EWG's Guide to
Healthy Cleaning

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Spring 2016 Update


Frequently Asked Questions

INFO / ABOUT THE GUIDE / Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

Most Common Questions

1- I can’t find my product or brand. Can it be added to EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning?

We add products to EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning periodically. Check back for updates.

2- Why are the ingredients on my product’s label different from the ingredients listed here?

Cleaning product makers change formulations periodically. Sometimes retailers still sell an older formulation from existing inventory. Sometimes you’ll have the latest formulation, but we won’t have rated it yet.

3- I represent a cleaning products company. How can I get my products listed in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning?

Contact EWG. We don’t have the resources to handle every request, but we will do our best to review and import appropriate product information.

4- I represent a cleaning products company. Can I use EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning ratings in my marketing materials?

We don’t recommend it. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning is updated periodically, which means that the letter grades may change based on evolving science, new information on cleaning product ingredients or other factors. We encourage consumers to check the EWG site regularly for product updates. EWG makes no representations or warranties about the products rated on this site. EWG disclaims all warranties with regard to the products on the site, including express, statutory, implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose.

Products, Scores and Methods

5- What is EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning?

EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning is an online hazard guide for household cleaning products, launched in 2012 to help people find products that fully disclose their ingredients and contain fewer ingredients that are hazardous or that haven’t been thoroughly tested. The database combines product ingredient lists gleaned from product labels, company websites and worker safety documents with information in more than 16 standard toxicity databases and extensive searches of peer-reviewed scientific literature. The database provides easy-to-navigate hazard ratings for more than 2,000 cleaning products.

6- How do you score ingredients and products in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning?

EWG has created a scoring system to give consumers the best information available to make informed, healthy choices.

To accomplish this, we asked four questions:

A complete technical description of the structure, definitions and algorithms used by the EWG scoring system can be found here.

  • Does the product contain hazardous substances? We scored the hazard of all the ingredients listed on the labels, websites and worker safety documents for the 2,000 cleaning products under review. We considered the credibility of the data sources, the comprehensiveness of the information and the severity of the health and environmental effects associated with these substances. We combined this information using EWG-developed scoring algorithms to produce a hazard score for each ingredient. We combined the scores of each substance in a product to calculate the product’s overall ingredient hazard score.
  • Do we know about all the ingredients? We gave each product a “disclosure” score based on how much information the manufacturer provides to consumers about a product’s contents. The more the manufacturer discloses, the better the product’s disclosure score, and vice versa. EWG scientists developed specific criteria and algorithms to generate the disclosure score.
  • Do other factors come into play? We modified some scores to take account of other problems or merits. Products that were highly acidic or caustic received demerits, as did those that violated a regulation. Products certified as “green” by an EWG-reviewed and approved program received an improved score.
  • How does this product rate overall? We translated final product scores into letter grades familiar to most readers. An “A” indicates very low toxicity to health and the environment and extensive ingredient disclosure. An “F” means the product is highly toxic or makes little to no ingredient disclosure. A “C” indicates an average cleaner that poses no overt hazards and provides some disclosure of ingredients.

7- Why is there a discrepancy between the ingredient scores and the overall product score?

A product’s score is not an average of the scores of its ingredients. Instead, it reflects the combined hazards created by the sum of its ingredients and may also indicate poor ingredient disclosure. We will not overlook hazards associated with an ingredient that may cause asthma, contain carcinogenic impurities or be acutely toxic to wildlife because many other low hazard ingredients are present. If a product contains ingredients that do not pose severe hazards and if it discloses its ingredients completely, it can score an A or B. A vague or incomplete list of ingredients will reduce a product’s score.

8- Why is there a range of scores for some ingredients?

Many ingredients are more toxic under some conditions than others. Take sodium hydroxide, also known as lye or caustic soda: when used in high concentrations, as in drain and oven cleaners, it is corrosive and can burn skin, eyes and lungs. These hazards don’t come up when a tiny amount of sodium hydroxide is added to a mixture as an alkaline substance meant to neutralize or counteract another ingredient’s acidity.

Some ingredients may have a range of scores depending on whether they might be ingested in food or drink, inhaled in a vapor or absorbed through the skin. That is why the product pages of this guide show hazard scores for ingredients in the context of that particular product. The ingredient pages show the full range of scores for that substance in various types of products.

