What does Non-Toxic in Cleaning Products Mean?

When looking for a cleaning product, my priority is my safety. I want to know that I can comfortably clean and not inhale something that will have detrimental effects on my health. Claims like “natural” and “non-toxic” seem trustworthy, but can we really rely on them?

In general, non-toxic is commonly associated to be safe and not harmful in any way. In cleaning, it is nonhazardous ingredients that will not have any damaging or long-lasting effects on human health and the environment.

This article will further define the definition of non-toxic and to let you know what to look out for next time you’re on the hunt for a new cleaning product.

What Does Non-Toxic Mean?

The term Non-Toxic is unfortunately unregulated, meaning it is not a term that is defined and there are no rules to follow when labeling products with this term. Toxic, however, is regulated by the Federal Hazardous Substance Act which is an Act that requires precautionary labeling of hazardous household products for the safety of consumers. Their definition of Toxic is “if it can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin….a product is toxic if it can cause long-term chronic effects like cancer, birth defects, or neurotoxicity”.

Additionally, the guidelines for labeling products that are hazardous must have “Caution” or “Warning” and if it is highly toxic it must be labeled “Poison” and “Danger”. If this is anywhere on the labels, definitely stay away. Pay attention to all the products you already have in your home and check the labels, bleach is labeled as corrosive along with many other warnings.

Therefore, by that definition, if it’s not considered Toxic, then anything can be labeled Non-Toxic. It’s not clear and detailed, so a lot of companies can get away with slapping the words “non-toxic” in front of cleaning labels to market and attract more people. However, once these products are broken down by ingredient, they can still be very toxic.

The takeaway here is that “non-toxic” is essentially meaningless. It’s unregulated and used as a marketing tactic. It is our job not to fall for these claims and to educate ourselves to finding safer products. There are tools and databases that will be discussed later on to help you choose reliable and healthier cleaning products for your home.

Does Non-Toxic Mean no chemicals?

Non-Toxic does not mean it doesn’t contain chemicals. Everything is a chemical, including water. Everything we use in our daily lives contains chemicals, they’re just not created equally. Greener cleaning products will contain chemicals that are safer to be around while chemicals like bleach can poison you. We need these chemicals to do their purpose, which is to eliminate bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other pathogens, but we also need them to be safe enough for us to use on a daily basis around kids, pets, and plants.

To say it contains chemicals is inconsistent, the term “harsh” chemicals are better known and better to make the distinction. Harsh chemicals are what are commonly known to be hazardous ingredients that are unsafe and would cause damaging effects to humans if it went in the nose, mouth, eyes, or absorbed through the skin. It would also cause bad air pollution and develop VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), which is not good to be breathing in for anyone.

According to the EWG’s Cleaning supplies and your Health cleaners can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, allergies and irritations, and even accidents causing burns and poisonings. Evidence shows the right cleaning ingredients are so important for our health. Not only for ourselves but especially babies and children that are around the fumes, people that are already sick that have sensitivities, older people with weak immune systems, and people who clean professionally are exposed to the fumes for many long hours every day.

Why Choose Green Cleaning Products?

Green cleaning companies are aware of the problem and they are making a solution. As more research is done about the harmful effects of toxic ingredients more people are making the switch to greener products.

The EPA has reported that indoor air pollution is 2.5 times worse than outdoor air because of all the chemicals we are exposed to inside our homes. Additionally, most people spend over 90% of their time indoors. Knowing that, we need to be buying products we know are safer for our environment.

An experiment done by Environmental Defence looked at chemicals in cleaning products and how they affect indoor air quality and human health, 14 people were assigned to clean for 30 minutes, some were given green cleaning products and others were given conventional popular products. The test found chemicals that contributed to indoor air pollution that is linked to respiratory problems like asthma. The test also found VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in air tests for both groups. The conventional group found VOC levels were up 120% while green cleaners were only 35%. You can find the video here.

Not only are green products safe for humans, but they are safe for the environment. There are even biodegradable options. Most of these companies also strive to be more sustainable by sourcing responsibly and consciously picking the right packaging to be recycled or reused. Additionally, some of these companies have missions that go beyond safe cleaning ingredients, like reducing carbon emissions and preserving our Earth. It’s important to do our research to make sure these companies are not greenwashing to know we are supporting the best brands.

How to look for Safer Cleaning Products

It’s an overwhelming process trying to decide which cleaning product is best and identifying the ingredients in them. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have great resources to help make your decisions easier.

  • EWG has a list of cleaning products that meet their strict standards for health
  • Safer Choice Program helps people find products that perform and contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment. You can search the database for products that meet the standards. Easily type in the product or company name, browse through the list, or browse by product type.
  • There is also a database for Safer Chemical Ingredients List to search for individual ingredients. You can simply search by name, functional use, or if you know the CAS RN.
  • Design for the Environment (DfE) helps people identify antimicrobial products that meet the health and safety standards of the pesticide registration process required by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) as well as other rigorous criteria required by the agency. 
  • DfE also keeps a database of certified Disinfectants you can search through. You can type in EPA Reg. Number, Product, Company, search by product type and active ingredient, or browse through the list.

How to Stay Safe While Cleaning

Cleaning is not a pretty chore but it’s necessary to keep our surroundings healthy and safe. Here are some best practices you can do as part of your cleaning routine to reduce exposure.

  • Use gloves to prevent direct exposure
  • Wear a Mask so you don’t breathe in the fumes as much
  • Wear Goggles to prevent anything splashing in your eyes
  • Open a window if possible to air out fumes
  • Turn on the fan to keep the good circulation of air
  • Schedule cleaning times, for instance, clean before you plan to leave your house, to go grocery shopping or on a walk.

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