Safer Alternatives to Hazardous Products

Hazardous Products in the Home

As a consumer, you may assume that a product is safe if it's offered for sale. Unfortunately, many household products contain hazardous ingredients that can be harmful when you use them or dispose of them improperly. By understanding what products are hazardous, how to handle them and what alternatives are available, you can make your home and our environment a healthier place. 

Is it Hazardous? Read the Label

Read product labels and look for these signal words: danger, warning, or caution. These federally mandated words indicate the degree of immediate hazard posed by the product. Generally, danger indicates that a product is extremely hazardous. Warning or caution indicate products that are somewhat less hazardous. Products listing no signal words are usually the least hazardous.

 A product is hazardous when it contains one or more of the following properties:

  • Flammable/ combustible: Can easily be set on fire or ignited
  • Explosive/ reactive: Can detonate or explode through exposure to heat, sudden shock, or pressure 
  • Corrosive/ caustic: Can burn and destroy living tissue
  • Toxic/ poisonous: Capable of causing injury or death through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption 
  • Radioactive: Can damage and destroy cells and chromosomal material 

Tips on Reducing the Hazards in our Home

  • When shopping, evaluate your need for the products you buy. Don't fall prey to slick advertising and marketing. 
  • Buy only what you need and use it up completely to avoid generating waste. 
  • Never mix chemicals unless instructed to do so on the product label. 
  • Keep chemicals in original, labeled containers. Store away from the children, pets, and wildlife, in a dry secure location protected from harsh, damp weather. 
  • Never transfer hazardous products to food containers. 
  • If necessary, dispose of any leftover household hazardous waste at the HWMA Household Hazardous Waste Facility.

Safer Alternatives Guide 

Use the chart below to identify safer alternatives to common household, automotive, and gardening products.

Potential HazardSafer Alternative
Air freshenerIrritant, toxic
  • Locate and remove the source of the odor.
  • Open windows and doors for a few minutes.
  • Boil or simmer cinnamon and cloves. 
  • Pour pure vanilla on a cotton ball in a saucer.
Ammonia cleaners
(Never mix with chlorine bleach. Doing so produces a toxic vapor.)
Corrosive, toxic, reactive
  • Mix vinegar and salt together for a good surface cleaner.
  • Dissolve 4 tablespoons baking soda in 1-quart warm water.
  • Use soap and water, baking soda and lemon juice.
(Never mix with ammonia products. Doing so produces a toxic vapor.) 
Corrosive, toxic, reactive
  • Reduce the amount of chlorine bleach needed by half by adding 1/2 baking soda to top-loading machines or 1//4 cup to front loaders.
  • Use hydrogen peroxide-based bleaches. 
  • Use oxygen bleaches 1/2 per load. 
Drain cleanersIrritant, corrosive
  • Take prevention measure such as using a drain strainer to trap food particles.
  • Clean out obstructions with a plunger and/or a plumber's snake.
  • For clogged drains, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda, followed by 1/2 cup of vinegar, down the drain. Cover the drain and let sit for 15 minutes. Rinse with a kettle of boiling water.
Oven cleanersCorrosive
  • When baking on the upper rack, place a cookie sheet below it on the lower rack to catch drips.
  • Apply a homemade paste of soap, baking soda, and salt. Let sit for 15-30 min and then scrub.
Paint, oil-based/stain/sprayFlammable, toxic, irritant
  • Choose latex water-based paints. Latex paints contain fewer flammable and toxic solvents than oil-based paints. 
  • Apply paints by brush or roller rather than by spraying whenever possible.
Paint, water-based Toxic
  • Use whitewash (a combination of hydrated lime, water, and salt that lacks heavy metal pigments, alkyd resins, and other chemicals) for fences, barns, basements, and outbuildings. 
  • Look for new, low-volatility paints that have little or no ethylene glycol or other petroleum-based solvents.
Paint strippersFlammable, toxic, corrosive
  • If the paint does NOT contain lead, use a scraper, rasp, abrasive block, heat gun or sandpaper to remove paint without chemicals. Wear a respirator or mask to avoid breathing paint dust. 
  • Water and alkali-based paint stripper are less toxic than solvent-based types. They can be identified by a caution rather than a danger signal word on the label. 
Polishes/cleaners, metalIrritant, flammable, toxic,
  • For chrome, wipe with a soft cloth dipped in vinegar. 
  • For copper, make a paste of lemon juice and salt. Rub with a soft cloth. Rinse with water and dry. 
  • For silver, rub object gently with toothpaste, using a cotton ball to avoid scratching. Test first. 
  • For stainless steel, use baking soda, olive oil, or mineral oil for shining. To clean and polish, moisten a cloth with vinegar and wipe clean. 
Polishes/waxes, wood furniture, and floors Flammable, toxic, irritant
  • For unvarnished wood, apply almond or olive oil sparingly with a soft cloth. Let it soak in, then remove excess and buff hard. 
  • Use a commercial polish made with mineral oil and citrus oil, rather than one containing toxic petroleum naphtha. 
  • Rub toothpaste on wood furniture to remove watermarks. Polish with a soft cloth. 
  • For scratches, mix equal parts of lemon juice and salad oil. Rub into scratches with a soft cloth until they disappear.  
Rug/ carpet cleaners Toxic, flammable, irritant 
  • Remove shoes at the door to avoid tracking in dust and dirt 
  • Frequently vacuum with a well-maintained, efficient vacuum. 
  • For general cleaning, use a soap based, non-aerosol rug shampoo. Vacuum when dry. 
  • To neutralize odors, sprinkle baking soda liberally over affected areas let sit overnight, then vacuum. 
Stain/ spot removers Flammable, toxic
  • To make a wet spotter, mix 1 part glycerin, 1 part liquid dishwashing detergent, and 8 parts water. Store in a labeled plastic squeeze bottle. Shake well before each use. 
  • In a small jar, combine a spoon of dishwashing soap, a couple of spoons of baking soda, and a couple of spoons of hydrogen peroxide. Mix well and apply to stain. Scrub with an old toothbrush or something similar.