9- Why does an ingredient have a score in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning that is different from its score in the Skin Deep cosmetics database?

It’s important to note a few key distinctions between the two guides. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning combines both evidence of hazard or toxicity and level of data availability into a single letter grade. An ingredient that lacks information about hazards has a C grade. Evidence that the ingredient does not pose hazards will boost it from a C to a B or A. Conversely, evidence of hazard will drop it to a D or an F.

In contrast, the Skin Deep scoring system evaluates each ingredient on two separate tracks: a 0-10 rating for hazards and a second rating for data availability.

Each rating system is customized to address the types of exposures most relevant to the products being evaluated. Many cleaning products are sprayed into the air and can be inhaled. There is significant evidence that use of or exposure to cleaners at home or on the job can increase the risk of asthma and other respiratory conditions. For these reasons, we often focus on exposure via inhalation in evaluating ingredient hazards in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

In the Skin Deep rating system, an ingredient in, say, a lip gloss, sunscreen or shampoo would most likely be ingested or absorbed through the skin. We have focused on the implications of those pathways of exposure for these products.

10- Does EWG endorse products or brands?

No. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning has been created solely for educational purposes, to help consumers make better choices when buying cleaning products. Product ratings are brand-blind. EWG does not endorse any brands or products.

Ingredient Types and Hazards

11- EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning says an ingredient may contain hazardous contaminants. How do I know if they’re there for sure?

Many common cleaners can contain hazardous contaminants that are unintentional byproducts of manufacturing processes. Cleaning product makers should be required to test ingredients for purity, but current law and regulation does not obligate them to do so. We encourage them to have such tests conducted by an independent certified lab and to submit this data to EWG for possible inclusion in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

12- Why do ingredients like "surfactants" and "cleaning agents" score so poorly in EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning?

Unlike cosmetics there is no requirement that companies list the ingredients in household cleaning products. As a result companies can use highly toxic chemicals and consumers have difficulty finding low hazard products. The use of vague ingredient descriptions like "surfactant," "cleaning agent," or "preservative" on cleaning products does not provide adequate hazard data for consumers on what chemicals they are putting in their homes.  These terms could encompass a wide variety of actual ingredients, ranging from low hazard to highly toxic. We designed a scoring system that does not assume that poorly described ingredients are low hazard. Therefore a vague label term like "cleaning agent" will be given the worst score for an individual chemical in that category. As manufacturers begin to disclose their complete ingredient lists to the public we will update our product information to reflect the more specific ingredient names.

13- What is EWG’s position on animal testing?

EWG supports uses of non-animal testing methods where available and effective and supports research on alternative non-animal health and safety testing. However, some studies involving animals are crucial to determining the hazards of chemicals that could harm the environment, wildlife, pets and public health. We believe that researchers can and should dramatically reduce the number of animals in these tests and that they can develop more efficient and humane testing protocols that reduce or eliminate unnecessary, duplicative and archaic tests. We encourage them to seek new ways to share animal test data within the chemical and personal care product industries.

Consumers have the right to know how the cleaners industry addresses public health and hazard data and animal testing. Some manufacturers have given animal testing pledges to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Leaping Bunny. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning reports this information.

Companies and Amending Product Scores

14- Can companies provide data to EWG to show that their ingredients and/or products are low hazard?

EWG makes a standing offer to any company represented in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to submit studies and other information for our review, including proof of compliance with government, industry or certification standards. If you are interested in submitting information, please contact EWG.

How to contact EWG

15- How do I submit comments and questions regarding EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning?

Contact EWG.

Healthier cleaning products

16- Do healthier cleaning products work as well as conventional ones?

Yes. When green products first hit the market decades ago, some did not work well. Over time their makers have reformulated many of them into healthier, effective household staples. Check out EWG’s 2009 “Greener School Cleaners” report to learn how many schools have made a successful switch to healthier products, even saving money in the process.

Homemade products made from simple kitchen ingredients have been keeping homes clean for generations. Tools like microfiber cleaning cloths and mops and abrasive sponges are chemical-free ways to remove dust, dirt and soap residues.

17- Do low hazard products cost more?

