Are Your House Cleaning Products Irritating Your Skin?

By Georgia Gould
Jun 08, 2022

Anyone with seriously sensitive skin knows, avoiding irritation and flare-ups doesn’t begin and end with your skincare routine. Your household cleaning products also have a lot to answer for…

Cleaning your house is no fun at the best of times, but when you add the fact that many day-to-day cleaning products are loaded with ingredients that may cause irritation, things can get serious. Sure, they might do a sterling job of eradicating germs and grime around your home, but when it comes to your delicate skin, certain cleaning products should be used with the utmost caution.

Studies have shown that over 81 percent of people in the cleaning industry have to deal with some kind of occupational hand dermatitis due to the products they handle on a daily basis (1). Granted, professional cleaners often come into contact with stronger, more industrial-strength products than the average American consumer. Plus, they’re using them on a far more regular basis. But still, a recent study carried out by the American Cleaning Institute found that the average person spends a good six hours cleaning their house every week (2). And that’s a long time for your skin to be in contact with powerful, chemical-based products that, in all honesty, you might not know much about.

Now, we’re not suggesting you never clean your house again. That’s preposterous… and asking for trouble. According to the National Eczema Association, things like dust mites, mold and pollen are major triggers for eczema and allergies when left to linger in your home (3). The fact is, keeping your house clean kills and stops the spread of unwanted germs so it’s absolutely essential if you want to remain as healthy as possible. 

However, this might be simple enough if you have relatively ‘normal’ skin that can tolerate a few hours of contact with cleaning chemicals on a weekly basis. But, there’s a dark and often painful side to house cleaning if you have sensitive skin and don’t use the correct products. Namely, contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is when your skin becomes red, itchy, and sore as a result of coming into contact with some kind of irritant it doesn’t like. This irritant causes an allergic reaction and a rash will appear on your skin at the point of contact that can often take weeks to heal.

 So, what can you do if your cleaning products are ruining the health of your skin? What are the best products to use in order to avoid irritating and often painful flare-ups? We chatted with Dr. Greg van Buskirk, Ph.D., Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Sensitive Home for his expert knowledge on the subject.

 Q: Firstly, what are the labeling regulations on household cleaning products?

“Disinfectant and sanitizing products with antimicrobial effects are heavily regulated and have to go through long and expensive processes in order to make certain claims, but other than that, it’s a very gray area,” explains Dr. Greg.

“When we formed Sensitive Home in 2020 it was a very important, conscious decision for us to be totally transparent about what went into our products. However, this is not the norm because manufacturers are not forced to explicitly disclose ingredients on the labels of home cleaning products. The CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) mandates warnings and cautions, but when it comes to known allergens, this is something we, as manufacturers, must self-police. There are certain labeling laws here in California which require companies to explicitly state fragrance allergens, but even things like the word ‘hypoallergenic’ aren’t properly regulated.”

Q: So, does this mean a product labeled ‘hypoallergenic’ might not be strictly true?

“Sadly, yes. Of course, most manufacturers don’t knowingly put unsafe ingredients in their products, but there are no tests required for a product to make a hypoallergenic claim. Also, it’s worth remembering that the term ‘hypoallergenic’ doesn’t mean it won’t cause adverse skin reactions, just that it’s less likely to. It’s an extremely broad term that should be taken with a pinch of salt. So look for products that have been clinically tested by qualified scientists and healthcare professionals."

Q: What about terms like ‘safe’ or ‘non-toxic’? Can consumers assume products labeled as such are guaranteed to be safe to use?

“The vast majority of consumers will be fine to use products bearing these terms. But there’s always the possibility you could become sensitized to a certain ingredient over time. There’s also a minority of people who are highly sensitive to even small levels of some chemicals or ingredients, They find that can’t tolerate even some ingredients that claim to be safe so finding products that are acceptable to them is a big challenge."

