1. Ingredients are privileged information.
About 70% of adults believe that companies are required to disclose all of the chemical ingredients contained in their products, which isn’t true. Manufacturers are only required to list the ingredients that are active disinfectants (because these are technically pesticides) or known to be acutely hazardous (which to them includes ingredients that cause fires or explosions, but not those that cause cancer or developmental diseases).
There is a voluntary ingredient disclosure program in the cleaning product manufacturing world, but it’s just that: voluntary. And it allows a couple of loopholes (like withholding the chemical makeup of fragrances, dyes and preservatives and omitting ingredients that are “incidental” and not functional to the product).
2. Labels can (and often do) lie.
With awareness about potential health and environmental impacts on the rise, consumers have an increased desire to buy products that are safer. To profit from this desire, manufacturers have begun using all sorts of marketing tactics to get us to believe their products are better. When it comes to conventional cleaners, manufacturers can make claims that are neither independently verified nor government regulated. According to Consumer Reports, some of the most common claims include:
- Nontoxic. This implies that the product will cause no harm to the consumer or environment. However, there is currently no standard definition for the term “nontoxic,” and unless otherwise specified, there is no organization independently verifying the claim.
- Natural. Though widely found on commercial cleaning products, the term “natural” doesn’t mean much. There’s no standard definition for this claim in industry, so manufacturers can use it as they please. What’s more, just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s less toxic, or non-irritating. The word “natural” can be applied to just about anything, including plastic, which comes from naturally occurring petroleum.
- Environmentally friendly. While this claim implies that the product or packaging has some kind of environmental benefit or that it causes no harm to the environment, there is currently no standard definition for term “environmentally friendly.” Unless otherwise specified, there is also no organization independently verifying this claim.
3. Cleaning with antibacterials does not necessarily protect your health.
Clever ads depict cartoon germs, bacteria and viruses covering common surfaces in our households, just waiting for us to touch them and invite them in for an infection. Unfortunately, attempting to sterilize your home is not only ineffective at protecting your health, it can actually be harmful to our health and the environment. Consider just a few of the following facts:
- Antibacterial products target good bacteria as well as bad, but our bodies need those good bacteria. They help us digest our food and keep harmful microorganisms from entering our bodies through mouths and noses. Our lives are so intertwined with bacteria that there are at least ten times as many bacteria cells as human cells in the human body.
- The bad bacteria we encounter typically have no impact on a healthy immune system. In fact, only 1 to 2% of microbes are likely to make us sick.
- A large number of recent studies have found substantial evidence that triclosan (the most commonly used antibacterial) and triclosan-containing products actually promote the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic medications and antibacterial cleansers. Triclosan is showing up in the environment, in drinking water, in breast milk, places it obviously doesn’t belong. And when it mixes with the chlorine used for cleaning drinking water, it turns into chloroform (a carcinogen that also causes liver and kidney damage). In late 2013, the FDA proposed a rule that would essentially eliminate chemicals like triclosan from antibacterial soaps. It doesn’t have enough data about its health impacts to say it is safe to use and that evidence shows washing hands with regular soap works as well as so-called antibacterial products.
4. Many conventional cleaning products are not safe when used as directed.
The average American home is a danger zone for families, harboring at least 63 toxic chemicals within easy reach. Many of these are found in our cleaning products, the second leading cause of childhood poisonings. Manufacturers stand by the rules of proper usage—they’re safe when used as directed—but this depends on your definition of safe. The manufacturers' definition of safe implies a lack of danger during a very small window of time, while you're using the product. Theoretically, if you use the product correctly, you will not experience any immediate harm.
However, our definition of safe is much broader. Is it safe for the workers who make it? Is it safe for the developing fetus or baby? Is it safe to be exposed to small amounts of this chemical repeatedly for many years? Is it safe for the ecosystem it eventually ends up washed into? Why do some products say to wear rubber gloves? And vacate the room after use?
Commercially formulated products can contain a host of harsh chemicals, including 1, 4-dioxane and methylene chloride, which are carcinogens, or phosphoric acid, a skin toxicant. Wood polish often contains toxins like nitrobenzene and laundry detergent may contain bleach and other corrosives.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside the typical home is on average 2 to 5 times more polluted than the air just outside—and in extreme cases 100 times more contaminated—largely because of household cleaners and pesticides. That doesn’t sound safe.
5. Simply because a product is for sale and on store shelves does not guarantee a governmental agency or regulatory body has declared it safe for your health and safe for use in your home.
The government only regulates cleaning products to the degree that it does what it says it does (e.g. if the product is supposed to whiten something, it whitens it) and not to the degree that it may harm human health or the environment. In fact, our own government regulations are so lax that some cleaning products contain ingredients banned or restricted in other countries—including common surfactants called nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs).
Now that you know the dirty little secrets of the conventional cleaning industry, what are you going to do? You can buy safer products like those from our Shop Healthy guide. And you can make your own by using simple kitchen ingredients like baking soda and vinegar.
Special thanks to Christopher Gavigan, Healthy Child’s former CEO, who originally wrote some of this post.