Cleaners: green buying guide 1/11
A growing number of less-toxic commercial cleaning products are now available in stores and online. However, because manufacturers are not required to list all of their ingredients, unless they are active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous, it can be a challenge to find the least-toxic formulations.
Your best defense is to carefully read and understand the label warnings on cleaning products, which can be challenging. All household cleaners that contain known hazardous chemicals must carry a warning label that spells out potential risks, along with precautionary steps and first-aid instructions.
In general, the more serious the safety warning on a product, the more likely that it poses risks to your health and the environment. Products labeled "Poison" or "Danger" are more toxic than those labeled "Warning" or "Caution."
"Danger" refers to products that are corrosive, extremely flammable, highly toxic, or poisonous. Commercial toilet-bowl, oven, and drain cleaners often bear this label.
"Caution" or "Warning" are catchall terms for many other hazards, so scan for specifics, such as "Vapor harmful," "Causes burns," or "May be fatal or cause blindness if swallowed."
"Irritants" refer to substances that cause injury or inflammation on contact.
"Corrosives" refer to chemicals that destroy tissue.
"Sensitizers" are ingredients that can cause allergic reactions and chronic adverse health effects that become evident only after continuing exposures.
"Chronic Health Hazards" may include effects ranging from sterility and birth defects to cancer.
Don’t assume that environmental and health claims are true. In many cases, manufacturers can make claims that are neither independently verified nor regulated. A proposed FTC green marketing guide, if approved, will require companies to disclose evidence to back up their claims. Among the most common claims found on cleaning products are the following:
To learn more about other common environmental and health claims found on household cleaning products, visit our Eco-labels section.
- Non-toxic. This implies that the product will cause no harm to the consumer or environment. However, there is currently no standard definition for the term "non-toxic", and unless otherwise specified, there is no organization independently verifying the claim.
- Natural. Though widely found on commercial cleaning products, the term "natural" doesn’t necessarily mean much. There’s no standard definition for this claim in industry, so manufacturers can use it as they please. What’s more, just because something is "natural" doesn’t mean it’s less toxic, or non-irritating. Even cleaners that are safe enough to eat, like lemon juice, can be irritating to the eyes or skin.
- Environmentally friendly. While this label implies that the product or packaging has some kind of environmental benefit or that it causes no harm to the environment, there is currently no standard definition for term "Environmentally friendly". Unless otherwise specified, there is also no organization independently verifying this claim.
- Biodegradable. This term is somewhat meaningful, but it can be misleading. "Biodegradable", which implies that a product or its packaging will break down in nature in a reasonably short period of time, has been only loosely defined by the federal government.
Be sure to check the ingredient list. Since manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients in their cleaning products, unless they are active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re buying. And bear in mind that unlike food package labels, when a cleaning product’s ingredients are listed, the order doesn’t necessarily represent relative amounts. Companies that claim to disclose their full list of ingredients include Ecover, Trader Joe’s and Seventh Generation.
Avoid harmful ingredients whenever possible. Certain chemicals found in cleaning products can pose health and/or environmental risks. To minimize these risks and to choose the best cleaners for your household, avoid the ingredients listed below. ( Note: this is not an exhaustive list and additional ingredients may be added as they come to light.)
If you’re concerned about specific ingredients in a product, call the company. The manufacturer’s name and address must be listed on all cleaning products so that consumers can contact them with questions, comments, or problems. While manufacturers are not required to disclose all of their ingredients, unless they’re active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous, you can try to request a material safety data sheet (MSDS), which contains information on the more-toxic ingredients or formulations used.
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). When they’re released into the environment, these chemicals can break down into toxic substances that can act as hormone disrupters, potentially threatening the reproductive capacity of fish, birds, and mammals. Found in many cleaning products, especially detergents, stain removers, citrus cleaners, and disinfectants.
- Antibacterials. Some antibacterial ingredients may cause skin and eye irritation, and certain types, such as triclosan, now found widely in the environment, may cause environmental harm by contributing to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Some studies have also suggested that triclosan could form dioxin, a carcinogen, in the presence of sunlight, and chloroform, a probable human carcinogen, in the presence of chlorinated water. What’s more, there’s a growing consensus that antibacterial household cleaners won’t keep you any safer from infectious illnesses than regular types. These findings may stem in part from the fact that most infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria. In fact, experts say, it’s not the type of cleaner that matters in combating germs, but the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning; plain soap and hot water are generally enough to do the job. Found in a variety of household cleaners; many products that carry the “antibacterial” label are actually disinfectants (see disinfectants below).
- Ammonia. Poisonous when swallowed, extremely irritating to respiratory passages when inhaled; can burn skin on contact. (Note: Never mix ammonia-containing products with chlorine bleach. That produces a poisonous gas.) Found in floor, bathroom, tile, and glass cleaners.
