When you have a new baby, your house might seem a lot dirtier than it did before. The first time your little one stuffs a dust bunny or a desiccated housefly in her mouth is often a low point in parenting.
Before you start scrubbing every surface in sight, consider that obsessive cleaning with caustic household cleaners has its own drawbacks. Harsh household cleaners can affect a baby's eyes, airways, skin, and more.
"Parents need to know that there can be a trade-off between a sterilized kitchen and their baby's health," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.
There is good news. By making simple changes and practicing child-safe cleaning, you can keep your home clean without exposing your baby to unnecessary risks. For an exhausted mom, it’s a win-win: a healthier baby without loads of extra housework.
What's the Problem With Household Cleaners?
Household cleaners with harsh ingredients don't only kill germs and get out tough stains. They can affect your baby's health in a number of ways.
- Eczema. A baby's skin is sensitive, and studies have found that irritants and allergens in household cleaners and detergents can cause skin irritation.
- Airway irritation. Powerful fumes from household cleaners can irritate your baby's airways, making allergy or asthma symptoms worse. Some cleaning chemicals in schools have been linked with higher rates of asthma, says Lunder.
- Eye irritation. Household cleaner fumes can also irritate your baby's eyes, causing redness and watering. If splashed directly into the eyes, some cleaners can cause serious damage.
- Allergies. Some researchers believe that having a home that's too clean can increase the long-term risk of allergies in a child. It's called the hygiene hypothesis. Without some exposure to germs, a child's immune system might not develop normally. Instead, it becomes hypersensitive and begins to overreact to harmless allergens, like pollen or dander.
- Poisoning. Every year, more than a million kids under age 5 swallow poisons like household cleaners, sometimes with devastating effects.
- Unknown health effects. Some household cleaners have fragrances that contain chemicals like phthalates. While we don't know what their health effects are for sure, some studies have found a possible connection between phthalates and disrupted hormone levels.
"What's surprising to so many parents is that we don't have good safety testing for a lot of the chemicals we use every day," Kenneth Bock, MD, pediatric neurotoxicologist and codirector of the Rhinebeck Health Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "We don't really know what they might be doing to our kids." To be cautious, many parents try to reduce their use of household cleaners that contain harsh chemicals.