You’ve Seen These 14 Trendy Buzzwords on Cleaning Labels. Here’s What Experts Say They REALLY Mean.
Stocking up your cleaning supplies should be straightforward. Pick the product that does the job you want to accomplish, check the label, and make sure the brand or product aligns with what’s important to you. Sadly, it’s not always that easy — thanks to confusing jargon that seems to litter every bottle on the shelf.
A quick Google search should help you pin down which products do what. But when it comes to important values like protecting the earth and safeguarding your health, greenwashing — a marketing ploy that can make harmful practices appear harmless — makes things murky. How can you tell if that all-purpose cleaner or laundry detergent really does what it promises? And, if you have to pick, which features are the most important?
1. Natural / All-Natural
Altman’s Importance Rating: 3.5
According to Altman, “natural” simply implies a molecule or substance that could actually be found in nature. “All natural” suggests a product only includes ingredients derived from the earth, without additives like preservatives. According to Isaias Hernandez of @queerbrownvegan, that may equate to shorter shelf life.
What an all-natural label doesn’t take into account is toxicity.” Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s non-toxic, and it doesn’t mean it wasn’t produced by a manufacturing process that’s heavily carbon-intensive,” he says. Take, for, example, tree pulp, which is naturally sourced and found in nature, yet could be devastating to the environment if harvested the wrong way.
Azora Zoe Paknad, founder of Goldune, sees “natural” as a bogus filler word brands use to attract customers — theoretically, literally anything that comes from planet Earth could be “natural.”
“If I’m being frank, as a sustainable business owner, this is one of those words that drives me up a wall, because it takes up so much space without communicating — or meaning — anything at all,” she says.
A non-toxic molecule or product doesn’t modify or destroy a living biological system, according to Altman. For example, anti-microbial products are inherently toxic, because they’re designed to destroy bacteria. Non-toxic products don’t kill or change anything, on your counter or otherwise. A reliable way to tell if your product is truly non-toxic, Hernandez says: You should be able to identify all the ingredients without having to Google a chemical property.
If you’re concerned about the environment and your own health, “non-toxic” may be a priority. But keep in mind the fear-mongering marketing ploys that may be at play. Not all chemicals are bad, Paknad reminds us — it’s just how you use them. For example, even too much water (which is itself a literal chemical) becomes toxic when you drink too much.
The important thing is to use and dispose of all your products correctly. “Improperly releasing a toxin into the environment could result in harm to other living systems,” says Altman.
Eco-friendly means compatible with the earth’s ecology — the product itself, when released into the environment, shouldn’t do harm to the planet’s land, water, or air. One example is white vinegar used as a cleaning agent (and released to the environment in diluted volumes). Another is compostable packaging that doesn’t contain non-degradable synthetic resins.
But an eco-friendly label isn’t a surefire way to prevent harm to an ecosystem. According to Altman, the “watch out” refers to the product in the bottle, but not always to the processes and chemicals used to make the product in the bottle or the bottle itself.
While “eco-friendly” implies products are a friend to our ecosystem, Paknad says we’re a long way from truly befriending the earth with practices like regenerative farming and carbon drawdown. “We usually see eco-friendly applied as almost harm reduction — folks actually intend it to mean ‘this thing has a relatively neutral impact on the earth,” she says.
By popular definition, sustainability relates to the materials and processes that affect climate change or climate instability, and Altman says the largest associated factor is carbon emissions. “‘Sustainable’ typically means it was produced with either a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative process,” he says. In other words, the production of a sustainable ingredient or product shouldn’t deplete the earth’s resources.
The problem, as with terms like “eco-friendly,” is that what’s in the bottle can be sustainable, but other processes from the same company, or even the same product line, could still harm the environment. Factors like supply chain, resource extraction, production, trade, and fair wages also play a role. “One of the biggest things to see if they are sustainable or not is looking at the number of products they produce each year and whether or not their other collections are actually sustainable,” Hernandez says.
