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Online Database Tells You if the Cleaning Products You Bring in Your Home Are Toxic

Health + Wellness

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a new edition of its Guide to Healthy Cleaning, an online database detailing the health hazards and environmental concerns for more than 2,500 household products. With the addition of hundreds of new products, the updated guide tells shoppers what they need to know to make healthier choices.

With the addition of hundreds of new products, the updated guide tells shoppers what they need to know to make healthier choices. Photo credit: Shutterstock

“Cleaning products expose Americans daily to chemicals linked to asthma, allergic reactions and even cancer, but no federal law or state law is in effect that requires companies to completely disclose their ingredients on the label or online,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG deputy director of research. “The guide can help consumers choose products that have greater transparency and fewer hazardous ingredients, which will help push the cleaners market toward safer products.”

The guide grades laundry detergents, dish soaps, spray cleaners and other products on the hazards associated with ingredients and disclosure of contents. EWG researchers scoured product labels and analyzed hundreds of company webpages and technical documents to give consumers the information many manufacturers would rather keep secret.

“Consumers are demanding greater transparency in labeling so they can make informed decisions,” said Samara Geller, EWG database analyst. “But we found that secrecy still prevails: more than half of the products in our database rated poorly for ingredient disclosure.”

The products analyzed for the update contained an array of hazardous chemicals. For almost a dozen products, the chemical safety data sheets required by the federal government listed benzene or formaldehyde. Long-term exposure to benzene is linked to leukemia, anemia and bone marrow damage. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, respiratory irritant and allergen.

“Mandatory ingredient labeling is already required for food, cosmetics and drugs,” said Bill Allayaud, California director of government affairs for EWG. “Consumers should have the right to the same information when it comes to cleaning products.”

Bowing to increasing pressure from customers, most companies list at least some ingredients on their labels and websites. Recently SC Johnson & Son committed to disclose fully the composition of its fragrances for three products of a new scent collection. But some companies disclose nothing and others list just one or a few of their ingredients or describe them in vague terms such as “fragrance,” “surfactant” and “solvent.”

Key findings from the updated Guide to Healthy Cleaning:

  • Only about one in seven products earned a grade of A or B, for low human and environmental toxicity and robust disclosure of ingredients. A little more than one-sixth earned a passing grade of C. The remainder—more than two-thirds—fell short, receiving a D or F.

  • Almost three-fourths contain ingredients which may have worrisome respiratory health effects. Of particular concern, such chemicals were routinely found in all-purpose spray cleaners.

  • More than one-fourth of products scored moderate to high concern because they contain ingredients linked to cancer or may contain impurities linked to cancer.

  • One-fifth of products scored moderate to high concern because they contain ingredients associated with developmental, endocrine or reproductive harm.

  • More than 10 percent of the products are corrosive, capable of permanently damaging eyes or skin.

  • Twelve percent of products use the terms “dyes,” “colorants” or “colors” instead of listing the specific chemical dyes. Two dyes that were sometimes listed are known as FD&C Yellow 5 and FD&C Red 40, which may cause allergic reactions or be contaminated with impurities known to cause cancer.

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