By Sean Michael Hall, L.Ac.
We all understand the importance of diet, sleep and exercise.
In the last few decades however, it’s become apparent that limiting exposure to various chemicals, toxins and pollutants is also important. We’ve learned more about the detrimental health effects various chemicals have on our health. Many cleaning products marketed as “green”, “natural” or “eco-friendly” actually contain chemicals that are known carcinogens, endocrine-disruptors or lung and skin irritants.
With hundreds of new chemicals flooding the market every year, and with an EPA understaffed, underfunded and populated by industry insiders, it is unfortunately the case that we can’t trust the regulatory process to protect our health or the health of the environment. Though public awareness around the negative reproductive and development effects of BPA (bisphenol A) and other unregulated chemicals like phthalates is growing, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that our health is protected.
For years I’ve recommended that my patients avoid as many of these chemicals as possible by using only ecologically friendly cleaning and personal care products. Unfortunately, I trusted that many of the “green” brands I’ve personally used were good enough. Instead I’ve found that many of those green-marketed brands are as bad as some of the worst conventional brands.
So I set out to find household cleaning products for each of the 8 main cleaning categories (surface cleaner, laundry detergent, dish soap, etc.) that meet three criteria:
- All products have received an A-rating by the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org). EWG is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to testing products, researching environmental toxins, and educating the public on their findings. Its sister organization, the EWG Action Fund, is its lobbying arm, and they’ve been an important voice in keeping our bodies and our planet healthy.
- All products must be available at grocery stores in the Berkeley or Oakland area, so one can avoid the time, cost and carbon-footprint of ordering online. (For those not living in the San Francisco East Bay area, all products are sold nationally.)
- For convenience, all products should be available at one location so that multiple stops are not necessary.
As, I delved into the detailed reports on hundreds of products and brands, a few very interesting things became clear, all which I’ll detail later in this article. For those of you who want to stop reading and start shopping, the chart below sums up my findings.
Please though, come back and read on about the many surprises I discovered about the “eco” and “green” home care market
As you can see, if you happen to live in the Oakland or Berkeley area, you can purchase all products with one stop at Berkeley Bowl or Farmer Joe’s. Whole Foods has most of the products, but not all of them. I was hoping that more recommended products would be available at Target but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. In fact, although Target has a “Green Cleaning Product” section, it’s stocked with some of the worst offenders, like Method and Mrs. Meyer’s Cleaning Day brands. The Seventh Generation products they carry tend to be Seventh Generation’s C, D and F rated products.
Regarding price, as one would expect, the larger the company the greater their purchasing power and scale. Whole Foods is able to consistently offer the lowest price. Personally, I prefer to spend a few extra dollars each time I shop to support the local economy, and to delay Amazon’s takeover of the world (!). Besides, as of January 2018, Jeff Bezos’ net worth is already 121 billion dollars, making him the richest person in the world. Spread the wealth, please!
For Those More Visually Inclined
Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner – Lemongrass Citrus Scent
Citra Solv Citra Clear Window & Glass Cleaner
Biokleen All-Purpose Cleaner, Concentrated, Grapefruit Seed & Orange
Seventh Generation Tub & Tile Natural Cleaner, Emerald Cypress & Fir
Seventh Generation Toilet Bowl Natural Cleaner, Emerald Cypress & Fir
Biokleen Laundry Liquid, Citrus Essence
Biokleen Natural Dish Liquid, Citrus
1. Earth Friendly Products Wave Dishwasher Gel
2. 7th-Gen Dishwasher Detergent Powder
Take Home Points
1. Just because a particular brand has some products that are safe and environmentally friendly doesn’t mean all of that brand’s products are safe and environmentally friendly.
My original intention was to make the recommendations as easy as possible by finding one trusted brand that had products locally available in all categories. It quickly became apparent that that was not possible.
For example, Seventh Generation products are available at most local stores including Berkeley Bowl, Farmer Joe’s, Whole Foods and Target. Previously, I used most of this company’s products and was hopeful that they would be the silver bullet providing ease, convenience and quality. Unfortunately, I found that though they have quite a few A-rated products, they have even more C-rated products and almost as many D-rated products. Perusing the brand charts below shows the specifics.
2. A brand’s labeling and marketing is unrelated to the quality of the product. In fact, most products marketed as ecologically friendly or non-toxic are not.
If you visit the website for Method Brand, for instance, you’ll find words like “greener” and “planet-friendly” sprinkled throughout. Their company description includes the words “naturally-derived, biodegradable, non-toxic”, yet the chart below shows that 60% of their products receive a D or F rating by EWG. Babyganics should be ashamed of their name, as 28% of their products received a D or F rating, and another 50% of their products receive a C-rating. 43% of Whole Foods 365 Brand received a D or F rating, and 67% of naturally, it’s clean products, also available at Whole Foods, received a D or F rating.
3. Just because a product is sold at a natural food store doesn’t mean it’s non-toxic or environmentally friendly.
See the Whole Foods 365 brand chart below, and also note the fact that even the C, D and F rated Seventh Generation products are sold at most natural food stores.
4. There are two brands that seem devoted to providing a full array of non-toxic, environmentally friendly cleaning products: Biokleen and Ecover.
A record-breaking 96% of Biokleen’s products are rated A or B by the EWG, and Ecover follows closely behind with 89%. None of either of their products were rated D or F, and only 3 of the two company’s combined 52 products receive a C rating. Well done Biokleen and Ecover! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find products for all eight cleaning categories at one location, otherwise my recommendations would have been simpler.
Products by EWG Rating for all locally available brands marketed as eco-friendly or non-toxic:
A few more interesting tidbits…
1. Small changes from product to product can change a rating dramatically. For instance, Seventh Generation’s All-Purpose Surface Cleaner, Free & Clear, which we previously used at the clinic has a C rating. Its earlier iteration Lemon & Thyme had a D-rating, while the version recommended above and that we now use at the clinic, Multi-Surface Disinfecting Cleaner, Lemongrass Citrus, has an A-rating.
2. I originally intended to have a category for wood floor cleaners. Unfortunately, almost all wood floor cleaners have a D or F rating. Furthermore, wood “oils” are usually not oils and heavily toxic. I did find one company with a wood floor cleaner that has a B rating (Truce Wood Cleaner, Citrus), but I was unable to find it locally.
Thankfully, it turns out that dish soap makes an excellent wood floor cleaner. Multiple green cleaning blogs give dish soap two thumbs up for wood floors that are sealed, and after a few weeks of use I agree. Thankfully, almost all wood floors are sealed these days. An easy test to see if your wood floors are sealed is to pour a few drops of water on the floor and let it sit for a few minutes. If a stain remains after drying, your floor is unsealed.
3. The most economical, environmentally friendly and non-toxic home cleaning products are the ones you make yourself. By mixing a few ingredients you can create products for all eight cleaning product categories. It does take a little research, a little time and a little creativity, but it’s quite doable. And if this is your cup of tea, maybe even fun! I personally have lots of other more fun projects I’m looking forward to, but, if you’re so inclined, the following 5 products are A-rated by EWG and provide the base ingredients for all eight cleaning product categories, from glass cleaner to laundry detergent.
- White Vinegar
- Arm & Hammer Baking Soda
- Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap (all scents)
- Seventh Generation Chlorine-Free Bleach, Free & Clear
- Essential Oils (lemongrass, eucalyptus, thyme are my favorites)
There are lots of interesting blogs covering the topic. Google away and have fun!
- The Environmental Working Group Guide to Healthy Cleaning