Your home and your lungs

Chemicals in cleaning products

We use a wide range of household chemicals every day to clean and decorate our homes, some of which contain chemicals called VOCs - volatile organic compounds.

These chemicals evaporate into the air when we use them or sometimes even while they are being stored. Some examples of VOCs are acetone, benzene and formaldehyde. It's a good idea to avoid breathing in too many VOCs. 

Cleaning the home

Where can I find VOCs?

You’ll find these chemicals in cleaning and DIY products, such as:

  • detergents
  • furniture polish
  • air fresheners
  • carpet cleaners
  • oven cleaners
  • pesticides and fungicides
  • paints and paint strippers
  • varnishes
  • glues

Formaldehyde is a VOC. You can sometimes find it in carpets, furniture, shelving and flooring. This can be why some people say the smell of a new sofa or soft furnishing sets off their allergies, or makes their asthma worse.

If this applies to you, try to avoid products containing formaldehyde. Products containing formaldehyde should be clearly labelled under EU regulations from April 2015.  

More rigorous research is needed before we can be certain about the effects of breathing in these chemicals in our homes. About half of studies to date suggest that being exposed to these chemicals increases your risk of developing an allergy or asthma.

What can I do to avoid VOCs?

If you believe the chemicals you use in your home affect your health, there are a few things you can do.

  • Consider other ways of cleaning. 
    The best way to avoid coming into contact with chemicals found in cleaning products is not to use them. If you can, use a damp cloth to clean instead.
  • Avoid chemical-heavy products
    You can also try to avoid buying products that have high quantities of chemicals in them. Look for products that are labelled allergy friendly, as these have lower levels of volatile chemicals and are usually fragrance-free.

    Try using natural paints that are based on natural chemicals.  Paints advertised as water-based or low VOC may still contain hazardous chemicals.
  • Avoid sprays
    When possible, use solid or liquid cleaning products rather than sprays. Sprays get into the air so you can breathe them in more easily and get further down into your airways. If you think the smell of cleaning products triggers your symptoms, go for unscented products.
  • Ventilate your home
    Always open a window when you are cleaning or decorating to make sure there is plenty of ventilation.
  • Bear young children in mind
    Avoid paint or wallpaper if you’re decorating a room for a new baby. Babies and very young children are far more affected by emissions from chemicals than adults.
  • Read the label
    Finally, always remember to follow advice on the labels of products about how to use them safely. Dispose carefully of partly-used containers.
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Last medically reviewed: September 2015. Due for review: September 2018

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.