic garden on your own or with a friend. It doesn’t have to be huge – a few pots of tomatoes on the porch are a good start! If you have a small area of land you can use, even better. Research some plants that are easy to care for and grow well in your area. You’ll have your own organic veggies in no time!
  4. Building healthy soil is an important part of organic farming. A great way to guarantee rich, organic soil is to start composting! Save your compostable remains and make your own compost pile or donate it to someone else’s.
  5. Go to your local Down to Earth store to support your local organic farmers and buy local organic produce.
  6. Give your kids the best nutrition with organic back-to-school lunches such as organic fruit, organic crackers and cheese, organic chips, organic fruit leather, or organic peanut butter jelly sandwiches.
  7. Experience the coziness of organic cotton by buying some 100% organic cotton clothing, or get organic baby clothes for your or a loved one’s baby! According to the Pesticide Action Network, conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop and epitomizes the worst effects of chemically dependent agriculture.
  8. Prepare a delicious vegetarian meal that's as close to 100% organic as possible. Invite friends and family to share and help cook. It could be an organic picnic, pizza party, or pasta feed. DTE’s website has lots of recipe ideas -
  9. Treat yourself and your family to some organic goodies: Share a dessert of organic brownies or organic apple pie topped with organic vanilla ice cream. Leave some organic cookies and candies in the candy jar.
  10. When bedtime comes, sip a cup of organic chamomile tea, then slip under your organic cotton sheets!

There are many ways to gradually incorporate organic food and clothing into your life. National Organic Harvest Month is a good excuse for starting some regular habits that are good for your body and good for the earth at the same time. Down to Earth has a huge variety of organic products and can help you in your goals to live a more organic lifestyle.

Natural Mosquito Repellents

by Tracy Rohland

Mosquito season is in full swing, and Down to Earth wants you to remain bite-free, naturally. There are countless bug repellents on the market today, but the majority of them contain harmful insecticides such as DEET. A recent study by Duke University pharmacologist Dr. Mohamed Abou-Donia resulted in an extensive list of neurological problems caused by DEET and other conventional insecticides such as memory loss, tremors, and slurred speech. The study also found that DEET killed brain cells and caused severe behavioral changes in rats. In addition to the dangers it poses to humans, DEET can seep into the ground and water, harming birds, fish, and other animals.

Fortunately, there are alternatives without using harsh chemicals: The most effective natural mosquito repellents are essential oils, such as citronella, lemongrass, eucalyptus, peppermint, lavender, tea tree oil, and cedar oil. All of these oils are to be applied topically, not internally. There are many products on the market that are comprised of a combination of these oils and are quite effective. The secret is to reapply often, about every 30 minutes or so for the best results. Citronella candles and incense are also common and effective, especially when used in combination with the oils. Other natural repellents that are currently being researched for their effectiveness include fennel, thyme, clove oil, and neem oil. Be sure to check out the various natural insect/mosquito repellents available in our Down to Earth Wellness Centers.

Other Suggestions

Another suggestion is you can also wear loose fitting clothing and lighter colors to discourage the mosquitoes. Finally, be sure to prevent mosquitoes from living and breeding near you home. Mosquitoes can breed in as little as 1 tablespoon of water in only 7-10 days. Get rid of any sources of standing water around your property, including buckets, bottles and cans, car tires, bird baths, and tarps. With these simple precautions and the above mentioned essential oils, you can peacefully co-exist with mosquitoes all summe

Stay Healthy in an Emergency with Natural First-Aid

Photo: Elderberry

by Becky Johnson

Natural remedies can help you in a pinch. While they are not a substitute for a regular first aid kit, they are a great addition.

