When you’re pregnant, you want to do everything you can to ensure your baby is healthy. You know that the majority of cleaning products contain toxic substances. Are they safe to use when you’re pregnant? The answer is complicated.
A few cleaning supplies contain ingredients associated with an increased risk of congenital anomalies. This is especially true for heavy-duty cleaners, like oven cleaner. Most contain ingredients that researchers are concerned may affect the unborn child, but it’s not clear yet. They aren’t necessarily “unsafe,” but they haven’t been proven as 100 percent safe either.
A study conducted by the New York State Health Department found that women who worked as janitors or cleaning ladies were, on average, more likely to have children with birth defects. This study also found that scientists and electronic equipment operators were at an increased risk. Exposure to toxins and chemicals are the common factor among these jobs.
What can you do? It’s impossible to completely eliminate exposure to “questionable” environmental toxins. You can, however, take steps to reduce your exposure. Knowing what to avoid and what your alternatives are can empower you to best protect yourself and your baby.
Best and Worst Cleaning Products to Use
Here are some guidelines on the worst and best cleaning products to use when you’re pregnant. More detailed information on why these are the best and worst options is below this list:
- Avoid cleaning products with glycol ethers. These are quite possibly the most toxic substances found in household cleaning products and have been associated with miscarriage, decreased male fertility, and birth defects. They may be listed as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME). Most oven cleaners contain glycol ethers.
- Try to avoid products that contain phthalates. Prenatal exposure to phthalates may increase the risk of congenital reproductive anomalies in male children. It’s uncommon for phthalates to be listed on cleaning products, but if “fragrance” is listed, there’s a high probability that the fragrance contains phthalates. Don’t forget to check your laundry products. You are walking around and inhaling those laundry perfumes all day. One study found that pregnant women who regularly used fabric softener had higher levels of a specific kind of phthalates in their urine. (What effect this may have had on their unborn child was not investigated in this particular research study.)
- Maybe try to avoid parabens. Whether or not parabens in cleaning products are harmless is a matter of debate in the scientific community. The concern comes from the fact that parabens can act like estrogen in the body. Animal studies have found that butyl paraben may harm male fertility. Parabens may be listed as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, or isopropylparaben.
- Make your own super-simple cleaning products. The law doesn’t require full disclosure of many of these chemicals on product labels. If you want to know what’s in your cleaning products, make them yourself! It’s easy. You can mix vinegar and water in a spray bottle, and use that to clean windows and surfaces. If you need grit, you can use baking soda and water. This can be used for ovens or bathtubs. You may need to use more “elbow grease” with these options, but they will get your house clean.
- Look up cleaning products on the EWG (Environmental Working Group) website. You can look up any cleaning product on the EWG database and learn what ingredients it may contain and the potential health risks. You’re unlikely to find anything with zero risks because of how the database works. However, if you have a choice between a cleaner with an A or B rating, compared to a cleaner with a C, D, or F rating, you could choose the A or B.
- Avoid spray and aerosol cleaners when possible. Many studies have found that prenatal exposure to spray cleaners may increase the risk of asthma. (It’s unclear if the product being “natural” or not matters in this case.) Ingredients that were found to be especially problematic included alcohol, ammonia, chlorine, glycol and glycol-ethylene, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), acrylic polymers, and terpenes. The increased risk of asthma was not found when cleaners weren’t sprayed.
- Avoid air fresheners. As with spray cleaners, prenatal exposure to air fresheners was also associated with an increased risk of asthma and respiratory problems. Another problem with air fresheners is they almost always contain that vague “fragrance” ingredient on their label. This means they may contain phthalates, which you should try to avoid when you’re pregnant. Avoid unpleasant odors from developing in the first place by opening your windows and “airing out” your house whenever possible. Use your oven vent when cooking, if you have one. Take the trash out often, and keep your house tidy.
- Always clean in a well-ventilated area. Whether you’re cleaning with “green” natural products or not, be sure to clean in a well-ventilated area.
- Ask a friend for help. Sometimes, cleaning products can make a pregnant woman feel nauseated or trigger morning sickness. This can be true for the safest of options. If cleaning is proving to be difficult when you’re expecting, don’t be afraid to ask for help! A friend, a significant other, or even hired help (if you can afford it) may be better options.
