How green are green household cleaners?

Why bother with green cleaners?

Instead of potentially toxic chemicals, green cleaners often use plant derivatives from oranges and coconuts.
Instead of potentially toxic chemicals, green cleaners often use plant derivatives from oranges and coconuts.
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Going the extra eco-mile to spruce up your household cleaners may seem unnecessary. The standard ones have worked for years, so what harm could they possibly pose? Many of the toxic chemicals that scrub the dirt from our lives can also seep into our water supplies and get into our bodies. For instance, a 2004 study by the Environmental Working Group found traces of more than 200 industrial chemical compounds in the cord blood of newborns [source: Environmental Working Group].

When it comes to working with household cleaners, studies have found the greatest potential danger exists for professional house cleaners or janitors [source: UC Berkeley]. That said, tidying up a ventilated bathroom with a normal amount of cleanser won't send you to the hospital, but there are probably a few substances contained in them that you might not want around.

Research has found that the following group in particular can have negative effects on both the health of people and our environment. You won't find many of these in certified ecofriendly cleaning products:

  • Phthalates: chemical compounds often referred to as plasticizers that also help hold in fragrances. Canada recently banned them as a component in baby bottle plastics.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): chemical combos found in liquids and solids that are released as gases. Since you inhale VOCs, these are often linked with asthma and respiratory problems [source: EPA].
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs): chemicals that can pollute water supplies and potentially lead to liver and kidney damage in humans [source: Conis]. In 2005, the Sierra Club petitioned the EPA to ban the use of NPEs, which are already regulated in the European Union and Canada, in laundry detergents [source: Sierra Club].
  • Phosphates: acidic compounds that many states have banned from laundry detergents, but manufacturers can still add to dishwasher detergents [source: Conis]
  • Petrochemicals: These chemicals derived from oil refinement pose the greatest threat to babies and children since the particles can get into the lungs if ingested.
  • Chlorine bleach: Although it will get your whites whiter, the solution is also associated with respiratory problems, especially in children [source: Nickmilder et al].
  • Ammonia: This gas is a natural byproduct that is safe at normal levels. But in higher concentrations or in unventilated areas, ammonia can burn skin, eyes, throat and lungs, even causing death in extreme situations [source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry].

Instead of these more toxic compounds, green products integrate more plant derivatives into their solutions. You'll also find more natural scents, if any, such as citrus or lavender.

But how can you know if the bottle of "all natural" cleaner actually measures up to these higher standards? We'll navigate the green clean maze on the next page.