Not necessarily. Some low hazard options may cost more than cheap products containing unlisted or hazardous chemicals. But homemade products made with kitchen ingredients are both safer and budget-friendly. Save money with homemade cleaners. Buy concentrated formulas that you can dilute (with care!) at home, and buy products that you can use to clean a number of surfaces instead of specialty products with limited applications.

18- Do kitchen ingredients like vinegar and baking soda really work for cleaning?

Absolutely. Cleaning with kitchen ingredients is becoming more popular as people look for ways to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals and save money. Find recipes for EWG’s favorite homemade cleaners. When combining ingredients, be sure you understand which ones are less hazardous together and which combinations can cause harmful reactions. Never mix chlorine bleach with ammonia cleaners, vinegar or other acidic substances, or color-safe/oxygen bleaches.

19- Are natural and organic products always less hazardous?

No. Natural ingredients can be harmful and should meet the same health standards as those derived from petroleum. Some cleaning supplies contain substances such as linalool, eugenol and limonene, which are natural components of essential oils that can trigger allergic reactions.

Citrus or pine oil cleaners emit chemicals called terpenes that react with traces of ozone in the air to form formaldehyde. (Tip: avoid citrus or pine oil cleaners, especially on smoggy days when the ozone level is elevated.)

No federal regulations require that cleaning supplies advertised as “natural” or “organic” actually live up to these claims. Products bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “organic” seal contain ingredients from plants grown without artificial pesticides and fertilizers, but these products aren’t automatically safer for you or the environment. Some private certification programs are lax and misleading.

20- Are products bearing claims like “non-toxic,” “biodegradable” and “earth friendly” healthier choices?

Not necessarily. Many companies make misleading “green” claims to sell products. They are not required to back up these advertising claims. “Greenwashing” is common in the cleaning supplies industry. Some manufacturers may tout a positive aspect of their product but ignore health or ecological concerns associated with other ingredients. With the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning, you can see whether a product marketed with green claims is in fact a healthier, more environmentally-friendly product.

For an inexpensive green option, try cleaning with simple kitchen ingredients such as vinegar, lemons, baking soda – and a little elbow grease. Support EWG and we’ll send you a booklet of our favorite homemade recipes.

21- Lots of natural and homemade cleaners contain essential oils. Are they less hazardous?

Maybe not. “Natural” and homemade cleaning products aren’t necessarily any healthier than mainstream products. High doses of some natural substances can be toxic. Two common plant-based ingredients – tea tree and lavender oils – can provoke allergic skin reactions in sensitive individuals. Little is known about the risks associated with inhaling these natural compounds, though a recent study of air quality in spas in China found that tea tree oil generated higher levels of a class of indoor air contaminants called secondary organic aerosols than other essential oils did.

Given the evolving state of the science, EWG does not suggest that you stop using tea tree, lavender or other popular essential oils. However, it’s a good idea to go easy when trying a new product to see if you may be allergic to it. We suggest limiting use of products containing old or light-exposed essential oils because air and sunlight break them down over time, producing more potent allergens.

Spray cleaners and air fresheners expose the user and people nearby to essential oils via inhalation. With little or no data on the health effects of inhaling these compounds, such products should be used in well-ventilated areas and kept away from children.

Healthy cleaning

22- We need clean homes, schools and offices. Should we just learn to live with hazardous chemicals that claim to do the job?

No. Healthier – and effective – cleaning supplies are already on the market. Check hazard ratings in EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning – or make your own cleaning agents using simple kitchen ingredients. Follow EWG’s tips to clean greener.

23- Should we pay attention to the directions on product labels?

Absolutely. Product labels are the best place to find manufacturers’ advice on how to use their products efficiently and effectively, how to protect yourself from potentially hazardous exposures and what to do in the event of a spill, splash or other accident.

Read the directions to find out if you should ventilate the room or use gloves or other protective gear. In fact, these are smart steps to take when doing any cleaning task. Directions can help you avoid waste and excessive chemical exposure. Many products should not be used at full strength except to clean the toughest soil. Diluting them appropriately saves money and reduces chemical exposure.

24- What’s the big deal about dust?

Dust bunnies aren’t just unsightly and sometimes allergenic. They can also contain toxic chemicals such as flame retardants. Many chemicals migrate from home products, blow in through open doors and windows, and get tracked in on shoes, eventually winding up in indoor dust. One study by the Silent Spring Institute found 66 hormone-disrupting chemicals, including flame retardants, home-use pesticides and phthalates, in household dust.

