There are labels that tell you exactly what’s in your food, but do you know what’s in your dish detergent? What about the disinfectant you spray on your kitchen counter?

By Paula Melton

There are labels that tell you exactly what’s in your food, but do you know what’s in your dish detergent? What about the disinfectant you spray on your kitchen counter?


Cleaning product manufacturers have never been required to follow ingredient disclosure rules—even though cleaning products are at least as likely to contain allergens and toxic chemicals as foods. In response to increasing market demand for transparency as well as the growing possibility of labeling regulations, cleaning giants Clorox and SC Johnson recently began disclosing almost all the ingredients in their cleaning formulas.


“As the level of disclosure increases across manufacturers, others can’t just hide anymore,” says Mark Petruzzi, vice president of certification and strategic relations at Green Seal, an independent certifier of a wide range of products. In the past, he says, companies that voluntarily disclosed ingredients were penalized in the marketplace, particularly as green cleaning programs became more standard in commercial buildings and purchasers started comparing one product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS) side-by-side with another’s. MSDS protocols also allow most hazardous substances occurring at low concentrations to slip through the cracks—so companies who disclose these chemicals have been in danger of looking less “green” than those who choose not to disclose.


Another problem with disclosure, Petruzzi says, is that “More information is just more information”—and information alone is not enough. For everyday consumers, unless you have “an environmental engineer as your personal shopper,” these ingredient lists are unlikely to be helpful on their own. They are too long and too technical—and knowing every single trace constituent can even be misleading sometimes. “Aside from people with allergies or sensitivities, what we need to know is what the product overalldoes,” Petruzzi argues, “not individual chemicals.” Even for a procurement professional, having a list of ingredient names is just the beginning of the research—which is why, he says, third-party green labels for cleaning products will continue to play an important role until comprehensive environmental declarations are required by law. Independent certifying bodies get full ingredient disclosure as well as environmental life-cycle data and other information, and experts process all this before deciding whether products get to sport their labels.


The information still has important repercussions, though. Most people will not “go through all 1,200 ingredients in Clorox’s [fragrance] palette,” acknowledges Steve Ashkin, president of green cleaning consulting firm the Ashkin Group—but advocacy groups and journalists will. According to Ashkin, when the Clorox “Ingredients Inside” website went online, one environmental group combed through the list of fragrances and found four that raised red flags. In response, he says, “Clorox agreed to take them out.”


Ashkin has been pushing for this level of transparency for years. He noted that the Design for the Envrionment (DfE) labeling program managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now requires companies with DfE-labeled products to disclose all ingredients to consumers. The Sierra Club National Toxics Committee, of which Ashkin is a member, is pushing for more such rules in other labeling programs. Even so, Ashkin looks forward to a time when ingredient disclosures become moot because manufacturers simply won’t be allowed to include hazardous and toxic substances. In the long term, he argues, “What we really need to do is take the choice away from consumers. Why should hazardous materials even be there?”


In the meantime, Ashkin calls the moves by Clorox and SC Johnson “a big deal,” adding, “And we’re going to keep doing more.”