Household Cleaning Products

What toxic chemicals do you purchase for a particular cleaning job? The answer is not an easy one unless you know what ingredients commercial products contain. The most common ingredients in household cleaning products include alkalies, acids, detergents, abrasives, sanitizers, and spirit solvents.


Abrasives are materials that wear off dirt by rubbing. Rottenstone, whiting, pumice, volcanic ash, quartz, marble, feldspar, and silica are prime examples of an abrasive. Sandpaper, plastic and nylon meshes, and steel wool are also abrasives.

Abrasive materials, particularly calcium carbonate, can be found in scouring powders and pads. In general, the larger the abrasive particles, the harsher the cleaner. Plastic or nylon mesh is the finest abrasive, and the finer an abrasive, the less damage to the surface being cleaned.

Coarse abrasives feel rough and gritty. Labels on containers of abrasive powders seldom use the term “abrasive” but rather state they are “cleansers,” as opposed to the more common term “cleaner.”

Regular use of harsh abrasives on a surface will gradually scratch the finish of sinks, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances. Once the surface is dull and rough, it gets dirtier and stains deeper, and you have to continue using a harsh abrasive to remove imbedded dirt and stain.

Coarse abrasives can damage plastic, glass, nonstick surfaces on cookware, painted woodwork, and plated and highly polished metals.


Acids are beneficial in removing hard-water deposits, discoloration from aluminum, brass, bronze, and copper and iron rust stains. Strong acids also eat away clothing, leather, skin and some metals. They can also irritate and injure the skin and eyes.

Examples of acids and their strengths:

  • Very Mild: Vinegar is about 5% acid and counteracts oven cleaners. Vinegar removes hard-water deposits from glassware. Lemon juice is a citric acid and works in much the same way as does vinegar.
  • Very Strong: Oxalic acid is especially effective as a rust remover and is very poisonous. It is sometimes found in toilet bowl cleaners. Hydrochloric and sulfuric acid are used in dilute concentrations in some toilet bowl cleaners.


Alkalies are soluble salts that are effective in removing dirt without excessive rubbing. They are good grease removers because the alkalies form an emulsion, a mixture where oily or solid particles are held in suspension. The particles do not separate from the rest of the liquid; therefore, they are not redeposited on the surface being cleaned.

Alkalies readily remove oily dirt. Alkaline cleaners also can remove oil from an oil-based paint, drying it and causing it to crack or peel. Alkalies have a tendency to darken aluminum surfaces.

Alkaline substances vary in strength. Most are toxic, some are corrosive, others can irritate skin and eyes. The stronger alkalies can cause burns and, if swallowed, can cause internal injuries or death.

  • Mild: Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is an example of a mild alkali.
  • Moderate: Household ammonia is a dilute mixture of 5 to 10% ammonia gas in water. It can be found in all-purpose cleaners, oven cleaners, and window cleaners. Borax is a white crystalline powder, and trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a crystalline powder found in some all-purpose cleaners.
  • Very Strong: Washing soda, also called sal soda, is sodium carbonate. Lye is a sodium hydroxide and is also called caustic soda, which can be found in some oven cleaners and drain cleaners.

As with any product containing chemicals, examine the label and follow the handling, storage and disposal instructions carefully. Keep all household cleaners away from children and pets.


Chlorine generally is the most common bleach used in household cleaning products. However, new non-chlorine bleaches are becoming more popular, mainly because they are safer to use and store.


Some laundry detergents may be used for housecleaning jobs. Detergents loosen dirt, and if complex soluble phosphates (called “builders”) are added to a detergent, they will remove oily dirt. If a builder is added, the cleaning product is marked “heavy duty” or “all-purpose.”


Sanitizers are chemicals that reduce the number of bacteria and often are used in cleaning bathrooms and washing dishes. Use with caution and follow the directions on the bottle.

Sanitizers also help deodorize surfaces because they kill odor-producing microorganisms.

Spirit Solvents

Most polishes and waxes for wood furniture and floors contain a spirit solvent. These solvents are similar to the fluids used in dry-cleaning processes because they remove oily dirt.

Making a Cleaner

By making your own household cleaners, you can save money and control the amount of hazardous chemicals in your home. First, though, you should be aware of some of the limitations or drawbacks of homemade products:

  • They may take longer to clean effectively. You may need to let the product “sit” on the surface for longer than usual or you may have to go over a surface several times.
  • More elbow grease may be required and the product may not clean as well if a harsh cleaner was used repeatedly on the surface prior to your homemade solution.

If you decide to make your own cleaners, use and store them safely. While the ingredients in homemade cleaners are safer, they are not all nontoxic. Remember these guidelines:

  • Be careful mixing chemicals. Some chemicals, such as chlorine bleach and ammonia, produce a toxic gas when mixed.
  • Do not mix more than a month’s supply at a time. Chemical solutions may lose their effectiveness over time.
  • Mix solutions in a well-ventilated area. Store all cleaning solutions out of reach of children, preferably in a cabinet with a child-proof lock.
  • Store solutions in unused, store-bought containers. Use permanent storage containers that will be put in a permanent location. Never put them in old food containers. Chemicals may interact with residue from the original contents or the container may be mistaken for a food or beverage.
  • Label containers carefully. This is especially important if other people in your home clean or have access to the cleaners.

Source: Mississippi State Cooperative Extension Service

Content on this page provided by Second Time Around – EPA Region 5 and Agricultural & Biological Engineering, Purdue University.