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.
Buying Guide: 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.
Scoring Personal Care and Household Chemical Products
GoodGuide counts the number of ingredients in each product that are categorized as low, medium or high health concern. We then factor in other negative information (such as regulatory restrictions) and any available positive information (such as third-party certifications) to assign product ratings.
To rate a personal care or household chemical product, GoodGuide considers the following attributes:
A health hazard rating based on the number of product ingredients categorized as low, medium or high health concern;
Indicators that the product exhibits other negative aspects (e.g., does the product contain ingredients that have been banned or subjected to regulatory restrictions);
Indicators that the product is among the best on the market in its category (e.g., has the product been certified as safe or healthy by a credible third-party);
Indicators of data gaps that preclude evaluation of the product (e.g., no or inadequate disclosure of product ingredients).
Categorizing Ingredients by Levels of Health Concern