Cleaner Cleaning Products: Healthier Alternatives to Toxic Norms

In 2016 alone, the U.S. cleaning industry was estimated to generate $61 billion. That’s a lot of cleaning products, and the industry as a whole has been steadily growing. Unfortunately, while overall sales are expanding with a growing population, natural cleaning products’ sales are declining, possibly due to price, availability, or lack of new products. 

However, if more people knew about the toxins in the bottles under their sink or in the cabinet, buying habits could change. 

Chemicals, Chemicals Everywhere
Natural product websites like MotherEarth have numerous web pages detailing the dangerous compounds and chemical ingredients in many cleaning products, making every bottle seem as toxic as DDT, but Dr. Diana Rohlman paints a more complicated picture. Rohlman is highly qualified as a trained toxicologist, member of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition’s Health & Human Services action team, and Professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences.

When asked why people should know what is in their cleaning products, Rohlman stated that, “one of the first phrases you learn in toxicology is, ‘the dose makes the poison.’ It’s paraphrasing Paracelsus, but it points out the truth that anything, in the right quantity, can be hazardous to our health.” 

As illustrated by a 19-year-old boy in Virginia who was dared to drink a quart of soy sauce and almost died from too much salt, anything in excess can be dangerous, even salt or water. 

“While we don’t tend to think of cleaning products as dangerous, if they are used incorrectly, or overused, they can be hazardous,” Rohlman added.

Beyond Toxics, an Oregon-based environmental justice and education group in Eugene, published an info-guide about cleaning products, cautioning consumers about recent studies’ results, including how 300 synthetic chemicals are found in the average human body, and that there is “no health information available for more than 80 percent of the industrial chemicals in everyday-use products.”

Project TENDR, a “diverse group of experts in epidemiology, toxicology, exposure science, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, nursing, public health,” and other experts and groups, began in 2015, and its goal is to educate the public about environmental nuero-development risks, or how toxic environmental chemicals are linked to disorders like autism, ADHD, intellectual disorders, and others.

Other organizations including the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics and the Endocrine Society are in consensus, stating that environmental chemicals, many of which are found in cleaning products, are threatening humans and causing disorders.

Why Labels Matter
“I think most people, like myself, grew up cleaning their houses and got accustomed to everyday cleaning brands,” Rohlman said. “Most people don’t read the labels on cleaning products – and the text is so tiny, I’m not surprised.”

Rohlman’s reference to labels, reading the instructions carefully and reading the ingredients, points to a bigger problem. Many cleaning supplies do not list their ingredients on the label. The Environmental Protection Agency only requires that they list disinfectants or potentially harmful ingredients, but some people have different definitions of what degree some ingredients are “potentially harmful.”

At least the EPA regulates cleaning products, right? Not quite. The topic has been widely covered by major news sources around the country, from CNN to the Huffington Post with little change in procedure. One of the biggest problems is ingredient lists and transparency to consumers.

According to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research and policy advocacy group, “only 7 percent of cleaning products adequately disclosed their contents.” Cleaning product companies argue that their ingredient list is proprietary information, meaning they don’t want to publish it in fear that another company could steal their formula.

In an attempt to help consumers see cleaner options that are less toxic, the EPA started in the early 1990s by creating the Design for the Environment program to recognize industry leaders who were creating products with the consumer’s and the environment’s health in mind. By 2015, the DfE label became the Safer Choice label that is used today. 

How Do They Decide Which Ingredients Are Hazardous?
The DfE was started as a non-regulatory way to recognize companies who were doing things right. The Safer Choice label is meant to do the same, but it has not been incorporated across the board and still provides no regulation or requirements for products that do not have the label. Some cleaning product companies were outraged at the Safer Choice label, arguing that its definitions for “safer” were based on limited studies and theoretical formulas. 

And that is a somewhat valid point. 

Safer Choice has a list of certain carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive/developmental toxicants, persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic compounds, and respiratory sensitizers that make a product ineligible to qualify for the label. Critics argue that ruling out entire ingredients is silly for the same reason Rohlman noted above: we can stand a certain amount of many compounds. 

The problem with that argument is that it’s hard for any scientist to pin-point exactly how much exposure a human can tolerate. Safer Choice uses a hazard-based approach, ruling out certain chemicals all or nothing, but some say that they should be using a risk-based model, considering the amount of the ingredient used and how it interacts with the other chemicals present. 

The risk-based model seems fair, but it is often difficult for industry leaders and scientists to agree how risky a particular ingredient is because it is near impossible to determine a person’s overall exposure to compounds throughout a day. 

Maybe there is one ingredient in a cleaner that has an acceptable amount for single exposure, but that person could then walk into a building that has used multiple other cleaners and chemicals and the individual’s overall exposure rises. Scientists also do not have any way to measure how certain compounds build up in the human body over time, or how much is retained with each exposure, which creates additional questions.

As to the critics’ point about the danger of an ingredient being based on theoretical formulas, that is true. Scientists cannot force a group of humans to live in a bubble and only be exposed to one ingredient, so they have to use theoretical formulas to account for average exposure to other ingredients. They then use those figures to determine how bad for human health an ingredient is. 

Some argue that scientists should use rats, but even that has its own problems as the rat and the human body are similar in some ways but different in others. It is impossible to say that the results in a rat will be replicated as results for humans, especially because the environments humans find themselves in are much more varied than a rat’s cage in a lab.

