Are household toxins making you sick?

Avoid these deadly chemicals lurking in your home

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of highly toxic chemicals that are found in many everyday products like carpets, air fresheners, cleaning products and candles. They are released into the air as gases from solids or liquids and are responsible for the strong or unpleasant odours in these products.

VOCs are linked to a range of health issues including breathing problems, headaches, cancer and hormonal imbalances. Find out the common household sources of VOCs, why they damage your health and how to minimise your exposure to VOCs at home.

How do VOCs harm your health?

VOCs are commonly referred to volatile organic chemicals. Some of the most common VOCs include:

  • Acetone is widely used as a solvent in aerosols, nail polish remover and personal care products. It is also a component of some glues, adhesives and paint removers/ thinners. Acetone is an irritant to the eyes, nose and throat, and can cause dizziness, nausea and headaches. Long-term exposure to acetone is linked to reproductive and developmental effects.[1] [2]
  • Toluene is found in consumer products such as paint thinners, solvents, adhesives, and petrol. Prolonged exposure results in kidney and liver damage, anxiety, memory loss, respiratory distress, paralysis, and an increased cancer risk especially leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer. Inhaling toluene affects the central nervous system, leading to impaired vision and hearing, difficulty concentrating and hallucinations. Reproductive problems in both men and women have also been noted with toluene exposure – reduced sperm count, infertility, risk of miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth. It can also cause birth defects and developmental delays in unborn children.[3] [4]
  • Ethylene glycol is used as a solvent in aerosols and personal care products. It is a common ingredient in antifreeze (also known as automobile coolants). Long-term exposure to ethylene glycol may cause kidney and liver damage, as well as reproductive and developmental effects. [5] In addition to its toxicity, ethylene glycol is a problematic environmental pollutant and has been linked to groundwater contamination as it’s a major component of automobile exhaust. Because it is so widespread, it can be found in many water sources including rivers, lakes, and streams.
  • Formaldehyde is commonly used in aerosols, cleaning products, cosmetics and personal care products as a preservative. It is also used in building materials including chipboard, plywood, carpets, furniture and insulation. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing) and should be avoided at all costs. Long-term exposure causes serious health effects including Alzheimer’s disease, lung disease and cancer.[6] [7]
  • Benzene is an industrial chemical used in petrol, paint, detergents, dyes and It is found in aerosols and personal care products like shampoo, conditioner, hand sanitiser, deodorant and sunscreens. Long-term exposure has been linked to diabetes, kidney disease, skin rashes, respiratory problems, urinary tract disorders and cancer.[8] [9]
  • Xylene is a highly flammable chemical that can be found in paints, paint thinners, lacquers, adhesives and printing inks. Xylene is a neurotoxin, meaning it can damage the nervous system and cause a variety of health problems. Short-term exposure to high levels of xylene may result in dizziness, headaches, depression, nausea, and skin and eye irritation. Long-term exposure is linked to damage of the lungs, liver and kidneys, and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Xylene is also known to cause reproductive problems (in men and women), increased miscarriage risk, and developmental problems and birth defects in babies exposed in utero.[10] [11]

Common household VOCs and how to avoid them


Paints are a major source of VOCs that are released into the air during and a long time after painting. There are lots of zero VOC paints available (like Lakeland Paints and Little Knights) so be sure to do some research before your next DIY project.

Tap water

Tap water is another source of VOCs – they end up in the water system through manufacturing processes and environmental pollution. Invest in a high-quality water filter to minimise exposure to VOC-contaminated water. The filter should contain an activated carbon block.

Cleaning products

Cleaning products like bleach, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergents, window cleaners and carpet/ upholstery cleaners contain VOCs (ethylene glycol, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol). They are used as solvents to dissolve dirt and grime, making it easier to clean surfaces and reducing the time and effort required to achieve a desired result. VOCs are also used to mask unpleasant odours from cleaning chemicals and improve the effectiveness of cleaning products as they act as surfactants, which reduce surface tension and allow cleaning solutions to spread more evenly. Avoid these types of harsh products and use natural cleaning agents like vinegar and bi-carb soda instead.

