7 min read

Invisible Series: What's Really in Your Home - The Bathroom Edition

Dive into the makeup of your bathroom, from the tiles underfoot to the shower and vanity. Understand the hidden chemicals in common items and learn how to create a healthier space.


A Tile

WHAT’S IN IT: Components used in porcelain and ceramic tile manufacturing such as in their glazes often involve heavy metals like nickel, lead and cobalt as well as various oxides. Sealants and adhesives also pose a health risk as PFAS are incorporated to enhance bonding strength and resistance to water and stains. Sealants also often contain phthalates or isocyanates. Grout often contains additives, preservatives and other chemicals that can emit VOCs or other harmful substances.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: Lead exposure, particularly detrimental to children, is associated with cognitive and behavioral impairments. Exposure to other heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt can cause allergies, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory illnesses. Even low-level nitrogen oxide exposure can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Adhesives harbor chemicals that are released during their curing process. PFAS, incorporated into these adhesives to enhance bonding strength and resistance to water and stains, are associated with health conditions including cancer, reduced fertility, thyroid disorders, and other hormonal imbalances. The phthalates or isocyanates found in sealants have also been linked to asthma.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: Ensuring proper ventilation during installation and allowing sufficient time for tiles to off-gas can help mitigate health concerns where the use of sealant or grout cannot be avoided. Other recommendations include buying tiles made in the US that avoid lead glaze, using low-VOC or Greenguard Gold-certified cement backer board and cement-based grout which does not emit harmful VOCs.

B Flooring

WHAT’S IN IT: Bathroom flooring materials such as vinyl, laminate, engineered wood, ceramic and porcelain tile can be sources of indoor air pollutants. Vinyl flooring often includes phthalates to enhance flexibility, while engineered wood and laminate may use formaldehyde-based adhesives. Ceramic and porcelain tile flooring, although durable, may contain heavy metals like lead in their finishes. In addition to these concerns, grout used between tiles can contain additives and preservatives that potentially emit VOCs, impacting the overall indoor air quality.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: VOCs include chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene and toluene. Exposure to VOCs can lead to respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness and exacerbation of asthma symptoms. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues, as well as respiratory problems and allergic reactions. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and can cause respiratory irritation and allergic reactions. Lead contact can cause cognitive and developmental impairment. Ongoing research indicates that exposure to antimicrobial chemicals can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Contact with lead is associated with cognitive and behavioral impairments and is particularly detrimental to children.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: Natural stone, such as marble, granite, or slate, serves as a viable choice due to its minimal VOC emissions compared to synthetic materials like vinyl or laminate flooring, in addition to its natural resistance to mold and mildew. To further mitigate health concerns, especially when the use of sealant or grout is necessary, ensure proper ventilation during installation and allow ample time for any off-gassing. Select tiles made in the US that have eliminated the use of lead glaze, using low-VOC or Greenguard Gold-certified cement backer boards, and utilizing cement-based grout, which does not release harmful VOCs. Linoleum, a natural and eco-friendly flooring material made from linseed oil, wood flour and cork dust. Interlocking linoleum tiles eliminate the need for adhesives.

C Bathroom Hardware

WHAT’S IN IT: Older faucets and showerheads may contain lead in their construction. Chrome-plated fixtures might contain chromium, which can leach into the water supply. Bathroom hardware treated with antimicrobial coatings or additives may contain chemicals like triclosan or nanosilver which can contribute to antibiotic resistance and environmental pollution.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: Lead exposure can lead to developmental delays, learning difficulties and neurological problems. High levels of chromium exposure have been linked to respiratory issues, skin irritation and cancer.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: Opt for faucets, showerheads and other water fixtures made from lead-free materials. Look for products certified to meet lead-free standards, such as those compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Hardware made from stainless steel or brass is less likely to leach harmful substances into the water supply. Copper and its alloys, such as brass, bronze and copper-nickel, are good choices as they have natural antimicrobial qualities. Consider the importance of water quality; showerhead filters can prevent the skin absorption of impurities such as VOCs, chlorine and heavy metals. Steer clear of bathroom hardware treated with antimicrobial coatings.

