Some everyday cleaning products may release hundreds of hazardous volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, according to a new study.
Breathing in VOCs can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, along with trouble breathing and nausea, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). But they can also damage the nervous system and other organs, and some can cause cancer.
VOCs have been previously linked to cleaning products — the ALA specifically lists cleaners and disinfectants as indoor sources of the gases — but the latest findings break down just how many VOCs may be in your cleaning products.
So how concerning is the latest research, and what does it mean for the products you use at home? Here's what you need to know.
What the study says
The study, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and published in the journal Chemosphere, detected hundreds of VOCs in 28 cleaning products and two air fresheners.
What are the key findings?
For the study, researchers measured the number, concentrations and emission factors of VOCs in 30 products in an air chamber. Of those products, 14 were conventional cleaning products, nine were identified as "green" with fragrance and seven were labeled "green" and fragrance-free.
The researchers detected 530 unique VOCs in the products. Of those, 193 were considered hazardous, according to California's Department of Toxic Substances Control or the European Chemical Agency.
The researchers found that conventional cleaning products were more likely to have a higher concentration, total emission factors and numbers of VOCs than products that were labeled as green. Those that were fragrance-free generally ranked the best in terms of VOCs. "Overall, this analysis suggests that the use of 'green' cleaning products, especially fragrance-free products, may reduce exposure to VOC emissions," the researchers wrote.
What experts think
Study co-author David Andrews, a senior scientist at the EWG, tells Yahoo Life that the findings suggest people are regularly exposed to VOCs in their homes. “Numerous studies have established a clear association between VOC exposure and health harm, especially to the respiratory system,” he says. “The majority of studies have associated health harms with the frequency of cleaning product usage or total VOC levels, and more research is needed on which VOCs or combination of VOCs are causing the most harm.”
One study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2020 found that people working in the cleaning industry, who experience greater exposure to these products, have a 50% higher risk of developing asthma and a 43% higher risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than those in other fields. An older study also found that women working in the cleaning industry are associated with an increased risk of developing lung cancer.
"Indoor air quality is known to be two to five times worse than outside, and the average American spends 90+% of their time indoors," Dr. Kara Wada, an allergist and immunologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. Wada says it’s helpful to know that green products that are fragrance-free lower exposure to VOCs.
But she also emphasizes that more research is needed before tossing all your conventional cleaning products in favor of their (often more expensive) green counterparts. “We continue to lack data that specifically links using clean or green products to measurable change in health outcomes,” Wada says. "That said, choosing fragrance-free options would be recommended — especially for folks with ongoing exposure and/or underlying health conditions."
People shouldn’t freak out about the findings, Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. “As long as you are in a ventilated area, you should be OK,” she says. “If you have respiratory problems like asthma or COPD, then I would consider wearing a mask.”
Opening a window or running an exhaust fan to increase ventilation may also help clear out VOCs, Wada says. And if you're especially concerned, she suggests cleaning your home with warm water and soap, baking soda or a dilute vinegar solution.
Why it matters
Wada says the study’s findings suggest it’s possible to change your VOC exposure by choosing certain cleaning products. “Having simple strategies to improve indoor air quality is great news,” she says. “Certainly, those with greater exposure will have the greatest opportunity for benefits [of lowering VOC exposure], along with those who have underlying health condition such as allergies, eczema or asthma.”
Andrews agrees. “Cleaning product emissions of VOCs are not an excuse to stop cleaning, but everyone should strongly consider switching to a third-party certified product — better yet, to a fragrance-free product with a third-party certification,” he says. “Cleaning products are a known source of pollution for indoor air, and this pollution is linked to numerous health harms. Exposure to cleaning products from cleaning just once a week has been associated with lung harm.”
However, Andrews says more data is necessary on the potential harmful effects of VOCs from cleaning products. "More research and work across the industry is needed to ensure that cleaning products used indoors are formulated to minimize their pollution of indoor air and minimize harm to our health," he says.