Cleaning Supplies: Secret Ingredients, Hidden Hazards

Could that colorful stash of cleaning supplies under your kitchen sink, in your broom closets and around the washer and dryer contain toxic compounds that might significantly affect your health and the environment? Unfortunately, for many common household cleaning products, the answer is too often “yes.”

EWG research into more than 2,000 common cleaning products lays bare the troubling consequences of the lack of federal oversight over the ingredients in cleaning supplies. Manufacturers can use nearly any substance they want, even those known to pose health or environmental hazards. And they can hide information about virtually all those ingredients from the eyes of consumers. The result is an unregulated industry and hundreds of potentially harmful cleaning products on store shelves.

Consumers in the dark

The label on a typical cleaning product is a mix of marketing hype and instructions for use. What’s missing is a list of what’s inside.

Cleaning products, unlike foods, beverages, cosmetics and other personal care products, are not required by federal law to carry a list of ingredients. This means that manufacturers have no reason to avoid risky chemicals that happen to clean well – even if they can trigger asthma attacks or skin rashes or are linked to cancer. Without full disclosure, consumers lack key information they need to select cleaning products made with safer ingredients.

Industry trade associations have launched initiatives to stave off federal legislation that would require ingredient disclosure for cleaning supplies. The Consumer Specialty Products Association, the American Cleaning Institute and the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association have a voluntary disclosure program. Most major cleaning supply makers have begun to post ingredient lists on their websites. But they rarely provide these details on the product labels, where consumers can see them in the store. Moreover, EWG’s review reveals that even online, most companies provide vague or incomplete information, listing broad chemical or functional groups instead of individual ingredients. Many others keep customers completely in the dark.

Secret ingredients you can smell

A key concern is the lack of disclosure of the numerous ingredients that can constitute a product’s fragrance. That pine or orange or lemon-fresh scent in your favorite cleaner isn’t necessarily natural. More often it’s a synthetic aroma engineered by combining dozens of chemicals.

The International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group, acknowledges that the scents added to cleaners and other consumer goods may contain any number of more than 3,000 different chemical ingredients (IFRA 2010). While some may be harmless, other common ingredients such as linalool and eugenol are allergens. Others, such as phthalates and synthetic musks, may disrupt the hormone system. Disclosure of fragrance ingredients would help sensitive consumers avoid allergic reactions and allow researchers to set priorities for safety testing of the chemicals most commonly found in household products.

Bill to require ingredient disclosure

To remedy this situation, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 3457, the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2011. This bill would require that makers of household and professional cleaning supplies disclose the ingredients on the label as well as on the web. It would also require disclosure of product contaminants and individual ingredients in fragrance mixtures. The result would empower consumers as never before.

Many ingredients are not disclosed to workers

Some information on cleaning ingredients is available in the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) that manufacturers must provide under federal law so that workers will be aware of chemical hazards in cleaning products they use on the job. These documents are far from all-inclusive, however. The sheets are only required to list chemicals strongly linked to serious toxicity that account for more than 1 percent of the product’s weight and known or suspected carcinogens that account for more than one tenth of 1 percent (0.1 percent). The sheets can legally omit even hazardous chemicals if they are part of mixtures the company claims to be trade secrets. Furthermore, Material Safety Data Sheets are often outdated and inconsistent and lack critical information on chronic toxicity and cancer (Welsh 2000; Nicol 2008; Karstadt 2009).

Product manufacturers often discourage consumers from consulting Material Safety Data Sheets, arguing some statements in the documents are misleading (e.g. WD-40 2011). Few of the Material Safety Data Sheets EWG reviewed for cleaning products had complete ingredient lists.

Few federal restrictions on hazardous ingredients

Cleaning products vividly illustrate the shortcomings of existing chemical safety laws. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which regulates industrial chemicals, does not adequately protect the public from toxic chemicals in consumer products. It forced regulators to focus almost exclusively on newly created chemicals, all but ignoring more than 60,000 substances that are already in widespread use. As a result, cleaning supplies and other consumer products often contain ingredients that have never been adequately evaluated for safety.

Ingredients with well-established health or environmental hazards are surprisingly common. Long-term exposure to quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” such as benzalkonium chloride, which are used as pesticides in antibacterial cleaners and as fabric softeners, are known to cause asthma in previously healthy people. The preservative bronopol (also known as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol) releases formaldehyde into the cleaning products it is added to, exposing consumers to a potent carcinogen. Studies of both workers and consumers have linked some cleaning products to increased risk for asthma and other health problems.

The toxic effects of some ingredients in these products extend to the wider environment; aquatic organisms in streams, rivers and lakes have been harmed by cleaning product ingredients that washed down drains or were discharged in wastewater (e.g. Bauer 2004; Ying 2004).

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting the public from “unreasonable risks of injury or death” from thousands of types of consumer goods, has the responsibility of guaranteeing the safety of household cleaners. With just 500 employees nationwide, however (CPSC 2012), when it comes to cleaners the agency typically focuses on the most obvious and immediate dangers, such as leak-prone packaging or poorly wired electrical products.

The agency did ban highly corrosive liquid drain cleaners that lacked child-resistant packaging and contained sodium or potassium hydroxide at concentrations of 10 percent or more by weight. It also banned carbon tetrachloride, vinyl chloride and a few ozone-destroying propellants in aerosol cans, but it has not addressed other health, safety or environmental concerns related to cleaners.

Despite regulation, antibacterial products can carry risks

Popular antibacterial cleaning supplies, often found in shopping carts, receive somewhat closer scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because they contain pesticides. Antibacterial and mold-fighting products must be labeled with the name and percentage of pesticides they contain, but they need not disclose other ingredients.

