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Guide to ethical cleaning products

flowers

We deploy a battery of cleaning products — liquids, creams and powders — in the battle against germs and grime. But what is the effect of these substances on our health and the environment? Is this chemical warfare a necessary evil? And if not, what are the natural alternatives?

In the following article we will guide you through the issues, so that you know what to look for and what to avoid when you are buying cleaning products.

In this article

The effects of chemicals used in cleaning products
Environmental impact
Other ethical issues
A more natural approach
Ethical ranking tables
Ethical accreditations
Summary


The effects of chemicals used in cleaning products

test tubes

The following chemicals are considered to be harmful to human health and the environment, but may legally be used in cleaning products:

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative to help prevent bacterial growth.  It is a respiratory irritant and can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing and nose and throat irritation.  It has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and allergies in children, and is recognised as a human carcinogen.

Parabens

Parabens are used in cleaning products, as well as shampoos, moisturisers and cosmetics, to extend the shelf life of products by preventing the growth of bacteria, mould and yeast. They have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.

Phthalates

Phthalates are used in many cleaning products and synthetic fragrances.  They have been linked to developmental problems in babies, reduced male fertility and an increased risk of breast cancer.

Triclosan

Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal chemical which can be found in cleaning products, toothpaste and soaps. It is an irritant to the skin and eyes and is known to be an endocrine disruptor, affecting thyroid and reproductive hormones.

Bleach (sodium hypochlorite)

This chemical, found under many kitchen sinks, acts by oxidising (sterilising) organic matter and is arguably more dangerous than the germs it is used to kill. It causes irritation and potentially burns on contact with the skin or eyes, and inhalation of bleach fumes can cause lung damage.


Environmental impact

plastic pollution

A significant proportion of the domestic cleaning products we use, including their constituent chemicals, is inevitably disposed of down the drain and goes on to pollute our streams and rivers. Some of these chemicals do not break down but remain in the environment and enter the food chain.

Having been poured down toilets, drains and sinks, a large amount of bleach ends up in our sewers where its powerful antibacterial effect continues, inhibiting the natural bacterial process which helps break down the sewage.

Recent reports from the Environment Agency showed that all of England’s rivers and lakes are polluted beyond legal limits with chemicals, sewage and pharmaceuticals.

The bottles containing our cleaning products are usually made from plastic, which is slow to biodegrade if not recycled. Plastic pollution is a major problem: a truckload of it enters the oceans every minute, having a devastating effect on wildlife.

One way to mitigate this problem is to reuse or refill plastic containers. Avoid products packaged in polyvinylchloride (PVC) containers — these can be identified by a ‘3’ in a recycling symbol on the bottom of the bottle. High and low density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene tetraphthalate (PET) are less environmentally problematic than PVC. More information on the different types of plastic here.


Other ethical issues

Animal testing

Millions of laboratory animals are used worldwide to test the safety of chemicals, including those used in cleaning products. The tests can involve considerable suffering and the animals are always killed afterwards.

The best way to find products which have not been tested on animals is to look for the Cruelty Free Internationals Leaping Bunny logo — a globally-recognisable standard for household products, cosmetics and personal care products.

It requires companies to implement a supplier monitoring system, with supply chain checking for animal testing right down to the ingredient manufacturer level.

Palm oil

The production of palm oil is linked to deforestation, the loss of natural habitats and human rights violations. Look for brands which are palm oil free, or those which commit to sourcing it sustainably.


A more natural approach

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Fortunately, none of the dangerous chemicals in cleaning products are necessary: household cleaners containing natural, plant-based ingredients are available. These products and their ingredients have not been tested on animals, and the best brands are certified organic and vegan-friendly.

Consumer organisations like the Good Shopping Guide and Ethical Consumer have carried out research to find the best and the worst companies, based on criteria including their policies on chemicals, the environment, sustainability, animal testing and the packaging.

We have reproduced some of their ethical ranking tables in the next section.


Ethical ranking tables

The ranking lists below are for general household cleaners, laundry detergents, washing up liquids and toilet cleaners. We have included the highest and lowest scoring brands — follow the link below the table to see the complete list.

It’s noticeable that the lowest ethical ratings go to some of the most familiar household name brands, for example Method, Cif, Flash, Lenor, Surf, Persil, Fairy. Even Ecover, which is marketed as an ecological brand, gets a low score in several of the tables. The brands achieving the highest ethical ratings, on the other hand, are less well known names like Bio D, Ecozone, Faith in Nature, Greenscents and Living Naturally.

The top 5 household cleaners
(Good Shopping Guide)

Top 5 household cleaners

The bottom 5 household cleaners
(Good Shopping Guide)

Bottom 5 household cleaners

Source: Good Shopping Guide
retrieved 20.11.20

The top 5 laundry detergents
(Table 1: Ethical Consumer)

Top 5 laundry detergents

The bottom 5 laundry detergents
(Table 1: Ethical Consumer)

Bottom 5 laundry detergents

Source: Ethical Consumer
retrieved 20.11.20

The top 5 laundry detergents
(Table 2: Good Shopping Guide)

Top 5 laundry detergents

The bottom 5 laundry detergents
(Table 2: Good Shopping Guide)

Bottom 5 laundry detergents

Source: Good Shopping Guide
retrieved 20.11.20

The top 5 washing up liquids
(Good Shopping Guide)

Top 5 washing up liquid

The bottom 5 washing up liquids
(Good Shopping Guide)

Source: Good Shopping Guide
retrieved 20.11.20

The top 5 toilet cleaners
(Ethical Consumer)

Top 5 toilet cleaners

The bottom 5 toilet cleaners
(Ethical Consumer)

Bottom 5 toilet cleaners

Source: Ethical Consumer
retrieved 20.11.20


Ethical accreditations

The following ethical accreditations are the most important ones to be aware of. They are an independent verification of a brand or product’s ethical credentials.

Soil Association organic logo

Organic certification
Awarding body: The Soil Association

The Soil Association is a UK body which awards organic certification, governing health, environmental and animal welfare issues. Soil Association certification is regarded as the gold standard for organic products and is very difficult to achieve. It means that the products you are buying are free from genetically modified (GM) ingredients, grown without the use of synthetic chemicals and observing the highest animal welfare standards.


Cruelty free logo

The Leaping Bunny programme
Awarding body: Cruelty Free International

The Leaping Bunny programme from Cruelty Free International is an easily recognised symbol which indicates that a product and its ingredients have not been animal tested. To gain this certification, companies are subject to an intensive independent audit which is updated annually.


The Vegan Trademark
Awarding body: The Vegan Society

The Vegan Trademark is an internationally recognised symbol indicating that products contain no animal ingredients, that the processing aids used in the manufacturing process are vegan, and that the ingredients have never been tested on animals. 


Summary

We hope you have found this guide useful. It will arm you with the knowledge to make the right choices and find cleaning products which are better for you, your home, your family and the planet. Using this information you can steer clear of products which are packed with toxic chemicals, are harmful to the environment or have been tested on animals. You can use the ethical ranking tables to see how different brands perform, and make your shopping choices accordingly.


One Planet is proud to be working with some outstanding brands, including two that score the highest in the ethical ranking tables above.

Greenscents is a small family business based in rural Somerset which offers a full range of natural home cleaning products. Greenscents was named the most ethical brand in the UK for laundry liquid, washing up liquid and multi-surface sprays by Ethical Consumer in 2017.

Living Naturally‘s range includes laundry and cleaning products, as well as soaps and shampoos. Both companies’ products are certified organic.

Greenscents range
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