Household Cleanser Reactions – Causes, Signs and symptoms

Household Cleanser Reactions


Household cleaning products such as disinfectants, degreasers, soaps and detergents contain volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which are potentially dangerous. The use of everyday cleansers may have a health effect depending upon exposure level variables, including duration of exposure, the amount of chemical, individual sensitivities (e.g., allergy, asthma), indoor air circulation, mixture with other chemicals and misuse.

Most reactions to household cleansers are a response to the irritant effect of chemicals on sensitive skin. However, household cleansers may also act as a trigger for people with allergies or asthma. Some symptoms that are commonly experienced during or soon after contact with VOCs include skin irritation, breathing problems, eye irritation, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

The best prevention strategy for household cleanser-related reactions is avoiding these chemicals and seeking alternative cleaning methods. Taking basic precautions, such as following the manufacturer’s directions and ventilating the area while cleaning, can also reduce adverse health effects.

About household cleanser reactions

Many household cleansers contain volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that may have short and long-term adverse health effects. VOCs are organic compounds usually synthesized by chemists in laboratories. They easily produce vapors at room temperature and may linger as a persistent gas.

There are many factors that influence the extent and nature of chemical exposure from household chemicals including the amount or level of exposure and the amount of time exposed. Individual sensitivities, indoor air circulation, mixture with other chemicals and misuse can also influence the affect household chemicals have on a person.

Reactions to household cleansers are a response to an irritating chemical in the product. Most reactions to household cleansers are irritant skin conditions (irritant contact dermatitis). However, household cleansers may also act as a trigger for people with allergies or asthma. 

Some of the household cleansers that contain potentially toxic organic solvents and cause symptoms include detergent, soap, disinfectants and degreasers. Exposure to these products may result in a number of symptoms, including skin irritation, breathing problems, eye irritation, headache and dizziness.

Potential causes of cleanser reactions

When volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) are used they dry or dissolve into the air. This expands the potential for exposure to these products from the use area to the household in general. The products can release organic chemicals while they are used, after they are used and during storage.

Some of the household cleansers that contain potentially toxic organic solvents and may cause health problems are:

  • Disinfectants
  • Degreasers
  • Soaps
  • Detergents

In addition to incidental exposure during cleanser use some people may experience adverse reactions from accidents. Some of the usual chemicals in cleansers may be converted into other, more dangerous, chemicals when they are mixed. The most common household accidental chemical mixture is bleach and ammonia. This mixture is very dangerous because both chlorine and ammonia gas can be released.

Related allergies and conditions

Reactions to household cleansers may trigger other medical conditions. Some of the common conditions related to household cleansers include:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis. Skin inflammation triggered by the immune system when the skin is exposed to a substance the body perceives as dangerous. The chemicals in household cleansers may act as allergens in some people.

  • Irritant contact dermatitis. A skin reaction caused by a chemical or substance that is naturally irritating to the human skin.

  • Eczema. A skin condition that is triggered by various irritants and allergens. Dry flaky skin appears over red, inflamed areas, causing intense itching and burning. The condition may develop as the result of exposure to detergents and other household cleansers.

  • Hives. Red, swollen patches of skin that occur in groups and may burn, sting or itch. These are caused by an allergic reaction that causes blood plasma to leak into the skin.
  • Asthma attacks. A condition in which the airways become blocked or narrowed, causing shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Chemicals in household cleansers may trigger an asthma attack.

These reactions may be caused by a variety of different substances. A physician can determine whether a patient is experiencing an irritation to a household chemical or an actual allergy. Effective treatment requires identifying the source and nature of the reaction. 

Children, the elderly and people with allergies may be more susceptible to household chemical exposure than the average person, and special care should be taken to ensure that exposure is minimized. All chemicals, even common or seemingly innocuous chemicals, should be stored outside of the reach of children.

