EWG – Decoding the Product Labels
EWG explains “definitions” of terms used in product labels. Here are facts!
“Active ingredients” in cleaning products are usually antimicrobial pesticides added to kill bacteria, viruses or molds. Avoid them – they’re hazardous chemicals, and you rarely need them to get your house clean.
Many common dish and hand washing soaps contain the pesticide triclosan. They don’t clean any better than plain soap and water or provide extra protection against illness. Overuse of products containing pesticides can promote development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and that does endanger our health.
“Antibacterial” means that the product contains pesticides that kill bacteria, viruses or molds. Avoid these cleaners.
Cleaning supplies makers often advertise their products as biodegradable to make them seem safer or greener than they really are. But since no one regulates the use of this term on cleaning product labels, you can’t assume that a product with the label is better than one that isn’t.
EWG’s investigation of over 2,000 cleaning products on the market today found some still contain nonylphenol ethoxylates, which is hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Products labeled “chlorine-free” do not contain chlorine bleach. They may contain oxygen bleach instead. Both kinds of bleach are irritating or corrosive and must be handled with care, but chlorine bleach can release traces of harmful chlorine gas. Frequent users of chlorine bleach are at increased risk of developing asthma and other respiratory problems. EWG recommends avoiding chlorine bleach and using chlorine-free alternatives when necessary.
A special caution: never mix cleaners containing chlorine bleach with products containing vinegar, acidic chemicals, ammonia or oxygen bleach. They can generate dangerous chlorine and chloramine fumes.
Design for the Environment
This term refers to a voluntary program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that works with manufacturers to make products that are safer for people and the environment. Companies may carry the Design for the Environment Seal if they formulate products with ingredients that meet standards developed through the program. Like EWG, Design for the Environment is pushing all its partners to fully disclose cleaning product ingredients on the label. The EPA has established an auditing process to verify that products continue to meet Design for the Environment criteria. EPA has completed an inventory of the partners and products recognized by the program and lists their audit status on Design for the Environment’s website: http://www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/formulat/formpart.htm.
However the Design for the Environment list of safer chemical ingredients, which are allowed for use in their certified products, includes some substances that EWG is concerned about. For example, a fluorinated surfactant is approved by Design for the Environment for use in specialized industrial products, and DEGBE (butoxydiglycol) is allowed in consumer cleaning products as a solvent. Both of these compounds have toxicity concerns. And a chemical called methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCIT), which Design for the Environment approves for use as a preservative, is toxic to the environment and can cause allergies. This is why EWG has chosen not to include Design for the Environment certification in our guide at this time.
Green Seal / EcoLogo
Green Seal and EcoLogo are organizations that provide independent, third-party certification of environmentally friendly cleaners and authorize approved products to bear their seals of approval. Both programs restrict certain toxic chemicals. Both require manufacturers to submit data showing that their products are effective and to undergo regular audits to make sure they meet current green standards. Currently, both seals of approval are found more often on commercial cleaners than on household products. EWG recommends that you use these third-party certified products when you can – their standards are the best out there today.
These proteins are added to cleaners to help break down and remove soils and stains. Enzymes can cause asthma and respiratory problems in factory workers who make cleaning supplies. There is no evidence that consumers who use cleaners with enzymes are at risk. But don’t assume that enzymes are safe simply because they are natural. Also, be aware that boric acid, a chemical toxic to the reproductive system, is often added to stabilize enzymes in cleaning supplies.
Some contain naturally occurring chemicals that can irritate skin, trigger allergic reactions or cause other toxic effects. Don’t assume that essential oils are safe simply because they come from plants.
Never apply pure essential oils directly to your skin. Avoid using products that are old or that have been exposed to light, because some essential oils react with air and sunlight to produce new and sometimes more hazardous chemicals.
Fragrance or scent vs. free & clear/free of perfumes and dyes
The term “fragrance” on an ingredient list means the product contains a chemical cocktail that may consist of dozens of substances for which there is limited safety data. EWG recommends that you choose products free of unnecessary, undisclosed ingredients such as fragrance and dye.
This term often refers to the non-pesticide ingredients in antibacterial cleaning supplies. There is no requirement to list them on the product label – only pesticides must be listed. “Inert” does not mean safe. Inert substances can include petroleum-derived solvents, preservatives or fragrances. In some cases these ingredients are irritating to the skin and respiratory system or can cause long-term adverse health effects such as neurological damage. EWG recommends that you choose products that list all ingredients whenever possible. That way you’ll know what “inert” ingredients are in the product.
An “irritant” is a substance that causes temporary inflammation, redness and often itching of the skin, eyes or lungs. Irritation can be caused by either physical damage or an allergic reaction.
On a cleaning product, the word “natural” can mean anything or nothing at all – there is no regulation of the word’s use. The term “natural” can mislead consumers to think that a product is safer or more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Take this claim with a grain of salt.
There is no standard definition in the cleaning products industry, so this term is no help in choosing the safest cleaners.
An optical brightener, found in some laundry detergents, makes fabrics appear brighter. It coats clothing in the washing machine and sticks to fabric even after rinsing. Optical brighteners can cause skin irritation.
The word “organic” can mean anything on a cleaner – or nothing at all. There are no legal constraints on the word’s use. Only products bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Certified Organic” logo are legally bound to comply with that claim. Take this claim with a grain of salt.
Pesticides are added to cleaners to kill bacteria, viruses or fungi, such as mold. Most pesticides can be harmful to people, animals and the environment.
25 states banned phosphates in household laundry and dishwashing detergents, causing manufacturers to remove them from products nationwide. The common “phosphate-free” marketing claim is almost meaningless because few detergents still contain these ingredients.
A sensitizing ingredient can cause a dramatic immune system response, typically an allergic reaction such as hives and or an asthma attack. First-time exposure to a sensitizing substance frequently does not cause a reaction, but repeated exposure can trigger one. Use EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning to avoid products with sensitizing ingredients. When you are cleaning, open a window or run a fan to improve ventilation. Wear gloves when you can, especially when product directions indicate it.
A solvent is a liquid that keeps other ingredients mixed in a solution. Water is a non-toxic solvent, but many other solvents are flammable and release volatile organic compounds into the air. When inhaled, solvents can cause respiratory impairment, neurological damage, reproductive and developmental harm and cancer.
Surfactants are chemicals that loosen dirt and grease from surfaces so that they can be washed away. They are essential for cleaning, but some are safer than others. Some, like nonylphenol ethoxylates, are toxic to aquatic life and decompose very slowly.
Consider cleaning with basic kitchen supplies such as vinegar, baking soda and lemon.
Volatile organic compounds
Often abbreviated “VOCs,” volatile organic compounds are air contaminants that form smog. Some chemicals in this general category are linked to more severe health effects.