Some toxic chemicals – even at very low doses – can harm human health. Young children’s developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic exposures, and they ingest or inhale more dust than adults since they – and their toys – spend lots of time on or very near the floor, where dust settles. They put dusty hands and toys in their mouths – sometimes quite often!

The good news is, you can get rid of dust with careful cleaning. Here’s how:

  • Vacuum frequently with a machine with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and can remove contaminants and other allergens that a regular vacuum would recirculate into the air. Change the filter often, and don’t forget to vacuum the stuffed furniture (get under those couch cushions)!
  • Wet mop uncarpeted floors frequently to prevent dust and dirt from accumulating (dry mopping can kick up dust). Buy wooden furniture or furniture filled with down, wool, polyester or cotton. These are unlikely to contain fire retardant chemicals.
  • Wipe furniture with a microfiber or damp cotton cloth. Skip synthetic sprays and wipes when you dust – they only add unwanted chemicals.
  • Caulk and seal cracks and crevices to prevent dust and dirt from accumulating in hard-to-reach places.
  • Equip a forced-air heating or cooling system with high-quality filters and change them frequently.
  • Avoid ozone air purifiers – ozone irritates lungs and does not remove dust or other airborne particles.
  • Pay special attention to places where little kids crawl, sit and play. They live closest to the floor and are exposed to those toxic dust bunnies.
  • If you’re dust-sensitive, delegate the dusty cleaning to someone else.

25- What does a clean room smell like?

Clean, pure air has no smell at all – that’s what we should strive for when we clean. Room scent may mask odors – or come from a toxic source. Many manufacturers add fragrance mixtures to their cleaning products and typically hide the full list of ingredients from consumers. Some common ingredients in these chemical cocktails, such as phthalates and synthetic musks, have hormone-disrupting properties, laboratory tests show. Common fragrance components in both natural and synthetic fragrances can cause allergic reactions. Still more have not been evaluated for hazards.

Avoiding products with added fragrance can reduce your exposure to unnecessary chemicals. Pick products whose labels say “fragrance free.” Give up air fresheners. Their sole purpose is to flood the air with fragrance that masks odors.

26- I have asthma. What should I do to keep my home clean?

Those already suffering from asthma know this condition can make people exceptionally sensitive to air contaminants, including those arising from ordinary cleaning. A 2009 study of asthmatic women who cleaned their own homes found that asthma symptoms increased after housecleaning. Inhaling cleaning chemicals or dust disturbed during cleaning may trigger these attacks.

Try these precautions:

  • Arrange for others to do dusty cleaning chores. A less sensitive family member may be more fit for the dustiest housework. A cleaning service that uses safer products may be an option for some.
  • Avoid spray cleaners. Breathing in tiny droplets dispersed by spray cleaners could irritate or damage the lungs. Substitute liquid cleaners and wet rags and sponges.
  • Open a window, run a fan and try an N95 dust mask. Better ventilation may reduce the concentration of dust and particles in the air. The filters in N95 dust masks, found at hardware stores, have been rated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to filter at least 95 percent of airborne particles.
  • Use EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to avoid cleaning products with fragrance, which can trigger asthma attacks, and other asthmagens, which can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people. Skip air fresheners, fabric softeners and harsh or irritating cleaners.
  • Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to reduce dust and particles.
  • Don’t trust advertising claims. A recent study by Women’s Voices for the Earth found that a dusting spray advertised for people with allergies contained fragrance and known allergens. Check lists of ingredients and contact manufacturers for more information.
  • Avoid cleaning on smoggy, high-ozone days. Ozone can aggravate asthma symptoms, so play it safe when it’s smoggy.
  • Don’t use ozone air purifiers. They emit irritating ozone and don’t remove dust, pollen or most other allergens.

27- I have young children. What can I do to protect them from cleaning chemicals?

The biggest danger for young children is drinking or eating cleaning products. Make sure all your supplies are labeled “poison” or “hazardous” and stored where kids can’t get to them. It’s smart to buy products packaged in child-resistant containers and to turn spray nozzles to the “off” position when you’re not using them. But don’t depend on the packaging to deter curious kids – lock up all your cleaners.

