It is wise to read the label. Don’t,
however, make a decision based solely on reading the label. The label
will not list all of the ingredients, some of which may be hazardous.
Most labels don’t’ list any ingredients. A study done by the New York
Poison Control Center found that 85% of the product warning labels were
inadequate12. Reading the label on a cleaning product is
similar to reading one on a bottle of pesticides. There may be one or
two “active” ingredients. The rest are listed as “other ingredients”.
Inert does not mean safe.
Cleaning products have been regulated by the Consumer Produts Safety
Commission since the introduction of the Federal Hazardous Substances
Labeling Act in 196013.
There are so many loopholes in this regulation that manufactures can
often put a single, general warning statement on a label that suffices
instead of listing specific toxic ingredients. Most chemicals have never
been adequately tested for toxicity.
Reading labels would be humorous if these products didn’t have
significant potential to seriously affect your health. You simply won’t
find anything meaningful on the labels. For example, the following was
recently found on a label of general purpose cleaner: “Ingredients:
cleaning agents, quality control agents, perfume, colorant and water”.
The words “cleaning agents” is obviously quite vague. It would be
expected to find cleaning agents in a multi-purpose cleaner. Ammonium is
typically in general purpose cleaners. Why isn’t ammonium listed?
Often the label will say “surfactant” but not state what the surfactant
is. You can’t trust the word “Natural” or “bio-degradable. These are not
a regulated terms. Lawyers can argue that just about everything is
natural. Bio-degradable may mean hundreds of years.
Some companies will engage in “green washing”, a practice where they
make their product appear to be non-toxic. One example is the cleaning
product Simple Green, which from its name to its advertising is marketed
as a safe, non-toxic alternative cleaner. It contains the dangerous
chemical butyl cellosolve, a compound found in toxic cleaners like
Formula 409 and Windex14. You wouldn’t know this from reading
Choosing at the Grocery
If you see the words “Warning”, “Hazardous”,
“Caution” or “Harmful” - stop. That’s an indication that there is a
safer product to be found.
Look for products with ALL of the ingredients listed.
In general avoid what appear to be synthetic
ingredients. Avoid chlorine and benzene. These are identified on the
label beginning with “chlor” or ending with “ene”.
Avoid products with anti-microbials.
Ask your parents what they used. The
old-fashioned way of cleaning worked and was typically less toxic
Trust you nose! Use common sense.
There are many brands of less-toxic,
natural and non-toxic cleaning supplies that list all of the ingredients
on their labels. These include: Seventh Generation, Ecover, Earth's
Best, Earthrite, Earth Friendly, Bio-Kleen, Life Tree, and Dr. Bronner's
Soap to name a few. These can be found at local health food stores as
well as most chain stores these days. The National Institute of Health
has a Household Products Database that can be useful to research