D Paint

WHAT’S IN IT: Paint formulated to resist the growth of mold and mildew is frequently recommended for the bathroom. These products incorporate antimicrobial agents to reduce mold buildup. However, the inclusion of antimicrobials, solvents and flame retardants in many mainstream paints can drastically effect air quality. Commonly used paints are laden with a variety of chemicals, including formaldehyde and VOCs like benzene and toluene, recognizable by the 'new paint' odor and their impact on indoor air quality.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: The excessive use of antimicrobials may disrupt endocrine function. Flame retardants carry the risk of hormonal imbalances and increased cancer susceptibility. The emissions from these substances can pose serious health risks, with formaldehyde known for its carcinogenic properties and potential to harm reproductive health. VOCs are linked to respiratory problems and potential damage to the liver and kidneys.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: Enhancing ventilation can reduce the necessity for mildew and mold-resistant paints in bathrooms. Opting for environmentally friendly paint options, which utilize natural binders help improve indoor air quality. Claypaint is naturally moisture-absorbing and breathable, which helps to reduce condensation. Mineral-based paints, particularly those derived from lime, often feature low or no VOC content. They rely on natural earth or mineral pigments for color, promoting healthier air quality and are devoid of harmful plastics and microbeads.

E Showers and Shower Enclosures

WHAT’S IN IT: Showers and their component parts can create conditions conducive to mold and mildew growth. During construction, a PVC shower pan or liner - often used as a waterproof barrier behind or beneath tile walls and floors - can emit phthalates into the local environment. Bisphenol A, a chemical compound found in polycarbonate plastics, along with epoxy resins, may also be present in materials such as plastic liners or coatings. Additionally, some materials may contain antimicrobial agents like triclosan or nano-silver particles to inhibit bacterial and mold growth. Synthetic rubber caulking can emit VOCs while silicone ones may contain harmful fungicides. Moreover, plastic shower curtains made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), can release toxic chemicals including phthalates and VOCs, especially when heated during showers.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: Prolonged exposure to VOCs or chemical residues in the shower can contribute to indoor air pollution and may cause respiratory irritation, headaches and dizziness. Phthalates, released into the air over time, may pose health risks such as endocrine disruption, reproductive issues and developmental abnormalities, particularly in children and pregnant women. Exposure to bisphenol A has been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive issues, and other health problems. Antimicrobial treatments are known endocrine disruptors and can be harmful to humans and the environment.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: To minimize chemical exposure and promote healthier indoor air quality, select shower components that are made from materials with low-VOC emissions, such as tadelakt, a waterproof lime-based plaster, or natural stone. Natural stone shower trays are a good option, but the installation method is crucial; ensure that natural stone is sealed with low-VOC sealant and caulking to prevent chemical exposure. Instead of plastic curtains, select glass doors or use curtains made from hemp or sailcloth fabric, which will require regular laundering to mitigate mold buildup.

F Bathtubs

WHAT’S IN IT: Older cast iron, steel, or porcelain bathtubs may run the risk of being coated with lead-based paints or glazes. As the glaze wears down from age and use, lead from the glaze can leach into bath water. Many fiberglass tubs are coated with gelcoat resin, which often contains VOCs.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: Lead contamination has been linked to delayed puberty, decreased IQ, and impaired hearing in children. Prolonged exposure to VOCs can contribute to indoor air pollution and may cause respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness, and other health issues.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: Opt for new cast iron tubs from the US, Canada or Europe that are free from lead. Enameled steel is also scratch-resistant, which helps prevent mold and mildew growth as well as toxin exposure. A mix of quartz and resin is another healthier option for bathtub materials, as it doesn’t require a gelcoat sealant. This mix is also naturally resistant to stains and mold because it is nonporous. Stone is another good (if expensive) option, but ensure that the sealer used is low-VOC. When choosing your bathtub, seek out Greenguard Gold Certification to ensure certified materials.

G Vanity Units and Storage

WHAT’S IN IT: Vanity units and cabinetry in the bathroom are often made from composite wood products such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF), particleboard, or pressboard, which typically contain formaldehyde in their adhesives. While these cabinetry materials and bathroom surfaces are being installed, their sealants and finishes often release VOCs and may contain toxic binders, yet their ingredient lists are frequently undisclosed. It's best to avoid laminate tops, which also often contain formaldehyde in their base or in the adhesive process. Neither product used for the base or top holds up well in the long term in high humidity and moisture-rich environments.

HEALTH IMPLICATIONS: Formaldehyde is a VOC that may off-gas in indoor environments, contaminating air quality. It is also classified as a carcinogen by the National Cancer Institute.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES: Opt for No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) wood products and consider reclaimed or solid FSC-certified wood, which eliminates the need for resins or binders altogether. Prefer products that meet the NAF standard for No Added Formaldehyde, the highest federal standard regulating formaldehyde emissions. Natural oils used in the finishing process of your cabinetry, devoid of harmful additives or synthetic accelerators, represent the healthiest choice for both finishes and sealants. Salvaged stone, such as marble or granite, provides sustainable and low-emission surfaces. Consider also low-VOC paints and varnishes to finish any units.