- Butyl cellosolve (also known as butyl glycol, ethylene glycol, monobutyl). Poisonous when swallowed and a lung tissue irritant. Found in glass cleaners and all-purpose cleaners.
- Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite). Extremely irritating to the lungs and eyes. (Note: Never mix chlorine bleach products with ammonia. That produces a poisonous gas.) Sold by itself and found in a variety of household cleaners.
- d-limonene. Can irritate the skin. Found in air fresheners.
- Diethanolamine (DEA) & triethanolamine (TEA). These ingredients can produce carcinogenic compounds, which can penetrate the skin when combined with nitrosomes, an often-undisclosed preservative or contaminant. Some products are labeled "DEA-free" or "TEA-free", which are considered to be somewhat meaningful labels by CU. Found in sudsing products, including detergents and cleaners.
- Disinfectants. This is a catchall term for a variety of active ingredients, including chlorine bleach, alcohol, quaternary compounds, and pine oil and ethyl alcohol. They are regulated by the EPA as pesticides and all have some health effects. Most can also cause problems in waterways by killing helpful bacteria. Found in a variety of household cleaners; many products that carry the “antibacterial” label are also disinfectants.
- Fragrances. May cause water eyes and respiratory tract irriation. Some products are labeled "fragrance free", which CU does not consider to be a meaningful label. Found in a variety of cleaners and air fresheners.
- Hydrochloric acid. Can severely burn skin, irritate eyes and respiratory tract. Found in toilet bowl cleaners.
- Naptha. Can cause headaches, nausea, and central-nervous-system symptoms with overexposure. Found in furniture and floor polish and glass cleaners.
- Petroleum-based ingredients. Many ingredients are derived from petroleum, including some of those above such as APEs and naptha, and they’re commonly found in many cleaning products as surfactants. Other toxic ingredients derived from petroleum, including formaldehyde, can also be present at trace levels in cleaning products. Found in a variety of household cleaners.
- Phosphates. Can reach waterways and contribute to the overgrowth of algae and aquatic weeds, which can kill off fish populations and other aquatic life. Some products are labeled "phosphate-free", which is considered to be a somewhat meaningful label by CU. Found in automatic dishwasher detergents and some laundry detergents.
- Sodium hydroxide (lye). Corrosive and extremely irritating to eyes, nose, and throat and can burn those tissues on contact. Found in drain, metal, and oven cleaners.
- Sulfuric acid. Can severely damage eyes, lungs, and skin. Found in drain cleaners.
Manufacturers may also post MSDS reports on their Web sites. You can search for safety information on brand-specific products and their ingredients by visiting the National Library of Medicine’s Household Products Database. The guide includes the potential health effects of more than 2,000 ingredients contained in 6,000 common household products.
Play it safe. Whether you’re using commercial or homemade cleaners, it’s important to follow safety precautions. Avoid splashing household cleaners on your skin or in your face and check labels to see if respiratory masks, rubber gloves, goggles, or other protective measures are recommended.
People with heart or lung disease and pregnant women should try to avoid products that contain chemical solvents. And since contact lenses can absorb vapors and hold them against the eye, causing irritation or eye damage, anyone who normally wears contacts should remove them and put on eyeglasses before handling such products. If you find that the cleaners you’re using irritate your nose, eyes and/or lungs, follow your instincts and stop using them. Finally, be sure to clearly label containers of homemade cleaners, and keep all cleaners out of reach of children and pets.
- Homemade cleaners often cost less. Mixing your own cleaners at home will almost always save you money, since you won’t be paying for the advertising, marketing, and other costs that go into a commercial cleaning product’s price.
- Using fewer cleaners can save money. Whether you buy or make them yourself, try to find one or two cleaners that can effectively clean a variety of surfaces. You’ll not only be able to save money and space, you’ll also cut down on packaging waste.
- Buying larger sizes tends to be cheaper in the long run. Larger sizes are usually, but not always, less expensive, ounce for ounce. Choosing large sizes can also mean buying less often, helping to reduce packaging waste.
- An ounce of prevention... If you can prevent stains from setting in by taking care of them right away, you’ll reduce the need for tough specialty cleaners, which are often relatively expensive, more toxic, and harmful to surfaces. Or better yet, try to prevent stains from happening in the first place.
- To avoid using oven cleaners, put a layer of aluminum foil in the bottom of the oven and replace it periodically.
- To avoid drain cleaners, put fitted screens over drains and pour kitchen grease into empty containers that can be disposed of in the trash.
- To avoid air fresheners, open windows to air out the house occasionally.
- To avoid bathroom mildew removers, wipe down the shower curtain and walls after showering.
- To avoid carpet cleaners, take off shoes at the door.
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Homemade cleaners: best recipes 1/11
New FTC rule would put an end to eco-friendly claims 10/10
Proposed revisions: FTC Green Guides 10/10