July 3

Flashback Friday: Do Natural and DIY Tea Tree Oil Cleaning Products Disinfect as Well as Bleach?


Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Household cleaning products can be hazardous, landing hundreds of thousands of children in U.S. emergency rooms. And, “[t]he product most-commonly associated with injury [is] bleach,” which can be toxic even if used as directed.

We’ve known that those with asthma who work with cleaning products day in and day out can suffer adverse respiratory effects, a worsening of symptoms, “decline in…lung function,” inflamed airways. But, even cleaning workers without asthma can be affected. Even below so-called acceptable exposure levels, cleaners with or without reactive airways can suffer a substantial decrease in lung function.

Okay, but that’s people who clean for a living. “Although [we’ve known] that occupational use of bleach may have adverse respiratory health effects, it [was] unknown whether common domestic use of bleach” in the household may put lungs at risk—until now.

“Bleach use was significantly associated with [nearly five times the odds of] non-allergic adult-onset asthma,” as well as ongoing lower respiratory symptoms, such as chronic cough. The way bleach works is as such a strong pro-oxidant that – the thought is that it can lead to leaky lungs, and allow allergens to penetrate.

This phenomenon of cleaning product-induced asthma has been known for decades. More than three-quarters of the dozens of population studies looking into it have found “increased risk of asthma” or nasal inflammation. Ideally,…safer [cleaning products] should be available.” Unfortunately, this body of evidence has been largely ignored by the manufacturers and commercial cleaning companies. And, most of the workers put at risk are women. In fact, that may help explain some of the “gender differences in asthma.” “The relatively high frequency of bleach use for home-cleaning by women…around the world, together with the strong association between bleach use and non-allergic asthma…, emphasize the need for (re)-considering the use of bleach for cleaning…”

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There are natural, environmentally friendly cleaning products that may offer a safer alternative. Safer, perhaps, but are they as effective? We didn’t know—until now. “The effectiveness of three home products in cleaning and disinfection of Staphylococcus aureus [the bacteria that causes staph infections] and [E. coli ] on home environmental surfaces.” “The first report [ever] of [the] performance of purportedly safer alternatives.”

“In the home setting, some individuals will select conventional products, such as bleach, due to familiarity;” it’s a smell “some…associate with cleanliness.” “Others are seeking less hazardous and environmentally preferable…‘green,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘natural’” disinfectants, which you can buy or make yourself—so-called DIY (do-it-yourself) recipes, that typically involve ingredients like vinegar, club soda, and plant essential oils, such as tea tree oil, prized for its antimicrobial qualities.

So, researchers pitted head-to-head Clorox bleach versus a natural disinfectant based on thymol, which is from thyme essential oil, versus a DIY recipe of half club soda, half white vinegar, with a few drops of tea tree oil. You could probably buy the bleach for around $3, the natural stuff for more like $7, but the DIY mix for less than a dollar. Yeah, but does it work?

On the bottle, it says bleach can kill 99.9% of germs, which is the EPA standard for the disinfection of surfaces that don’t come into contact with food, like the bathroom sink or something. They claim 99.9% of germs, but when put to the test, the bleach actually killed 99.9999% of germs, completely wiping out the E. coli and staph germs, which even exceeds the EPA standard for food contact surfaces, like the kitchen counter. And, so did the expensive natural stuff—worked just as well as bleach. But, the club soda/vinegar/tea tree oil concoction… flopped, allowing as many as a few percent of the staph bugs to thrive.

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Now, maybe they didn’t use enough of the tea tree oil, only adding about a drop per cup. But, from a performance perspective, “the [environmentally preferable] product is an effective alternative to…conventional bleach”—and, I would say, even better, since bleach is “well known as a respiratory irritant.” And, it’s “corrosive” too, and may end up damaging surfaces. What I would find interesting is to test how effective a cheap DIY thyme-oil solution would be.

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