Learning More About Cleaning Performance and Standards
In Part I of this series, we covered some essentials for questions like “what does eco-friendly mean?”
What about “natural”? Are these products any worse at cleaning than “traditional” products? What are some of the standards (“ecolabels”) and what do they mean?
In this post, we will start to delve in to these and other questions related to greening your clean.
What about “natural”?
It is important to know that just because a product claims to be eco-friendly does not mean that all of the materials used in the product are from “sustainable” sources or plant-based sources. In addition to stating that a cleaner is “eco-friendly” a product may also claim that it is “100% natural” or “all natural”. This may imply to a consumer that the product is made entirely from natural products or is made from only plant-based materials. Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has enforced this definition for cosmetic products1, we were unable to find similar cases for cleaning products. To the best of our knowledge the use of the term natural by itself is not regulated for cleaning products and does not require that a product adhere to standards regarding the amount of plant based material in the formula or the types of ingredients that can be present in the formula. In regards to the personal care companies mentioned, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Director stated:
“‘All natural’ or ‘100 percent natural’ means just that — no artificial ingredients or chemicals… Companies should take a lesson from these cases.”
However, we have not (at least, not yet) found all natural, 100% natural nor natural codified by the EPA for cleaning products. The FTC’s enforcement of the claims appears to be only within the “all” and “100%”claims, which may have been part of the product name, on the product label, or on the company’s website or marketing materials.
Are these cleaners as good as the “traditional” cleaners?
Eco-friendly cleaning formulas have improved drastically over the past several years. This is in large part due to improvements in “green” surfactant technology as well as certification/standardization efforts made by third party organizations and government agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is an ecolabel?
An ecolabel is a designation (typically a mark or logo) on a product’s label, packaging, or catalog that is meant to quickly and easily identify products that meet “specific environmental performance criteria”. 2
Ecolabels can focus on a single attribute – such as VOC emissions which typically affects one phase of a product’s lifecycle – or multiple attributes – which typically means they address multiple environmental issues, often focusing on the entire lifecycle of the product.2 They may be owned or managed by government agencies such as the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) or third parties including private sector entities and/or nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations.2 In addition to these ecolabels, the FTC has the Green Guides, which were first issued in 1992 with updates in 1996, 1998, and 2012.3
What does an ecolabel mean for me, and what are some examples?
The EPA has helped to “raise the bar” for eco-friendly cleaners by strongly encouraging voluntary participation in product certification programs (e.g. ecolabels) like the Safer Choice Label (formerly DfE).4 Initiatives like the EPA’s Safer Choice label are designed to ensure that products with this designation have their ingredients extensively reviewed for human and environmental safety. These products must meet strict criteria for carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity, toxicity to aquatic life and persistence for the environment, pH and VOC limits.5,6 Additionally, products obtaining this seal must also meet product performance standards which are tested by a third party.5,6
Earlier, we mentioned that “natural” may not mean what you expect. If you are concerned about whether a product is made in significant part from biobased ingredients, then look for the USDA’s BioPreferred® Program product label (Figure 1).7
Products containing this label meet or exceed minimum biobased content standards for their product category and have been third-party verified to contain the amount of biobased material printed on the label. In the example label above it says that the product contains 57% biobased materials. Each product that contains this label will have the amount of biobased material it contains printed on the label.
Third party organizations like the National Products Association have aimed to establish strict criteria for home care products that obtain its seal (Figure 2). They believe that if a product is labeled natural, then it should use only natural or at least almost only natural ingredients.8 Products that obtain its seal must meet at least the following criteria (quoted for accuracy):8
- Each product containing the seal must be made up of at least 95% truly natural ingredients or ingredients that are derived from natural sources (excluding water)
- No ingredients can be used in the formula that have any suspected human health risks
- Not manufactured using processes that can significantly or adversely alter the natural ingredient
- Ingredients come from a purposeful, natural source (flora, fauna, mineral)
- Processes that are minimal and do not use synthetic or “harsh” chemicals
- Non-natural ingredients can only be used when no viable natural alternative ingredients are available and only when there are absolutely no suspected potential human health risks
What about organic?
We will cover organic and the USDA standards in our next Bite-Sized Blog. Look out for What it Means to Clean Green: Introduction to Organic.
We hope that you found this post helped to clarify any questions you may have had regarding eco-friendly cleaners. We hope that you found the post informative. If you would like to learn more about a specific cleaning topic, email us your suggestion for a post. We would love to hear from you!