"Eco-friendly" and "green" are words some brands toss around to describe cleaning products like all-purpose sprays and disinfectants. But what do these terms mean? In some cases, according to experts, nothing at all — these labels don’t indicate any real certification, and are just there to help a product sell.
There is no specific criteria detailing what eco-friendly or green means when companies add it to a product's packaging, explained Nancy Simcox, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Washington’s department of environmental and occupational health sciences. This poses a problem for shoppers — it’s hard to know whether a product is actually designed with its environmental impact in mind, or if a company is just cashing in on the sustainability movement.
We talked to cleaning experts about what steps shoppers can take to find actually eco-friendly cleaning products and how to choose the best ones for their homes. Experts also recommended additional Earth-friendly cleaning practices to consider adopting, from using microfiber towels to making your own cleaning solutions from products you likely already have in your home.
How to buy eco-friendly cleaning products
Eco-friendly. Green. All-natural. Sustainable. When brands use words like these on their packaging without contextualizing what they really mean, they’re “greenwashing” products, noted Simcox. In her experience, consumers don’t often question the significance of these labels — if they did, Simcox argued, they would learn that definitions vary by brand and even by product.
In order to avoid “greenwashed” cleaning products, experts recommended looking for cleaning products with “ecolabel” certifications, which the EPA defines as “marks placed on product packaging that help consumers identify products that meet specific environmental performance criteria and are therefore deemed ‘environmentally preferable.’’ Experts said that these ecolabels are the best way to ensure a product really is designed to be safe for the environment to some degree.
EPA cleaning product certification programs
For cleaning products, the EPA runs two ecolabel programs: Safer Choice, for all purpose cleaners like dish soap or laundry detergent, and Design for the Environment, which certifies antimicrobial products, like toilet bowl cleaners or bath tub disinfectants. Both EPA standards, according to the department’s website, “evaluate product performance and assess their ingredients to make sure they meet environmental and human health and safety criteria.” Additionally, they both provide online databases where shoppers can browse through certified products
The EPA also claims to regularly audit brands with ecolabels to verify that the standards are being upheld. Anna Reade, a staff scientist for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, said a key component of the Safer Choice certification is brand transparency about ingredients. Products that meet the standard are required to list all of the ingredients, which Reade notes is not required by law nationwide. Products also have to be packaged sustainably, such as in recycled plastic, for example.
15 best household cleaning products that meet EPA standards
There are thousands of household products listed in the Safer Choice and Design for the Environment databases. To help you sift through the lists, we rounded up certified cleaners and disinfectants currently widely available at online retailers like Amazon and Walmart.
Cleaning products certified by Safer Choice
All purpose cleaning spray: Blueland
The Shark Tank-approved Blueland Multi-Surface Cleaner is designed to be used on surfaces like countertops and stovetops. Unlike a multi-surface cleaner from the grocery store, Blueland uses reusable bottles dissolvable cleaning tablets. To use, fill the recyclable bottle with water and drop in a tablet, which makes 24 ounces of cleaning spray. Additional cleaning tablets are sold separately online or in some retail stores.
Clorox Compostable Cleaning Wipes are made from plant fibers that are compostable in municipal facilities. They can clean hard surfaces like sealed wood, sealed granite and stainless steel. The wipes, which meet the Safer Choice Standard come in two scents: Free & Clear and Simply Lemon. Clorox’s glass cleaning system and bathroom cleaning system are also Safer Choice certified.
Laundry detergent: Tide
Tide’s Free and Gentle laundry detergent is hypoallergenic, dye-free, phosphate-free and fragrance-free. It’s designed to remove residue like dirt, food and stains from clothes while maintaining their color. The laundry detergent also boasts the Target Clean seal.
This carpet cleaner comes with a built-in fabric safe brush to help you remove stains and eliminate odors from fabrics carpets and upholstery. Woolite’s Oxy Deep PowerShot stain remover is also Safer Choice certified, as are other products by the brand.
