Are “green” cleaning products better for us?

By Rachel Hollis

About the author

Rachel Hollis is a postgraduate researcher working within the School of Earth and Environment, the School of Chemistry and the Business School. Her research interests are in green products, consumer decision making and perceptions of chemicals in consumer products. Her current project is focused on green cleaning products and trying to understand the barriers to purchasing these products that consumers might face. 

Are green cleaning products really any better for the environment and human health than conventional products?

Consumers are becoming more concerned about the chemicals contained in cleaning products. Many ingredients in cleaning products have been linked to asthma and skin allergies. This has led to an increase in demand for greater transparency about what is contained in cleaning products, as well as demand for safer alternatives.

Green cleaning products are those marketed on the basis that they are better for the environment than other options. These products claim to contain non-toxic, plant-based ingredients. Because of this, many consumers believe that green cleaning products are also better for human health. However, little research has been done that compares green and conventional cleaning products on the hazards that they pose to the environment and to human health.

Cleaning products
Cleaning products are made up of a mixture of different chemicals, each with different functions within the product (shown below).

Diagram showing chemical make-up of cleaning products

The function of each chemical within the cleaning product will influence the impact it might have on the environment or on human health. Preservatives, solvents, surfactants and disinfectants are functions that have been identified as potentials for concern. There are different types of these chemicals, and some will be better for the environment and human health than others. The growing range of fragrance ingredients in cleaning products is also worrying, as they have been linked to skin allergies. For those with allergies, knowing if a product contains the ingredient they are allergic to is important, but finding this out has not always been easy.

Regulation
Changes to EU legislation have seen the ingredient lists of cleaning products being released to consumers. As well as providing a brief ingredient list on the product packaging, manufacturers must also release a detailed ingredient list online. Each chemical must also be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), with information detailing the environmental or human hazards associated with each chemical. It is now easier to find out what is in cleaning products, and what risks are posed. Due to these regulation changes, it is also easier to compare the formulations of green and conventional cleaning products – which is what this study aimed to do. It is, however, important to note that manufacturers are not required to disclose how much of each chemical is present in the product. This has implications for the toxicity of the product, and couldn’t be taken into account in this research.

Research Questions
The study aimed to answer the following questions:

1.    Are there differences between green and conventional products in terms of environmental and human health hazards?

2.    Are particular functions of chemicals more likely to be linked to environmental or human health hazards?

3.    How do green and conventional products compare in terms of how many of these functions of chemicals they contain?

How?
Detailed ingredients lists were identified for 95 multipurpose cleaning products. 16 of these were marketed as green, and 79 were classed as conventional (they made no claims about their environmental impacts). Functions of each chemical within a cleaning product were recorded. The ECHA website was then used to identify the hazards associated with each of the chemicals in each of the products. In total there were four different environmental and 16 human health hazards that were linked to at least one of the identified chemicals. The main hazards of interest were the four different environmental hazards, and those relating to skin irritation, allergic skin reactions, respiratory irritation and allergic respiratory reactions. The hazards between green and conventional products were then compared.

Results:

Graph showing ECHA hazard categories

No significant differences were found between green and conventional products for any of the environmental hazards. Given that one of the big selling points for these products is their supposed environmental benefits, this is somewhat surprising. However, environmental toxicity is not the only environmental impact associated with cleaning products. It is likely that these products may instead base their claims on other aspects of sustainability – for example, packaging or ingredient sourcing.

There were no significant differences between green and conventional products for skin or respiratory allergies. Following this, the lay belief that green cleaning products are better for health than conventional cleaning products may be unfounded. Those with asthma or allergies cannot rely on a product being marketed as green for it to be suitable for their needs.

Preservatives were significantly more likely to result in acute toxicity to aquatic life than most of the other ingredient functions. They were also more likely to result in an allergic skin reaction than solvents and surfactants. Fragrances were significantly more likely to result in an allergic skin reaction than all other ingredient functions, apart from preservatives. Green and conventional products were also found to contain a similar number of fragrances and preservatives.

Chart showing function of chemicals in cleaning products

Preservatives are an important function in cleaning products – without them, the product would start to grow mould or bacteria. However, there are different preservatives available, and some will be less harmful than others. When creating cleaning products, manufacturers should choose the preservative with the least known negative effects, and use it in the lowest possible concentration. Fragrances, on the other hand, add nothing to the performance of the product other than a distinctive scent. While on one hand consumers are growing concerned about the chemicals contained in cleaning products, there is also high demand for cleaning products in a variety of fragrances. These two demands seem at odds. Perhaps as consumers we need to recognise that if we want less harmful cleaning products, we may need to accept less fragrant products.

When considering these results, it is again important to remember that the concentration of each chemical in the product will have an influence on how harmful the product will be. As concentration information isn’t provided, the results must be interpreted cautiously.

Conclusions
The lack of differences between green and conventional products is surprising. In terms of toxicity, clearly all cleaning products pose some degree of risk. Some green cleaning products will be better for the environment or for human health than conventional cleaning products. However, some conventional cleaning products may be better than some green cleaning products. Those wishing to choose a cleaning product best for both the environment and human health will need to pay close attention both to the ingredients list and to the overall sustainability efforts of the company that produce it. For now, a product labelling itself as green is not enough to guarantee that it will be the best choice for both the user and the environment. 

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