Written by Grove Collaborative

Which cleaning chemicals and ingredients are harmful (and which are okay)?

Last Updated: July 27, 2021

Commercial cleaners often bury some truly toxic chemical offenders within long ingredients lists. Separate the good from the bad in our clean ingredients breakdown.

For something we all have to do all the time, cleaning can be a headache. Getting all the supplies, reaching around corners, getting at gaps and crevices—it’s tough work.

And after all that hard work, you don’t want to learn that you’ve just spread a harmful cleaning ingredient around your whole house. Yuck.

Well we’re here to explain the differences between cleaning ingredients so you don’t have to scour the ingredients list for the good and bad in vain.

Are all cleaning products the same?

Far from it. Cleaning products often use similar ingredients, but one major addition or omission changes the formula completely. This is true not only for household cleaners, but for laundry cleaners and personal care products too.

For the most part, there are a few major ingredients to avoid in household cleaners, laundry cleaners, and personal care products. Plus, there are a few basic tips to finding a healthy cleaning formula that actually works as well as the chemicals. Don’t believe us? Read on!

Are chemical cleaners safe?

As always, it depends on the individual cleaner. However, many chemical cleaners contain ingredients that are harmful to humans.

Have you ever been inside a room recently cleaned with chemical cleaners and felt itchy skin, a sore throat, irritated eyes, or a headache? A conventional chemical cleaner may have been the cause.

Which household cleaners are toxic?

Toxic is a tricky word. Generally speaking, no company wants to sell you a literally toxic product.

However, products such as chlorine bleach and aerosol air fresheners often release dangerous volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Such VOCs have been linked to short-term and long-term respiratory issues.

5 bad cleaning ingredients to avoid

Before you buy your next cleaning product, check out the ingredients list on the label and try to avoid the following:

Formaldehyde (and Quaternium-15)

While most companies have turned away from this harmful ingredient, it’s still something to look out for. Cleaners with formaldehyde can cause burning in the eyes and nose, coughing, nausea, and more.

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to an increased risk of leukemia and other respiratory issues. Quaternium-15, an ingredient found in some hair care products, releases formaldehyde and should be avoided as well.


Often used as a sudsing ingredient, 1,4-dioxane, sometimes just called dioxane, has been linked to cancer and classified by the EPA as a “likely carcinogen.”

The EPA has stated that 1,4-dioxane exposure can cause eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, and long-term exposure can cause adverse effects on the kidneys and liver. 1,4-dioxane often emits from products containing polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, or polyoxyethylene, so avoid those ingredients as well.

Sulfates (like sodium lauryl, sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS, and laureth sulfate)

A lathering ingredient found in many cleaners, dish soaps, and personal care products, sulfates are a bit of an unknown. They can be in our products due to petroleum or petrolatum ingredients, when not fully refined.

And we do know that petroleum and petrolatum are very harmful to the environment and to your skin if they’re not refined correctly. Luckily, sulfates are easy to avoid since there are many natural lathering ingredients that can act as an alternative.

Artificial fragrances

Smelling good isn’t always a good thing. Artificial scents are considered “trade secrets,” and are therefore highly unregulated.

Unfortunately, this means that many “fragrances” are filled with toxic chemicals. In cleaning and personal care products alike, unspecified “fragrances” are to be avoided.

Learn more about natural vs. artificial fragrances, and how you can make the switch to a sweet-smelling house that’s free of chemicals and toxins.

Parabens (like methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, etc.)

More often found in personal care and cosmetic products, parabens are used as a preservative to keep bacteria and other microbes from growing in a product.

However, parabens have been a cause for concern for years. While the FDA is still studying the effects of parabens, others have linked parabens to endocrine and reproductive harm.

4 good and natural cleaning ingredients to use

Now that we know which ingredients to avoid, let’s take a look at some alternative, more green ingredients. Don’t worry—just because these ingredients are more “green” doesn’t mean they are less effective.

“The efficacy of green cleaning has improved significantly,” says Clement Choy, Senior Director of Science and Formulation here at Grove Collaborative. “In most instances, it matches efficacy from conventional products.”

Sodiums (sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium phytate)

Sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda, and its offshoots are amazing, naturally occurring cleaning ingredients.

Mildly abrasive and reactive with water, these sodiums can dissolve dirt and grease with their natural cleaning powers.

Citrus, vinegars, and alcohols

All three of these ingredients serve as acidic irritants, dissolving and eroding dirt and grime off of surfaces.

Cleaners that include powerful, natural ingredients like lemon juice, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and mild alcohols are great at achieving a good clean.

Essential oils

Essential oils are the secret to making anything smell good without resorting to questionable harmful chemicals.

These oils can be made from plant distillation. They’re also safe for all kinds of cleaning and household purposes by providing a natural scent to freshen your house and fight bacteria and other germs while cleaning (We’re looking at you tea tree oil!).

Ditch chemical ingredients for healthy natural ones!

We know, scouring the ingredients list for every offensive, chemical ingredient is annoying. But over time, it gets easier to sort the good cleaning ingredients from the bad ones and maintain a healthy home environment. Get started today with some of our favorite natural cleaners!

Shop green cleaning products with natural ingredients

What is Grove Collaborative?

Did you know U.S. companies make 76 million pounds of plastic every day, but only 9% of plastic is recycled. At Grove, we think it's time to stop making plastic. Today, we're plastic neutral. By 2025, we'll be 100% plastic-free! Plus, everything sold at Grove is nontoxic, sustainable, and cruelty-free.

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