When looking for natural cleaners, you can't always trust the "natural" claim on the packaging. Why? Because there isn't one set definition of what makes a cleaning product natural, nor is there a regulatory group that monitors it to prevent synthetic harmful chemicals from being added (for more on this see Natural, Non-Toxic & Green—How to Read Labels for Cleaning Products).
The easiest way to tell if a cleaning product is natural is to scan the ingredients list. Since most of us aren't chemists who understand the molecular breakdown of each ingredient, I sat down with our chemist to pull out the three most commonly found and unsafe ingredients often included in natural products. Read on to be more informed the next time you shop!
Harmful Chemical #1: Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
SLS is a cheap, effective surfactant commonly used in personal hygiene and cleaning products. Surfactants are cleaning agents, but they can also be used to bind liquids together and make products foam more, which most people associate with a better clean. On its own, SLS is not carcinogenic, but if it is ethoxylated (meaning another chemical, ethylene oxide is added during the manufacturing process) it can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, which the EPA identifies as a possible carcinogen. California's Proposition 65 only allows 30 micrograms of 1,4 dioxane per day, which is extremely small. The Natural Product Association (NPA) prohibits the use of SLS in natural products.
Recommendation: Avoid products with SLS, particularly if they could be absorbed on your skin (lotions, soaps, etc.).
Harmful Chemical #2: Parabens
Parabens are used as a preservative and their antimicrobial properties can extend the shelf life of product by 2-3 years. This is great for manufacturers and stores who have to hold inventory, and consumers who might not go through product quickly; but some studies have found that parabens can lead to cancer, particularly breast cancer.
Recommendation: If you regularly use up your favorite beauty and cleaning products quickly, you likely don't need the preservative benefits parabens bring. If you go through products more slowly, you may still want to avoid products with parabens, especially if they will be absorbed on your skin.
Harmful Chemical #3: MEA, DEA and TEA
Get ready for a lot of chemical names. MEA (monoethanolamine), DEA (diethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine) are all ethanolamines. Ethanolamines are typically used in beauty and personal care products to stabilize ph levels. While on their own they are not carcinogenic, if they interact with nitrites, which are common in personal care products, cancer causing nitrosamines can occur.
Recommendation: Avoid MEA, DEA and TEA in hand soaps, lotions or anything else that will be absorbed on your skin, and preferably in cleaning products as well.
Be Informed About Harmful Chemicals in Natural Cleaners
Recognizing and understanding ingredients can be challenging when you're not informed. The next time you're looking for a natural cleaner or beauty product scan through the ingredients to make sure these top 3 harmful chemicals aren't included. Then, if you'd like to go further, you can always visit EWG's website and search for ingredients, or look up specific products so see how they rank on EWG's hazardous scale.