Understanding Organic and “Chemical-Free” Cleaners

Bite-Sized Blog: What it Means to Clean Green Series

In our last “What it means to clean green” post, we discussed natural and all-natural ecolabels and the standards cleaning products must meet in order to obtain these seals. This week, we will explain what it means for a cleaning product to be labeled as “organic” and we will discuss “chemical-free” labeling

What is an Organic Cleaner?

Some cleaners also claim to be “organic.” Although we have not seen specific literature regarding the regulation of organic cleaners, if a product claims to be organic then it should follow the labeling rules for set forth by the USDA.1-2

For a cleaner that claims to be organic, all agricultural ingredients used must be certified organic except where specified on the national list. Additionally, non-organic ingredients allowed per the national list may be used (up to a combined total of 5%) of non-organic content.3 This excludes salt and water.

Product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the panel as well.2 If the product states that it is “made with organic”, then it falls under a different labeling requirement. At least 70% of the product must be made from certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Any remaining agricultural products are not required to be organically produced but must be produced without excluded methods.1-2 Non-agricultural products must be specifically allowed on the national list. Finally, product labels still must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.2 Per the USDA:

“Unless the finished product is certified to the USDA organic regulations, product labels may not state or imply that the finished product is USDA organic or use the USDA organic seal.”

A product registered as “organic” does not necessarily mean that it will perform as well as a traditional cleaner or an EPA Safer Choice labeled product for an intended application. It may not be as good, or it may be better – there is no guarantee.

What does “Chemical Free” Mean?

The term “chemical free” is inherently misleading in almost all cases. No cleaner should be labeled as chemical free unless it only utilizes heat or light to clean the surface. Even substances such as water and air are scientifically defined as chemicals.

Some products make claims to be “harsh chemical free” or “non-toxic”. The FTC defines a non-toxic claim as follows:4

“A non-toxic claim likely conveys that a product, package, or service is non-toxic both for humans and for the environment generally. Therefore, marketers making non-toxic claims should have competent and reliable scientific evidence that the product, package, or service is non-toxic for humans and for the environment or should clearly and prominently qualify their claims to avoid deception.”

Products claiming to be “toxic chemical free” imply that they do not use chemicals known to be toxic to either people or the environment and that they avoid the use of chemicals known to be irritants or are otherwise harmful to humans.4 The term “harsh chemical free” is more ambiguous, and to our knowledge, does not have a clear or standardized definition.

We hope that you found this bite-sized blog series helpful in clarifying any questions you may have had regarding eco-friendly cleaners. 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!


1 https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards

2 https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Labeling%20Organic%20Products.pdf

3 https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/national-list

4 https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-releases/ftc-issues-revised-green-guides/greenguides.pd

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