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Worried about toxic ingredients in cleaners? See our new improved list of the greenest products

By Barbara Kessler Green Right Now When the Environmental Working Group released its scorecard on green cleaners last month, I sprang from my chair to check the label on the...

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When the Environmental Working Group released its scorecard on green cleaners last month, I sprang from my chair to check the label on the case of Ecover Limescale Remover that UPS had just delivered.

I adore this cleaner because it transforms my shower door from an icky, opaque bacteria-generator  into a sheet of glistening glass, without using toxic ingredients. Or so I believed.

Ecover's limescale remover gets a "B", keeping it on my list of safer cleaners.

A quick check confirmed that my limescale remover was, indeed, non-toxic (mostly), skating by with a solid “B” on the EWG  2012 Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

But several other products I’m using did not make the grade, despite being sold as “green” or “natural” products. Amazingly, many green cleaners contain endocrine disrupters, suspected carcinogens, toxic ingredients with unknown effects and needlessly harsh ingredients, like sodium laurel sulfate, according to the EWG review of more than 2,000 cleaners .

So I’ve readjusted my cleaning caddy, and in case that’s on your mind too, I am sharing my new list of better-rated favorites below.

I don’t want to be a slave to these report cards — and in fact, not every product that EWG took a swipe at is hugely toxic, necessarily — several items were marked down for lack of disclosure. These products might be OK, once EWG gets a look at their formulas. The companies need to make ingredients available on their labels and since the guide came out, some manufacturers are seeing the value in that. They have stepped up to improve their disclosure.

But several products did have toxic sleeper ingredients and I trust that EWG is steering us in the right direction here. Over the years, this watchdog group has enlisted scientists to examine and dissect everything from apples and peaches to mascara and body lotion to ferret out questionable ingredients and pesticide residues. EWG has helped us reduce the chemicals we consume inadvertently by producing databases like Skin Deep and The Dirty Dozen, which lists the vegetables and fruits with the highest concentrations of pesticide residues.

Sadly, in today’s world, there’s always a way to further reduce the harmful chemicals to which your family is exposed.

Here then  are some of my old and new favorite green cleaners, which make the grade with EWG.

DISHWASHER DETERGENT

Seventh Generation's Dishwasher Detergent, safe, green, uncomplicated.

Seventh Generation Automatic  Dishwasher Detergent  — I’ve used this one many times and it’s terrific. EWG gave it an all-clear “A” grade.

But watch out! Seventh Generation’s gel dishwasher detergent did not score well at all. It received an “F”  because it contains sodium borate, an ingredient listed as a “high concern” chemical because it is a potential endocrine disruptor and could have “reproductive effects.” (Note: This is the active ingredient in Borax. You could switch to safer baking soda for freshening drains, laundry and other odorous things.)

Another ingredient of concern in Seventh Gen’s gel dishwashing detergent is METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE. I cannot spell that on my own, but here’s what you need to know: EWG’s scientist Dr. Joanna Congleton says this chemical is toxic to aquatic life and also can be a skin irritant. Better preservatives are available.

Most of the soaps in the dishwasher and dishwashing category, including many that you would think were basic, harmless hand/dish soaps, scored badly, earning Ds and Fs. Many of these  contained unidentified “surfactants,” a vague term that earned an immediate downgrade because it could mean anything, Congleton said.

These automatic downgrades afflicted one product or another in many of the brands you’ve come to consider “green” at one point.

Take Method brand cleaners. They’re now working with EWG to try to adjust some of their grades by disclosing more ingredients. We hope Method can overcome its slew of bad grades with better disclosure because they have some delectable-sounding products, like Smarty Dish Dishwasher Detergent Tabs in Pink Grapefruit. We’d love it, but don’t want to be outsmarted by a citrus fruit!

In the meantime, here’s another option for a dishwashing detergent that rates a nice safe “A”: The Honest Co.’s Automatic Dishwasher Gel, Free and Clear. We haven’t tried this one, but intend to soon.  No ingredient in it rated worse than a B.

DISHWASH SOAP

Whole Foods Market Liquid Dish Soap, a house brand with eco-cred.

Shockingly, only two products earned an A in this category, Whole Foods Market’s Liquid Dishsoap and Better Life’s Dish It Out Natural Dish Liquid. I’ve used the former but not the latter. I thought it was OK functionally, but didn’t realize it was special, that is, especially chemically safe. Now that I know its less toxic, it’s my top choice.

