TikTok is ripe with cleaning inspiration (just look at our own account!), but one eyebrow-raising trend that has been building steam over the last year now has experts concerned about social media users' safety.
Appropriately known as "product overload" by those in the know, the trend — which involves users filming themselves loading up a toilet, bath or sink with copious amounts of astringent cleaning products — has become its own form of ASMR for what's known as the "CleanTok" corner of the platform. The tag #ProductOverload has racked up hundreds of millions of views since the concept first began trending in early 2021.
But healthcare experts are catching on to the serious risk posed by participating in the trend, including those like Kelly Johnson-Arbor, M.D., a medical toxicologist and co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center. Dr. Johnson-Arbor says Poison Control officials get many calls daily about adverse reactions to mixing chemicals in similar manners, often innocently and with fewer cleaners in question.
"One of the problems with these TikTok videos is that you don't see the person filming," explains Dr. Johnson-Arbor, who says masks may be involved to avoid coughing or gagging. "Just because someone mixes chemicals in a video doesn't mean that it is safe for viewers to do at home."
Plus, health risks aren't the only thing TikTok users have to worry about if they attempt "product overload" videos at home — they may inadvertently be putting their plumbing's integrity at risk, as well as impacting their community's wastewater.
"Flushing excessive amounts of mixed cleaners down the drain or toilet can damage surfaces and clog plumbing," says Carolyn Forté, executive director of the Good Housekeeping Institute's Home Care & Cleaning Lab. "Some of these videos show thick sludges of mixed products that can easily settle in, clog pipes and cause blockages."
Mixing products for a product overload video do not make them more effective.
Most TikTokers who turn to the platform for this particular cleaning trend aren't exactly eyeing the process to replicate at home. Comments on the most popular "product overload" videos often relate it to ASMR videos as the audio associated with mixing handfuls of different cleaning liquids, powders and solutions can seem satisfying — and others react to the rainbow-like hue that these mixtures end up producing. But there have been some users who wonder if cleaning their own toilets, sinks or bathtubs in this way will result in better results.
"Cleaning products are best used as directed on the label, and aren't formulated to work in combination with other cleaning products," Forté explains.
Product manufacturers are precise in testing how chemicals used in their products may interact with others, but Forté says the deliberate over mixing of products used in "product overload" videos isn't something that most could foresee or test. "Mixing cleaning products deliberately is never a good or safe idea," she adds.
Attempting a product overload at home can wreck your surfaces and plumbing.
Even if you are just thinking of filming a TikTok-friendly "product overload" video at home, exposing your bathroom and kitchen surfaces to this trend may end up costing you, Forté says.
"Any product that's not formulated to be used in a toilet or sink shouldn't be — after all, manufacturers do extensive safety testing on products based on the correct dose of cleaner and the recommended surfaces it should be used on," she explains. Some of the platform's most popular videos show users using products designated for steel sinks, for example, in a porcelain toilet bowl alongside a dozen other products. Even just one exposure like this may tarnish a surface beyond your own repair.
Excess amounts of severe cleaners can etch, scratch and otherwise damage the surface of your fixture if they've been well-used in your home. Why, you might wonder? A majority of the products featured in popular cleaning videos are designed to be used with water for dilution, Forté clarifies — so a full-strength application poses a much higher risk for damage compared to when someone uses the product as directed.
There is also an inherent risk associated with the sheer amount of cleaning agents piled into a basin above a drain.
"Flushing an excessive amount of mixed cleaners down the drain or your toilet can damage surfaces and clog your plumbing," she says, pointing out that many TikTok users document the lengths they go to when blocking a drain — meaning most likely scoop out the mixture into the trash rather than attempt to flush it outright.
There's an edge of ecological concern, too, with experts like Dr. Johnson-Arber concerned about how that amount of chemicals and solutions may impact local community resources — especially if done regularly.
"It will take huge amounts of water to thoroughly flush these mixes down a drain, and I suspect wastewater treatment systems may not be able to adequately handle and process such crazy combinations of chemicals in a safe and thorough way," Forté shares.
This TikTok trend poses a significant risk to users' skin and respiratory health.
Most importantly, choosing to either attempt a "product overload" cleaning in your home or film one to share can result in a significant risk to your health; especially if you're not appropriately equipped with protective gear.
"Cleaning products — including abrasive cleaning powders and all-purpose cleaners — can have very high, basic pHs," says Dr. Johnson-Arber, adding that skin irritation can be expected due to direct exposure. "People should wear rubber gloves when using these products, as skin irritation, including redness and pain or even chemical burns, can occur after use."
And mixing popular cleaning products can also trigger breathing issues, even for healthy individuals.
"Mixing bleach and ammonia causes the release of chloramine gas, and mixing bleach and toilet bowl cleaner can trigger the release of chlorine gas," Dr. Johnson-Arber tells us. "Inhalation of either of these can cause coughing, irritation of the nose and throat, and trouble breathing; for those with asthma, COPD or lung disease, serious respiratory problems can occur and can even result in death."
Many TikTok users don't realize that bathrooms especially don't provide adequate ventilation to allow chemical odors to dissipate, she adds. Without windows or a large open space, fumes can become concentrated and increase the risk of respiratory toxicity from any gas byproduct when mixing chemicals.
The bottom line:
Attempting to clean using a myriad of products or filming a trendy "product overload" clip at home can directly impact your health — and may also impact your family and community indirectly. Since TikTok has an impressive reach, these seemingly innocent cleaning videos may lead others to inadvertently expose themselves to dangerous gasses.
"Children might see these products being mixed together and think they're something that might taste good," says Dr. Johnson-Arber, reporting this is often the case noted by Poison Control center officials. "Some of the cleaning products featured in the trend, like Fabuloso, are of concern because they're packaged in colorful bottles that look like juice."
Mixing these cleaners together to create rainbows of color for your social media channels may reinforce the idea that children can play with them or consume them, "which is exactly what we don't want kids doing with cleaning products."
"These cleaning products are meant to be used as directed on the product label," Dr. Johnson-Arber explains. "Unless the label says to mix with another chemical, it's best to follow the directions as listed and not combine products."
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