“The big difference between Sensitive Home and other household cleaning brands is that we went into this venture with people’s health being an absolute priority. Even if an ingredient or product doesn’t affect you, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you, so we realized if we can make products that are safe for even the most sensitive people out there, they’ll also be safe and healthy for the rest of us. This includes anyone who’s looking to take greater control over the products they use including parents of newborns, pet owners...anyone."

“Over many years of research, we created an entire toolbox of acceptable ingredients. We also have access to people who are extremely allergy-prone, so we do our best to create safe products that cater to the vast majority of issues and are suitable for the greatest number of people.” 

Q: What are your thoughts on natural vs synthetic fragrance in cleaning products?

“When we started developing our range of biobased household cleaning products, we were under the assumption that synthetically-derived fragrances generated more irritation and allergenicity than naturally-derived ones. We quickly discovered this wasn’t the entire story. In fact, many natural fragrances like d-limonene (which is derived from citrus peels and very common in cleaning products) are allergenic.”

Q: So, does that mean fragrance-free is the way to go?

“A huge number of fragrances contain or are themselves, known allergens, but there will always be those who want fragrance in their cleaning products, no matter how sensitive their skin is. If you like to clean with a fragranced product, we recommend trying our home cleaning range which is carefully curated with light, plant-based fragrances in order to be as non-irritating as possible."

“In the unlikely event that your skin reacts, we also have many fragrance-free options that are extremely effective. Remember, you may associate cleanliness with a certain ‘clean’ smell, but just because something smells good, this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily clean. In actual fact, it’s the absence of malodor that’s the true sign of cleanliness.”

Q: Are there other ingredients in cleaning products that should be avoided?

“Things like isopropanol, benzene derivatives, phosphates, and glycol ethers are all major no-nos, as are some synthetic fragrances and dyes, ammonia, chlorine bleach, parabens, phthalates, and formaldehyde. Many of these potent chemicals are known to cause drying, redness, flaking, cracking, and other skin irritations, so they’re best avoided in those with sensitive skin."

“The good news is that all of our Sensitive Home products are certified by EPA Safer Choice and USDA BioPreferred, which means they’re non-toxic and free of all the aforementioned nasties.”

So, what can you do to ensure you’re doing right by your sensitive skin when cleaning their home? Herein, is Dr. Greg’s checklist for a safer house clean.

  1. Choose ’Free & Clear’ products that are free of dyes and fragrances.
  2. Use vinyl or allergen-tested nitrile gloves when cleaning your house. Gloves create an important barrier between your hands and your cleaning products. Latex allergies can be common. Dermatology experts recommend vinyl gloves as the best option but nitrile gloves which have undergone skin testing are a great alternative.
  3. Take advantage of opening up windows and doors when the weather and seasonal allergies permit. This helps air out your house when using cleaning products.
  4. Don’t mess with or mix together your cleaning products. House cleaning is not a science experiment and certain chemicals like ammonia and chlorine do not blend well. In fact, they’re a very toxic combination.
  5. Do your homework. Reach out to any brand that claims their products are hypoallergenic and ask them to prove it. Check if they’ve carried out HRIPT (human repeat insult patch testing) which is the industry norm. If they haven’t, move on.
  6. Look for logos you can trust like the SkinSAFE®’s Trusted Choice™ Best for Sensitive Skin seal. These offer reassurance that a product is suitable for certain skin conditions and sensitive skin.
  7. Ask your skin health provider for an allergy patch test to help diagnose your allergens and irritants. Then you’ll be better informed as to what you should avoid.
  8. Check your favorite products against the SkinSAFE® wellness markers. SkinSAFE® helps you understand what’s in a product and whether it’s safe for you, based on your own personal allergens and physician recommendations. And if you don’t know your allergens or irritants? Not a problem: 49 percent of contact skin allergies can be avoided simply by sticking with products marked 100 percent SkinSAFE® Top Allergen Free. Every product in the Sensitive Home range is at least 91 percent Top Allergen Free, while all fragrance-free products have the 100 percent seal of approval – the best standard for sensitive skin.

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