Honestly, you’d think this category would be replete with the simplest of A-grade soaps.

Yet even many with the friendliest green sounding names failed to make good grades. Baby Organics dish soap and Method’s Sea Minerals Dish Soap sound so fresh, and both scored  F’s!

Of all 155 dishwash products reviewed, 97 got “D’s” and “F’s”.

The problem stems in part from botanicals used to supply scents or even cleaning action. These natural ingredients are not always harmless. The Citrus Aurantifolia (lime oil) and the Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (orange oil) used by many of these products can have negative effects on skin, respiration and vision. There were a variety of other questionable ingredients like unspecified surfactants, colorants and the incredibly difficult to spell methylisothiazolinone, considered by the EPA to be “very toxic” to aquatic life.

Several dish soaps received respectable B grades, which meant that the bulk of their ingredients, like the cleaning agents, were getting A or B marks. In several cases, that there were no deal-breakers like the aforementioned methylchlorosfjs;ldfkjasdlfkj.

My current dishsoap, Biokleen’s Dishwash Liquid with Aloe, earned a disappointing “D.” But upon inspection this was due in large part to an “F” grade for failing to disclose surfactants. The bottle I have, however, does disclose its surfactants (it must be a newer issue).

Looking up each ingredient in the EWG cleaning guide, I discovered that these individual chemicals received “B”s or “C”s. So I’m using this bottle up, and switching to Whole Foods Market’s dish soap next.

Shoppers, the lesson here is that you may have to deconstruct your label if you want to be sure about its hazards. The EWG guide provides info on each chemical, apart from the grades for each product.

And remember grades related to lack of disclosure could be improving. Since it released the Guide to Healthy Cleaning, EWG has heard from several manufacturers wanting to discuss the ratings. Be sure to check back.

Seventh Generation’s Natural Dish Liquid, Lavender and Mint is the other dish soap under my sink. I wasn’t thrilled it earned a C, but it only contained only one D -graded ingredient. You guessed it: Methylisothiazolinone.

There were a slippery sinkful of C-graded ingredients as well, including those lovely smelling natural oils.

I confess I’m a little perplexed. It doesn’t seem like spearmint oil would be terribly dangerous; and yet, you wouldn’t want to spritz it in your eye. So EWG gave ingredients like this a C, but with the intent that a true “C” is a median grade, and doesn’t exert a strong pull up or down.

Some scents, synthetics and on occasion, natural botanicals, have been linked to allergies, so they can’t just waft by the raters, Congleton said.

In practical terms, you have to be your own judge. Many of these botanical scents are just fine, as long as you tolerate them. At the same time, an unscented product will have an assured lighter effect on the environment.

ALL PURPOSE CLEANERS

Dr. Bronner's castile soap, concentrated, renewable, mild.

Many, many all-purpose cleaners failed, or nearly failed, the EWG test in the all-purpose cleaner category.

But 21 cleaners scored an “A”.

My favorite all-purpose cleaner from the top scorers is Dr. Bronner’s. I use a Dr. Bronner’s soap for face and shower. The one I’d choose for household duty would be Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Pure-Castile Soap in Peppermint. For starters, it’s got a great scent and it’s made with mild vegetable glycerin and olive, coconut and uber-renewable hemp oils. Gets my vote.

Several old-fashioned workhorses also made the A-list for all purpose cleaners, including good old Heinz Vinegar and Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. These are well worth revisiting if you’re serious about de-toxifying.

Other brands whose all-purpose concoctions were considered the least toxic included Whole Foods (concentrated pine cleaner), Green Shield (all-purpose degreaser), Imus (GTC All Purpose Cleaner), Bon Ami (powder cleanser) and a few more.

LAUNDRY DETERGENTS

The news does not get better here: Of 641 products, 22 scored an “A” and 277 got an

Free and Clear, really.

“F”. That’s a failing class.

Here again, you could choose Dr. Bronner’s, which can work as a laundry soap. How simple is that, one soap for dishes, general cleaning and laundry?

But if you want a cleanser formulated especially for clothes, a good choice would be Seventh Generation’s Natural Powder Laundry Detergent in either Real Citrus & Lavender or Free & Clear formulas.  We’ve used the latter. It works well and contains nothing that alarmed EWG.

A look at the products receiving an “F” turned up a lot of cleaners that aren’t necessarily sold as green cleaners, such as your run-of-the-aisle brands like Gain, Downy, ERA, All, Wisk etc. I don’t understand why they’re even on this list, except, to make a point. Ingredients that dragged them down include the endocrine disruptor sodium borate, toxic ethanolamine and a host of non-degradable ingredients and non-specific synthetic fragrances that can contain endocrine disrupting phthalates.