In Rohlman’s experience though, “The problem we typically see with cleaning chemicals is not necessarily the ingredients in them; it’s often how they are used. Even lemon juice can cause skin irritation. Folks use aerosolized sprays in small rooms without any ventilation and typically use too much cleaning product, or I’ve heard of folks using 10 times too much bleach or mixing cleaning products.”

“Indoor air quality is often worse than outdoor air quality. That means that even small changes in the house can result in big changes in air quality. Choosing less hazardous cleaning products is a small change, but one that may make a big difference” Rohlman said.

What to Avoid
While there still may be some unanswered questions or fuzzy areas, certain chemicals and cleaners are particularly noxious and should be avoided whenever possible. 

Phthalates, found in almost all fragrances unless specified otherwise, are used to soften plastics and help scents and chemicals bind together. Many have speculated that they are carcinogenic and/or negatively influence hormones, which regulate our bodies. As with many dangerous compounds, they are noticeably worse for the developing brains of babies and children.

Phthalates are found in many products, from Febreeze to perfume, shampoo, shower curtains, and even some food packaging. Reduce exposure by choosing fragrance-free detergents, not microwaving food in plastic containers, and using unscented cleaning supplies. If an air freshener is really needed for the bathroom, skip the Febreeze and find a natural citrus alternative.

In addition, multiple products have been banned abroad. Some of the most popular include Scrubbing Bubbles Antibacterial Bathroom Cleaner, Spic and Span Multi-Surface and Floor Cleaner, Easy-Off Fume Free Oven Cleaner, Drano Professional Strength Clog Remover, and for god’s sake don’t use Comet or Febreeze Air Effects. Other fun facts: Phoenix Brand laundry detergents contain Formaldehyde, yum. And some spray cleaners have asthma-causing ingredients: Clorox, Fantastiq, Febreeze, Easy-Off, Lysol, and that baldheaded creep Mr. Clean.

The EWG has a complete list of products they deemed better or worse than the average; just Google “EWG cleaning products.”

The Corvallis Sustainability Coalition is also conducting research to provide more Corvallis-specific tips, especially for local businesses. Rohlman said that they “are interviewing local businesses and organizations to find out how they currently clean their buildings and what concerns they may have about the use of cleaning products. The end goal of this study is to create some guidelines for safer cleaning choices, and strategies for reducing exposure to potentially hazardous cleaning chemicals.”

“Green” Products Are Not Always Much Better than Conventional Options
Labels in general can be mystifying to consumers, sometimes intentionally so. Besides ingredients and which to be worried about, “The other issue we run into is how labels are used on cleaning products” Rohlman began. “If you google ‘green cleaning labels’ you will get at least a dozen examples of logos, labels and badges used by a variety of companies. These range from claiming the product is sustainable, eco-friendly, recycled or even just ‘green.’”

“The problem is, there are no standards for what these labels mean. A recycled label could simply mean the bottle is made of recycled plastic – that tells you nothing about the cleaning solution inside,” Rohlman added. “But I really like the Safer Choice label. It’s a really great way for someone to easily tell if their preferred product is safer for them to use.”

Many alternatives to cleaning products can be found in almost anyone’s pantry. Baking soda and water makes a great, all-purpose cleaner as does vinegar with water, which also is great for cleaning glass surfaces. Lemon juice is also a good glass cleaner as well as a helpful air freshener and stain remover. And for the furniture, try olive oil in lieu of furniture polish.

New Local and All-Natural Cleaning Products in Corvallis
MayLu Cleaning Products, a new start-up located in Corvallis, has created a new technology that they claim is the first of its kind, one that could revolutionize the cleaning industry and its safety. 

Their products, ranging from household and industrial cleaning to hand soaps and lotions, all feature a rhamnolipid biosurfactant. Many other cleaning products “contain synthetic surfactants or cleaning agents and solubilizers for facilitating mixture of oil and water. Some other products contain petroleum-derived chemical surfactants,” they explained. Similar to the childhood project of combining oil and water in a jar, watching as they never congeal no matter how much they are shaken, surfactants help the oil and water mix. 

MayLu has found a way to process Rhamnolipids, a naturally-occurring surfactant or biosurfactant. While they could not explain the exact process due to protected intellectual property, they did say that “since its discovery in 1949, RL has long been considered by scientists to be nature’s best cleaning and wetting agent.” 

They added, “not only is it an effective surfactant, RL is gentle on the skin and has even been shown in scientific studies to have skin-healing and anti-aging/wrinkling properties. RL is also earth-friendly. To the best of our knowledge, MayLu products are the only cleaning, lotion, and soap products which have been developed using RL.”

When asked if their products work as well as their synthetically-produced competition, MayLu said “The overall performance of our products was independently tested by third party laboratories where their effectiveness was confirmed to be equal to, or better than, the leading green and non-green cleaning product brands.”

“While many cleaning, lotion, and soap products claim to be “green,” they often contain ingredients that are not considered truly green and may not be safe for humans, pets and/or the environment. MayLu products have been carefully formulated using no harmful ingredients” they said.

Knowing that many “green” products are not quite as advertised, it helps to wonder about how accurate the labeling is. In response, the MayLu team I spoke with said “there is a considerable amount of scientific literature that encourages the use of RL in products due to its non-toxicity and its compatibility with the environment and human use. The US EPA has documented very well the human-being and environmental safety of rhamnolipids through its publications.”

They also noted that they are confident they will qualify for the EPA’s Safer Choice label, and plan to apply for it soon. 

MayLu products are currently available in the First Alternative Co-Op North store, and they are hoping to have more products available throughout Oregon by the end of 2018. Learn more at their website: or contact them with any questions you may have at  

By Kristen Edge

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