Exposed: The Hidden Toxic Chemicals in Cleaning Products


By Laura Louis, Director, PathoSans

For years, the ingredients in household and industrial cleaning chemicals were largely confidential. The California Cleaning Product Right to Know Act (SB 258), passed in 2017, is the most influential U.S. law to date bringing the ingredients in cleaning products to light. The law compelled manufacturers selling cleaning products in California to disclose more details regarding product ingredients by January 1, 2020.

After the law came into effect, Women’s Voices for the Earth, a North American-based environmental organization, released a report examining many of the ingredient lists made available. The report, “Beyond the Label: Health Impacts of Harmful Ingredients in Cleaning Products,” has revealed that despite promises from some brands to avoid the use of unnecessary, harmful ingredients, a large portion of today’s cleaning products place a burden on our quality of life. Read on to learn more about the important findings and how we can better care for ourselves, others and the environment by cleaning safely.

The Importance of Cleaning Product Transparency

Unfortunately, cleaning product manufacturers have historically not been transparent about the chemicals they use or the product testing. Of the estimated 85,000 to 95,000 chemicals registered in the United States, only a small portion have undergone sufficient safety testing. Federal law does not require pre-market health testing for household and commercial cleaning chemicals, nor does it require listing ingredients.

Without transparency, many people are unaware of the impact of these chemicals. In truth, some ingredients found in everyday products can cause harm to people and the environment. For example, common consumer products have been found to cause 38% of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions that impact respiratory health and contribute to air pollution.

Toxic chemicals in cleaning products also disproportionately impact marginalized populations. Cleaning professionals, who are often exposed to these products on a daily basis, are overwhelmingly women, and more than half are Black, Latinx or Asian American/Pacific Islander. Additionally, many products sold at dollar stores or those marketed to specific diverse groups, like products with Spanish-language sounding names, are more likely to contain problematic ingredients.

To this day, the burden of evaluating whether a product is safe for use is mostly delegated to those purchasing and using products. Even with the recent disclosure of ingredient lists for hundreds of products sold in California, it can still be difficult to determine if use of a product will have negative short- or long-term impacts on health and the environment.

Toxic Chemicals in Cleaning Products

The “Beyond the Label” report uncovered numerous toxic and unnecessary chemicals in dozens of products on the market. These include but are not limited to:

  • Butylphenyl Methylpropional (Lilial). Lilial is one of many common synthetic fragrances found in cleaning products and mimics the scent of lily of the valley. Starting in 2022, the chemical will be banned from cosmetics and cleaning products sold in the European Union. The chemical is a major skin allergen and research has raised concerns regarding infertility in men and harm to infants before birth.
  • Isothiazolinones: MI and MCI. These chemicals are preservatives used to prevent the growth of bacteria in products like cleaning wipes. While aiming to make products more shelf stable, manufacturers have actually contributed to an epidemic of skin allergies. The use of MI and MCI has already been banned in the EU and Australia, but not in the United States.
  • Glycol ethers. These solvents are found in numerous industrial/janitorial cleaning products to dissolve substances. Studies have reported increased risk of attention deficit and hyperactivity, behavioral concerns and decreased motor function in children whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy.

Cutting Out the Unnecessary Ingredients

Facility managers and building service contractors (BSCs) are increasingly being asked to maintain commercial facilities with chemicals that are less harsh. This is especially important given the increased frequency at which professionals are cleaning as a result of the pandemic. To uphold a clean appearance and eradicate germs, they need solutions that are effective but don’t compromise safety.

Electrochemically-activated solutions (ECAS) are effective, environmentally-friendly cleaning solutions made by combining water, salt and electricity in an on-site generator. ECAS can be used regularly without fear that they will put cleaning professionals or building occupants in harm’s way. The two solutions work anywhere water can be used and don’t include unnecessary additives and fragrances that can irritate eyes and skin. With a simpler ingredient list, everyone can have greater peace of mind about the impact of cleaning and disinfecting, even if they’re completing these tasks once or more per day.

A Safer World

While California’s legislation is a big win for the public, more states must demand increased transparency from cleaning product manufacturers. Compared to other parts of the world, the United States is relatively lax in its oversight of cleaning products, even though many people are exposed to hidden toxins in cleaning products every day. Often, there is no need for these caustic ingredients, as many are only used for aesthetic purposes and safer alternatives exist. When selecting chemicals, opt for effective solutions like ECAS that use simple and safe ingredients so you can be confident that you’re not putting yourself or others in danger.

For more information on ECAS and how to promote worker and building occupant safety, contact Laura Louis at

Laura Louis serves as a director at PathoSans, a leading provider of on-site generation (OSG) devices that produce ready-to-use, highly effective cleaners and disinfectants known as electrochemically activated (ECA) solutions. Learn more at

Share this post

“ The PathoSans team is great: they set up and fine- tuned our system, and now we have a continuous supply of high-performance solutions. We do not need to order or pay for packaged chemicals, or worry about anything!”

“ We like the simplicity. It’s as easy as pushing a button, then opening a valve for the solution: a degreaser for our pots, pans, sinks and floors, and a sanitizer for our tables, cutting boards, utensils, anywhere we need to sanitize.”

“ We feel fantastic about the system because it’s completely green, saves us considerable money, and helps ensure employee and guest safety.”