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As the pandemic swept the world, many peoples’ first reaction was obsessively cleaning every surface in sight. But in your quest to prevent contracting a virus, could you be harming yourself, and the environment, with toxic cleaning products?

Cleaning products that claim to be “eco-friendly” or in some way “green” are sweeping the shelves and available almost anywhere these days. Sustainable cleaning products can mean various things, from the impact on human health and the environment via ingredients to generated wastewater and plastic.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with expertise in toxicology and environmental health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says there are ingredients and labels consumers can look for to make sure they can make informed choices about the products they choose—and which pretty products to leave on the shelf. 

How do you know if there are toxic or harmful ingredients in your cleaning products?

When it comes to ingredients to avoid if you are interested in helping the environment, Sass says dyes, fragrances, and phosphates can enter waterways and potentially cause harmful pollution. The word “fragrance” on an ingredient can be insidious, Sass says. “They’re allowed to be trade secrets,” she says, noting that a single fragrance can be composed of dozens or hundreds of ingredients. So what smells like a flower or fresh rain may be hardly that innocent. A 2018 report from the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners nonprofit found fragrances present in personal care products were often toxic and linked to serious health issues. 

An April 2021 report from the nonprofit Women’s Voices for the Earth lists toxic chemicals from cleaning products uncovered by a new law in California that mandates disclosure of harmful fragrance ingredients. The group found that chemicals such as diethyl phthalate and butylphenyl methylpropional are present in everyday cleaning products’ fragrances. Both impact the reproductive systems of humans and animals

The Environmental Protection Agency provides a resource that allows consumers to look up ingredients in a database to determine if they pose any danger and a label for products if they meet the Safer Choice standard. The label means products have passed a certain standard of ingredient review with criteria for human and environmental safety. 

What are other ways products can be sustainable besides non-toxic ingredients?

Going beyond the product ingredients, many companies are committed to increasing the sustainability of cleaning products by reducing the amount of waste they generate. Cleaning products like laundry detergents and soaps typically come in plastic bottles or packaged in plastic pods. Plastic pods are especially problematic—not only are they wasteful, but they degrade into microplastics that enter waterways through our dishwashers and washing machines. 

[Related: This is the best way to shop if you want to help the environment.]

Danielle Jezienicki, the director of sustainability at Grove Collaborative, a sustainability home and personal care product company, says Grove uses a “plastics scorecard” to track how much plastic waste their company prevents. Grove says the use of their plastic-free products that instead are made from glass or aluminum has diverted over one million pounds of plastic from landfills with goals to be plastic-free by 2025. 

Looking for efficient, lightweight, recycled packaging and concentrated formulas of products that consumers dilute at home are signals that sustainability is at the forefront of product development.  After all, any cleaning product that has to ship as a liquid will be heavy and energy-intensive to get from place to place, adds Sass. Pumps, rather than aerosol sprays, are good to make sure additional aerosols aren’t thrust into the atmosphere. One downside of more sustainable cleaning products is the price point, which is typically higher than conventional cleaning products, but now that more big-box stores feature sustainable product lines, the prices are becoming more comparable and affordable. 

How can people be assured they are not buying a “greenwashed” product?

The cleaning product business, like many others, is subject to greenwashing. Luckily, the red flags for a not-so-sustainable product are pretty straightforward. Words on labels such as “natural or all-natural or green are just completely useless,” says Sass. But, when stamped with the EPA Safer Choice, you can be sure that the company has put effort into being non-toxic and sustainable.

[Related: Reusable grocery bags aren’t as environmentally friendly as you might think.]

Another way is to research a few companies yourself. Companies like Grove and Method have reports on their websites that detail the efforts they take to be environmentally friendly.

At the end of the day, there’s no shame in using up that last bit of not-so-sustainable bathroom cleaner or window spray that is lurking in the back of your cleaning closet. Sass says that guilting people into switching to a greener cleaning method isn’t necessarily the answer—instead, help your friends and family think of safety with cleaning products, make informed choices and get “on the path towards sustainability.”

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