To reduce children’s exposure to cleaning chemicals, buy less hazardous products and follow our healthy cleaning tips. Keep young children out of rooms you’re cleaning. If they want to help you, ventilate well, have them wear protective gloves and stick to super-safe cleaners like vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice.

28- I’ve never had an allergic reaction to a cleaning product. Does that mean the products I’m using are hazardous?

Maybe not. Some common cleaning ingredients are sensitizers, meaning that repeated exposures can eventually trigger an allergy. Many chemicals associated with health hazards accumulate in the body over time. Some can pass into the womb. Read EWG’s report on the chemicals detected in newborns to learn more.

29- Should I get rid of old cleaners by flushing them down the toilet?

No. Water treatment plants don’t get rid of them. They can harm wildlife and contaminate streams and rivers. Use up an old cleaner before you shift to a healthier product – unless you are pregnant or experience an allergic reaction. A few more uses are unlikely to cause significant harm. If you choose to toss old cleaners, call your county for advice or drop them off at a household hazardous waste collection facility.

Questions about specific products

30- Don’t I need to use antibacterial cleaners to protect my family’s health?

No. Studies show that antibacterial soap provides no extra germ-fighting benefits and exposes you and your family to potentially harmful chemicals. The best way to stop the spread of germs is to wash your hands regularly with ordinary soap and water. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be useful in situations where soap and water aren’t available. Make sure your kids practice healthy habits, especially before eating, after using the toilet and during cold and flu season.

Use ordinary cleaning supplies, not antibacterial ones, to keep your home clean and prevent the spread of germs. By removing dirt and grime, you eliminate hiding places where germs thrive. The American Medical Association discourages use of antibacterial consumer products in the home because overusing them can encourage proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also called “superbugs.” While antibacterial cleaning products serve an important function in medical settings and busy public buildings like schools, there is simply no evidence that they provide any health benefits at home.

What works best at home? Wipe down kitchen counters regularly with ordinary cleaners. If you’re concerned about germ buildup in your kitchen sponge, wet it and microwave it for two minutes. When cleaning the toilet, toss your cleaning cloth or wipe into the laundry bin or trash right after use. Don’t use it on other surfaces. Keep your toilet brush in an out-of-the-way spot. With simple habits like these, you can keep your home clean and your family healthy without unnecessary and potentially harmful antibacterial cleaners.

31- What about bleach – is it good for home cleaning?

No. Bleach performs poorly on food residues, grease and other organic matter, hard water spots, dust, dirt and many other common household soils. Consumers seeking to disinfect with bleach rarely use it correctly. To kill bacteria and viruses, bleach must saturate pre-cleaned surfaces for 5 to10 minutes before being rinsed away. Scientific studies have not found antibacterial cleaners such as bleach to be effective in reducing illness at home.

Regular cleaning using ordinary cleaners, not bleach or other antibacterial products, is a healthier and more effective way to keep your home clean and your family healthy. Removing residues through regular cleaning prevents bacteria from flourishing on surfaces. The American Medical Association recommends avoiding antibacterial cleaning supplies because there is no evidence to suggest that they enhance health protections and because overusing them may spur development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or “superbugs.” Check with a physician if you or a family member has a compromised immune system and need to take special steps in home cleaning for health reasons.

32- What about fabric softeners?

Don’t use them – they’re unnecessary and contain potentially harmful chemicals. Fabric softeners and dryer sheets coat your clothes with a layer of chemicals, most commonly “quats” (short for quaternary ammonium compounds).

The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, a leading international authority on asthma, calls many of these chemicals “asthmagens,” substances that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people. Many quats also have antibacterial qualities. While it might sound useful to keep clothes germ-free, freshly washed clothes are already plenty clean. Overuse of quats may spur development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Most fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain fragrances, actually made up of hundreds of untested chemicals including toxic ingredients such as phthalates and synthetic musks – both suspected hormone disruptors. Fragrances are among the world’s top five allergens.

2010 University of Washington study on air contaminants from fragranced consumer goods detected between 18 and 20 chemicals in each of four laundry products tested – including the likely human carcinogens acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, the developmental toxicants methyl ethyl ketone and chloromethane, and allergens like linalool. These chemicals don’t belong in your laundry and your neighbors probably don’t want them in the dryer air that vents in their direction.