The EPA reviews the safety of pesticides before authorizing their use and conducts periodic reassessments based on new data. The agency is charged with reviewing and approving the specific formulations of antibacterial cleaning products and other pesticide products and assuring that so-called “inert” ingredients, including fragrance mixtures, are drawn from an approved list.

But in practice, the agency often allows the use of pesticides despite serious data gaps. Its safety review process lacks protocols for evaluating a product’s potential for developmental neurotoxicity and hormone disruption, even though several pesticides used in cleaning products have been linked to these health dangers.

Even the so-called “inert” ingredients in antibacterial products aren’t necessarily safe. The EPA itself cautions that “the term ‘inert’ does not imply that the chemical is nontoxic” (EPA 2011).

States step in to protect the public

Because of the federal government’s neglect of the hazards in cleaning supplies, many states have enacted their own regulations.

Improving ingredient disclosure:

  • California’s Proposition 65 requires all products to display warning labels if they contain ingredients known to the state to be carcinogens or reproductive or developmental toxicants at levels above specific risk-based limits. Some companies found to have omitted that information from their product labels have been required by legal settlements to reformulate the products with safer ingredients. In 2008, the Valspar Corporation, which made the graffiti remover Goof Off, was sued by a public interest law firm and forced to reformulate its product because its Proposition 65 warning label was insufficient (As You Sow v. The Valspar Corporation, 2008).
  • New York State has announced plans to enforce a long-forgotten law (New York 1976) that requires companies selling cleaning supplies in the state to file reports disclosing their products’ chemical ingredients and any company research on health or environmental concerns (NYS DEC 2011).

Pushing for safer products:

  • 25 states and the District of Columbia have imposed a variety of restrictions or bans on laundry and dishwasher detergents and other cleaning supplies containing phosphates in order to reduce pollution from wastewater. Phosphorus pollution triggers algal blooms that can be toxic to people, harmful to aquatic life, and costly to remove from drinking water sources (ISSA 2010).
  • California’s air quality laws and regulations limit releases of smog-forming volatile organic compounds from cleaners and ban certain polluting ingredients (CARB 2011).
  • Several states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and New York, require that only certified green cleaning supplies be used in state buildings or schools. Certification is done by the independent organizations Green Seal and EcoLogo according to health and environmental criteria and industry performance tests.

Occasionally, state regulations have motivated manufacturers to revamp products they distribute nationwide. For example, regulations limiting phosphorus content in dishwasher detergents, which went into effect in July 2010 in more than a dozen states, caused industry to reformulate products sold across the country (McCoy 2011). Still, a state-by-state approach is hardly an efficient or comprehensive way to protect American consumers’ right to know what’s in the products they buy or to assure that the products are free of potentially harmful ingredients.

EWG’s Recommendations

Cleaning up the cleaning products industry would make America’s homes, schools and workplaces healthier. Some forward-thinking manufacturers already sell safer effective products or provide lists of ingredients on their product labels. Consumers’ voices – and dollars – can be a powerful tool to bring about change. The Environmental Working Group recommends that consumers:

  • Support state and federal efforts to require cleaning product companies to disclose all ingredients on the label, where consumers need this information most;
  • Support reform of the outdated and inadequate federal system for protecting people from toxic chemicals;
  • Buy safer products with the help of the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, and try safer homemade recipes using kitchen ingredients;
  • Press schools, daycare centers and workplaces to clean with safer, certified-green products.


As You Sow v. The Valspar Corporation et al. 2008. Order Approving Settlement and Consent Judgment. Alameda County Superior Court, June 18, 2008.

Bauer HP. 2004. Environmental impact of inorganic detergent builders. Handbook of Detergents Part B: Environmental Impact, ed. Uri Zoller. Marcel Dekker. New York, NY.

CARB (California Air Resources Board). 2011. Regulation for Reducing Emissions from Consumer Products. Title 17, California Code of Regulations (CCR), section 94509.

CPSC (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission). 2012. Frequently Asked Questions.

EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2011. Inert Ingredient Frequently Asked Questions. Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, November 30, 2011.

IFRA (International Fragrance Association). 2010. Ingredients.

ISSA (The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association). 2010. ISSA State Phosphate Survey. December 2010.

Karstadt ML. 2009. OMG! MSDSs N.G. Rx? The Pump Handle: A water cooler for the public health crowd. February 2, 2009.

McCoy M. 2011. Goodbye Phosphates: Struggling automatic dishwasher detergent manufacturers turn to chemical industry for help with phosphate-free formulas. Chemical &Engineering News 89(4): 12-17.

New York. 1976. New York Department of Environmental Conservation Regulations Ch. X Part 659: Household Cleansing Products. Effective 10/01/76, last amended 10/07/85.

NYS DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation). 2011. NYS DEC Draft Proposal: Household Cleansing Product Disclosure.

Nicol AM, Hurrell AC, Wahyuni D, McDowall W, Chu W. 2008. Accuracy, comprehensibility, and use of material safety data sheets: a review. American journal of industrial medicine 51(11): 861-876.

WD-40. 2011. WD-40® Myths, Legends & Fun Facts.

Welsh MS, Lamesse M, Karpinski E. 2000. The verification of hazardous ingredients disclosures in selected material safety data sheets. Applied occupational and environmental hygiene 15(5): 409-420.

Ying G. 2004. Distribution, behavior, fate, and effects of surfactants and their degradation products in the environment. Handbook of Detergents Part B: Environmental Impact, ed. Uri Zoller. Marcel Dekker. New York, NY.

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EWG provides information on cleaning product ingredients from the published scientific... continue reading →
EWG provides information on cleaning product ingredients from published scientific literature, to supplement incomplete data available from companies and the government. The ratings indicate the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself - compared to other product formulations. The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors that determine actual health risks, if any. (Hide)
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