One positive development on the sustainability front, according to Altman: The UN is expanding and specifically defining what “sustainable” means to include important issues like no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, clean energy, and life below water.
5. Plant-Based / Bio-Based
Plant-based implies a molecule, compound, or material is extracted from plants, but this one’s also fallen prey to greenwashing. Altman says a product can be plant-based and further modified with a synthetic molecule, such as preservatives. When we see “plant-based” on labels, we’re trying to make a connection to the word “sustainable” and use it also as a measure of natural, which it isn’t, and of safety, which it isn’t.
The thing is, Paknad says, a product can include plants in a way that’s absolutely not sustainable. For example, rose is a common essential oil to add to skincare, but roses are extremely water- and land-intensive to grow. “We associate a halo with plant-based anything, but the question we should be asking is, how were those plants grown? Did we sacrifice soil nutrition and carbon drawdown and biodiversity to do it? Could we have done without it, or made it in a lab with significantly less resources?”
Importance: 1 to 2
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves products for certain purposes, and in some cases — like if you’re trying to pick a disinfectant to stave off SARS-CoV-2 — it matters. But Altman says “EPA approved” isn’t itself a term. Usually, a product is EPA registered or certified, which means the facility complies with regulations for the discharge of certain materials in the environment.
“For example, you could be using a toxicant that is harmful to the earth’s ecology, but you’re using it in a low-enough dose that you can meet EPA regulations for handling and disposing of the product,” he says.
Importance: 2 to 3
Similar concept here: An FDA approval means the FDA has agreed your product is safe and effective to consume or apply to your skin. While certain products, like hand sanitizer, should be regulated as an over-the-counter medical product, cleaning products can’t be FDA approved.
Unless she’s eating something, Paknad says she doesn’t really care what the FDA has to say. But maybe that’s the gimmick — a solution or cleaner is so “clean” you could actually eat it. “To that I say, why am I buying it? I can eat water and white vinegar, too. Perhaps I should just use that, what I have,” says Paknad. “Using what you have is, in fact, the most sustainable option of all.”
8. Safer-Choice Label
This is the same concept as the EPA-approved label: The Safer Choice label indicates a product meets EPA standards for product safety. For example, the Safer Choice designation implies a product’s ingredients aren’t known carcinogens, and that they’re not toxic to aquatic life.
But as with any other designation, the Safer Choice label isn’t a catch-all for environmental sustainability or product safety and effectiveness.
“The reality is, it takes a lot of time and money to get any sort of certification, and only institutionally large brands can hang with those terms,” Paknad says. “If you’ve found a mom and pop soap or scrub that you love or you’re curious about, but it doesn’t have some logos on the packaging, go for it! That purchase can help small business owners and makers get closer to the scale, cash flow or critical volume they need to become eligible for new certifications.”
9. Biodegradable Packaging / Biodegradable Ingredients
In science-speak, Altman says this means the environment and the ecology have the ability to enzymatically break down the material into organic matter. Ideally, both the ingredients and packaging will be biodegradable, but Paknad says it’s not as common as you might think.
For example, “biodegradable packaging” (like the bowls you get at Chipotle or Sweetgreen) can contain a chemical called PFAS, which never breaks down. “Arguably, that makes the ‘biodegradable’ container not so ‘biodegradable,’ but because it’s not visible to the human eye anymore, big companies are easily able to call this real biodegradation,” Paknad says.
Her favorite options, she says, are paper or paperboard. Bioplastics can be finicky, so she looks for exact guidance on their composition to make sure she’s not purchasing something that will harm the planet as it breaks down. (To learn more, check out this resource from EcoEnclose and this one from the University of Florida.)
10. Recyclable Packaging
Importance: 5, if it actually gets recycled
The idea is that we can take a material, such as glass, break it down and put it back to use, such that we no longer need to harvest from the original source of the feedstock of the material — creating a more circular system. Altman says this is very important in theory, but the recycling systems in the U.S. today aren’t actually recycling all materials labeled as such.
