Take a look at your cleaning products. Perhaps you have a shelf full of them — perhaps a closet, or a warehouse. Chances are, you have something that cleans floors, something that cleans glass, a carpet spotter, another bottle for the toilet bowl, and so on. But do you really know what’s in them?

Cleaning managers usually choose their chemicals based on performance and desired effect, but it may not be enough just knowing what the products do. So-called “active ingredients,” usually in a water solution, form the backbone of cleaning chemicals.

Knowing about the active ingredients is a must, says Doug Fratz, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, a Washington-based trade organization for manufacturers of chemicals for home and commercial use.

“You have to follow OSHA laws about hazardous materials, and in order to keep employees aware, you must know more about the products you’re using,” Fratz says.

“It’s irresponsible for us not to know. We’re not all chemists, but we better be that way fast,” agrees Lea Buburuz, corporation cleaning consultant for the British Columbia Buildings Corporation (BCBC) in Victoria, which provides real estate services to the provincial government and the public. Buburuz oversees cleaning operations, including chemical decisions, for more than 2,000 properties.

“I feel that a manager needs to know the ingredients in a cleaning chemical for several reasons,” says Arthur Sawtelle, supervisor of custodial services for Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “He needs to know the content in order to protect his staff and make sure that the chemicals they are using are safe for them and the surfaces they clean and for the environment.”

For that reason, Sawtelle doesn’t allow his staff to use ammonia, strong acids and certain solvents, and he limits their use of bleach.

Before allowing a new chemical into her inventory, Buburuz requests a full-disclosure Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the supplier. She maintains a list of banned substances, both by chemical and by brand name, and if any of the ingredients in the chemical are on the list, she won’t purchase it.

And her list is exhaustive — just about everything that has carcinogenic, pollutant or other toxic qualities is forbidden. Also off-limits is anything with unclear or incomplete research — for instance, she doesn’t use hydrogen peroxide in a solution because the germicidal data are available only for the full-strength chemical and not the diluted levels most cleaners use.

Buburuz doesn’t suggest every facility adopt her strict standards, but every chemical should be fully scrutinized.

“Get the label, get the MSDS, get the knowledge and make your own decision,” she says. “Some people still believe that if it’s on the supply shelf, it must be good. But now, we need to react based on technical knowledge.”

The Internet can be a good source of chemical information, but be sure the site you’re reviewing is up-to-date and directed at professionals, rather than at homeowners.

From ammonia to acid…
Here are some active ingredients found in cleaning chemicals, along with some possible side effects. Keep in mind that all of these products have both positive and negative qualities; read the label and follow all precautions to use them safely.

• Ammonia is a colorless, soluble alkali gas that occurs naturally in the environment. When used in cleaning compounds, it’s called “household ammonia.” It often is found in window and glass cleaners, but most ammonia produced in the U.S. is made for fertilizer. It can be irritating to the skin and eyes, and it may be dangerous to drink water or eat fish from water contaminated with ammonia, reports the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) , a unit of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

• Bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, is another alkali disinfectant. Bleach works by oxidizing, or breaking down the molecular bonds of stains and germs. Bleach in the bottle is generally a 5 percent solution. Toxic chlorine gas can be formed if bleach is mixed with acids, such as bowl cleaners.

• D-Limonene is a neutral compound extracted from citrus rind. Straight d-limonene can be used as a solvent; d-limonene combined with a surfactant can be used as a rinseable cleaning solution. However, Buburuz is concerned that the gasses used to artificially ripen citrus fruits may remain in the rind when they’re made into d-limonene.

• Enzymes and bacteria are used in degreasers, drain cleaners and stain removers. These live organisms consume organic materials, thus removing the blockage, stain or odor.

• Hydrogen peroxide is an acidic disinfectant commonly used in a 3 percent solution as a skin antiseptic. Like bleach, it works as an oxidizer. It can be used to whiten paper pulp and treat drinking water. It is often combined with other disinfectants for greater efficacy.

• Phenol is a manufactured substance used in disinfectants and resins; it can take many forms and can have many names. For instance, Nonyl phenol ethoxylate often is found in detergents. Skin exposure to large amounts of phenol has resulted in liver damage, diarrhea, dark urine and hemolytic anemia, ATSDR reports.

• Quaternary ammonium compounds are derived from an ammonia ion and are used as disinfectants. Sometimes called “quats,” these compounds are surface-active agents that break down the cell walls of microbes causing leakage of the internal contents. As with phenols, there are a wide variety of quaternary ammonium compounds under a variety of names on the market, and each has its own benefits and health/environmental risks. Check the label or MSDS for specifics.

In addition, housekeeping managers may look at product labels and find a variety of acids: boric acid, sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid and others. These chemicals can have a wide range of uses. Boric acid, for instance, is most often found in insecticides and baits. Some of the other acids listed are found in mineral-deposit removers and toilet bowl cleaners. Strong acids can be caustic to skin and irritating to mucus membranes.

Do Generics Matter?
When stripped down to the basics, generic equivalents of cleaning chemicals contain most of the same active ingredients as their brand-name counterparts. For instance, name-brand and store-brand bleach both contain sodium hypochlorite, and they usually claim to be in the same concentration. So what’s the difference?

Consistency, says Doug Fratz of the Consumer Specialty Products Association.

"Name-brands have efficacy testing, and the generics may not be as exact," he says. "There may be differences in shelf life and pH control."

That’s because generic products are often made regionally, by many manufacturers, so the formulations may vary from city to city, or even from bottle to bottle. Many generics may work just as well as the originals, but it’s hard to tell.

Name brands also can be manufactured regionally, but under the same manufacturer’s supervision, so quality control tends to be better monitored, Fratz says.

However, don’t rule out the use of private-label products from sanitary supply distributors, advises Arthur Sawtelle, supervisor of custodial services for Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

"Many companies’ ‘house brands’ are manufactured by brand-name chemical companies — which you can find out just by asking," he says.