How To Read Labels and Avoid Toxic Cleaning Products

How To Read Labels and Avoid Toxic Cleaning Products

Cambria Bold
May 5, 2010

May is Green Cleaning Month here on Re-Nest. We often talk about "non toxic" and "eco-friendly cleaners." What does that mean, exactly? What should you be looking for when you purchase a cleaner? What are the warning signals that a product is likely to contain unhealthy chemicals? We've put together a primer on things to look for when you're inspecting labels:

Avoid products that offer a Poison, Warning, or Danger label. Some products contain a "Caution" warning, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're toxic. It could simply mean that the product could be an irritant if it ends up in your eyes. So use your judgment.

Try to avoid products that only offer partial listings (i.e. active ingredients). There should be a statement that notes that a full ingredient disclosure has been made. Additionally, avoid products that list their ingredients by category ((i.e. surfactant, disperal agent, or inert ingredient) rather than by their full name.

Be suspect of products where the chemical is given without any further explanation. Look for products where the labels help explain the origins and source of the ingredient.

As a rule of thumb if you're confused, try to avoid ingredients with "chlor," "ene" or "ol" in their names. Even natural ingredients have chemical names, so it can often be difficult to distinguish between synthetic and potentially harmful ingredients and those that are not. Certain clues in the names, however, can be a tip-off that the product contains a toxic ingredient.

  • The presence of "chlor" indicates a chlorinated chemical.
  • An ending of "ene" (i.e. benzene, toulene, xylene) or "ol" (i.e. benzol, toluol, xylol, glycol, phenol) is likely an indication of a petroleum-based product or coal tar derivative.

Look for a product that says it's "readily biodegradable." If it simply says "biodegradable," that could mean that it may still take dozens of years to break down, which makes its toxicity semi-permanent.

Avoid products that warn of possible skin irritations.

Stay away from products that contain a "combustible" or "flammable" warning. Does it say it should not be stored in temperatures above 120 degrees or should not be used near an open flame? If so, the product may contain hazardous solvents.

Be wary of products that contain warnings about possible air quality dangers, or products that say they should only be used in a well-ventilated area and not near children.

If you can't find the answers to some of the questions above, you could always try contacting the manufacturer directly, or refer to the Household Products Database from the National Institutes of Health.

With help from Jeffrey Hollender's book Naturally Clean

(Image: Natural Home Magazine)

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