Many household cleaning products are toxic not only to germs, but also to humans and the planet. The majority of manufacturers have turned to harsher chemicals as a cheaper (and occasionally more effective or faster) way to sanitize and get rid of grime. But that doesn’t mean you have to use them to get a good clean. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to choose cleaner, greener cleaning products.
Why use “clean” cleaning products?
On a personal level:
- Cleaning is more pleasant – Using safer cleaning products will save you from the chemical-induced headaches, harsh smells, coughing, sneezing, skin rashes or burns that sometimes come with cleaning.
- Safer – You avoid exposing yourself and your family, housemates, and/or pets to unnecessary toxins. Ingredients in household cleaning products can be bad for your health. Some ingredients are carcinogenic (cancer causing), asthma-inducing, neurotoxic (toxic to the nervous system), teratogenic (disturb fetal/embryonic development), or endocrine disrupting (mess with your hormones).
- Better indoor air quality – While you might think you’re only exposed to the toxins during product use, many cleaning products contain ingredients that will slowly evaporate. These ingredients “offgas” (emit particles) into your air. In many cases, the components that end up in your air are VOCs (volatile organic compounds), including phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia. Cleaning products are one of the many reasons for poor indoor air quality.
- Less clutter – Non-toxic cleaners are often multipurpose. As a result you can get by with far fewer bottles under your sink! This can free up handy storage space.
- Cheaper – While some green cleaning products may appear more expensive initially, the fact that they can do multiple jobs effectively means less $ in the long term. And, you can feel better about the money you do spend. There are also plenty of cleaners you can make using cooking ingredients you may already have, like white vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap.
On a local level:
Wouldn’t it be nice if harsh chemicals just disappeared when you rinsed them down the drain? No such luck. They’ll run through your local treatment plant, where some will persist through water treatment. Common VOCs including phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia will float on to contaminate local rivers, lakes, and drinking water.
These chemical compounds from cleaning products, agricultural runoff, and personal care products build up and affect local plant and animal life. VOCs can act as fertilizer for certain types of plants, causing them to out-grow their competition. Overgrown plants then clog waterways, ultimately dying off in huge numbers. As they rot in the water, they lower the water’s oxygen levels. This causes algae to thrive while other plants and animals die. This downward spiral continues, ultimately making the water undrinkable and unlivable.
On a global level:
VOCs are also an ingredient in the “recipe” for ozone, a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In many cases, products that you rinse down your drain will ultimately end up in the oceans, and perhaps even in the fish you eat as a result. In contrast, safer products pollute less during and after the act of cleaning. Manufacturers that make these kinds of products are usually more eco-conscious. As a result, they generally use safer and more sustainable manufacturing processes.
A Quick Guide to Understanding Cleaning Product Labels
1. Warning Labels
While they may sound similar, “danger”, “warning”, and “caution” all indicate different levels of toxicity. While these warning labels can be specific to skin exposure, lung exposure, etc, the details below are specific to ingestion. More info here.
- Highly toxic!
- Lethal dose is a few drops to a teaspoon
- Typically reads “fatal if…”
- Potentially found on the labels of: oven cleaners, drain openers, dust removers, and toilet bowl cleaners
- Moderately toxic
- Lethal dose is a teaspoon to a tablespoon
- Typically reads “may be fatal if…”
- Potentially found on the labels of: floor cleaners, disinfectant sprays
- Low toxicity
- Lethal dose varies from an ounce to more than a pint
- Typically reads “harmful if…”
- Potentially found on the labels of a variety of products
No Signal Word
- Least toxic
- No precautionary statements required
- “Caution” signal word is optional at this level
Other Words to Watch For
- Flammable: Inherently makes the product more dangerous, and usually means it contains harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Many VOCs are linked to cancer and other negative health affects.
- Corrosive: May appear on products in the “danger” category. Also makes a product inherently more dangerous.
2. Ingredients List
Cleaning product manufacturers aren’t actually required to list their ingredients. As a result, they may list anywhere from zero ingredients to a few they choose. Generally, if a product has a thorough ingredients list, you’ve got a “clean” cleaning product on your hands.
3. Other Things to Look For
Words on the label or packaging
- Biodegradable: As an unregulated term, products with this label are not actually required to meet any biodegradable standard. The term “biodegradable” means the product’s ingredients can be broken down by living things and the environment over time.
- Non-toxic: Suggests the product is not toxic to humans or the environment, but is an unregulated term, and therefore not too helpful.
- No animal testing or cruelty-free: Product wasn’t tested on animals, look for third-party certifications like the Leaping Bunny.
- Dye-free: No dyes. Especially in the case of cleaning products, the color of the product doesn’t change how well it cleans.
- Caustic-free: Won’t destroy, “eat away” or burn eyes, lungs, or exposed skin.
- Phosphate-free: Fortunately, the vast majority of detergents in the U.S. are now phosphate free as a result of bans in 25 states.
- Hypoallergenic: While no product can be allergen-free for everyone, you are more likely to find this label on products without strong fragrances or common allergens.
- Fragrance-free: As mentioned in this article, the ingredients cloaked by the term “fragrance” can be nasty. Again, fragrance doesn’t actually help any cleaning product work better, so there’s no need for it.
- No or low-VOC: Product contains no or low levels of volatile organic compounds, which are heavily limited in California.
- Plant-based: Suggests product is formulated primarily from plants, which can mean it is made through more sustainable methods and degrades more easily.
- Other “green” or “eco” certifications: Labels like the EPA safer choice label are a good thing to look for. Products with the EPA safer choice seal are required to have lower levels of VOCs.
Larger containers or more sustainable packaging
- Larger containers: You get more product “bang” for your packaging “buck”.
- Sustainable/Recyclable containers: Prioritize products that are made from recycled materials and are themselves recyclable.
- Get refills and refillable containers: Many brands now offer large refill bags (of dish soap, for example). These packages are usually cheaper per ounce, and can be a great way to use less packaging. Refillable containers can also be a handy substitute for plastic cleaning product bottles. Choose glass or metal when you can and they’ll look neat too. If you invest in refillable containers, you can also use them for any DIY cleaning products you might mix up.
How to properly dispose of toxic cleaning products
Perhaps after reading this article, you take a peek at the cleaning products you are currently using. Maybe, you see some toxic things you’d rather not expose yourself or your family to. What then? If the toxic products are more on the “mild” scale (clothing detergent), and you are positive mixing them won’t be dangerous…you may be able to pour them into one container and throw that away. Then rinse any recyclable containers and recycle them.
However, in most cases, it’s probably better to ensure the hazardous chemicals in your cleaning products are properly disposed of. So, especially for harsher, more toxic cleaners, take them to your local hazardous waste collection site.
- Flush them or pour them down the drain
- Pour them out in your backyard
- Burn them
- Throw them in the trash or recycling (yes, even if the container is recyclable)
- Take them to a local hazardous waste collection site: Unsure of where yours might be? Earth911 is a great resource. It will answer your recycling and disposal questions about any object or material you can think of. Just click “where to recycle”. Then select the item you are looking to dispose of from the quick search or type it into the search box. Select “household”, then “household cleaners”, and type in your zip code.
What “clean” cleaning products do you use at home? Are there other ways you are making your home “greener”? Feel free to share in the comments below.
If you’re curious about exactly what toxic ingredients might be in your personal care products, here are 12 ingredients to avoid.