Are your cleaning products toxic?

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When you look at the label on your jar of peanut butter or bag of chips, you will see all of the ingredients in the jar or bag listed. (You might not be able to tell if they used GMO corn in those corn chips, but you will see corn listed.)  You see it is mandatory to show all of the ingredients on labels in all food, cosmetics and drugs sold in the U.S.  That way,  you can choose to nix the face cream that is loaded with parabens and pass on the hydrogenated oil filled crackers.

Not so for the products you use everyday to clean your dishes, clothing, sheets and showers.

There are no requirements to label ingredients in cleaners.

Hence,  only 7 percent of companies adequately disclose the ingredients of their products and it is common to list just a few of the ingredients or describe them in vague terms such as “surfactant” and “solvent.” Well that “solvent”  might just be a known carcinogen. Once again, the Environmental Working Group has come to the rescue of the modern consumer.  They recently  created the first online guide that rates more than 2,000 household cleaners with grades A through F for safety of ingredients and disclosure of contents.

“Keeping your home clean shouldn’t put you and your family at risk, and with EWG’s new online guide you won’t have to,” EWG senior scientist Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D, said. “Quite a few cleaning products that line store shelves are packed with toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc with your health, including many that harm the lungs. The good news is, there are plenty of cleaning products that will get the job done without exposing you to hazardous substances.”

EWG’s staff scientists spent 14 months researching and compiling the guide.  They found that even some “green” brands do not disclose ingredients adequately.

I decided to check the cleaners I use to see how well they fared. I do most of my cleaning with baking soda and vinegar (this inexpensive, simple disinfecting spray works better than most commercial cleaners)  but I do buy dishwasher detergent, dishwashing soap and laundry detergent.  I tend to buy whatever “green” brand is on sale..in fact  there was a great sale on Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwashing Gel the other day so I  just bought five bottles.  Well, according to the EWG guide, those five bottles got a big fat F!  The funny thing is that Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwashing Powder, Free and Clear got an A.  Looks like I will be doing an exchange!   Obviously it is important to look at the specific products that you are using and not just the brand.  So how did my other cleaners do?  The Planet Ultra Dishwashing Liquid  got a “D” and the Trader Joe’s laundry detergent I have been using received an “F”!                                        Time for some changes.

According to a post on the EWG site, the day after their guide came out they were contacted by many of the manufacturers of poorly rated products.The manufacturers said they had added new ingredient information to their product labels, changed the ingredients – or both.  They were eager to give the EWG their updated information and, hopefully, get a better score on their products.   (Speaks to the power of information and why some companies fight so hard to avoid transparency.)  Weak disclosure or potentially harmful ingredients were two of the big reasons why many well known product lines ended up with low grades.  EWG responded:

We’re happy to get the new information and will use it to update the Guide on a regular basis, but for the most part, the original scores will stay.

Why?

Unlike a tomato or a banana, cleaning products don’t go bad in a hurry. If you’re like most consumers, you probably have bottles of window or floor cleaner under your sink or in your cleaning closet that have been there for months – if not years. In stores, too, it can take a long time before old inventory sells out and gets replaced with the “new, improved” versions.

I took a look at the Seventh Generation website to see if they had anything to say about the guide, and found that they did. While they were very supportive of the EWG and the guide, they took exception with some of their findings.  EWG considered ingredients listed as “essentials oils” or “preservatives” as “incomplete disclosure” but Seventh Generation said that the exact ingredients were also listed. They had differing opinions on other ingredients such as methylisothiazolinone with Seventh Generation explaining, “There’s also the sticky wicket of methylisothiazolinone, a synthetic preservative used to maintain freshness in our plant-based products. (Natural microbes love to eat our natural plant-based ingredients!) EWG gives this ingredient a D, though it meets our rigorous safety and environmental standards.”    In any case the end result is that Seventh Generation promised to continue improving their products and hope to eventually get an “A” rating on all of them.

The guide, it seems, is already having a positive influence.  Consumers can better understand what might be in the cleaners they buy and manufacturers are feeling the pressure to improve the transparency of their products.

So take a look at what is in your cupboard. See how your favorite products fare.  Think about whether you really need them at all.  Check EWG for their recommended products. Then vote with your pocketbook next time you buy a cleaner. Support a company that is making safe products.

…  and don’t forget to vote on the ballot for the other “information to the people” initiative  California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food.

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5 thoughts on “Are your cleaning products toxic?

  1. I always found it interesting how obsessed we are with cleaning things to keep them free of bacteria, by using cleaning products that may be more harmful. In Spain we have a saying, “matar moscas a cañonazos,” to kill flies with cannonballs. I like reading the ingredients, and the first time that I bought Sun Light, the only thing I could read on the label was, “Keep Sun Light out of the reach of children. If Sun Light gets in your eyes, rinse thoroughly with water.” But my favorite was “Keep Joy out of the reach of children. If Joy gets in your eyes…” The new labels say, “Keep product out of the reach of children,” not half as interesting. Needless to say, I don’t buy Sun Light or Joy anymore, I find it hiking with my friends. :)

  2. Great post. Ewg does good work on sunscreen as well. I hate how many different bottles of stuff we have and all the packaging. Any ideas on how to reduce those?

    • Yes EWG is a great resource. They also have a really thorough cosmetics safety database and a cool Food guide to climate change. I feel the same way about excess packaging, and I am so glad you asked about it, because after a little research, I found some great options! All of them can be found at the IV co-op. The Co-op has cleaners in bulk bins, facilitating the use of re-fillable containers. They sell a few different products. One is the Oasis line of dish and laundry soap. It comes from a company called Bio-Pac that makes a line of cleaners in re-fillable containers. The founder started his line after volunteering at a recycling center and being shocked at the amount of cleaning product containers coming in. He expanded his line of cleaners after a few years by purchasing a company called Oasis. Oasis soap was developed here in Santa Barbara by Art Ludwig, who is an expert in greywater systems so it was specifically designed for greywater use. (We used it years ago for our greywater system and it worked very well) They also sell Dr. Bronner’s Soaps (which can be used as shampoo, body soap, laundry soap etc..) and Griffin Remedy shampoos and soaps in the bulk bins. Dr Bronner’s soaps get an A from the EWG site. Yay IV co-op!!!! I also came across this innovative store in Texas http://in.gredients.com/ It touts itself as a zero-waste, package free micro-grocery. Love this idea!!!

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