Identifying Greener Cleaning Products
Cleaning products are necessary for maintaining attractive and healthy conditions both in the home and the workplace. In addition to the obvious aesthetic benefits of cleaning, the removal of dust, allergens, and infectious agents is crucial to maintaining a healthy indoor environment. It is important to remember, however, that cleaning products can present several health and environmental concerns. They may contain chemicals associated with eye, skin, or respiratory irritation, or other human health issues. Additionally, the concentrated forms of some commercial cleaning products are classified as hazardous, creating potential handling, storage, and disposal issues for users. Using green cleaning products can help to reduce the human health and environmental concerns that comes along with cleaning.
Ecolabels are a good tool to help purchasers quickly and easily identify products that are "greener". However, it is important for consumers to be careful in interpreting vague or generic claims on products such as "environmentally friendly," "eco safe," or "green" (also known as "greenwashing"). To make it easier for purchasers to identify greener cleaning products, EPA manages the Safer Choice program, which certifies products that contain safer ingredients for human health and the environment. In addition to the Safer Choice label, EPA offers the Design for the Environment (DfE) label on antimicrobial products, such as disinfectants and sanitizers. Whether a product displays the Safer Choice label or the DfE label, the same stringent requirements and high standards must be met for that product to become certified. EPA provides online search tools to help consumers and purchasers find Safer Choice and DfE-certified products.
- Safer Choice-Certified Product Search
- DfE-Certified Product Search, including those also on List N (antimicrobial products, like disinfectants and sanitizers)
Additionally, EPA has developed a set of Recommendations in several cleaning product categories, that identify credible and effective private sector standards/ecolabels.
Environmental and Health Concerns
NOTE: The following discussion primarily addresses hazards associated with cleaning product ingredients. The actual risks from these chemicals at typical exposure levels are often uncertain, and in many cases are probably low. Regardless of the expected risk levels, however, reducing the intrinsic hazard of a product is a desirable pollution prevention objective as part of decisions that also take into account other important product attributes.
- Cleaning products are released to the environment during normal use through evaporation of volatile components and rinsing down the drain of residual product from cleaned surfaces, sponges, etc. Janitorial staff and others who perform cleaning can be exposed to concentrated cleaning products. However, proper training and use of a Chemical Management System (a set of formal procedures to ensure proper storage, handling, and use) can greatly minimize or prevent exposure to concentrated cleaning product during handling and use.
- Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (e.g., skin and eye irritation in workers) or toxicity to aquatic species in waters receiving inadequately treated wastes (note that standard sewage treatment effectively reduces or removes most cleaning product constituents). For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an "endocrine disrupter," causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.
- Many surfactants used in conventional products biodegrade slowly or biodegrade into more toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals, threatening aquatic life.
- Ingredients containing phosphorus or nitrogen can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, leading to adverse effects on water quality. These contributions, however, are typically small compared to other point and non-point sources.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOC) in cleaning products can affect indoor air quality and also contribute to smog formation in outdoor air.
- Minimal presence of or exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, such as:
- Corrosive or strongly irritating substances.
- Substances classified as known or likely human carcinogens or reproductive toxicants by authorities such as the National Toxicology Program, the U.S. EPA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer or the State of California. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) provides a list of chemicals that are known to cause significant adverse human and environmental health effects.
- Ozone-depleting compounds as listed in Clean Air Act regulations.
- Regulated hazardous materials (e.g. products classified as hazardous waste; products that trigger OSHA hazard communication requirements).
- Chemicals designated on EPA’s list of pollutants as HAPs (hazardous air pollutants)
- Use of renewable resources, such as biobased solvents from citrus, seed, vegetable, and pine oils.
- Low VOC content.
- Biodegradable by standard methods and definitions, e.g. ready biodegradability as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). "Ready biodegradability" is a definition meant to ensure that a material degrades relatively quickly in an aquatic aerobic environment.
- Low toxicity in aquatic species such as fish or aquatic invertebrates, e.g. LC50 or EC50 > 10 mg/L (chronic) reported on MSDS or other product literature.
- Low flammability, e.g. flash point > 200 degrees F.
- pH closer to neutral, e.g. greater than or equal to 4 and less than or equal to 9.5.
- Fragrance-free or meets EPA’s Safer Choice Criteria for Fragrances.
- Designed for use in cold water in order to conserve energy.
- Limit use of disinfectants to areas where people are likely to come into contact with contaminated surfaces (e.g., bathroom fixtures, doorknobs, other high-touch surfaces). Many general purpose cleaning tasks do not typically require the use of disinfectants (e.g., walls, floors, other surfaces with minimal hand contact).
- Conduct training on proper use of products.
Product Packaging and Shipping
- Concentrated formulas with appropriate handling safeguards.
- Efficient packaging (e.g., light weight, reduced volume).
- Recyclable packaging.
- Recycled-content packaging.
- Packaging materials do not contain heavy metals, BPA, or phthalates.
- Refillable bottles.
- Pump sprays rather than aerosols.
- Packaging and dilution systems designed to reduce exposure to the product.
- Packaging is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy.
- Products shipped in bulk.
- Clear labeling and information on use and disposal.
- Labeling provides information on environmental, consumer, and worker safety matters.
- EPA's Safer Choice Program helps consumers, businesses, and purchasers find products that perform and contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment.
- EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Program labels antimicrobial products that have been reviewed by EPA and found to meet both the pesticide registration requirements and the strict environmental and health criteria of the Safer Choice Standard.
- GSA's Green Procurement Compilation (GPC) is a comprehensive green purchasing resource designed for federal contracting personnel and program managers.
- The Responsible Purchasing Network offers a Green Cleaning Pollution Prevention Calculator that quantifies the projected environmental benefits of purchasing and using green janitorial services and products.
- City of San Francisco's Safer COVID-19 cleaning products and disinfectants