Are bathroom cleaner chemicals dangerous?

We dredge up the dirt on antibacterials and ask whether bleach or natural bathroom cleaner works best.

Can I check the label?

If you're worried about chemicals in bathroom cleaners, this may come as bad news: the product makers don't even have to list them on the label (but cosmetic and toiletry products, on the other hand, have to come clean about what's inside.) The better news is that bathroom cleaners generally don't have enough toxic chemicals in them to pose a health risk, at least according to the health experts we've talked to.

So, you can probably de-slime the lavatory without reducing your life span, but a recent United Nations report called for more research into the long-term effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and listed household cleaners as a possible EDC concern. And the household cleaner industry thinks better disclosure would be a good thing – to a point.

The national industry body, Accord, launched "What's in it?" in 2011 – a voluntary program that recommends companies list product ingredients on their websites, but not on the labels. Many of the household cleaning products you'll find on the supermarket shelves are participating, but some are not.

How can I find out which chemicals are in my bathroom cleaner?

If the product maker has declined to make the ingredients known, you can go to the trouble of asking for a Safety Data Sheet. It won't list all the chemicals – just the hazardous ones that are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).  At best, you can know if anything potentially dangerous is in the bottle – but you can't know everything, and you'll probably have to persist if you want the company to send you the data sheet.  

About 40,000 individual chemicals are permitted for use in consumer products, and many are considered safe only because they've been used for a long time without known adverse effects. For now, you'll just have to trust that chemicals classified as non-toxic won't hurt you, and that chemicals classified as toxic are used in low enough concentrations to steer clear of your system.

Are 'non-toxic' bathroom cleaners safer?

You don't have to be a marketing guru to know that there's a lot of marketing hype around 'non-toxic' or 'natural' cleaning products. The problem is that the terms are used loosely. The term 'non-toxic', for instance, has no precise meaning as far as regulation goes. The other problem is that plant-based cleaners can be just as toxic as chemically-based ones.

Generally speaking, 'natural' products pose fewer risks to the environment – and potentially fewer risks to humans – if they biodegrade more quickly. But it takes more physical effort to make them work. And again, the term "biodegradable" is a bit rubbery. You can't know for sure how long a product claiming to be biodegradable will take to break down, or how much it will break down.

Which bathroom cleaner works better – bleach or natural?

About a third of household bathroom cleaners sold in Australia feature bleach as an active ingredient. It can do a number on fungi and mould, but vinegar is actually the better mould killer in many cases. And bleach doesn't pose much of a threat to soap scum.

Experts call for a 10% bleach concentration if you want to put an end to mould, but concentration levels in these products drop off over time. A bathroom cleaner that starts out with a bleach concentration of 4% may have only 0.6% by the end of its shelf life. At those levels, the serious bathroom muck will win the battle.

We've tested the big guns against good old-fashioned bicarbonate of soda and vinegar and found that, with some vigorous rubbing, soda and vinegar works just as well.

So if you're really worried about the health effects of chemicals in bathroom cleaners, skip the spray bottle, mix up your own batch, and get down on your hands and knees!

How are chemicals in household cleaners classified?

Hospital-grade disinfectant:
  • Listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) and subject to TGA disinfectant standard.
  • Evidence for quality, safety and efficacy reviewed by TGA.
  • Must pass performance test for Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris, E. coli and S. aureus.
  • Must include quantity and name of the active ingredient on the bottle.
  • Possible claims include "kills germs" or any of the bacteria subject to the testing (above); claims must be supported by product testing.
Household/commercial-grade disinfectant:
  • Exempt from the ARTG but subject to the TGA disinfectant standard.
  • Not tested or reviewed by the TGA.
  • Must pass performance test for E. coli and S. aureus.
  • Must include quantity and name of the active ingredient on the bottle.
  • Possible claims include "kills germs" generally, or E. coli and S. aureus.
  • Manufacturers "advised to hold evidence" of claims.
Other surface sprays
  • Excluded from the ARTG and not subject to TGA disinfectant standard.
  • TGA performance tests not required; must be fit for purpose under the ACL.
  • Claims limited to: removal of/reduces non-specific microorganisms to a sanitary level, an improvement in hygiene, or antibacterial action.