Here are some remedies that are helpful to have on hand:

  • Calendula homeopathic gel is awesome on burns, cuts and scratches. It relieves pain almost instantly and helps prevent infection.
  • Arnica 30X (another homeopathic remedy)helps with any kind of physical trauma/bruising/bleeding. Give one dose as soon as a trauma occurs. Give every 3 or 4 hours after that for one day and then once a day for a few days. Arnica is very helpful for preventing bruising and speedy healing.
  • Aconite 30X is great for shock, like in a car accident. It is also good for sudden-onset trauma, such as an asthma attack, seizure or heart attack. Keep on hand in case of an emergency.
  • Nux vomica 30X is great for stomachaches, diarrhea, etc. – this may be particularly likely if you have to eat unusual food or you are under stress.
  • Rescue Remedy can help you to deal with the stress and anxiety of an emergency.
  • Vitamin C products, such as Emergen-C, are good for helping to boost immunity and help the body cope with stress in any kind of illness.
  • Elderberry extract has natural anti-viral properties and is good to have on hand in case of a viral infection.

Once you start using these natural home remedies and keep them around, you will wonder how you ever lived without them.

Out With the Toxic and in With the Healthy

by Michele McKay

Simple changes in your household cleaning products can reduce the potential for toxic exposure in your home. There are easy steps that you can take to identify and eliminate these hazardous yet common household chemicals, and replace them with safer, healthier choices.

Take a “household toxins” tour and pay attention to the following:

  • In the kitchen: All-purpose cleaner, ammonia-based cleaner, dishwashing/automatic dishwasher detergent, bleach, metal polish, disinfectant, drain cleaner, floor wax/polish, glass cleaner, oven cleaner, and scouring powder all contain toxic substances.
  • In the utility closet: Common products likely to contain toxic ingredients include laundry detergent, laundry softener, anti-cling sheets, spot remover, carpet cleaner, room deodorizer, mold/mildew cleaner, mothballs, insect repellant, and charcoal lighter fluid.
  • In the living room and bedroom: Pressed wood products, synthetic fiber carpeting, and fabrics that are labeled "wrinkle-resistant", "permanent press" or "easy care" – including no-iron sheets/bedding, curtains, sleep wear, and polyester/cotton blends – are usually treated with a toxic formaldehyde resin.
  • In the bath: Toilet bowl/shower cleaners can be hazardous, and numerous cosmetics and personal hygiene products – shampoos, hair sprays, antiperspirants/deodorants, soaps, lotions, creams, and moisturizers – contain harmful chemicals. Eye drops, contact lens solutions, and nasal sprays/drops may contain thimerosal, a mercury-preservative.

Use safe substitutes. Simple and safe ingredients can perform most home cleaning chores:

  • All-purpose cleaners: These can be made from a vinegar-and-salt mixture or from 4 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in 1 quart warm water.
  • Disinfectant: Practice regular cleaning with soap and hot water. Or mix 1/2 cup borax into 1 gallon of hot water to disinfect and deodorize.
  • Drain cleaner: Try a plunger first, but NOT after using any commercial drain opener. To open drains, pour 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain, add 1/2 cup white vinegar, and cover the drain tightly. The resulting chemical reaction can free the clog. DO NOT use this method after trying a commercial drain opener.
  • Floor cleaner: Use a safe soap, then add a few drops of vinegar to the rinse water.
  • Oven cleaner: Sprinkle baking soda on moist surface and scrub with steel wool.
  • Scouring powder: Try baking soda or dry table salt, or use Bon Ami powder.
  • Tub and tile cleaner: Wipe with vinegar and then use baking soda as a scouring powder.
  • Window and glass cleaner: To avoid streaks, don't wash windows when the sun is shining. Use a solution of vinegar/water, cornstarch/vinegar/water, or lemon-juice/water. Wipe with newspapers, unless you are sensitive to the inks in newsprint.
  • Avoid PVC : Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as vinyl, is toxic from both an environmental and health standpoint. It is found in a wide variety of products – food packaging, toys, furniture, shower curtains, imitation leather, and plumbing/building materials. Alternatives can be found through consumer research or on the internet.

Make informed choices when shopping. Dispose of hazardous products properly and replace them with safe alternatives. Check out Down to Earth’s Natural Living and Wellness departments for a wide range of toxin-free, environmentally safe household and personal care products.

