Before moving on, let's go look at our list of the Terrible Ten Household Cleaning Products:
- Drain cleaners
- Oven cleaners
- Toilet cleaners
- Spot removers
- Silver and other metal polishes
- Furniture polishes
- Cleansers and powdered cleaners
- Window cleaners
- Liquid cleaners
Note that detergents are not on our list. That's because the debate about detergents and the various ingredients they contain continues in the public arena. In the mid-1960s, folks noticed that lakes and rivers were getting choked up with too much aquatic plant growth brought on by the various phosphates added to detergents. Phosphates basically help eliminate some of the problems that come along with using soap, including breaking down soapy buildup (think of the ring that can form on a shirt or in a tub).
Phosphates are strong cleaners, but their useful pros have been overshadowed by their ecological cons. Since the early '60s, community organizers have attempted to ban phosphates outright, to limit their use, or to set acceptable standards for their use. These efforts have been met with varying levels of success. Phosphates are banned in some areas of the country and are somewhat regulated in others. Still, there is no universal standard for phosphate use in detergents.
What you can do
Generally speaking, detergents are better than they once were, but most are still made from synthetic petrochemicals that come from oil. Some detergents may also have brighteners, dyes, or artificial fragrances that are bad for you, the environment, or both. Many consumers are finding an increasing number of greener laundering alternatives available on the market. But remember, no law requires companies, even "good" companies, to disclose all of the ingredients in products -- even green ones. Furthermore, no law defines what "natural" or "earth-friendly" means. The best green detergents should be made without nonrenewable, petroleum-based chemicals, and they should be biodegradable, plant-derived, and contain no optical brighteners, dyes, or artificial fragrances.
Some companies voluntarily tell you everything that's in their products, helping consumers to make an informed decision. Some also participate in voluntary programs that show they meet certain environmental criteria. Being a responsible consumer means doing a bit of homework, but it's well worth the effort.