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Shopping Tips for Household Cleaners

The issues

Cleaning products are among the most significant sources of exposure to toxic chemicals in the home. The most important issues associated with household cleaners include:

  • Health concerns — When looking for safe cleaning products, it’s important to note that many products contain ingredients that pose potential human health hazards. The same chemical that provides a product with its cleaning power may exhibit other characteristics (like corrosivity) that increase potential health risks. Cleaning products are responsible for about 10% of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers. Failure to follow usage instructions may lead to high exposures that cause respiratory symptoms or skin irritation. Accidental poisonings may also result from failure to child-proof where cleaning products are stored.
  • Ingredient disclosure — In the past year, growing consumer concern about toxic cleaning products has lead most major U.S. manufacturers to publicly disclose the ingredients in their products. However, key gaps continue to limit our ability to assess product safety. Ingredient lists rarely contain information about the percent composition of different ingredients. In addition, some disclosed ingredients are generic. For example, many companies only indicate that a product contains fragrance — making it impossible to assess the safety of specific fragrance components, some of which are linked to allergies or other adverse health effects.
  • Environmental concerns — Cleaning products are typically washed down the drain to be processed by sewage treatment systems and then discharged into surface waters. Some widely used cleaning agents (like alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants) bio-degrade into persistent compounds that may pose ecological risks. Over two-thirds of the streams sampled by the US Geological Survey have detectable concentrations of persistent detergent metabolites (as well as disinfectants) that originated in cleaning products.
  • Waste reduction — Most cleaning products are now packaged in plastic bottles that can be recycled. However, many consumers dispose of these bottles as trash, adding to their community’s solid waste management challenges.

What to look for:

Safe cleaning products whose formulations have been certified by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program or GreenSeal.

Non-toxic products that contain no ingredients of health concern, or only ingredients of low health concern. Note that you may want to avoid even low concern ingredients if you are concerned about avoiding exposures (to ingredients like monoethanolamine) that could cause asthma.

Products that are efficiently packaged in recyclable containers. Compact or concentrated formulations are more efficient than standard formulations that contain more than 20% water. Bulk packages are preferable to smaller unit packages. #1 (PETE) and #2 (HDPE) plastic bottles are preferable to #3 (PVC) because they are accepted by more municipal recycling systems.

GoodGuide recommendations:

  • Avoid toxic cleaning products that contain recognized carcinogens like 2-phenylphenol, para-dichlorobenzene or other ingredients of high health concern like triclosan. GoodGuide lists the Ingredients to Watch for in Household Cleaners below.
  • Pay attention to product labels — Toxic cleaning products are generally labeled using a sliding scale of signal words — “Danger” or “Poison” indicates the most hazardous; “Warning” indicates moderately hazardous, and “Caution” indicates slightly toxic. Follow the instructions on how to use the product in order to avoid creating potentially hazardous exposures. Take special precautions with the most acutely dangerous cleaning products — corrosive drain and oven cleaners, acidic toilet bowl cleaners and products containing chlorine bleach or ammonia.
  • Avoid mixing cleaners, as many can react with each other to form lung-damaging gases.
  • If you want to avoid health risks, consider whether you really need to use product categories like air fresheners. By design, air fresheners continuously emit chemicals into the indoor environment. Regular use of these products results in chronic exposure to any hazardous ingredients they may contain.

Remember that companies advertising non-toxic cleaning products are not subject to strict rules about the marketing claims they can make. “Non-toxic” has no official definition, so unless a third party has verified this claim, it should not be equated with a “safe” cleaning product. Do not assume that “natural” plant-derived ingredients are necessarily safer than synthetic ingredients. Common fragrance and essential oil components like d-limonene (derived from oranges) are potential allergens and contribute to indoor air pollution by generating secondary pollutants like ozone.

Use GoodGuide’s Not Tested on Animals filter if you want to ensure your product choice does not harm animal welfare.

Use GoodGuide’s Fragrance-Free filter if you want to avoid potentially hazardous ingredients (like phthalates) that are a common component of fragrances.

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