The Toxic Price of Leather

by Michele McKay

Animal skins

When we consider livestock, we usually think of meat… but leather production is a major and lucrative component of the slaughter industry, with its own grim record of pollution and harm to the environment and to human health.

The livestock industry as a whole is the single largest contributor to environmental destruction – it consumes fossil fuels; it is one of the top sources of greenhouse gas emission; it uses vast quantities of water; it contributes to soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation; and, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it is the #1 threat to clean water, due to the runoff and dumping of untreated excrement into rivers and waterways. Over 10 billion land animals are slaughtered for meat every year in a process that inflicts terror, suffering, and pain.

As if the raising and killing of animals weren’t destructive enough, the process of turning their skins into leather uses energy, water, and chemicals potent enough to prevent the skin from decomposing. The hazardous ingredients found in tanning formulas include mineral salts, formaldehyde, oils, waxes, dyes, and finishes. Effluent from tanneries is a toxic cocktail that typically contains salts, sulfides, acids, chromium, lime sludge, and particles of animal flesh and fat.

Human and environmental health

The toll of leather production on human health and on the environment is high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that leukemia rates near one US tannery were five times the average, and studies of tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer rates up to 50% higher than expected. The environmental impact of leather tanning varies according to methods used and environmental regulations followed. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that most tanning operations have shifted from developed to undeveloped countries in favor of lax environmental regulations and cheap labor.

What you can do

You can "vote" for compassion as well as for human and environmental health whenever you shop. There are many alternatives to leather... think about it before selecting leather upholstery, buying a leather jacket, or making other livestock-related choices. Our decisions do make a difference to the welfare of animals, humans, and the planet.

Keep Your Home Clean without Contaminating the Earth

Photo: Green Cleaning Supplies

by Tracy Rohland

Everyone appreciates a clean home. We scrub and spray and wash using many different products to achieve a sparkling environment. However, while we may be getting rid of mold and dirt, we might also be expelling a plethora of toxic gases and contaminants into our home and our bodies, many of which can eventually make their way into the soil and water of the earth.

Conventional cleaners are labeled with warnings such as “Danger: Corrosive,” “Hazards to humans and domestic animals,” “Keep out of reach of children,” “Do not take internally,” “Flammable” and many other equally intimidating phrases. The chemicals in these conventional cleaners can cause immediate problems such as skin or respiratory irritation, watery eyes, or chemical burns as well as long-term or chronic problems such as cancer. In 2000, cleaning products were responsible for nearly 10% of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers, accounting for 206,636 calls. Of these, 120,434 exposures involved children under six, who can swallow or spill cleaners stored or left open inside the home.1 And alarmingly, laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group have detected 232 industrial chemicals and pollutants found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.2

To make matters worse, any chemicals that are poured down the drain end up at the sewage treatment plant and are subsequently released into nearby streams. Many of these chemicals are rendered harmless in the treatment process, but some maintain their toxic properties and end up contaminating our waterways. In a May 2002 study of contaminants in stream water samples across the country, the U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams tested. Sixty-six percent contained disinfectants.1

The good news is that there are many safe alternatives to commercial cleaning products. You can replace conventional laundry detergents, which are usually filled with petrochemicals, perfumes and dyes, with natural biodegradable ones. Look for natural, ammonia-free window cleaners, natural toilet bowl cleaners, stain removers, etc. Get rid of any aerosol sprays as they release tiny chemical particles into the air that are easily inhaled. Down to Earth carries a wide variety of non-toxic cleaning products for all your household cleaning chores. From toilets to tubs, to dishes and windows, many great products can be found that are human and earth-friendly.

