If you work eight hours a day, five days a week, for 48 weeks of the year, that adds up to potentially 1,920 hours spent sitting at the same desk, in the same room, in the same building over the course of the year.

That time is spent sitting on the same furnishings, using the same facilities and breathing the same air. Designers spend a lot of energy creating stylish and functional spaces that look fantastic, but how much thought goes into how healthy those fittings might be? When you come back on Monday morning to a nice clean workspace, what’s been used to freshen the place up?

Cleaning and janitorial staff are the unsung heroes of the office world (and of every other building too), moving in when the other workers are gone to wipe over the desks and empty out the bins. We assume they do a pretty thorough job, but we don’t know what cleaning products are actually used to clean the surfaces we touch every day.

Most of us know very little about the chemicals present in cleaning products, such as in general purpose cleaners, sanitary cleaners for the bathroom, laundry cleaning agents and dishwashing detergents. We trust that they will do the job they’re supposed to do and leave us with a fresher, cleaner and healthier living environment free from dirt and pathogens.

While this particular aim may be easy to achieve, what many people don’t realise is that the very products we use to make our living and working spaces better for us could, in fact, be quite harmful to the environment at large, as well as harmful to our health.

Many cleaning products can contain a range of potentially harmful materials. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), for example, can cause fumes which can have harmful effects for asthmatics and those with allergies, and can cause headaches. There’s also a plethora of chemicals which bear Risk Phrases, which are labels to describe the properties a particular substance may have, such as being a carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical) or teratogen (harmful to a developing foetus), for example. Such hazards are rarely apparent to those who use or purchase cleaning products.

If it foams and suds, there’s a strong chance it contains palm oil, the production of which can cause significant deforestation of rainforests if harvested unsustainably. Both palm oil and palm kernel oil are extensively used in a range of products on supermarket shelves thanks to their many desirable properties, such as having a stable shelf life and the ability to make products like shampoo creamier. In recent times palm oil has been under scrutiny thanks to its use in many chocolate products, but usage is far more widespread – palm oil and palm kernel oil are found in a whole stack of cleaning and personal care products too.

Ecolabelling programs play an important role in demonstrating that a cleaning product is safe to use. Cleaning products that have been certified under GECA’s cleaning products standard contain less harmful chemicals, no carcinogens or reproductive toxins, minimised VOC content and restrictions on fragrances and enzymes. They’re also better for the environment, containing only sustainably sourced palm oil products, reduced packaging, no phosphorous and a limit on substances that may be harmful to aquatic environments, where many cleaning products can be discharged.

The benefits of using third-party certified green cleaning products don’t just stop at making workplaces healthier. The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) now recognises cleaning products under its Green Star Performance tool. Using cleaning products that have been certified and meet particular standards will now directly count towards potentially achieving a ‘Green Cleaning’ credit in the assessment for the operational performance of a building.

Our workplaces can be enough of a petri dish of pathogens as it is, contributing to the spread of colds and bugs with ease via the air conditioning or the less-than-sparkling kitchen area. It makes sense to switch to cleaning products that are designed with lower toxicity and less chance of triggering allergic reactions.