From “greenwashed” packaging and ambiguous labels to entirely unregulated ingredients, the green cleaning industry often feels as complicated as reading tea leaves or talking stocks and bonds. The lingo and terminology you find on packaging can be confusing – and that’s exactly what manufacturers are counting on.
So what is the best way to keep your family safe and become an empowered consumer? Should you dig up highly technical research reports filled with more of the same jargon? Or perhaps dedicate days of library time searching for a translation guide to household chemicals? No one has time for that!
By educating yourself on just a few things to look for and what to avoid, you can take the first step towards creating a more chemically friendly household for your entire family.
Here’s a simple vocab lesson to help you decode what those buzzwords really mean the next time you see them on a can, box or bottle:
“Active ingredients” in cleaning products typically refer to ingredients that kill bacteria, viruses or molds. But that’s good, right? Well…maybe. These potentially hazardous chemicals do not necessarily clean better than plain soap and water, and can aid in the formation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can be a risk to your family’s health.
Much like biodegradable packaging, “biodegradable ingredients” break down once they enter the water system…in theory. But there’s a hitch. While some ingredients do biodegrade quickly, others linger for years. This term remains completely unregulated, which makes it an unreliable way to determine a product’s safety.
Treat the Green Seal like your cheat sheet! Green Seal provides independent, third party certification of environmentally friendly cleaners. In order to bear the seal, manufacturers must demonstrate that their products are effective and meet strict guidelines set by the organization. They must also be willing to undergo regular audits, which is a great way to keep everybody honest for the long haul.
There is a common misconception that “inert” means an ingredient is harmless, when it does not. Inert substances can include ingredients that are irritating to the skin and respiratory system, or can cause long-term adverse health effects such as neurological damage. Cleaning products are only required to list active ingredients on their labels, which makes it difficult for consumers to gauge which inert ingredients they’re actually dealing with.
Though I wish it weren’t true, there is currently no regulation of the word “natural.” This term is commonly used in “greenwashing,” the practice of intentionally marketing a product to seem more environmentally friendly than it really is. While some manufacturers use “natural” to indicate that some or all of the ingredients come from plants or minerals rather than petroleum, few disclose the percentage of those ingredients constituting the end product.
Unlike organic foods, there are no legal constraints on using the word “organic” when it comes to cleaning products. (I know. It makes me feel betrayed, too.) While the term implies that ingredients are derived from plants grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, only products bearing the official U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Certified Organic” logo are legally bound to comply with the strict regulations most consumers expect from organic.
So, what is a good, chemically conscious consumer to do? As a parent, I have a personal interest in making choices that are good for my family and the planet, just like you. Ultimately, the best way to know what is going into the products you use is to make them yourself or find brands that are transparent about their ingredients and commit to the tenants of being truly natural.
From laundry detergent to scouring scrubs, glass sprays to all-purpose cleaners, there are hundreds of recipes for creating your own DIY cleaning products available on Pinterest. There are also many brands that have passed rigorous testing in order to show their customers just how green they really are.
Here is an infographic with more information on chemical dangers and brands that are doing it right:
Infographic courtesy of Aunt Fannie