Potential Hazard
Safer Alternative 
  • Choose an antifreeze product that has a low level of toxicity. Propylene glycol is less toxic than ethylene glycol.
Car batteriesCorrosive
  • Buy longer-life batteries so you have fewer batteries to dispose of.
DegreasersFlammable, toxic
  • For general cleaning, select citrus-based degreasers over solvent types. 
  • For battery terminals, use a baking soda and water paste to clean away corrosion. After reconnecting the terminals, wipe with petroleum jelly to prevent future corrosion. 
  • For grease spots on the garage floor, sprinkle kitty litter or cornmeal on the spot. Allow to sit for several hours, then sweep up and dispose of in the garbage. 
GasolineFlammable, explosive, toxic
  • Limit your use of gasoline by choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle. 
  • Carpool, use mass transit, bicycle or walk more.
Motor oil Flammable, toxic 
  • Purchase re-refined oil if it is available. This will help improve the market for used oil, advance oil recycling efforts, help decrease reliance on imported oil and slow the rate of resource depletion. 
Polishes/ cleaners/ waxesFlammable, toxic, irritant
  • For car wash, use 2 tablespoons of mild dish detergent plus 2 gallons of warm water. Wash car over a porous surface if possible. 
  • For cleaning chrome, use baking soda as a scouring powder on a damp sponge, then rinse well. 
  • For cleaning tires, scrub tires with a brush using mild dish detergent and baking soda. 
  • For windows, windshields, and headlights, mix 1/4 cup of white vinegar or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in a quart of warm water in a spray bottle. Use as you would any window cleaner. 

Potential Hazards
Safer Alternative
Fertilizers, chemical Toxic, irritant 
  • Use compost. Compost can be made from green waste and organic materials.
  • Reduce the need for lawn fertilizer by mowing your lawn to a height of about 3 inches, which encourages deep root growth and uses less water. 
FungicidesToxic, irritant 
  • Remove diseased plants as quickly as possible and don't add them to your compost pile. 
  • Use natural fungicides such as copper soap which is available at most nurseries. 
  • Practice crop-rotation to avoid the build-up of diseases in the soil. 
  • Identify pests carefully. Most insects are either harmless or beneficial. 
  • There are various safe alternatives to pesticides depending on the pest itself. Contact your local nursery for in-depth information or visit the UC Agriculture & Natural Resources Cooperative website. 
  • If you choose to use a pesticide, use the least toxic one possible and always spot rather than broadcast applications. 
Rodenticides Toxic
  • Sanitation is crucial. Litter encourages rodents. Use garbage cans with tight-fitting lids and be sure there are no holes in the base. Clean up food scraps. Store food, including pet food, in metal containers that rodents cannot readily gnaw through. 
  • Use snap traps instead of baits whenever possible. Toxic baits can cause secondary poisoning of wildlife, pets, and even people.  
Herbicides Toxic
  • Know your weeds! Most annual and biennial weeds can easily be pulled by hand. 
  • Apply mulch to suppress weeds. 
  • For large areas, consider using livestock. Goats, pigs, and sheep are natural weed killers.