Several green cleaners, like Zum and Dropps, also made failing grades, demonstrating EWG’s point that you cannot take the green marketing message at face value. Some of these, however, were marked down for non disclosure. Dropps, for instance, lists “nonionic surfactants” which Congleton says could be anything. Check back if one of your green cleaners has been marked down over disclosure, some of these grades may change as manufacturers come clean.

FLOOR CARE

Martha Stewart Clean Wood Floor Cleaner makes an "A"

Two brands that I haven’t yet tried popped up with “A” grades in this category, Martha Stewart and Simple Green Naturals. I’ll be trying these brands now.

Martha Stewart, especially, has us covered with both a wood floor cleaner and a carpet stain remover that make the grade. Go Martha! The majority of the 500 products in this category scored an “F” or a “D”.

Also scoring an “A”, Aussan Natural floor cleaner concentrate, Simple Green Naturals Carpet Care and Simple Green Naturals Floor Care.

The Martha Stewart and Simple Green Naturals are water-based cleaners that rely on either hydrogen peroxide (which rates a “B”) or potassium hydroxide (“A) or both as cleaning agents. These are the ingredients used by commercial green cleaners, and it’s great to see it trickle down so we can use safe products in our homes.

So remember when reading labels: Look for water-based products that use biodegradable hydrogen peroxide (also a good replacement for bleach) or potassium hydroxide.

That was simple.

My current Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner, by the way, scored a “C,” in part because of the Dipropylene Gycol Methyl Ether, which may cause neurological effects and is suspected carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. It’s great to know we’re walking around on it.


AIR FRESHENERS

Aura Cacia air mists, the right aura, without toxics.

Ahh. Now we come to this, a product we don’t really need. But let’s take a peek anyway. Of 278 products, the vast majority scored below a “C”. Why? The answer in a word, fragrance. Many of the synthetic fragrances forming the backbone of these products cause allergies, have negative respiratory effects (especially on people who suffer from allergies or asthma), contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates and fail to biodegrade in the environment. They’re toxic to fish.

EWG doesn’t have much good to report on this category. And really, let’s not sweat it. Air fresheners just mask odors anyway. A better solution: Baking soda. It works in the drain, your bathroom, refrigerator and, well, you be the judge. And it’s cheap!

EWG also suggests opening a window. A great concept.

Alright, if you really must, there were a handful of products that the EWG scientists deemed healthy enough to score an “A”, like several varieties of aromatherapy mists by Aura Cacia. These are made completely with botanicals and water. There’s some concern about their toxicity in the outside world, but perhaps if the mist stays on your bedspread or bathroom tiles, no fish will be harmed.

BATHROOM CLEANERS

Here a little scented something can do wonders.  Fortunately, a few products make the grade, including a favorite of mine, Seventh Generation’s Natural Toilet Bowl Cleaner in Emerald Cypress & Fir.  Let’s just say, the name does do it justice and it gets an A. The ingredients weigh in on the safe side.

Simple Green Naturals, green power for the bathroom.

Ditto, my Ecover Limescale Remover, remember?

The key thing to know in this category is that you want to shun the bleach and the caustic drain cleaners (like sodium hydroxide). These are dangerous to have around the house if you have small kids. They create toxic fumes and are unfriendly to the environment after you rinse them down the drain.

Most of the “green” cleaners the EWG has reviewed have already left out these two ingredients,  but we found sodium hypochlorite, bleach, in a product by, surprise, Clorox.

You may be wedded to bleach for certain germ-killing forays, but a good substitute is a basic all-around product that relies on hydrogen peroxide. Such a product can sanitize, but it also breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen in the environment.

Another option is a citrus based cleaner for the shower and tub. Let’s give the nod here to Simple Green Naturals Bathroom Cleaner, made with citrus and other ingredients, some concerning but not so much that they squelched the “B” grade.

Remember those, the brand is “Simple Green Naturals”. Several plain old Simple Green products scored badly, some even got “F’s”.

A good guideline for the bathroom: Instead of stocking a dozen products specifically made for the shower,  tub, and floor, use a mild all-purpose cleaner (Dr. Bronner’s?) for sinks, counters and bathtubs,  so you can skip many of these iffy offerings lining the grocery and hardware shelves. Even many that claim they’re green.

Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network


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