Do you know what’s in your cleaning products?

A majority of cleaning professionals report not knowing what is in the products they frequently use.

Cleaning is the process of removing pollutants from the environment and putting them in their proper place. The purpose of cleaning is to protect human and animal health and to restore and maintain the appearance of property and indoor spaces.

To be professional, cleaning services and their employees must master a body of knowledge, skills and behaviours to maintain a healthy and safe built environment and succeed in business. They need to understand cleaning methods and procedures; tools, equipment, and products; business and management skills; and the science to justify why we clean the way we do. 

Professional cleaners must understand how cleaning products and the ingredients they contain work. Because cleaning products contain different chemicals, cleaners should always check the product specifications and application instructions before use. They should also never mix cleaning products unless sure that the mixture is safe and effective, as some mixtures of safe products can become very hazardous.

Almost every cleaning product has at least one of the following basic ingredient elements:

  • Surfactants allow a product to wet surfaces, emulsify greasy soils, and lift away dirt. The term “surfactant” is made by combining the words surface, active, and agent.
  • Solvents dissolve soils.
  • Builders adjust pH to optimise cleaning performance and suspend soils.
  • Bleaches oxidise and remove soils and lighten the colour of stains.
  • Enzymes accelerate the rate of a chemical reaction to break down soils. Specific enzymes target different soils.
  • Chelants bind to positively-charged metal ions, such as calcium and magnesium, which can be found in water used for cleaning. Without the chelant, the product would need additional surfactant or the user would need a greater amount of the product for it to be effective.
  • Biological additives break down organic soils into smaller particles, allowing them to separate more readily for subsequent removal by surfactants.
  • Preservatives allow the cleaning product to remain useable for several months after production.

A lack of knowledge

In 2023, ISSA conducted 54 in-person workshops offering practical tips on cleaning for health, training 893 industry professionals.

Among these professionals:

  • Only 13%, or 116 cleaning professionals, reported they had received training in the past five years
  • Many of the workers reported not having access to personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, eye protection, or designated work clothes
  • Many could not explain the phrase “handle in accordance with good industrial hygiene and safety practice” as stated on safety data sheets (SDS)
  • The majority – 90 percent or 804 workers – could not recall one ingredient that was in a cleaning product they use at work.

Risks associated with cleaning chemicals

Cleaning products contain chemical ingredients with various properties that might be toxic, explosive, flammable, self-reactive, oxidising or corrosive. Exposure to chemicals can occur through inhalation, dermal (skin) absorption or ingestion and might lead to adverse health effects. Employers and their staff need to consult and plan appropriately for chemical exposure risks. Risk assessments are not just paper exercises; they are about taking steps to prevent harm and adverse health.

The method by which the cleaning product is delivered can have a substantial effect on chemical exposure. For instance, aerosol sprays emit a large amount of small cleaning product droplets at high velocities, resulting in a much greater chemical inhalation exposure. Pump dispensers, in contrast, emit a smaller amount of larger droplets at a lower velocity.

In addition to the chemical emissions caused by active ingredients, constituent or inactive ingredients in cleaning products can also react with oxidants (such as ozone) in indoor air and produce many other emissions with adverse effects. For example, terpenes associated with fragrances (such as pinene and limonene) can quickly react with ozone and generate secondary
pollutants including formaldehyde and ultra-fine particles.

The importance of labels

ISSA instructors advise that professional cleaners read the label of every product they use. But how helpful is that advice? The answer depends on whether cleaning staff know what to look for on a label and whether the label includes the information they need.

Information on labels should:

  • Help with decision making.
  • Ensure the product is used safely.
  • Ensure the product is used effectively and solely for the purpose by which the manufacturer intended.
  • Lend authenticity to products by listing the manufacturer’s address, product identification codes, and barcodes for tracking. 

Many brands also include QR codes on their product labels to access websites with additional information such as instructional videos. Others include an ingredient table listing the purpose of each chemical. 

A recent ISSA workshop illustrated the enormous gap in users’ knowledge and understanding of cleaning ingredients. For example, very few attendees could correctly answer the below question. 

Identify the correct action if you read the product label and see the following statements:

  • This chemical is considered hazardous.
  • This product causes burns to eyes, skin, and mucous membranes.
  • Although not expected, heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or obstructive lung disease may be aggravated by exposure to high concentrations of vapour or mist.
  • Avoid contact with eyes, skin, and clothing.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation.
  • Use personal protective equipment as required.
  • Reacts with other household chemicals such as toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers, acids, or products containing ammonia to produce hazardous irritating gases, such as chlorine
    and other chlorine compounds.
  • Very toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.

Making informed choices

In every ISSA workshop, the instructors recommend contacting the manufacturer if you have questions about a product or want more information on the chemical ingredients. Manufacturer websites list their contact information, including phone numbers. Many websites allow users to send a message directly to the company.

Workshop instructors also illustrate how challenging it can be to know which chemical ingredients are in your cleaning product by reading the list on the label.

In the US, ISSA has partnered with the Penn State College of Medicine and the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Medicine on a two-year project, Making Safer Choices: Research and Practical Toolkit Development for Businesses and Disadvantaged Communities to Use Safer and More Sustainable Cleaning Products. This project will advocate for the use of cleaning products with safer ingredients by creating partnerships with manufacturers and business stakeholders. It will provide education and technical assistance to businesses and professional cleaning staff, regardless of their language or socioeconomic status. 

Please contact Gavin McGregor-Skinner at if you would like more information.

A version of this article first appeared on

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

About the author:

Dr Gavin Macgregor-Skinner is the senior director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council® (GBAC), a Division of ISSA. As an infection prevention expert, epidemiologist, and university professor, he works to develop protocols and education for the global cleaning industry to empower facilities, businesses, and cleaning professionals to create safe and healthy environments. 

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