Signs and symptoms of cleanser reactions

Household cleansers contain potentially dangerous chemicals. Because cleansers may evaporate into a low level gas they may be inhaled or absorbed through contact. These volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) may cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Eye irritation
  • Respiratory tract irritation
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Signs and symptoms of irritant and allergic skin conditions include:

  • Itching
  • Redness or inflammation
  • Crusting
  • Swelling
  • Blistering
  • Dryness
  • Scaliness
  • Oozing fluid
  • Skin thickening
  • Feeling of warmth at the contact site
  • Tenderness

Patients experiencing an asthma attack after contact with a household cleanser may develop wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain and coughing.

If any of these symptoms are experienced and a particular cleanser seems to be causing the adverse reactions, it is best to avoid the cleanser.

Diagnosis methods for cleanser reactions

Diagnosing sensitivity to household chemicals begins with a physical examination. The physician will ask questions to determine the origin of the condition. The patient’s medical history will be reviewed and pre-existing medical conditions will be identified.

It may be difficult to diagnose the specific chemical or chemical compound to which an individual is sensitive.  Some people with asthma or allergies may find that a household cleanser triggers an asthma attack or an allergic reaction. An allergy skin test may be performed to identify the specific chemical(s) causing the reaction or to rule out other common allergens, although this type of testing often proves unreliable for evaluating chemical reactions.

Because allergic skin conditions may resemble irritant skin conditions, it can be difficult to tell these conditions apart. Often a diagnosis of an irritant skin condition is made only after an allergy is ruled out as a cause of symptoms.

Treatment and prevention

There may be specific treatments that are needed following a toxic exposure to household chemicals and a physician should be consulted for any exposure that causes adverse reactions. Taking steps to reduce exposure to chemicals can reduce health risks. However, complete avoidance of the household cleanser is the best strategy for overcoming symptoms.

Basic steps to reduce exposure to chemicals in the home include:

  • Closely following the manufacturers’ directions on labels.

  • Ventilating the area by opening windows, using fans or using an air humidifier (during and after use).

  • Discarding any unused chemicals and buying in limited quantities.

  • Keeping the lids of cleaning products tightly closed.

  • Keeping chemicals out of the reach of children, elderly and pets.

  • Mixing household chemicals only as directed.

  • Wearing protective gloves when using household cleansers. However, latex gloves are a common cause of contact dermatitis and should be avoided.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that common household chemicals may cause both short and long-term adverse health effects. Substituting safer alternatives for household chemicals may help prevent a reaction. Most cleaning chores can be completed using these substitutes.

Safe substitutes for common household cleansers include:

  • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). It neutralizes acid, is a non-abrasive scrub and deodorant, can extinguish grease fires, remove stains, soften hard water, and soften fabrics.

  • Borax (hydrated sodium borate). It deodorizes, inhibits the growth of mold and mildew, removes stains and can be used with attractants such as sugar to kill cockroaches.

  • Cornstarch. It can be used to clean windows, polish furniture, clean carpets and rugs and starch clothing.

  • Alcohol (isopropyl). Can be used as a disinfectant.

  • Lemon juice. Cleans glass, removes stains from aluminum, clothes and porcelain.

  • Mineral oil. Can be used as a floor wax or furniture polish.

  • Steel wool. It is an abrasive and can remove rust and stains.

  • TSP (trisodium phosphate). This chemical cleans drains and removes old paint.

  • Vinegar. Used to dissolve mineral deposits, grease, remove traces of soap, mold and mildew, wax buildup, and it will polish some metals. Cleans brick, stone, carpet, coffeepots and windows.

  • Washing soda (sodium carbonate decahydrate). Used to cut stubborn grease on grills, broiler pans and ovens. It can be used with soap instead of laundry detergent.

Questions for your doctor

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions regarding household cleanser reactions:

  1. Do my symptoms indicate a reaction to a household cleanser?

  2. Does this mean I am allergic to certain household cleansers?

  3. What tests will you use to determine the chemical to which I am sensitive?

  4. Does this reaction pose a danger to my overall health?

  5. What steps can I take to avoid household cleanser reactions?

  6. Will I have a similar reaction if I use the cleanser again?

  7. Is it safe for me to use the cleanser in smaller amounts?

  8. Is it safe for me to use the cleanser again if I lessen the amount of time I am exposed to it? What if I wear gloves?

  9. What affect will using household cleansers have on my asthma?

  10. Are certain cleansers better to use than others?
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