A natural fabric softener is 1/2 cup of white vinegar per load during the rinse cycle.

33- Do air fresheners destroy odors?

No, they just cover them up. They also contaminate the air, exposing people to a host of undisclosed, untested and potentially toxic substances, including phthalates, synthetic musks and allergens. Identify, clean up or remove odor sources. Open a window! An open box of baking soda can eliminate odors safely. Investigate persistent odors. They might be caused by inadequate ventilation, mold, mildew, pests or vermin.

34- What about scented candles?

Skip these too. Just like air fresheners, scented candles release mixtures of undisclosed fragrance chemicals into the air to cover up other odors. There’s no evidence to indicate that scented candles are any healthier than any other type of air freshener.

35- Should I use furniture polish every time I dust wood?

No. Regular dusting with a microfiber cloth is all you need. Microfiber is especially good at absorbing oils and grabbing dust particles. Wood polish often contains oil and is sticky, so it can actually attract more dust. Choose healthier wood care options with EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Or, make your own from kitchen staples such as olive oil and vinegar – click here for more homemade cleaning recipes. As with any new cleaning product, always try wood polishes on a small, hidden surface.

36- Can I use more (or more concentrated) cleaning products, soaps and detergents to get more cleaning power?

Not necessarily. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for cleaning heavily soiled surfaces or items. Using more (or more concentrated) products than recommended can leave residues that stain, may attract more dirt and grime and may even damage tile, wood, metal and other surfaces. Especially strong products may remove protective finishes. Using excess amounts of cleaners means higher chemical exposures for you, your family and the environment.

Regulation of cleaning products

37- Does the government require prompt recalls of all harmful products?

No. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates cleaning products, orders recalls only rarely. In most cases the agency negotiates with manufacturers for voluntary recalls. It relies on product makers and consumers to report injuries voluntarily. It has focused on products that cause immediate danger, such as fires or caustic burns. It makes little or no effort to protect people from asthma or exposure to carcinogenic chemicals or ingredients that are toxic to the human reproductive system.

38- What should I do if I have a reaction to a cleaning product?

Contact your doctor or call your local poison control center. Help others avoid the same experience by filing a report with the Consumer Product Safety Commission online, by e-mail ([email protected]); phone (800/638-2772, x650); fax (800/809-0924); or letter (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Injury Report, Washington, DC 20207). File a complaint with the product manufacturer.

39- Does the manufacturer’s ingredient list tell me everything that’s in the product?

Not necessarily. Consumers have the right to know what’s in their cleaning products, but many companies refuse to make public the complete list of ingredients in their products. Some describe components with vague terms such as “fragrance” or “proprietary surfactant.” The term “fragrance” signals a chemical cocktail that typically contains dozens of undisclosed chemical ingredients. Some hidden ingredients can cause allergic reactions. Many have undergone little to no safety testing.

Some products contain hazardous contaminants, many of which are unintentional byproducts of the manufacturing processes. Makers of cleaning products are not required to meet purity standards or test ingredients for contamination. They should be.

40- Can I avoid hazardous ingredients by reading product labels?

Not always. The government does not require health and safety testing of products and ingredients and does not insist that cleaning products carry a list of ingredients.

Ingredient disclosure on product labels would allow consumers to identify healthier cleaning products and avoid potentially hazardous ingredients. Moreover, cleaning product makers sometimes reformulate their products to eliminate hazardous chemicals so as to avoid disclosing them to consumers. Some product makers list ingredients online, but that isn’t very useful when you’re in the grocery store! Some companies will provide more information if you ask. Let them know you want a complete list of ingredients, preferably on the product label.

Antibacterial cleaning products contain pesticides that have been tested with EPA supervision. The pesticide content must be indicated on the label. In California, cleaning supplies that emit state-identified “Proposition 65” carcinogens and reproductive toxicants at levels above health-based limits must have a warning label.

41- What are Green Seal and EcoLogo?

Green Seal and EcoLogo are nationally recognized, independent groups that publish standards based on a transparent process. They revise their standards periodically to reflect the latest science. While these standards may not be perfect, certified green products are a consumer’s best bet to avoid “greenwashing.”

42- Doesn’t the government prohibit dangerous chemicals in cleaning products?

