How safe are green cleaning products?

A growing number of Americans are seeking so-called “green” cleaners — products made with natural, nontoxic, and biodegradable ingredients. Sales of natural cleaning products totaled $105 million in the last year.

Some of these cleaners promise that they contain natural (instead of synthetic) agents, break down quickly in the environment, or pose less of a toxic threat to humans and ecosystems. But critics caution that just because the ingredients in green cleaners are plant-based or natural doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe.

Although green cleaners may purport to list all ingredients, the market is largely unregulated — which means consumers still must be wary of what’s in the bottle. Even cleaning products labeled “natural” may contain some fraction of synthetic chemicals. Or they may contain natural ingredients consumers would rather avoid, such as petroleum distillates, some of which can cause cancer. And just because a cleaning product is biodegradable and made from plant-based sources doesn’t mean that it is without potential adverse effects on health.

Plant-based ingredients included in some green cleaners include limonene (a citrus-based oil), pine oil, and the foaming agent coconut diethanolamide – all of which can cause allergic dermatitis. And a recent study of natural and nontoxic consumer products found the suspected cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane in roughly half of 100 tested products — including several dish washing liquids with words such as “Earth friendly” and “eco” in their brand names.

Some natural cleaners still contain petroleum distillates such as benzene, or 1,4 dioxane, both of which can cause cancer, not to mention the fact that they come from a non-renewable resource (oil) which is, in and of itself, far from eco-friendly.

1,4 dioxane is also a suspected kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant.

Based on the Organic Consumer’s Association’s review of natural and organic personal care and household cleaning products, the only products that consistently tested negative for 1,4 dioxane were those carrying the USDA Certified Organic seal.

Other dangerous ingredients to look out for include:

  • Phosphates – cause algae proliferation in bodies of water, killing marine life
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates – cause reproductive defects, liver and kidney damage
  • Phthalates – cause sperm damage and reproductive defects in boys
  • Volatile organic compounds, including 1,4-dichlorobenzene – cause nose and throat irritation, dizziness, asthma
  • Glycol ethers
  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine
  • Ethanolamines

Consumer advocates have pressed for stricter labeling rules, but the industry has resisted, arguing that long lists of ingredients would create a distraction on product labels, drawing attention away from important safety information.

For many home cleaning chores, you can avoid commercial products entirely by making your own cleaners. 

Los Angeles Times April 28, 2008 Natural Health

About Greg Seaman
Greg Seaman is the founder of, a website focusing on environmentally sustainable living. Greg has over 25 years of off-grid living experience, which inspires much of Eartheasy's content. has been recognized internationally for its' contribution to environmental welfare, and chosen as a content provider for the The Weather Network, numerous publications and media outlets.

Your email sign-up is confirmed.

Join the Conversation

Login or sign upsign up to add a comment

Rozanne, posted on February 11, 2013

Something else I recently discovered is that the green products often have gluten in them. They are made from plant derivatives, which they (the experts?) found to be gluten. Good thing I only use vinegar and baking soda, but I did have to change out my dish detergent so that my daughter wouldn't ingest it off of her plates!

777suzannaduffy, posted on November 1, 2012

i clean with vinegar,essential oil of your choice(peppermint,lavender,grapefruit,rosemary,ginger)to name a few,and alkaline water,11.5,and some borax,and all is clean & green.

marsay007, posted on December 23, 2011

Vinegar, filtered water and alcohol, I will never buy an all purpose cleaner again.

WellBeingMagazine, posted on October 21, 2010

Vinegar and bi-carb of soda have long been staples of chemical-free cleaning and combine well with a new generation of microfibre cleaning cloths that have been designed to clean with water alone. If you want a “clean smell” you can add a few drops of essential oils. Eucalyptus, tea tree, lemon, orange, cinnamon or lavender work well. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant and bi-carb of soda is a very gentle abrasive effective at removing dirt and stains on bench tops, sinks, showers and baths. Using a microfibre cloth with a sprinkle of bi-carb helps to significantly cut down on the amount of elbow grease required to keep your bath and shower sparkling clean.

kregweiss, posted on October 18, 2010

thank you for this update - we have updated this article removing the product mentioned ... namaste

FreedomPress, posted on October 18, 2010

I work with David Steinman's office. He conducted the 1,4-dioxane studies with the Organic Consumer's Association. We've contacted Greg to let him know that the 2008 test results are outdated, as we did additional testing in 2009 and 2010 and 18 companies reformulated their products to remove or reduce 1,4-dioxane. All products from Earth Friendly Products tested completely free of 1,4-dioxane. The updated test results are here:

More From Gaia

Password is case sensitive.