Eco-Cleaning Products Might Not Be so Green After All

A study suggests that many—and maybe most—"green" detergents and hand washes are actually made with petroleum


Cruising down the aisles of the grocer, shoppers looking for a seemingly easy way to save the environment—or assuage some guilt—might opt for an eco-friendly cleaner. But it looks like those earthy chemical-free products might not be so great after-all. Tuesday, researchers at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society presented a study that found these "green" products often contain a surprising amount of petroleum.

Since "green" isn't defined using industry or government standards, a cleaning supplies company can stake the environmentally-sound status of its products on a number of sorts of claims. One common way green cleaning supplies justify their eco-friendliness is by proclaiming themselves petrochemical free. Cleaning agents typically contain a lot of carbon, an element derived either from renewable plant sources or harmful petroleum resources. A petrochemical-free product presumably contains no carbon derived from petroleum sources, and is thus better for the environment.

Senior researcher Cara Bondi, of the Seventh Generation green household products company, and her co-researchers focused on this metric to test a variety of cleaning products' eco-legitimacy. Using carbon dating—a method traditionally used to date fossils—Bondi's team tested the origin of the carbon in nine liquid laundry detergents, seven hand dishwashing liquids, and six hand washes. The study found that all of the products contained some traces of petroleum:

The products tested showed significant variation in plant-derived carbon content: hand washes ranged from 28%-97%, liquid laundry detergents from 28%-94% and dishwashing liquids from 43%-95%. The research also revealed that all of the products tested that are positioned in the consumer market as "green" contained over 50% more plant-based carbon on average than product samples tested without such positioning. "Some of the other findings, however, were a surprise" Bondi said. "The plant-derived carbon content of the product samples tested was largely inconsistent with some of the content claims made on packaging. For example, a liquid laundry detergent that makes the claim 'petrochemical free' contained only 69% plant-based carbon, meaning that 31% of the carbon in this sample is, in fact, petroleum-derived."

In an interview, Bondi told me about the motives companies might have for including ingredients that compromise their products' environmental benefits. "Formulators have a choice," she explained. "If petroleum derivation doesn't factor into the attributes of the given product, there is a higher likelihood that petroleum derived ingredients would be chosen," for reasons like cost or what's available from suppliers. Petroleum-based carbons are cheaper and come from a more stable supply unaffected by natural conditions like climate variation and natural disasters.

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But, while suppliers can choose one ingredient over another, Bundi admits that it's entirely possible the cleaner creators have no idea their products contain these less eco-friendly carbons. Bondi and her colleagues are the only people who have used this carbon-dating method in this way, and a company might choose ingredients based on some other "green" metric and unknowingly select something derived from not-so-eco sources.

For shoppers trying to reduce their carbon footprint, buying "green" cleaners doesn't eliminate the hazard completely. But, it's still probably better than going Clorox on the Earth.

Image: Luke MacGregor / Reuters