EWG's Guide to
Healthy Cleaning

Find products and ingredients Learn how the Guide works Discover EWG VERIFIED®

Cleaners & Health

Health Risks

Asthma and Respiratory Risks

Cancer Risks

Reproductive or Developmental Problems

Allergens and Irritants in Cleaners

Chemical Burns and Poisoning accidents

Secret Ingredients, Hidden Hazards


INFO / CLEANERS & HEALTH / Allergens and
Irritants in Cleaners

Allergens and
Irritants in Cleaners

Ordinary cleaners can cause some people to suffer mild to severe allergic reactions of the skin, eyes and lungs. In rare cases, these reactions can require hospitalization. Some cleaning products contain chemicals that can trigger an allergy by themselves, while others have ingredients that can combine with proteins to form “haptens” that trigger reactions (Chipinda 2011). Linalool, commonly found in fragrances and essential oils, is one hapten-forming chemical (Christensson 2010; Karlberg 2008). The resulting allergic reactions can either develop quickly after only a few exposures or slowly after frequent, long-term exposures to lower concentrations of allergenic substances (Chipinda 2011).

Many harsh chemical cleaners can cause direct, painful irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The very properties that make cleaning products effective can also mean that they inflame delicate tissues.

A recent survey of Italian household cleaning supplies indicated that many common ingredients including preservatives, fragrances, solvents and surfactants are skin allergens or irritants (Magnano 2009). Some respiratory allergens and irritants can cause asthma or make asthma symptoms worse.

Repeated exposure to chlorine bleach has been linked to respiratory damage and wheezing as well as nose and eye irritation. Bleach fumes consist of a complex mixture of toxic, carcinogenic and irritating gases, including chlorine, chloroform and carbon tetrachloride (Medina-Ramon 2005; Odabasi 2008). Spanish scientists have documented increased risk of symptoms of obstructive lung disease in domestic workers who regularly use bleach (Medina-Ramon 2006). Bleach cleaners applied as sprays may be more likely to cause respiratory irritation and are of particular concern for work-related asthma (Medina-Ramon 2005).

The risks of bleach are not limited to those who clean for a living. A 2009 study from a 13-country research team found that people who used bleach at home four or more times per week were more likely than non-bleach users to suffer lower respiratory tract symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath (Zock 2009).

A 2009 assessment by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health of 49 custodial staff found that many suffered symptoms including sore throat, eye irritation, rashes and headaches (Pechter 2009). Seventy-eight percent of them reported that they associated at least one such symptom with using particular cleaning supplies.

A study published last year by the Technical University of Dresden found that 19 percent of 803 female cleaning workers developed skin allergies, also known as atopic dermatitis, and nearly one in three had contact dermatitis, a reaction that results in inflamed, red and itchy skin (Liskowsky 2011).

Exposures to irritating or allergenic cleaning ingredients can affect people who live, work or study in buildings undergoing cleaning. Volatile fumes released during ordinary cleaning can contaminate the air for up to 20 minutes after use (Bello 2010). Ammonia fumes from ammonium-based cleaning products are a potent irritant. Glycol ether fumes have been linked to increased risk of asthma, eczema, rhinitis (irritation and inflammation of the mucous membranes in the nose) and other allergic symptoms in pre-school age children (Choi 2010).

Mystery fragrance chemicals are a major allergy problem

Some respiratory allergies may be set off by fragrances, which are complex chemical mixtures commonly used to scent air fresheners and cleaners, personal care products and other consumer goods.

Fragrances are collectively considered among the top five allergens in the world (de Groot 1997; Jansson 2001). They can also trigger asthma attacks (Norback 1995; Millqvist 1996). Researchers at the Universities of Washington and West Georgia who surveyed everyday Americans’ experiences with fragranced cleaning supplies found that nearly one in five suffered headaches, breathing difficulties or other problems when exposed to air fresheners (Caress 2009). A study led by Alexandra Farrow of Brunel University in the United Kingdom linked air fresheners in the home to higher incidence of diarrhea and earaches in infants and headaches and depression in their mothers (Farrow 2003). A Swiss study published this year found that use of air freshening sprays 4-7 days a week was associated with reduced heart rate variability, a marker of autonomic cardiac dysfunction (Mehta 2012). Because manufacturers routinely refuse to list individual ingredients in fragrances, independent researchers have difficulty conducting targeted studies to identify which fragrance chemicals raise the greatest concern.

Enzymes added to laundry and dishwashing detergents to break down and remove soils and stains have been linked to respiratory allergies in occupational settings. Manufacturers have taken steps to reduce exposure by encapsulating these enzymes, but workplace studies suggest that problems remain. For example, recent studies of factory workers manufacturing detergents by both the Netherlands Expertise Centre for Occupational Respiratory Disorders and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health detected an increased risk of sensitization and respiratory allergy (Vanhanen 2000; van Rooy 2009). Workers with higher exposure to detergent enzymes also had greater symptoms of sneezing, itchy nose, rhinitis and wheezing. Industry-funded studies suggest that ordinary use of household cleaners containing enzymes poses no risk to consumers (Basketter 2010; Sarlo 2010; Weeks 2010).

News & Updates


Cleaners Healthy Living App Cleaners Healthy Living App

EWG research
on the go

Find personal care, cleaning, and food products on the EWG Healthy Living app.


EWG research
on the go

Find personal care, cleaning, and food products on the EWG Healthy Living app.