Cancer From Chemicals? These Household Products Are Known Carcinogens

A doctor pointing at an X-ray of someone's lungs

Some household products are carcinogenic. | American Cancer Society via Getty Images

We all know to avoid smoking, excessive alcohol use, and tanning bed exposure to lower our cancer risk, but we may not realize the everyday products we use could be every bit as dangerous to our health. From the dryer sheets used in our laundry to cleaning solutions for wiping our cabinets, certain household items contain ingredients that are known carcinogens.

Changes in cell DNA can lead to cancer, and these changes can be hereditary or as a result of your lifestyle choices, pollution, or the products you’re exposed to at work or in your home. And according to the American Cancer Society, any substance or exposure that can lead to cancer is known as a carcinogen. Even if they don’t directly affect DNA, carcinogens can impact the cells in a way that leads to problems later on.

If you’ve only used a carcinogenic household product once or twice, your chances of it affecting you negatively are slim, though we can’t say the same for those who use these products frequently. Not all carcinogens have the same cancer-causing potential, either — the exposure to some is worse than others. And, like most diseases, if cancer runs in your family, you may be at a higher risk.

You should always feel safe in your home, so take a look at this list of household products that are known carcinogens. We suggest eliminating them from your home immediately.

1. Air fresheners

man spraying an air freshener

Be wary of your air freshener. |

When your house or apartment has a rancid odor, you might be used to grabbing air freshener. While they’re a staple in many American households, conventional air fresheners are a hotbed of substances that can leave you or a loved one in your house very ill. In a 2008 study published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, researchers tested six products for toxic chemicals, three of which were air fresheners. They found five of the six products tested emitted one or more carcinogenic chemicals.

In one particular plug-in air freshener, over 20 different hazardous compounds were found, and seven of these compounds are considered toxic by federal law. Because the law does not require products with fragrances to list the chemicals used, you should be particularly wary of household items designed to give off a scent.

2. Cleaning products

cleaning supplies on white background

Your cleaning products could cause cancer. |

Products that are keeping your house clean can also contain carcinogenic substances. The Environmental Working Group has a Cleaners Hall of Shame list with the worst offenders. In the Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, they found nearly three-quarters of the 2,500 cleaning products listed contain ingredients that can harm respiratory health, and over one-quarter contain carcinogenic ingredients. If you want to know exactly what ingredients are added, it may be tough for you to find out — half of all products scored low in regards to ingredient disclosure.

It’s important to keep an eye out for products labeled as green or eco-friendly, as they can still have harmful, cancer-causing ingredients. It’s not all bad news, though. The organization also maintains a list of products they recommend.

3. Dryer sheets

Man Doing Laundry

Stay away from dryer sheets. |

Thanks to the olfactory magic of fabric-softener sheets, warm laundry has become as comforting as ever. They’re a simple product made to soften fabric fibers and give your clothes that irresistible scent. However, the fragrances could pose health risks, as toxins can permeate those sheets and transfer from your clothes to your skin. Your dryer vent may also be responsible for emitting these chemicals.

In a larger study conducted by the same team we mentioned before, 25 scented household products were tested for hazardous chemicals. Nearly half of all the products tested generated at least one carcinogenic air pollutant, and various brands of dryer sheets were tested in this study. Once again, the problem comes down to disclosure since many don’t say exactly what they contain.

4. Pesticides

freshly picked homegrown garden vegetables

Be careful of how you grow your fruits and veggies. |

If you have trouble growing fruits and veggies in your garden because of weeds, insects, or small animals, you’ve probably used soil containing pesticides to help your produce grow. Pesticides ward away the living things that can sabotage your summer crops, but they’re also carcinogenic. A growing number of studies are finding evidence pesticides used for home gardening are associated with increased cancer risk.

The exact ingredients in the pesticides that can cause cancer are unknown, though some chemicals, such as glyphosate, were detected frequently. If you are choosing to use pesticides near your home, then wear preventative equipment to ensure the pesticides don’t touch your skin.

