Anna Young, MS, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Lacy Reyna, MS, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Cleaning helps maintain the appearance and condition of our indoor environment and reduces dust, allergens, irritants, mold, and infectious agents. Aside from disinfectants, cleaning products do not need to undergo any pre-market testing or approval from the federal government.1 Green cleaning products are thought to contain ingredients less toxic to human health or the environment compared to those in conventional cleaning products.2 Household green cleaning products now comprise one of the most commonly purchased green products, with the market estimated at $600 million in the U.S. in 2014.3,4
Manufacturers can market their cleaning products with an established, competitive green label by undergoing third-party certification, such as Green Seal, UL ECOLOGO, or EPA Safer Choice. At least 3,000 cleaning products have been green-certified to reduce human and environmental impacts.5,6 By contrast, some manufacturers can greenwash uncertified cleaning products by marketing vague, unsubstantiated claims such as “green,” “natural,” or “nontoxic.” These labels are not standardized in industry or regulated by the U.S. government.3,7
Some cleaning ingredients have been linked to asthma, allergic reactions, headaches, endocrine disruption, cancer, sensitization, and irritation.
Cleaning products are complex mixtures that can contain numerous potentially harmful ingredients, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), bleach, ammonia, quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats), 2-butoxyethanol, alkylphenol ethoxylates, dyes, ethanolamines, triclocarban, triclosan, parabens, bisphenol-a, and phthalates. Some cleaning ingredients have been linked to asthma, allergic reactions, headaches, endocrine disruption, cancer, sensitization, and irritation.7,8,9,10 Terpene ingredients (e.g. pine oil, citrus oil, or d-limonene) can further react with ozone in the air to form hazardous secondary air pollutants hazardous to respiratory health, such as particles and formaldehyde (a carcinogen).8,11,12
Over two decades of occupational research shows that cleaning workers have an increased risk of respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma, chronic bronchitis), allergic symptoms, and dermal conditions.13,14,15 Two studies found associations between cleaning occupation and accelerated lung function decline, suggesting long-term respiratory health consequences.16,17 Household use of cleaning sprays has also been associated with asthma, asthma symptoms, and lung function decline.14,17,18,19 Aerosol sprays are of particular concern because they can facilitate inhalation of both volatile and non-volatile components.8,9
About 2.8 million janitors in the U.S. are disproportionately exposed to cleaning products on a daily basis, and they may lack the resources for time off work or adequate health care.2,13 Building residents can also inhale harmful cleaning chemicals from custodial tasks or their own intermittent cleaning.2 Children may experience harmful exposures to chemical residues from cleaning. Compared to adults, children breathe more air, touch recently cleaned floors more often, engage in more hand-to-mouth contact, and are undergoing sensitive development.8 For these reasons, ten states plus the District of Columbia have required or encouraged K-12 public schools to use environmentally preferable or greencertified cleaning products.6,20
Green certification programs require testing of the cleaning products to ensure that they effectively remove soil (e.g. 75%), but not that they disinfect.21,22,23 In an assessment of 27 Green Seal certified surface cleaners, 26 did not make antimicrobial claims and only 12 had hydrogen peroxide, a chemical with limited disinfectant properties.29 Because conventional disinfectant ingredients like Quats can be toxic, targeted and minimal use of disinfectants or implementation of other strategies to reduce infections is recommended.8
Green-certified cleaning products are likely safer given that EPA Safer Choice, Green Seal, and ECOLOGO require comprehensive safety testing of ingredients and the exclusion of asthmagens, reproductive/developmental toxins, carcinogens, mutagens, irritants, and skin sensitizers.
In a cost assessment, green-certified and conventional cleaning products did not have significantly different prices per ready-to-use gallon. In fact, green cleaning products can provide cost savings due to lighter shipping (and packaging) as concentrates and the operation of automatic dilution equipment to optimize product use.20,30 Further indirect savings can result from fewer chemical injuries of cleaning workers (estimated $25 million per year in the U.S. due to lost time and worker compensation) and fewer student or staff asthma-related absences from school (estimated $40 million per year in California alone).20,30,31
Ideally, purchase cleaning products that are green-certified by reliable, stringent programs such as Safer Choice, Green Seal, and UL ECOLOGO. For any other certifications, research the health-related standards. If green-certified is unavailable, prioritize non-aerosol products with ingredient transparency and justifications of their green claims.2,8,14 Avoid products that list health warnings or known hazardous ingredients.
To reduce exposures when cleaning, increase ventilation (e.g. open windows), wear nitrile or neoprene gloves, and remove disposable cleaning supplies promptly. To reduce the frequency of cleaning needed, place scraper mats at the entrance and use a HEPA-filtered vacuum and cleaned microfiber mops and cloths.8
Buildings should use green-certified cleaning products. There are also green-certified cleaning services that use environmentally preferable products (with objective consideration of health impacts), provide worker safety training, and adopt strategies to reduce exposures (e.g. disinfect only in bathrooms, use entryway mats to maintain cleanliness, and seal or dispose of materials promptly).21 Green-certified cleaning products and services can also help fulfill requirements for the green building rating systems LEED and WELL.32,33