“This is where the term ‘wish cycling’ has come from: as much as we want that paper coffee cup to be recycled, it contains a hidden layer of plastic which might prevent it from getting recycled,” he says. “A lot of times the recycling company is sorting it and throwing it right into the trash.”
According to Paknad, there are a few exceptions: corrugated cardboard and paperboard are efficient to recycle, and so is aluminum. That said, she recognizes shopping sustainably is a huge privilege, so just try to do your best according to your means.
One way you can do your part to up the odds your package will actually be recycled: “It’s important to not contaminate the packaging with any items that can make it greasy, which can ultimately prevent it from actually being recycled,” Hernandez says. This means rinsing out cartons and plastic bottles, and keeping your recyclables separate from other trash that might transfer grease or other contaminants to your recycling.
11. Paper-Based Packaging
Since paper is generally recyclable, paper-based packaging should, in theory, make sustainability easier. According to Hernandez, paper-based materials can be 100 percent recyclable or compostable when the packaging ink is made from vegetable-based oil.
That said, most paper-based packaging is bound by or lined with plastic — there’s no other way for it to stay shut or for it to hold liquid or even dry items that leech moisture or oil. The combination of paper and plastic renders the package un-recyclable, unless the materials can efficiently be separated.
“It’s extremely costly, but we do work with a few small WOC-owned businesses — for example, Alaya Tea and Sqwishful — that have cracked the code on fully biodegradable packaging made of paper with a bioplastic zipper mechanism, water-based adhesive glue for labels, all of which can be composted at home,” Paknad says.
Another word for this is “circular,” Altman says. When considering every step of the production process, there is no waste. Everything goes into the making of the product or is recycled or reused, or it is biodegradable.
Obviously, zero-waste is ideal, but it doesn’t always take into account shipping materials (note: zero-waste packing materials do exist, and Goldune uses them!) or transportation (which can cause carbon emissions). “The only way I foresee society being able to achieve this is with carbon offsets. There are ways to put the profit from systems like transportation back into operations to pull the CO2 back out of the air,” Altman says.
This is a pure marketing ploy. You’re either efficacious or you’re not, and every company gets to define what “efficacy” means, and their product will usually perform to that standard. “With hand sanitizer, for example, you could have one that kills 99.9 percent of germs, and another that kills 99 percent,” Altman says. “Both products are efficacious because they’re performing to their set and advertised standards even though one is more effective than the other.”
As always, if you’re out shopping and vetting a product, Paknad suggests asking yourself who is making claims about the product and what they might stand to gain from you agreeing with them.
14. Chemicals / Chemical-Free
Chemicals are molecules or substances composed of atoms created through chemistry. “We commonly use the word to imply a negative: a molecule from a synthetic origin or fossil-fuel derived,” Altman says. “Yet almost everything on this earth by definition is a chemical. The protein in our muscles and the DNA in our cells are really cool chemicals, but so is the chemical Teflon. Some chemicals support life and others are capable of ending one.”
What matters, ultimately, isn’t whether a product is chemical-free, but whether the chemicals are “good” or “bad.” “If a brand says they’re chemical-free, your mental alarm bells should go off, because that means the product they’re selling you is just a puff of air because nothing is actually free of chemicals,” Paknad says. “If you’re not just buying a puff of air, then the brand is probably misleading you.”
Paknad says she hopes that misstatements on cleaning products are well-intentioned. But the best thing consumers can do is look for brands that are transparent, and use real language to describe their impact to people and the planet.
“Rather than looking for a product that says non-toxic, or biodegradable… I look for products that just say exactly what they are,” she says. What consumers need aren’t blanket statements, but specific clarity on what a product is or isn’t. “I understand that takes a ton of consumer education, and I try to do my part as a founder to help get us there.”