Announcing EWG’s Updated Guide to Healthy Cleaning, Spring 2016
The cleaning products in your home may be harboring hazardous ingredients. Many brands make it difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to learn what ingredients are in them. These products commonly contain chemicals that can cause reproductive problems, exacerbate asthma, burn or irritate your skin and harm the environment. Some have even been linked to cancer.
EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning was launched in 2012 to pull back the curtain on this secrecy. For this Spring 2016 update, we again analyzed thousands of product labels and images and hundreds of company webpages.
The Guide now contains information on more than 2,500 products, letting you easily learn about the health hazards and ecological concerns associated with the thousands of chemicals in cleaners. It's meant to help you make smarter, healthier choices, which will continue to push the cleaners market toward greater safety and transparency.
We've added or updated information for 406 products from 85 brands. We focused on the products you use most frequently - laundry (188 products), dish (124) and all-purpose (94) cleaners. The products highlighted were found on store shelves from October 2015 to February 2016 or were submitted directly to EWG by manufacturers. In addition to product packaging, labels and websites, information came from ingredient disclosure documents and worker safety data sheets, required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. All products were evaluated and assigned ratings according to our Guide to Healthy Cleaning methodology.
EWG's assessment found:
- Almost half of the products in this update were rated "poor" on ingredient disclosure.
- Only about one in seven products earned a grade of A or B, for low human and environmental toxicity and robust disclosure of ingredients. A little more than one-sixth earned a passing grade of C. The remainder - more than two-thirds - fell short, receiving a D or F.
- Almost three-fourths contain ingredients which may have worrisome respiratory health effects. Of particular concern, such chemicals were routinely found in all-purpose spray cleaners.
- More than one-fourth of products scored moderate to high concern because they contain ingredients linked to cancer or may contain impurities linked to cancer.
- One-fifth of products scored moderate to high concern because they contain ingredients associated with developmental, endocrine or reproductive harm.
- More than 10 percent of the products are corrosive, capable of permanently damaging eyes or skin.
- Ten percent of products were rated moderate to high concern for skin irritation and damage and skin allergies because they contain ingredients of concern.
- Almost 60 percent of products scored moderate to high concern because one or more ingredients pose a risk to the environment. These chemicals are only partly removed by wastewater treatment plants, don't readily break down, are persistent in the environment and toxic to aquatic life.
Although consumers increasingly are making purchasing decisions based on safety and transparency, no federal or state laws have been implemented that require disclosure of cleaning products' ingredients - not on the label nor online.
New York State passed a disclosure law in 1976, but it has never been implemented. In 2011 the non-profit law firm Earthjustice sued to force the state to comply with the law, and as of March 2016, the state is working on regulations. In 2011 and 2014 Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced federal disclosure legislation which is still under consideration by a House committee. In 2015 EWG and the Breast Cancer Fund co-sponsored California legislation to require manufacturers to disclose ingredients on labels and online for most household and commercial cleaning products. The bill failed to advance past an Assembly floor vote.
Some companies are committed to voluntary ingredient disclosure initiatives. Standouts like Seventh Generation and lesser-known companies like AspenClean have been disclosing their full ingredients for years. Recently SC Johnson & Son committed to disclose fully the composition of its fragrances for three products of a new scent collection.
Still, almost half of the products EWG assessed for this update rated "poor" on ingredient disclosure. Other disclosure details:
- Fewer than 40 percent rated "good," providing relatively complete and specific ingredient information, rather than hiding behind vague descriptions like "preservatives" or "surfactants." Five percent of cleaners, including some from Colgate-Palmolive Company and Sun Products Corporation, provided no information at all on the label.
- Almost seven in 10 of the products use the terms "perfume" or "fragrance," catch-all terms that can hide the presence of chemicals such as bioaccumulative synthetic musks, linked to endocrine disruption and reproductive and developmental harm. Seven percent listed the equally vague term "essential oil."
- Little more than a quarter of products fully disclose ingredients in any single location, whether on the label or online. Only 14 percent got full credit for disclosing ingredients on the label, and another 14 percent for disclosure on product websites.
- For half of products with available worker safety data sheets, the documents revealed at least one additional chemical not disclosed on the label or website. Most disturbing were the listing of benzene on the currently available (as of March 2016) safety data sheet of Palmolive's eco+ dishwasher gel and of formaldehyde on the currently available safety data sheets of eight other dish and laundry products.† Long-term exposure to benzene is linked to leukemia, anemia and bone marrow damage, and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, respiratory irritant and allergen.
- Twelve percent of products use the terms "dyes," "colorants", or "colors" instead of listing the specific chemical dyes. Two dyes that were sometimes listed are known as FD&C Yellow 5 and FD&C Red 40, which may cause allergic reactions or be contaminated with impurities known to cause cancer.
- Other frequently appearing but vague terms include "fabric brighteners" or "optical brighteners," chemicals that make clothes appear whiter. Some of the specified brightening agents that are listed are known to build up in the environment.
We also found many other chemicals of concern.
Almost 40 percent of products we reviewed contained isothiazolinone preservatives, which can either trigger or exacerbate allergies. Researchers and physicians from over a dozen clinics have reported cases of serious skin allergy, and an increase approaching epidemic proportions in allergies to a specific type of isothiazolinone known as methylisothiazolinone, or MI. The European Union recently lowered its safety standard for these chemicals in rinse-off cosmetic products, but the U.S. has no restrictions, even though hands and forearms are repeatedly exposed to these substances for long periods while washing dishes. A small number of products contain one of three preservative compounds that when mixed with water release formaldehyde.
Fourteen percent of products contain sodium borate, also known as borax, or its boric acid relatives. Sodium borate is an acute respiratory irritant that has been linked to nose bleeds, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest tightness. It is also associated with reduced sperm count and libido in exposed male workers and decreased ovulation and fertility in lab animals. Sodium borate and boric acid can also cross the placenta and harm the developing fetus.
Harmful germ-killing ingredients known as quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, were found in more than 40 percent of antibacterial products under review. Evidence is building that quats may impair human reproduction. Another active ingredient used in disinfectants is bleach, found in just over 10 percent of the disinfectant products and in over half of the dishwasher detergent liquids we reviewed. Bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, can cause severe burns and eye damage. Both sodium hypochlorite and quats can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people after frequent exposure to low concentrations. Lactic acid, a safer bet for killing germs, was found in just over one-fourth of disinfectant products we reviewed.
To search all 406 products included in our update and to find expanded details on these and other key findings, stay tuned to EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Over the coming months we'll be posting a series of blogs, revealing some clean and some not-so-clean products and trends.
† Products with formaldehyde listed on available safety data sheets:
- Ajax Dish Liquid, Lemon
- Ajax Triple Action Dish Liquid Hand Soap, Orange
- Fab Ultra Liquid Laundry Detergent, Spring Magic
- Finish All in 1 3X Concentrated Gelpacs, Orange Grease Cutting
- Finish All in 1 8X Power Gelpacs, Orange Grease Cutting
- Palmolive Ultra Dish Liquid, Original
- Palmolive Ultra Concentrated Dish Liquid, Lotus Blossom & Lavender
- Woolite Everyday Laundry Detergent, Sparkling Falls.