What to Ask When Buying Natural Household Cleaners

How to Read Product Cleaning Labels to Ensure You Buy Eco-Friendly Cleaners

In recent years, as public awareness of the problems with synthetic cleaning products has increased, a new breed of cleaning product manufacturer has come up with a better alternative. These companies have combined the traditional ingredients our ancestors used with a broad range of previously unavailable naturally based ingredients made possible by new technologies. The result is a brand new kind of cleaning product, one that’s as effective as its chemical counterparts but presents none of their toxic dangers when used around the house.

Sadly, figuring out which products are really safe, natural, and (importantly!) effective can be a challenge. That’s because many manufacturers make misleading claims about the environmental benefits of their products. The same public awareness that has led to the creation of legitimately healthier alternatives has also led to a phenomenon called greenwashing. Greenwashing occurs when manufacturers attempt to label a product “green” or “environmentally friendly” when in fact it’s not much different from regular products of its kind.

You’ll find a brand-by-brand guide to cleaning products in the back of this book that will provide you with a comparative analysis and point you to the very safest alternatives. In addition to that research, there’s some important on-the-spot investigating that you can conduct in the aisles of your local store in order to evaluate the products you find there and make the healthiest possible purchasing decisions.  Such efforts aren’t always easy but given all that’s at stake they are certainly among the most important actions we consumers can take for our families.

When shopping for cleaning products, inspect labels carefully and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. If the label includes the notice: “Poison,” “Warning,” or “Danger” stop right there and avoid the product altogether. Note that many products can contain the word “Caution” without necessarily being toxic. For example, any product sold in a powder form will be a potential irritant if it ends up in your eyes. If you see “Caution” on the label, use your judgment and ask yourself this: Does it refer to serious chemical hazards hidden in the product, or is it simply a common sense precautionary statement based on the fact that even some natural ingredients can be harmful in large doses?
  2. Are all ingredients listed clearly on the label along with a statement that notes that full ingredient disclosure has been made, or are only acutely hazardous or active ingredients listed? Look for complete listings and avoid products that offer only a partial listing.
  3. Are all ingredients listed by specific name or are they hidden under broad categories like “surfactant,” “dispersal agents,” “inert ingredients,” etc.? Don’t buy a product that lists its ingredients by category. Choose alternatives that have all their ingredients clearly listed by name.
  4. Does the product label provide you with information concerning the source of each of its ingredients in order to help you assess its safety? Look for products whose labels help explain these origins and provide the most complete information. Avoid products that are content to simply offer a chemical or ingredient name with no further explanation. If a company doesn’t want to tell you where an ingredient comes from, there’s probably a reason why.
  5. Are there any ingredients listed on the label that appear to be synthetic in nature? This is a difficult point to ascertain because even natural ingredients have chemical names, and most of these names are fairly unintelligible to those of us without degrees in chemistry. Still, it’s worth trying to decode chemical names on product labels because they can provide important hints about toxicity. Certain clues in the names of chemicals are a tip-off to a toxic formula. While our system isn’t completely fool-proof, the presence of any of the following indicate a product that likely should be avoided:
  • The presence of “chlor” in any part of any chemical name indicates a chlorinated chemical.
  • Any ingredient ending in “-ene” like benzene, toulene, or xylene indicates the likely presence of a petroleum-based solvent. Note that sometimes these chemicals are called benzol, toluol, and xylol, which makes the ending “ol” another identifier.
  • Petroleum distillates or naphthas.
  • Any ingredient with “glycol” as part of its name, indicating a petroleum-based polyol or ether.
  • Any ingredient with “phenol” as part of its name, especially at the end, indicating the use of toxic coal tar derivatives.
  1. If a product says that it is biodegradable, what length of time is being referred to? If it isn’t “readily biodegradable,” then it may take several lifetimes to break down, which effectively makes its toxicity semi-permanent.

  2. Is there information on the label that says the product is either “combustible” or “flammable,” or is there a warning statement that says the product should not be stored in temperatures above 120°? Such warnings usually indicate the presence of hazardous solvents, which typically account for the vast majority of the flammability hazards represented by cleaning products.

  3. Is there a warning statement that says the product should not be used around flame or open fires? This is another clue to the presence of hazardous solvents.

  4. Are there any precautionary statements on the label that warn of possible air quality dangers, such as a warning that the product needs to be used in a well ventilated room, that users should avoid breathing product vapors, or that the product can cause respiratory irritation and should be avoided by people with asthma, respiratory illnesses, emphysema, etc.? Avoid any products that have these or other similar statements.

  5. Is there a precautionary statement on the label warning that the product can cause skin irritation? Avoid any products that have such a statement.

If you can’t find the answers to these questions on cleaning product labels, you may be able to obtain them from the manufacturers. Most companies offer a toll-free phone number consumers can use to contact them and ask such questions directly. In addition, some manufacturers will send you a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for their product if you request one.


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