In a perfect world, perhaps we would all make our own household cleaners from vinegar, baking soda, soap, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice, salt, tea tree oil, etc. However, I still find myself relying on the convenience of store-bought cleaners on a regular basis, so here are some tips for finding a green cleaner (or making sure your favorite cleaner is green enough) until we reach DIY cleaning nirvana.
Look for Cleaners with One or More of the Following:
1. List of ingredients. I like the ingredients listed right on the package, but I also think it's fine if the package tells you how to easily access the full ingredient list online. If you have a favorite cleaning product that doesn't list its ingredients and want to investigate how toxic it might be, consult the Household Products Database (published by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services). Click HERE and enter your cleaner in the "Quick Search" in top of left sidebar or click on a Category.
2. No fragrance. If the ingredient list includes "fragrance," don't buy it. "Fragrance" is a trade secret, so companies don't have to disclose the individual ingredients, which means that any product with "fragrance" has one or more undisclosed ingredients. Note that "unscented" does not mean there is no fragrance. If you trust the company to not use toxic ingredients (such as phthalates) in its products, you might still consider purchasing a product with fragrance. However, I don't purchase products with fragrance period, just on principle. I think companies should disclose all ingredients used, and that means no fragrance.
3. No toxic chemicals. Check the ingredient list for harmful ingredients. Healthy Child Healthy World recommends avoiding nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), triclosan, ammonia, chlorine bleach, DEA, TEA, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid.
4. No scary warnings. "DANGER" is the strongest warning and any product featuring this warning should be avoided all together as safer alternatives almost always exist. "DANGER: corrosive" is used on products such as oven cleaners, drain cleaners, and some toilet bowl cleaners. "DANGER: harmful or fatal if swallowed" shows up on solvent-based cleaners. A less strong warning is "CAUTION," which even less-toxic or "green" cleaners often have. If you want completely harmless cleaners, you should probably be making your own.
5. Directions on label do not say "clean with potable water after using on a surface that comes in contact with food." Many years ago I noticed that this little tidbit was on my bottle of 409 cleaner, which I sprayed all over my kitchen counters and table. Was I rinsing the counters and table after cleaning with 409? No. Even after noticing this warning, I rarely rinsed these surfaces with water after cleaning with 409, even though my counter tops and table constantly came in contact with food. Maybe you are diligent enough to always rinse your counters and table with water after using a household cleaner, but I know I'm not, so I don't buy any all-purpose cleaner that includes this instruction.
6. Specific, verifiable claims about eco-friendliness. There's a lot of greenwashing going on these days. Specific and quantifiable claims which can be proven or disproved are more meaningful than vague, feel-good terms. Look for "phosphate-free" rather than "environmentally-safe," "phthalate-free" rather than "non-toxic," and "90% post-consumer content" rather than "eco-friendly packaging." Even better is a claim backed up by a third party (see next item). Many of the terms used on products -- green, natural, pure, biodegradable, eco-friendly, environmentally-friendly, non-toxic -- at this point are still unregulated and potentially meaningless.
7. Meaningful Eco-label. There are now a few third-party certifications out there for cleaners, including the EPA's Design for the Environment, EcoLogo, and Green Seal. You will have to look at the individual certification standards to decide if each is "green" enough for you. You could also consult Good Guide, which rates products according to Health, Environment, and Society (cleaners are under the category "Household").
8. Not tested on animals. Look for the Leaping Bunny logo.
9. Eco-friendly packaging. Look for cleaners with packaging that is made from recycled materials and recyclable. Cleaners that are concentrated and can be diluted are also good because they reduce packaging, energy for transportation, etc.
10. Trusted source. If you don't feel like doing a full-scale investigation whenever you need to purchase a cleaner, it can be nice to find a few brands (or stores) you trust and stick with those. I have been happy with the ingredients and effectiveness of Seventh Generation and Biokleen products. I've also posted about my favorite kitchen, bathroom, and laundry cleaners. If you purchase your cleaning products at Whole Foods or another store with its own more-stringent standards for ingredients, you will avoid the most toxic cleaners.
- Green Cleaning Series (Eco-novice)
- Dirty Secrets: What's Hiding in Your Cleaning Products? (Report by Women's Voices for the Earth)
- 5 Easy Steps - Step 2: Use Non-toxic Products (Healthy Child Healthy World)
- Misleading Green Claims on 95% of Home and Family Products (Healthy Child Healthy World)
- Safer Cleaning Products (Washington Toxics Coalition)