By Mark B. Roth, MotherToBaby New York

As a teratogen information specialist, I receive questions about all sorts of chemicals or substances someone can be exposed to. We often get questions about the bazillions of cleaning products out there. Bleach, powdered cleaners and spray cleaners, degreasers, oven cleaners, disinfectants – there are so many different cleaning products and looking at the ingredients list (if there even is one) can be overwhelming. All those unpronounceable words! Sodium hypochlorite, declamine oxide, sodium hydroxide, sulfonate, dipropylene glycol butoxy ether, etc., etc. etc.!!!

If you are reading this, it’s probably because you want to decrease the chance of any problems for the baby while you are pregnant or breastfeeding. You might be looking for information about which cleaning products are okay to use or to be around while you are pregnant or nursing. I have been told so often by my callers how difficult it is to find reliable information. And that is true, even for the experts. There are a few challenges we all have to contend with.

One of the biggest challenges is that many chemicals simply have not been studied in pregnant women. Some ingredients found in cleaning products have been studied in pregnant animals, mainly mice and rats. When such substances are given to animals, the amount (or the dose) they are given is much higher than what a human would be exposed to. And, often it is given in a way that isn’t even close to how a human would usually be exposed. For example, chemicals are often force fed to the animal, even if it is an ingredient typically used in a skin cream. So, basically even if there is research, it’s often not helpful or especially meaningful. How can you know what’s okay to use?

There’s an important and very old principle in studying whether a substance is harmful to a person, and that is “the dose makes the poison.” Basically, this means that the risk with any exposure, including cleaning products, depends on how much gets into your blood. How do chemical or substances reach the blood? They can be injected directly into the bloodstream, swallowed, inhaled (breathed in), or possibly absorbed through the skin. Unless you are drinking your household cleaner, the actual exposure to your developing baby is likely to be quite low! Generally, inhalation won’t allow for much absorption of these kinds of compounds into your blood. When they do get into your blood from inhaling them, they typically don’t reach the developing baby or get into your breastmilk in any meaningful quantity.

Now, these products can have some pretty offensive odors, even with the addition of artificial fragrance like ‘lemon fresh’, ‘summer rain’, and ‘spring flowers’. (And there can be such a thing as too much – sometimes when I go into a bathroom where air freshener has been sprayed, I say to myself “I would rather just smell the poop!”) But back to our subject… If a product has an irritating smell, you may think it’s very irritating for the baby, too. But, your sense of smell is not a good measure of the amount of a chemical that the baby is actually being exposed to. In fact, many women develop a heightened sensitivity to smells during pregnancy. This motivates you to get yourself to a more comfortable environment and reduce exposure. But it also can make you feel uneasy when you can’t seem to get away from the smell. Your nose doesn’t always know! If you start feeling dizzy, light headed, confused, or have breathing difficulties while around the cleaning product, these symptoms could mean you had a higher level of exposure. Even with these symptoms, there are no confirmed risks to pregnancy or breastfeeding with exposure to many of the compounds in common cleaning products.

I mentioned the possible absorption of substances through the skin (topical or dermal exposure). When it comes to absorption of cleaning products, your skin is a surprisingly good barrier and prevents many substances from getting into your blood. If skin has been soaking for a while, or there’s a scrape or open cut, that may allow a little more absorption. Just like with inhalation, these compounds are not likely to reach the developing baby or breastmilk in any meaningful quantity. However, skin irritation can occur and it’s not a bad idea to wear gloves when working with some cleaning products, especially if it’s going to be for extended periods of time. It’s important for you to maintain your comfort.

We all know that accidents happen, and that is true of accidents with household cleaners, too. You can reduce the chance of these accidents by not drinking or eating while working with cleaning products. Be sure to thoroughly rinse any utensils or dishes that come into contact with the cleaners. Using gloves or safety glasses can help protect your skin and eyes in case of accidental spills. And, of course, opening a window or turning on an exhaust fan (if you have one) can help reduce the lingering smell.

I mentioned a list of pretty confusing cleaning ingredients at the beginning of this blog and I am quite certain that most of you would fall asleep by the end of this post if I talked about every single one of them. But there are a few common ingredients that are worth reviewing.

Bleach is a common cleaner that most of us have used at one point or another. The active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite, a form of chlorine. Chlorine and chlorinated disinfectants have not been shown to increase the risk of birth defects.

Benzalkonium chloride is another disinfectant that is found in many cleaning products. It is also an ingredient in throat lozenges, diaper rash creams, cosmetics, and vaginal spermicides. Although there are no studies specifically looking at the risks of benzalkonium chloride use in human pregnancy, there also are no reports indicating an increased risk. Again, given how common this ingredient is, having no reports is reassuring.

Finally, there are also many cleaners which contain ammonia. Typical use of cleaners containing ammonia is also not expected to increase risks to the baby. Because it has a very strong smell, most people can’t stand being around high levels of ammonia without getting pretty sick. Like many cleaners, as mentioned above, a strong odor doesn’t necessarily mean a risk to the baby even if you have symptoms like a strong burning sensation in your nose or throat, skin irritation, or you get dizzy, But, if you lose consciousness, that could be a concern as it limits the amount of oxygen reaching the baby.  It’s good to pay attention to your comfort level.

There are so many different products and ingredients. There’s not room enough to discuss them all here. But if you have any questions about a cleaning product or an ingredient in a product, don’t hesitate to contact an expert at MotherToBaby!

Mark Roth, BA, is a teratogen information specialist and co-director for the Pregnancy Risk Network, MotherToBaby New York. He has been with the program since 2006. He is a former member of the OTIS Board of Directors and serves as Research Coordinator for MotherToBaby New York. Mark has provided teratology lectures at Arcadia University’s Genetic Counseling Training Program and educates medical providers and the public about teratology through lectures, participation in state and national conferences, and one on one conversations. He enjoys pronouncing generic names of drugs.

About MotherToBaby 

MotherToBabyis a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets. Also, make sure to subscribe to The MotherToBaby Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotify and podcatchers everywhere.