Looking Past the Label: The Importance of Disclosing Cleaning Product Ingredients

Unlisted chemicals in our cleaning products have been linked to various health problems including eye and skin irritation, asthma, birth defects, and cancer. Stronger regulations are needed to protect consumers and workers from these dangerous health risks.

October 11, 2016

By Racquel Segall, Health Initiatives Manager for the BlueGreen Alliance. 

The super market’s cleaning product aisle is designed to make cleaning exciting. With bright colored bottles and enticing fragrances; our air fresheners, laundry detergents, dish soaps and all-purpose cleaners have become a trip to a meadow or a relaxing day on a beach. But you can’t package the air of a meadow, or the sand from a beach to get these smells in our products. So what are cleaning product companies using?

When we look at a cleaning product label, the ingredient list is usually short with about twenty chemicals including the word fragrance. That one word, fragrance, is used to convey a combination of tens to hundreds of chemicals used to create that meadow scent. With so many chemicals not reported on the label, there is no way for anyone to know exactly what they are being exposed to.

According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), 3,200 chemicals are being used by their member companies to produce fragrances. With such a large list, there is no way to know specifically what chemicals are in the products we use at work or at home. Some companies have voluntarily released their ingredient list, but tend to only reveal the active ingredients. Most still do not reveal what makes up their fragrance.

The need for cleaning product ingredient disclosure is important, since these unlisted chemicals have been linked to various health problems including eye and skin irritation, asthma, birth defects, and cancer. Without knowing what we are using to clean, there is no way to prevent these associated health problems. Studies have shown that of the general population, 20 percent are sensitized to at lease one allergen and many allergic reactions can be attributed to fragrances in products. But how can we avoid a chemical to protect ourselves if we do not know what we are being exposed to?

Cleaning product companies argue against providing full ingredient lists by stating that their fragrances are trade secrets. But we aren’t asking for specific percentages of each chemical, we are requesting a simple list. We want to know what is in the products we use or work with everyday and what we are exposing ourselves and our families to. Don’t we have the right to know what we are working with in our housekeeping and janitorial jobs, or bringing into our homes, and coming in contact with on a daily basis?

This task isn’t hard to do. The European Union (EU) is already one step ahead by creating a list of 26 common allergens that are commonly in fragrances and requiring them to be listed as ingredients on cosmetic products and household cleaning products, as well as requiring listing on safety data sheets (SDS) for institutional and industrial cleaning products. If companies are already providing this information to the EU, then why can’t they provide them for the U.S. market as well?

In order to protect ourselves, the public, and workers, we need stronger regulations that can provide the necessary information to determine what products we use and bring into our homes. These regulations should require mandatory and consistent disclosure of ingredients across industries.

Representative Steve Israel (NY-3) introduced the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act in May 2016. Since then he has been working with Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and various organizations such as Seventh Generation, Breast Cancer Fund, Women’s Voices for the Earth, and the American Lung Association to make this act a reality.

As consumers and workers, we have the right to know what is in our cleaning products, and what we are bringing into our homes. Unfortunately, choosing fragrance free products or using companies that disclose all ingredients, including fragrances, is the only way we can protect ourselves right now. The next time your cleaning products take you on a trip to a meadow or to a relaxing day at the beach, think twice about what is really making up that fragrance.