Should You Buy Green Cleaners?
If you're considering these products, it can take some research on ingredients, how they work, and their impact on the environment before you can answer ‘yes’
As a kid doing chores around the house to earn my allowance, I grew up scrubbing the toilet, polishing furniture, and doing laundry. Mostly we used brand-name cleaners, or store brands that were close enough. I didn’t think much about why my Hong Kong immigrant parents chose the products they chose, but like most people, they probably wanted to use ones that did the job, from brands they trusted.
Cost was also a factor, as evidenced by the store-brand laundry detergent we used—and the fact that I only owned a single pair of shoes at a time, which I had to wear until they were so riddled with holes that my feet wouldn’t stay put in them.
What Does ‘Green’ Even Mean?
Cleaners labeled “green” are expected to get more popular, but the word itself is meaningless, says Samara Geller, a senior science analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit whose research identifies some of the safest products and ingredients for consumers as well as the environment.
Geller says green is mostly a marketing term, and it can be difficult to know what exactly is in products labeled that way without transparency into ingredients and formulas.
Eric J. Beckman, PhD, a chemical engineer and co-director emeritus of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees. He says green can be read by the average consumer and chemist alike as meaning any number of things: made from plants, gentle on skin, biodegradable, concentrated so it requires less water, or energy-efficient.
But some of these marketing messages aren’t necessarily true, Beckman says. His own idea of green takes into account “a full life-cycle impact analysis,” he says. That is, everything from how the raw ingredients are sourced, to the impact of manufacturing and shipping the products, to how the product affects human health, to how disposal of it afterward affects the environment. “But how can consumers understand this from what’s on a label or in a 10-second YouTube commercial?" he says.
Other greenwashing terms to watch out for include “natural,” “plant-based,” “non-toxic,” “free of,” and “eco-friendly,” Geller says. All are vague terms, often used simply to give a product a veneer of healthfulness. For example, just because a product is “natural” or “plant-based” doesn’t mean it is safe, and it could still have some harmful ingredients. And while an “eco-friendly” product may use, say, less plastic in its packaging, that doesn’t mean the product itself is not potentially toxic.
“A company that makes a product that is truly better for human health and the environment will not hide behind vague marketing claims and terms," Geller says. "It will reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals and disclose all ingredients on the packaging."
Marks to Look For
A better way to choose safe cleaning products is to look for those with seals of approval from independent, third-party organizations such as the EWG, the Environmental Protection Agency, UL (which also certifies things like home appliances and light bulbs for safety and sustainability), and the nonprofit group Green Seal.
Evaluations by each group start similarly: Manufacturers submit information about their products, which can include the ingredients and concentrations used, evidence that they follow good manufacturing practices (a standard that helps ensure quality and consistency), and descriptions of the steps they take toward sustainability, such as having energy-efficient facilities or using renewable energy. The groups may then evaluate the company’s claims and in some cases even conduct their own testing to verify those claims.
But the groups, and their seals, differ in the details and focus.
EWG Verified: To carry this label, products can’t include certain ingredients that have been identified by government and independent researchers as potentially harmful to human and environmental health. For example, products must limit their use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals that can linger in the air, where they can be inhaled and potentially cause short- and long-term health problems. Because VOCs are often in fragrances, products with the EWG seal often also have a lower fragrance concentration, meaning they don’t smell as strong as similar products without the seal.
Safer Choice: This designation, from the EPA, also takes into account what scientists know about how ingredients in a cleaning product affect human health and the environment. But it also considers to what extent a product’s packaging is sourced, made, and transported using renewable energy.
For laundry detergents, extra points go to products that work in cold water. That’s because heating water for laundry accounts for 90 percent of the energy used by a washing machine, according to the EPA.
UL Ecologo: This seal from UL signifies that a product has a lower environmental impact than other similar products. UL factors in things like a manufacturer’s energy consumption, water usage, and waste. It also considers whether a product can worsen indoor air quality and pose risks to people with asthma.
Green Seal: This organization’s badge also focuses especially on how environmentally friendly a product is. It considers the possible effects on aquatic life and how quickly the product degrades, and it rewards companies that avoid ozone-depleting substances, as well as those that avoid or minimize animal testing.
The Problem With Fragrances
Whenever I walk into my sister-in-law’s apartment, I’m always struck by the smell first. For some, a home can’t possibly be clean enough if it doesn’t smell that way, with a strong floral, piney, or linen scent. But fragrances can be problematic.
That’s because those smells often come from VOCs. And some research suggests that the VOCs in fragrances may worsen breathing problems, especially with long-term frequent exposure. In higher concentrations, VOCs released indoors can cause eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and allergic skin reactions. This can be especially concerning if you have people in your household or workplace who have asthma, which disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people.
That’s why the EWG, for example, requires that cleaners with its seal disclose the specific ingredients that make up fragrances. That information must be on the label itself or be easily found on the company’s website.
The term “fragrances” on an ingredients list can also hide certain other harmful substances, such as phthalates. These are chemicals associated with a host of health problems, from infertility to birth defects to heart disease. Companies should be transparent about what’s in their products, and disclose all ingredients in their fragrance mixtures, Geller says.
Other common VOCs found in cleaning products are benzene, found in some dishwasher detergents and other cleaners; ethylene glycol, used for spot removal; formaldehyde, found in some antibacterial cleaners; methylene chloride, for degreasing; tetrachloroethylene, used in dry cleaning; and toluene, also used for stain removal.
You can make your own cleaning products to use throughout the house with simple ingredients such as distilled white vinegar, citrus, and baking soda, at a fraction of the cost of a bottled cleaner you’d buy at a store, Geller says.
For general cleaning: Try using some good old-fashioned elbow grease, abrasive scrubbing sponges, and pastes made with baking soda and water or baking soda and a drop of your favorite soap or detergent, Geller suggests.
For the inside of your oven: Make a paste of baking soda, salt, and water as a scrub.
For dusting: Apply ½ cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a few drops of olive oil to a soft cotton cloth to dust.
For tubs and showers: Use a squeegee or clean towel to dry off your shower walls or tub after each use. “This lessens the chance for the interaction of minerals like calcium and magnesium in your water with the soap-scum forming ingredients like the fatty acids found in soap,” Geller says.
For a wood floor with a polyurethane finish: Mix distilled white vinegar with warm water. (See CR’s floor cleaner recipe here.) For most kinds of flooring, even just water will do.
Contrary to some recipes you may find with a Google search, don’t mix vinegar and baking soda, says Beckman at the University of Pittsburgh. “If you mix the two you get a salt dissolved in water, slightly fizzy water. This will provide no cleaning power at all and will leave a nice salty residue upon drying.”
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Whichever products you choose, try to use less, and buy them in concentrated form, Beckman says. A drop of detergent could be just as effective as a glob, and concentrated cleaners come in smaller bottles that use less plastic and use fewer resources to make and transport.
You can reduce the amount of cleaning product you use by focusing on high-touch areas like doorknobs, light switches, and faucets, Geller says.
And consider buying cleaners that come in glass or metal containers that you can reuse, then recycle.