In general, read labels on products, especially the warning labels. Avoid those that state things like "Danger," "Poison," "Corrosive" or "May cause burns." Look for specific claims about human and environmental safety such as “no phosphates,” or “Biodegradable in 3 to 5 days.” These claims are stronger than generic terms like “Natural,”or “Biodegradable.” Because companies are not required to disclose all ingredients on cleaning products, it may take some investigating if you want to find out what is really in a particular product. The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding these 7 ingredients above all:3

  • Butoxyethanol (or ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) and other glycol ethers
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates (some common ones are: nonyl- and octylphenol ethoxylates, or non- and octoxynols)
  • Dye (companies often hide chemical information behind this word; when it's unknown, it's safer to skip it)
  • Ethanolamines (common ones to look out for are: mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamine)
  • Fragrance
  • Pine or citrus oil (on smoggy or high ozone days, compounds in the oils can react with ozone in the air to form the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde)
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (look out for these: alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride, and didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride)

You can also stock up on a few basic ingredients that can be kept on hand for all types of cleaning jobs: baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, borax, and a coarse scrubbing sponge can take care of most household cleaning needs. Following are a few homemade-cleaning ideas from the Worldwatch Institute:

  • Instead of using a standard drain cleaner, which likely contains lye, hydrochloric acid, and sulfuric acid, try pouring a quarter cup of baking soda down the clogged drain, followed by a half cup of vinegar. Close the drain tightly until fizzing stops, then flush with boiling water.
  • For an effective glass cleaner, use a mixture of half white vinegar and half water.
  • Baking soda and cornstarch are both good carpet deodorizers.
  • To clean up mildew and mold, use a mixture of lemon juice or white vinegar and salt.
  • A paste of baking soda, salt, and hot water makes a great oven cleaner.

In the rare instance you need to use a hazardous product, use as little as possible and dispose of it in a way that will cause minimum harm—for example, by taking it to a hazardous waste recycling or treatment center.

Cruelty-Free Shopping

by Tracy Rohland

As a conscious consumer, you may be interested in buying products that are free from animal by-products and not tested on animals. At Down to Earth, all of our health and beauty products are vegetarian and cruelty-free. But if you happen to be shopping elsewhere, it is important to be mindful of the ingredients in the health and beauty products you buy. Keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Look for words like “cruelty-free,” “not tested on animals,” “no animal testing,” and “vegan” or “vegetarian.”
  2. Look for the “leaping bunny” logo. This logo is recognized world wide as signifying that a product is not tested on animals during any stage of product development. The company's ingredient suppliers also make the same pledge.
  3. If you don’t see any of these things on the label, it is important to read the ingredients. Be aware of “hidden” animal ingredients such as those listed below.

The following list is a condensed version of the list found at

Carmine, Cochineal, or Carminic Acid

  • Red pigment from the crushed female cochineal insect
  • Reportedly 70,000 beetles must be killed to produce one pound of this red dye
  • Used in cosmetics, shampoos, red apple sauce, and other foods (including red lollipops and food coloring)
  • May cause allergic reactions


  • A fiber derived from crustacean shells
  • Used as a lipid binder in diet products; in hair, oral and skin care products, antiperspirants, and deodorants


  • Protein found in the neck ligaments and aortas of cows
  • Similar to collagen

Gelatin or Gel

  • Protein obtained by boiling water with skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones from cows or pigs
  • Used in shampoos, face masks, and other cosmetics
  • Used as a thickener for fruit gelatins and puddings (e.g., "Jello")


  • Protein from the ground-up horns, hooves, feathers, quills, and hair of various animals.
  • In hair rinses, shampoos, permanent wave solutions

Shellac or Resinous Glaze

  • Resinous excretion of certain insects
  • Used as a candy glaze, in hair lacquer, and on jewelry
  • Alternatives = plant waxes

Tallow, Tallow Fatty Alcohol, or Stearic Acid

  • Rendered beef fat
  • May cause eczema and blackheads
  • Found in wax paper, crayons, margarines, paints, rubber, lubricants, candles, soaps, lipsticks, shaving creams, and other cosmetics

Urea or Carbamide

  • Excreted from urine and other bodily fluids
  • In deodorants, ammoniated dentifrices, mouthwashes, hair colorings, hand creams, lotions, shampoos, etc.
  • Used to "brown" baked goods, such as pretzels

Remember, it’s always safe to shop at Down to Earth where we make it easy for you to buy vegetarian and cruelty-free.