The Research on Cleaning Product Chemicals and Pregnancy
Here’s an alphabetical list of chemicals found in cleaning products that pregnant women may want to avoid, and the research behind why.
Glycol ethers are powerful chemicals found in cleaning products like oven cleaner, carpet cleaners, and some glass cleaners. They are also found in paints, brake fluid, and even some cosmetics.
Glycol ethers may be harmful to male and female fertility. Studies on women working in the semiconductor industry, who were exposed to glycol ethers, where more likely to experience infertility and had a higher risk of miscarriage. Men exposed to glycol ethers in the workplace were found to have impaired sperm health. Animal studies have found that prenatal exposure to glycol ethers harms a male rat’s reproductive system.
There was an interesting study that looked at whether prenatal exposure to glycol ethers impacted cognitive performance in childhood. Researchers looked at the levels of glycol ethers in maternal urine samples, taken during pregnancy, and looked at the possible association between that and the children’s performance on a cognitive test at age six.
They found that higher prenatal urine concentrations of two kinds of glycol ethers were associated with significantly lower scores on the WISC Verbal Comprehension Index. In other words, mothers who had higher levels of these chemicals in their urine during pregnancy were more likely to have children who performed worse on an intelligence test in first grade.
Parabens are found in the vast majority of personal care products and household goods, including cleaning products. While some experts say they are completely safe, especially in the very low amounts they are found in household products, other researchers are concerned about their potential endocrine disrupting properties.
Parabens can mimic estrogen in the body and made headlines when research studies found associations between parabens and breast cancer. Parabens were found in breast tissue and cancers. Lab studies at the cellular level found that very small amounts of parabens could change how breast tissue and breast cancer cells behaved.
What about parabens exposure during pregnancy? There’s been some concern that parabens may affect birth weight, specifically of male children. A study on male children has found that higher levels of parabens in maternal urine was associated with an increased weight at birth for baby boys. This increased weight continued until at age 3. But other studies have come up with contradictory results.
This research also doesn’t tell us what effect (if any) parabens might have on female children.
In animal studies, pregnant rats exposed to butyl parabens had male offspring with reproductive anomalies of the testicles and had poor sperm quality. So far, no human studies have found these effects with parabens.
Parabens are found in some cleaning products. Of all the chemicals to be concerned about, parabens are probably the least likely to be worried about, because the evidence of their harm is weak. That said, if you want to be extra safe, you could try to avoid them.
Like parabens, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. That is to say, they interact and can impact the hormones in our bodies. Congress has banned phthalates in children’s toys and childcare products because of their suspected potential for harm.
However, they are still found in a myriad of other products, including many cleaning sprays and detergents. Phthalates are most often hidden in ingredient lists as “fragrance.” Not all products that list fragrance contain phthalates, but the majority do.
Research has found a possible association between prenatal phthalates exposure and the birth defect hypospadias. Hypospadias is when a boy is born with a urethra that isn’t at the tip of the penis.
A 2015 study has also found an association between phthalate exposure and what is known is the anogenital distance (AGD). Anogenital distance (AGD) is the distance between the anus and the genitalia. Shorter AGD is associated with reduced fertility in men.
Phthalates are everywhere, and you can’t avoid them completely. You can reduce your exposure, however. For example, researchers have found that women who used air fresheners or fabric softener sheets frequently had higher concentrations of phthalates in their urine.
Triclosan is found in anti-bacterial products. Like parabens and phthalates, triclosan is an endocrine disruptor. The FDA has banned triclosan from soaps, but it is still found in some other personal care and household products.
Research has found that higher urinary levels of triclosan in pregnant women are associated with poorer growth. Infant weight, height, and head circumference were all affected.
A Word From Tips For Healthy Living
Environmental exposure to all kinds of different chemicals is a part of our daily life. You can’t completely avoid most of the chemicals listed above.
Try not to worry. The research studies finding negative consequences were looking at frequent or high levels of exposure. For example, the studies looking at phthalate levels in urine were not comparing women with and without phthalates. All the women had some of these chemicals found in their urine. The question was, what happened when the levels were higher than the average?
Do your best to reduce regular exposure to these chemicals, even if it just means opening your windows when you clean or wearing gloves when handling cleaners. Rest assured that taking the smallest of steps could help you and your baby.