No. Companies that make cleaning products may use nearly any ingredient or raw material in their formulations without government review or approval. Ingredients like nonylphenol ethoxylate and diethylene glycol monomethyl ether (DEGME), essentially banned in other countries, are used in U.S. cleaning supplies. Neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor the Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to require companies to test products or most ingredients for safety.

The EPA is charged with protecting the American people from harmful industrial chemicals, but its powers, laid out in the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, have proven entirely inadequate to the task.

The EPA has jurisdiction over all pesticides, including antibacterial cleaning supplies. It may approve pesticides for use even when data gaps prevent a full evaluation of risks. Non-pesticide (“inert”) ingredients in antibacterial cleaning products are not necessarily non-toxic.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has just 500 employees nationwide to protect consumers from dangerous products, including cleaning supplies. It does not test or approve products or ingredients in cleaning products but can authorize a recall of a product that poses unreasonable risk of injury. Such recalls are typically voluntary and focus on obvious dangers such as chemical burns or fire hazards, rather than subtle risks such as asthma and cancer. The commission requires warning labels on products that are toxiccorrosiveflammablecombustibleirritating or sensitizing, or products that generate pressure through decomposition, heat or other means.

The commission has banned liquid drain cleaners that contain 10 percent or more sodium or potassium hydroxide by weight and that are not packaged in child-resistant containers. It has banned carbon tetrachloride, vinyl chloride and a few ozone-destroying propellants.

Many cleaners’ ingredients such as bleach or sodium hydroxide are poisonous or corrosive. They are responsible for thousands of emergency room visits each year by children who have swallowed them or by people burned by splashes and spills.

Some ingredients in common cleaning supplies have been tied to chronic health problems such as cancer and reproductive abnormalities. Prolonged exposure to chemicals of concern over a lifetime can increase the risk of these disorders. Little is known about the dangers of many components of cleaners because the outdated regulatory system does not require safety testing.

Making change

43- What will it take to clean up the cleaning products industry?

Mandatory ingredient disclosure and chemical safety reform are critically important. Ingredient disclosure on product labels would empower consumers to choose healthier cleaning ingredients and avoid potentially harmful ones. Consumer demand can have a powerful impact on manufacturers, who often reformulate their products rather than disclose dangerous chemicals. Use your product choices to send a message!

We can assure healthier cleaning supplies and other consumer goods by reforming the federal Toxic Substances Control Act to require that chemicals undergo basic toxicity testing and meet health and safety requirements before they go on the market.

44- How can I be part of the solution?

  • Clean greener at home: Use healthier products and practices (Check EWG’s green cleaning tips)
  • Use EWG’s tools to talk to schools and workplaces about green cleaning.
  • Ask cleaning product makers for more information, better labels and healthier ingredients. Letting them know that you care about product safety may encourage them to formulate healthier products.
  • Advocate stronger chemical policies. We need mandatory, complete ingredient disclosure on product labels and broad chemical protections to assure healthier ingredients in all consumer products. Sign up for EWG’s email list to hear about opportunities for taking action.

45- Are exposures to cleaning products too low to matter? After all, we don’t eat or drink cleaning supplies.

They matter. People breathe in sprays and powders, absorb chemicals through their skin or accidentally swallow them. Chemical residues on surfaces or in dust can contaminate hands or food and be ingested. Accidental exposure to harsh, corrosive cleaners can burn skin and eyes. Inhaling the fumes can cause lung damage.

Studies of chemicals in people’s bodies have detected cleaning ingredients such as phthalates, synthetic musks, alkylphenols and the pesticide triclosan. Some of these chemicals are potential hormone disruptors. A number of studies have linked phthalate exposure to disorders including elevated risk of sperm damage, feminization of the male reproductive system, neurobehavioral problems and insulin resistance.

46- I don’t use cleaners that often – do I face health risks?

It’s possible. Hazards tied to cleaning chemicals can affect anyone, not just custodians and others who are exposed regularly at work. Many of the worrisome ingredients in cleaners are found in other consumer goods as well, resulting in compounded exposure from multiple sources. To reduce your risks from harmful ingredients in cleaners, take basic precautions to limit your exposure. Use healthier products, always follow the label instructions, wear gloves and ventilate the room well to avoid breathing lingering fumes.

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