Personal care products

Personal care products like shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, face creams, makeup, nail polish and nail polish removers often contain benzene, formaldehyde and acetone. Read product labels to look out for hidden VOCs and only buy products that are chemical-free and made from natural ingredients such as Bain & Savon and Primal Suds. The best approach is to make your own natural skincare products using apple cider vinegar, shea butter, beeswax and pure essential oils. Take a look at CNM’s natural skincare course. You can buy acetone-free nail polish remover and plant-based, non-toxic nail polish from brands like Earthy.

Non-organic produce

Non-organic produce is sprayed with pesticides that often contain VOCs such as toluene and xylene. Some of the chemical compounds from the VOCs are absorbed by plants and end up in fruits, vegetables and other crops. This absorption has a negative effect on both the quality and safety of the produce – it reduces nutrient density, flavour and shelf life, and causes discolouration. Additionally, the chemical compounds can be transferred to the consumer when the produce is eaten. If you’re eating non-organic produce, your fridge could be full of VOCs! The best way to minimise VOC exposure in foods it to buy organic produce and if organic isn’t available, wash fruits and vegetables in vinegar to remove pesticide residue.

Aerosol sprays

Aerosol sprays like hairspray, deodorant/ body sprays and insect repellents are full of VOCs: ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, acetone and benzene, and should be avoided at all costs. Aerosols are designed to be sprayed into the air for quick and easy application. VOCs are the key ingredients that make aerosols so effective as they are organic solvents that evaporate and disperse quickly and uniformly when exposed to air. They also control the release rate of the product which can be adjusted by varying the number of VOCs used. Some VOCs are used to give aerosol products a ‘pleasant’ odour and increase their penetration power, allowing them to reach deeper into fabrics and surfaces. Alternatives to aerosols include natural roll-on deodorants, gel instead of hairspray, essential oil blend rollers in place of body sprays, and citronella as a natural insect repellent.

Air fresheners

Air fresheners, scented candles and other fragranced room deodorisers contain VOCs that disperse into the air when sprayed or lit. Even though the air may appear to smell “fresh”, this is far from the truth. Don’t use these products as you’re breathing in toxic chemicals with every breath. A safer alternative is to use a vaporiser with pure organic essential oils


Carpets are made with formaldehyde which is released into the air as the carpet ages. The glue, foam, dyes and styrene/ latex backing in the carpet are the main sources of VOCs. These materials are often treated with flame retardants which can emit further volatile organic compounds into the air. Opt for wool carpet or solid wood flooring with an ultra-low VOC finish instead of synthetic carpet.


Furniture made from composite/ synthetic wood such as wardrobes, chest of drawers, tops of sofas and baby cots contain VOCs that off-gas into the air inside homes. The main culprit is formaldehyde which is released into the air when furniture is new; however, furniture can continue to off-gas for years and years. Formaldehyde is a chemical used in the manufacturing of composite wood products like MDF (medium-density fibreboard), hardwood plywood and chipboard. Don’t buy furniture made from composite wood and replace any VOC-containing furniture with a natural wood alternative.


Antifreeze is required in all vehicles as it helps regulate the engine in extreme temperatures and prevents water in the engine’s cooling system from freezing. Antifreeze is made from ethylene glycol which is a highly toxic environmental pollutant that makes its way into the air and water systems, thus increasing our exposure to it. A less toxic and more environmentally-friendly alternative is a vegetable-based antifreeze made of glycerine (also called glycerol) derived from soya and rapeseed or one made from betaine (from sugar-beet) or bio-PG (from corn).

Limit air toxin exposure

It is impossible to completely avoid exposure to VOCs as they are ubiquitous in the environment; however, keeping them out of your home is the first step to limiting your exposure.

If you live in an area where there are high levels of VOCs due to industry emissions:

  • Invest in a high-quality air filter and air purifying plants. Air filters that contain an activated carbon filter will draw the VOCs towards the filter and trap them inside. Ensure you replace the filter regularly.
  • Keep humidity levels low (below 50%) as high humidity increases the concentration of VOCs in your home. This can be done by using a dehumidifier, running fans and using extractor fans in the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Clean your home regularly (vacuum, mop, wipe surfaces) to reduce VOCs and other pollutants that accumulate in dust.
  • Monitor VOC levels using a high-quality indoor air monitor such as AirThings to check the levels VOCs, humidity, mould and CO2 in your home.

To learn more about environmental toxins, detoxication and ways to support your health naturally, take a look at the following short courses and resources: