5 Ways Your Disinfectants Are Harming Your Health

The products that are keeping you safe from the coronavirus could be damaging your health in other ways.

You probably never thought so much about disinfecting your home, your car, and your personal spaces as much as you have during the coronavirus pandemic. But as well-intentioned as your daily disinfecting may be, your increased use of chemical products to combat COVID-19 isn't without its own set of potential dangers. "All chemical disinfectants are, by their very nature, potentially harmful or toxic to living organisms—including humans," says psychiatrist and neurologist Chris Norris, MD.

So, what exactly are disinfectants doing to your body and how can you protect yourself from COVID-19 without putting health on the line? We talked to Norris and other top medical experts to help you stay safe from the coronavirus and the disinfectants you're using. And for more disinfecting advice, check out The No. 1 Disinfecting Mistake You're Making Right Now.

They're damaging your skin.

closeup of man itching hands

"While disinfectants are intended to protect us from getting sick, they're a bit of a double-edged sword," says dermatologist Brooke Jackson, MD. "Cleaning of surfaces with disinfectant wipes can disrupt the barrier function of the skin when they cause irritation—including rashes or tiny splits in the skin—that invite pathogens to enter."

To help avoid this, Jackson recommends using gloves when wiping down surfaces with disinfectants. She also suggests that anyone with chapped skin apply a thick moisturizer to soothe their hands. "It coats the skin and helps to repair and seal the compromised skin barrier," she says. And for more ways to take care of your skin right now, check out 7 Things You Should Be Doing to Deal With Your Dry Hands.

They're causing chronic respiratory problems.

Young adult man suffering from sore throat

It doesn't matter which surfaces you're cleaning: Many of the most widely used disinfecting products contain chemicals that can be hazardous to breathe or touch, whether you're using them yourself or you're nearby someone who is. "Many disinfectants contain volatile organic compounds—known as VOCs for short," says Seema Sarin, MD, director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health. "Many of these chemicals are in products you may be using to wipe down surfaces every day, such as chlorine bleach, aerosol spray disinfectants, detergents, dishwashing liquids, and floor cleaning products."

The resulting health complications can include everything from chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and occupational asthma. Sarin recommends using disinfectant products only as directed and using proper protective equipment such as gloves and masks, especially in any poorly ventilated environments. And to find the mask that's right for you, check out Every Face Mask You Can Buy—Ranked by Effectiveness.

They're triggering allergies and asthma.

Woman having trouble breathing

Household disinfectants may be helpful in keeping viruses and bacteria at bay, but according to the American Lung Association, the harsh chemicals that many products use as ingredients can wreak havoc on air quality, triggering allergies and increasing the risk of asthma or other respiratory issues.

"Prolonged and consistent exposure to chlorine-based bleach can be harmful to your health, especially for young children," says Rashmi Byakodi, BDS, a health and wellness writer and the editor of Best For Nutrition. "An especially dangerous problem occurs when bleach is mixed with other household cleaners such as toilet cleaners and ammonia, which results in the release of toxic chlorine gas—a potentially fatal asphyxiant—that can damage your airways."

Besides avoiding mixing any cleaning products, you should also be cautious using any spray disinfectants that can be easily inhaled, especially in poorly ventilated areas. "Instead of spritzing, try opening the spray bottle and pouring the disinfectant on a sponge or cloth," says Jackson.

They're causing cancer.

Cancer patient

The heavy fragrances in many of your go-to cleaning products may create what seems like a clean-smelling home, but those fresh scents may actually be the signs of something much more dangerous: phthalates and parabens. "Companies who make these disinfectant products are under no obligation to disclose what is in these 'fragrances' or how they are made," says Norris. "Many of the toxic chemicals present have been associated with cancer." He recommends researching cleaning products before you buy, specifically looking for any that say "paraben-free" on the label. And for more ingredients you should be aware of, check out Your Hand Sanitizer Isn't Working If It Doesn't Have These Four Things.

They're causing autoimmune diseases.

Woman cleaning counter top in the kitchen

Disinfecting routines may get rid of viruses and bacteria you're trying to avoid, but the use of heavy disinfectants also kills the microscopic bacteria that cover the surfaces all around us. Unfortunately, bleach and ammonia can't tell the difference between the microorganisms that make us sick and the ones that are actually beneficial to our health. "Some bacteria are harmful and even deadly for humans, but others are necessary to help digest foods, protect us from other more harmful microbes, and challenge our immune systems," say Leann Poston, MD, of Ikon Health

Poston cites a theory in the medical community known as the "hygiene hypothesis," which posits a possible correlation between an increase in allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders with the excessive use of antimicrobial products or disinfectants. "The thought is, if the immune system is not busy fighting true pathogens, it might start attacking its own cells—an autoimmune response—or attacking pathogens that are not harmful, otherwise known as allergens," she says. To stay safe, make sure to avoid over sterilizing your home by establishing a realistic disinfecting schedule. And for more cleaning tips, check out the 7 Home Surfaces Most Likely to Be Contaminated with Coronavirus.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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