Cleaners that market themselves as “green” like to claim they are safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional cleaners. But do they work? And are they really better for you -- and the Earth -- than conventional cleaners?
Many green products do pick up grease and grime as well as traditional cleaners, as shown by the growing number of them on the shelves of major supermarket chains.
"People aren't going to use products over and over if they're not getting the stains off, if they're not breaking up the soils," says Samara Geller, a database and research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. "They have been demonstrated to be just as effective at tackling various cleaning chores as traditional cleaning products."
But many alternative cleaners still carry health risks, and some “green” products sold by major cleaner manufacturers score better on safety tests.
The green cleaning products market boomed in the early 2000s, in part thanks to the introduction of less toxic products from traditional cleaner manufacturers like Clorox and Windex. Then in 2010, sales fell flat. The higher cost of these products has kept many consumers away, according to a survey by market research company Packaged Facts.
Geller says green products are usually worth the extra cost. "Can you put a price tag on safety? It is worth it, for the peace of mind associated with purchasing a product with higher standards for ingredient safety and transparency." She adds, "… you're paying extra for environmental protection benefits as well."
Yet the safety of green cleaners can depend on the ones you buy. Just because the word "green" is on the label doesn't mean the product is free from health risks.
What Does 'Green' Mean?
"Green" refers to cleaners that have less of an effect on human health and the environment than traditional products. Beyond that broad term, the definition gets murky.
"Green can mean many things. Green can be good for the environment. It could be produced using less water. … A green product does not automatically translate to nontoxic or non-hazardous to human health," says Scott Masten, PhD, a toxicologist with the National Toxicology Program.
He says "greenwashing" -- making products appear more environmentally friendly than they are -- is a "really big problem."
What's in Green Cleaners?
The government doesn't regulate terms like "natural" and "nontoxic" on product labels. And there are no rules governing which ingredients qualify as green.
"Some products are marketing themselves as nontoxic, but they're made with potentially toxic chemicals," says Geller.
"If they're using a word like 'nontoxic,' that's a red flag, because there's no such thing as nontoxic," she adds. "And there's no regulation of the word 'natural.' "
A 2011 study found that fragranced green cleaning products contained virtually the same levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as traditional products. VOCs are organic chemicals that have been linked to a variety of health problems, from eye irritation to liver and kidney damage.
Robin Dodson, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA, studied more than 200 different consumer products, including green cleaners. She found that some alternative cleaners contained phthalates -- chemicals that have been linked to respiratory issues, as well as reproductive problems in boys.
"The greener products tended to have some of the phthalates that weren't in the conventional products," Dodson says. Three phthalates -- dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), and di-n-propyl phthalate (DPP) -- were only in alternative products, and weren’t listed on the label. "We haven't evaluated them fully for their health effects."
Some of the leading green cleaner manufacturers use their own rules to keep their products “clean.”
The company Method has a "dirty ingredients list" of chemicals that aren't allowed in its products. Banned ingredients include chlorine bleach, triclosan, parabens, and phthalates, which studies have shown can cause health problems.
Seventh Generation uses what it calls the "precautionary principle."
"If an ingredient has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, we don't use it," the company says on its website.
Even so, several of Method's products scored an "F" in the EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning database. Among them are its Wood For Good Daily Clean, Almond, which EWG says could cause skin irritation, inflame allergies, and impact the nervous system.
Many of Seventh Generation's products earned an "A" grade from EWG. But the company also earned a few "Ds" for some of its cleaners, and an "F" for its Automatic Dishwashing Gel.
Method defends the safety of its products. Although the company says it supports EWG's efforts to "provide meaningful product safety ratings," it questions the evaluation techniques EWG uses. "In our opinion it's incomplete and too broad, resulting in potentially misleading results," says the company's public relations manager, Sara Berman. She says Method's entire product line is certified by Cradle to Cradle, a nonprofit organization that has its own set of safety and sustainability standards.
Seventh Generation did not return requests for comment.
There are several ways to avoid green cleaners that could be toxic:
- Check EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which cross-checked more than 2,000 different cleaning products and 1,000 ingredients against scientific studies and toxicity databases to find out which are safest. In some cases, conventional cleaners may earn a higher safety ranking than green cleaners.
- Look for products that are certified by the independent nonprofit organization Green Seal. The green checkmark is a sign the cleaner meets Green Seal's health and environmental safety standards.
- Look for the Environmental Protection Agency's Safer Choice seal, which designates products with less toxic ingredients.
"Looking for those two seals gives you a really good sense of how effective a product is," Geller says.
When you shop, watch out for caution words on the label, such as "flammable" and "harmful to swallow." These words are clues the product may contain unsafe chemicals.
"Even a green cleaner can have a caution on it," says Annie B. Bond, a healthy home expert and author of Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living. "A lot of the detergents are known to be toxic to kids."
Do-It-Yourself Home Cleaners
If you're concerned about the chemicals in both conventional and green cleaning products, you can make your own cleaners at home. Many ingredients already in your fridge and pantry will cut through grease and grime about as well as products you buy at the store.
Washing soda, or sodium carbonate, is a multipurpose natural cleaner. "You can peel wax off a floor. You can clean lots of soot. It's a heavy-duty degreaser," Bond says. You can find washing soda in the laundry section of your grocery store or online.
When sprinkled on a damp sponge, baking soda makes an effective multisurface cleaner. Use it on sinks, countertops, ovens, showers, and fiberglass. It also absorbs odors in the air, and in your laundry.
The active ingredient in stain-fighting products like OxiClean, sodium percarbonate "is an incredible whitener," says Bond. You can find it in powder form online.
Vinegar and water
"One of my favorite natural cleaners is white vinegar and water. It's amazing for a number of tasks," says Masten. "One thing white vinegar does pretty well is clean stainless steel." Vinegar is also thought to have antibacterial properties. In one study, malt vinegar killed the virus that causes the flu on surfaces.
Wool dryer balls
Instead of buying dryer sheets, make your own from wool yarn or leftover pieces of wool sweaters. The wool absorbs excess moisture in your dryer to prevent wrinkles. "If you're not the DIY type, they have ready-made dryer balls available at all major retailers, and you can buy them online," Geller says.