4 Household Cleaning Products That Can Cause Allergy and Asthma Reactions

Alexandra Frost
Written by Alexandra Frost
Updated January 21, 2022
A young woman cleaning a shelving unit
Oscar Wong/Moment via Getty Images

Before your reach for your typical household cleaner, take a second to check the label. Your allergies will thank you.

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Disclaimer: Information in this article should not be used as a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your physician if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned, or before making any lifestyle changes.

Keeping up with a regular cleaning routine can be challenging, but one thing that makes it easier is the knowledge that the products you are using aren’t harming your health, or the health of your family. Some chemicals used in household cleaners have been shown to cause allergic reactions in both children and adults. In addition to allergies, homeowners and their families may experience headaches, irritated eyes and throat, and potentially even cancer, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). To ensure you aren’t risking your family’s health for a shiny countertop or windows, avoid these products.

How Can Cleaning Products Harm Your Health?

It might seem counterintuitive that a product meant to increase the cleanliness in your home might actually harm your health, but it’s true. The ALA explains that some cleaners contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which are dangerous chemicals. Other components such as ammonia and bleach can also cause health concerns, as can reactions from natural fragrances like citrus.

Researchers have linked these chemicals to allergy and asthma outbreaks in multiple studies. One study, for example, links household cleaning products to increased likelihood of developing asthma by 3 years old, when babies were around these products for their first three months of life. 

Formaldehyde, for example, can cause a skin allergy called contact dermatitis, researchers have found in another study. More research shows that women who used bleach to clean their homes increase their risk for non-allergic asthma. These studies all demonstrate the importance of paying attention to the ingredients in all of the cleaners in your home. Check the list of symptoms for chemical allergies and asthma to see if you may be having a reaction.

Types of Allergic Reactions to Cleaning Products

Not all allergic reactions are the same, and the type depends on how you were exposed to the cleaning agent. Allergic reactions can range in severity from mild to life-threatening and everything in between. 

Touching a chemical can cause a chemical burn or allergic reaction to the skin. On the other hand, ingesting a chemical can be extremely dangerous to your organ function, breathing, and more. Finally, breathing air that contains chemical toxins that you can’t even see can cause an allergic reaction or asthma incident. 

Not everyone will be equally impacted by the same experience interacting with chemicals. Children, the elderly, and those with other chronic health conditions may be more sensitive to chemicals, whether they are touching or breathing them, than others. To be safe, avoid specific chemicals that are known to increase allergies and the risk of health problems.

Symptoms of Chemical Allergies You May Experience

According to John Hopkins medicine, common symptoms include:

  • Coughing

  • Wheezing

  • Skin irritation

  • Increased heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Fatigue or dizziness

  • Warmth or red face and neck called “flushing”

What Should I Do if I Have an Allergic Reaction to a Product?

If you experience any of the above symptoms after exposure to a cleaning product or chemical, contact your doctor immediately. John Hopkins Medicine explains that you may be advised to take certain medicine or avoid the trigger causing the symptoms, among other treatments. 

Which Cleaning Products Cause Allergies and Asthma?

Check the label on your products to ensure they don’t contain any of the following ingredients, which can be harmful to your health. You can also check the Extremely Hazardous Substance list from the Environmental Protection Agency, when in doubt.

Ammonia

You may find this potentially harmful product in your window and toilet cleaners, meant to cut through strong grime and grease without leaving behind residue. However, it can leave something else behind—an allergic reaction. This chemical can damage the eyes or skin, leaving burns or even permanent damage, and the fumes can increase the risk for asthma and allergies, studies have shown. It can increase the risk for these conditions, the research suggests, by 79%. You might also see ammonia as an ingredient in mold or mildew removers.

Formaldehyde

Ironically enough, air fresheners can contain formaldehyde, which can lead to cancer or brain damage, along with irritating the eyes, nose, and throat, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Instead, you can opt for baking soda, they recommend, which doesn’t increase your risk of allergies or asthma. Air fresheners also should never be used around an open flame, such as a candle, but only in well-ventilated areas to avoid a health concern.

Bleach

The next time you try to make your white laundry a bit whiter by adding bleach to your load, consider the risks. In the same study, bleach was found to increase the risk of allergies and asthma as well, confirmed by testing bronchial hyper-reactivity and airflow obstruction rates in participants. Bleach doesn’t always come with a big scary label that says “Bleach,” so look instead for additional active ingredients such as sodium hypochlorite, a bleaching agent, which you may recognize from swimming pool chloride tablets. If you are experiencing chronic coughing and often use bleach for cleaning, you may need to reconsider your cleaning agents. Mixing bleach with ammonia can cause poisonous gases to be released, so never mix the two. 

Sulfuric Acid

This acid can be found in some drain cleaners, used to unclog a backed-up drain. However, it can irritate the skin and eyes, Cleveland Clinic reports. They produce dangerous fumes and can irritate skin, or more tragically cause permanent blindness as well. People attempting to unclog a drain with these chemicals need to use protective gear such as goggles and ensure excellent room ventilation as well.

What Safe Cleaning Products Should I Use Instead?

So, how are we going to clean our houses with all of these harmful chemicals to avoid? According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the answer is in a simple and homemade formula. They recommend the following solution:

  • 2 cups of vinegar

  • 2 cups of hot water

  • ½ cup of salt

  • 2 cups of borax (there is some discrepancy, however, on the safety of borax from experts)

  • Apply the solution to the area and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then, apply the solution again, scrubbing with a soft bristled brush and rinse again with water.

  • An alternative is to use lemon, vinegar, and baking soda as a cleaning solution

For more cleaning information, keep in mind these five common household products you should never use on carpet and biodegradable floor cleaners to use instead.

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