Labels That Lie: Why Your “Green” Cleaning Product Might Not Actually Be Green At All
Ten years ago, there were practically no cleaners at the grocery store with the word “green” on their labels.
These days, it’s hard to find a cleaner on the shelf that doesn’t promise you they’re “green,” “all-natural,” or “sustainable.”
But just because a cleaner says it’s green on the label, that doesn’t mean it is.
A 2010 study found that almost 95% of so-called “green” consumer products were guilty of at least one “greenwashing sin.”
What’s a greenwashing sin? It’s an environmental claim made by a product that is either only truthful in part or unimportant.
For example, a lot of cleaners put “CFC-free” on their labels. But CFCs are banned by law, which means that all cleaners are CFC-free.
It’s basically the cleaning product equivalent of putting a “gluten-free” label on a bag kale.
Or, a product might say it has “organic ingredients,” when only one of the 72 ingredients on the label is organic.
And even some of the companies that we think of as the “good guys” are guilty of greenwashing.
It’s pretty shady if you ask us.
That’s why we put together this list of the top five green myths (read: lies).
If you’re going to spend more on environmentally sustainable products, they should actually be environmentally sustainable.
Myth #1: Natural Cleaning Products Are Non-Toxic and Safe
A natural ingredient - whether for food or cleaning products - is an ingredient derived from renewable resources, like plants or minerals.
A natural ingredient is not, however, necessarily a “safe” or “green” ingredient.
The word “natural” means nothing about whether or not an ingredient is refined or processed to create a potentially dangerous chemical.
Many so-called “natural” cleaners contain hazardous irritants, allergens, fragrances, preservatives, and dyes.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) put together this chart. The table shows several cleaners who use the label “natural” that received the same environmental and household safety ratings as Clorox with bleach:
So as good as the word “natural” might sound in your head, it doesn’t say anything about product safety.
What to look for instead: “100% Organic” Cleaners
Don’t be fooled when you see “organic” on a label. To call themselves organic, only one ingredient in a product must be organic.
100% Organic products, on the other hand, must use 100% organic products in their formula. Those products must be grown to the USDA’s organic standards, and have no artificial or manufactured chemicals in their formulas.
Myth #2: Every Ingredient In A Product Must Be On Its Label
First, we should point out that this only applies to cleaning products. Food, beverage, cosmetics, and personal care products are all required to include all of their ingredients on their labels.
But cleaners aren’t.
There’s little to no legislation governing or restricting the use of potentially harmful chemicals in cleaning products.
The FDA has a massive backlog of chemicals that they’ve already approved for use in cleaning products but hasn’t had the resources to test. And until a chemical is tested, any company can use it in their cleaners without listing it on their label.
If that sounds insane to you, that’s because it is.
Cleaners touch almost every area of our homes: detergent is in the sheets we sleep on, dish soap is on the cutlery we eat with, multi-surface cleaner is all over the handles we touch and keyboards we type on.
All of those products leave behind residue that can end up on your skin.
So if it seems unreasonable to you that you could be using a cleaning product with a dangerous chemical in it and not even realize it, you aren’t crazy.
What to look for instead: Specificity
A lot of “green” cleaners use specific terms to define what’s not in their product - CFCs, bleach, dyes - and non-specific terms to hide the bad stuff.
For example, a bottle might say it has “natural fragrances.” But unless you know specifically what ingredient or chemical is used to make that fragrance, you can’t know how toxic it is.
Or, a bottle might say it contains “phthalates” without identifying the type of phthalates.
Phthalates are used to make scents last longer in cleaners, skincare, and baby products. They’ve also been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, endocrine disruption, birth defects, respiratory problems, and developmental problems.
Myth #3: If It’s On The Shelf At The Store, It’s Safety Tested
Of the 62,000 chemicals approved for use in the U.S., only 300 are safety tested.
The last time a federal law governing the safety of chemical products was changed, it was 1976. If you’re a Human of the Internet and therefore reading this, chances are good you weren’t even alive in 1976.
1976 is closer in time to when doctors prescribed ketchup - yes, that ketchup - as medicine than today.
The government simply doesn’t dedicate many - if any - resources to chemical testing, and until they do, they can’t be relied on to ensure safety standards.
That means that when you see “FDA approved” on a label, it doesn’t mean that product is safe, it doesn’t mean it’s been tested, in fact, it doesn’t mean much at all.
What to look for instead: EWG Approval
If you don’t already know what the EWG is, allow us to introduce you: the EWG (Environmental Working Group) is a non-profit that tests consumer products for their environmental and chemical safety.
If you go to their website, you can type in a product, and it will give you a breakdown of how safe or unsafe a product is, along with a score from A - F.
Go ahead, type in the name of your favorite green cleaner.
The results may surprise you.
Myth #4: Plant-Based and Botanical Ingredients Are Safe
It’s not your fault if you’ve been fooled into the belief that just because an ingredient is planted based or botanical, it’s safe.
But here’s the truth: almost all ingredients are plant-based.
And just because something is grown out the ground, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been processed, modified, and turned into a potentially harmful chemical.
Thymol is an ingredient used in many cleaners that is plant-based (it’s derived from thyme oil). Thymol is also a known allergen that can cause respiratory issues in small children.
“Plant-Based” and “Botanical” ingredients are just throw-away terms used to make a product sound safer than it is.
What to look for instead: “No Artificial Ingredients”
In the food industry, “no artificial ingredients” doesn’t mean much. Because, even if a product doesn’t have artificial ingredients, that doesn’t mean it isn’t loaded with fats, sugar, and salts.
In cleaning products, it’s actually pretty helpful.
When you see “no artificial ingredients” on a label, that means there are no chemical products that have been reduced, refined, or altered that could be harmful.
Myth #5: Cleaning Products That Call Themselves “Green” Are “Green”
As sustainability and environmental issues become a bigger factor in customer's buying decisions, more and more companies are including green words in their marketing materials.
Whether or not those products are actually green or sustainable is up for debate.
We’re living in a world where companies understand that they can make more money by using green terms, and no one is regulating the usage of those terms.
So how do you determine a product’s safety and environmental impact?
What to look for instead: Cold, Hard Facts
Does the cleaning product in your cart have a “green” label on it? Before you buy it, look up their website on your phone.
Are there stats about the product’s environmental impact on the homepage? Do they talk about their carbon footprint, whether their packaging is zero waste or sustainable, specifically which chemicals are in their products and what those chemicals do?
If a company can’t tell you why and how they’re green, chances are they aren’t actually green.
So trust your instincts, look for stats, and know who you’re really buying from.
In 2019, it’s not just about reading the label. It’s about knowing how to decipher those labels.
So do a little research before your next shopping trip, know what to look for, and be an informed buyer.
Want to learn more about how to choose sustainable products? Check out What Are Green Cleaning Products?