5. Food dye

candy on a table

Food dyes are everywhere. |

While not a household product itself, food dye is found in nearly every processed food, drink, vitamin, and dietary supplement found in your home. Studies have shown nine types used in the U.S. could be carcinogenic. Use of these dyes has increased fivefold in the U.S. since 1955, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a summary on what they found when testing various food dyes. It’s first important to note the studies were performed on rodents and lasted for two years, so we have yet to understand exactly how humans could be affected over a longer period of time.

The report found Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, and Yellow 6 all caused tumors in the rodents. While some of these dyes appeared to be safe for humans, the CSPI still believes they have no place in our food. Citrus Red 2 appeared to be safe when used to make orange peels brighter, for example, but could be more of a risk when ingested. More testing is certainly needed to conclude how dyes affect humans, but is it really worth blowing off in the meantime?

6. Pet flea collars

cute dog on a table

Be careful of what you’re putting on your pets. |

You’re not cleaning your house with this product, but if you have a pet that ventures outdoors, we’re betting it has a flea collar. According to SFGate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers two chemicals found in some varieties of these collars to be carcinogens — propoxur and tetrachlorvinphos. Not only are these chemicals potentially cancer-causing, but they can also cause neurological damage to children.

A study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council found 75% of dogs wearing the collars containing propoxur had dangerous levels of this chemical in their fur after two weeks. The risk of propoxur and tetrachlorvinphos exposure could be particularly dangerous to children who frequently come in contact with pets.

This study is small — nine dogs and five cats were tested, so more evidence is likely needed to prove flea collars can be a real danger. Even if they don’t pose a strong threat, these carcinogenic chemicals are still hiding in some products a lot of people use.

7. Facial moisturizers

woman applying moisturizer on face

Your moisturizer may not be safe. |

Moisturizing every day is essential for good skin care, but many facial creams contain known carcinogenic chemicals — parabens. Livestrong says these common preservatives are used in foundations, cosmetic creams, and anti-aging products of all kinds. While parabens help to prevent bacterial growth and yeast from forming in your favorite products, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed these chemicals as category 1 substances known for their endocrine disrupting capabilities. These disruptions can potentially cause tumors or other disorders.

Because parabens have been detected in breast cancer tumors, a lot of people suspect a link to cancer. According to WebMD, parabens can actually mimic estrogen, which is of particular concern because excess estrogen can drive tumor growth.

8. Laundry detergent


Laundry detergent could be problematic. |

We all want clean clothes, but your detergent likely harbors a chemical called 1,4-dioxane, and it isn’t just found in laundry detergent — it’s in automotive coolant liquids, cosmetics, bath products, and even in the air we breathe. Studies show animals exposed to this chemical during their lives were at a much higher risk of developing cancer. While there is little information regarding how humans fare when exposed to 1,4-dioxane over a lifetime, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency consider the chemical a likely carcinogen.

The Huffington Post mentions drinking water as one of the primary ways we’re exposed to this chemical, so avoiding exposure altogether is close to impossible. Plus, a report from Women’s Voices for the Earth found this chemical was even detected in Tide Free & Gentle, a detergent marketed toward those trying to make smarter choices with their laundry products.

9. Nail polish

Woman getting her nails painted

An ingredient in nail polish could be cancer-causing. |

Men may not have to worry too much about this potentially cancer-causing product, but women who love to paint their nails may want to think twice about the kind of nail polish they use. Many nail polishes contain formaldehyde, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says can raise cancer risks. Formaldehyde can also be found in nail disinfectant tools used in salons, so you may have an even higher risk of exposure if you pay to get your nails done instead of painting them yourself.

Those who are most at risk of developing cancer from formaldehyde are those who work in industrial settings, so painting your nails every once in a while is not going to have as great of an impact. Even so, make sure to paint your nails in a well-ventilated area, as the National Cancer Institute says formaldehyde exposure can lead to nose and sinus cancers.

10. Incense

couple relaxing on a sofa at home

Incense may smell great, but it could be carcinogenic. |

If your favorite way of removing unpleasant odors in the house is by lighting incense, you may be harming your health. A review about the safety of candles and incense concluded these products are likely carcinogenic. Some of the research cited an increased risk of cancer in children whose parents burned incense during pregnancy or while nursing. Though one study included found the burning of incense was associated with a decreased chance of developing lung cancer, the authors think societal factors played a role.

Taryn Brooke also contributed to this story

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