Say what you want about the bleak economy and shrinking grocery budgets: Green cleaners are cleaning up. Sales in the category quadrupled from 2003 to 2008, reaching $64.5 million, according to recent data from Chicago-based market research company Mintel. By 2013, the firm expects eco-friendly cleaners will account for 30 percent of the household-cleaners market (compared with 3 percent in 2008). All this at a time when conventional cleaning-product sales are flat.
What's fueling the demand? Four in 10 people surveyed for the Mintel report said they were more concerned with the environment now than they were a year ago. Customers are also tuned into the plethora of scientific studies blaming cleaning products for everything from skin irritation to asthma to cancer. And according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 150 common household chemicals have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer and psychological abnormalities.
Meanwhile, household cleaner manufacturers are not required by law to disclose ingredients on labels, notes Robin Kay Levine, a natural product expert and founder of Eco-Me, a company based in Pasadena, Calif., which offers do-it-yourself kits and recipes for safe cleaners. Yet the average customer still needs guidance about which chemicals to avoid and how to decipher vague and confusing label terms. Here's how to help yours make sense of four top green-marketing buzz phrases.
The message: "zero phosphates"
What it means: Phosphates are water-softening mineral additives that were once widely used in laundry detergents to enhance the performance of stain removers. But if ingested, they can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and because they are corrosive, phosphates can cause severe skin irritation. "Zero phosphates" means exactly what it says—the product is completely free of the harmful additive.
Also look for: Bleach is another one to avoid, since it is harmful to your lungs and mucous membranes. Plus, it produces trihalomethanes—toxins linked to cancer—and absorbable organic halides, which are harmful to marine organisms. Customers should also avoid dyes and perfumes, which can irritate skin and cause respiratory problems, especially in asthmatics.
The message: "chlorine free"
What it means: Just as too much chlorine in a swimming pool can be irritating to skin, chlorine in your dishwasher can be, too. Chlorine fumes in steam that leaks from dishwashers may cause eye irritation and difficulty breathing. It also leaves a chemical residue on your so-called clean dishes, which can transfer to your food and into your body. Also look for: Some dishwasher detergents contain phosphates, dyes and perfumes.
The message: "ammonia free"
What it means: Many conventional shower and toilet-bowl cleaners form toxic gases when mixed with water, often because they contain some form of ammonia, a skin, eye and lung irritant. The residue left behind is especially troublesome because your skin comes into contact with so many bathroom fixtures so often.
Also look for: Aside from bleach, many cleaners in this category contain 1,4-dichlorobenzene (a carcinogenic pesticide), hydrochloric acid (a highly corrosive chemical) and sodium dichloro- isocyanurate dihydrate (a severe eye, skin and respiratory irritant). In addition, products that contain sodium sulfate or sodium bisulfate may cause asthma attacks. A better bet: all-natural bathroom cleaners that use vegetable enzymes or natural mineral polishers such as borax.
The message: "plant based"
What it means: This category of cleaners contain ingredients called surfactants that break down dirt and oil. Surfactants also repel scum by leaving a film on surfaces that dirt can't stick to. That's OK if the surfactant is truly all natural, made from sources such as citrus or coconut oils. But if it's made from chemicals, such as alkylphenol ethoxylate or petroleum, the cleaner is leaving a layer of chemicals on your countertop that can transfer to your skin or food.
Also look for: Conventional all-purpose cleaners often contain ammonia, butyl cellusolve (a skin-penetrating neurotoxin) and ortho-phenylphenol (a harsh eye and skin irritant). Hormone-disrupting parabens may also be used as preservatives. Products that contain natural disinfectants, such as citric acid and lemon oil, are safe alternatives.
Gina DeMillo Wagner didn't fully appreciate green cleaners until her oldest child started teething on every surface in her house.