Bathroom cleaner: 9 Elements
9 Elements bathroom cleaners meet the Safer Choice Standard. The product contains vinegar to help clean soap scum, hard water buildup and grime. It’s safe for use on bathroom surfaces like ceramic, tile and porcelain, too. The bathroom cleaner also contains either lemon or eucalyptus essential oil, giving the products their respective scents. 9 Elements laundry detergent, multi-purpose cleaner and more are also Safer Choice certified.
This dish soap is dye-free and paraben-free, and contains no phosphates, SLS or triclosan, according to Boulder Clean. In addition to dishes, the brand says that the soap can clean ceramics, crystal, glasses, pots and pans and utensils. Additional Safer Choice certified products from Boulder Clean include the brand’s all-purpose cleaner and laundry detergent, as well as their toilet bowl cleaner, which we feature below.
JAWS says that their Granite Cleaner & Polish is streak-free and made from a formula that’s safe for natural stone surfaces. The product’s starter kit comes with a reusable bottle and two dissolvable refill pods (each pod makes one bottle of cleaner). Extra pods, in their signature cucumber-basil scent, can be purchased separately. Additional JAWS products also meet the Safer Choice Standard, like their glass and bathroom cleaners.
This floor cleaner from Bona is designed for hard-surface floors like stone, no-wax sealed tile, laminate and luxury vinyl (LVT). The ready-to-use spray leaves behind a citrus scent, derived from lemon, peppermint and spearmint essential oils.
Other Bona products are also Safer Choice certified, like the brand’s PowerPlus Wood Surface Deep Cleaner.
A variety of ECOS hand soaps meets the Safer Choice Standard, including its Lemongrass, Lavender, Orange Blossom and Free & Clear options. Its moisturizing formula, made with Vitamin E, cleans and softens hands. The soap is also hypoallergenic.
Boulder Clean’s Toilet Bowl Cleaner bleach-free works to remove dirt and grime, hard water build up and mineral deposits. After covering the toilet bowl and rim, either scrub clean and flush, or let the cleaner sit for about 10 minutes for more stubborn stains. The toilet cleaner comes in two scents: Bergamot Rosemary Eucalyptus and Fresh Eucalyptus.
Rid automotive parts, tools,, industrial machinery, appliances and other equipment of grease with this product from WD-40. It’s made from a water-based formula and comes in a non-aerosol spray bottle. This degreaser is safe for useon surfaces like aluminum, chrome, glass, plastic, rubber, stainless steel, granite, leather and paint.
Dishwasher detergent: Seventh Generation
Seventh Generation’s Free & Clear dishwasher detergent gel both meet the Safer Choice Standard. The detergent is designed to clean dishes in the dishwasher, getting rid of dirt and grease to leave them streak free. The fragrance-free product is made with plant-based ingredients and is also chlorine and dye-free. Additional Safer Choice certified products from Seventh Generation include its all-purpose spray and fabric softener sheets.
Cleaning products certified by the Design for the Environment program
All purpose disinfecting wipes: ECOS
These citrus-scented ECOS disinfecting wipes use active ingredient citric acid to disinfect non-porous, hard surfaces like changing tables, countertops, floors, highchairs, sinks, toilets, toys and trash cans. The wipes are able to kill over 99.9% of bacteria and viruses without leaving any streaks, according to the brand.
This multi-purpose cleaner from Lysol made with hydrogen peroxide eliminates 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria.When sprayed on surfaces, the disinfectant releases micro bubbles that also work to dissolve grease and soap scum. Lysol’s Lemon & Lime Blossom and Fragrance Free Multi-Surface Disinfectants also meet the Design for the Environment’s standards.
Like the multi-purpose cleaner, this toilet bowl cleaner from Lysol relies on hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria and viruses and gets rid of dirt and stains. The product’s formula does not contain bleach and leaves a fresh scent behind.
How do cleaning products impact the environment?
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, cleaning products are released into the environment in two main ways: through the evaporation of volatile organic compounds into the air, and when people wash them down drains. And when cleaning products grew in popularity, as they did during the pandemic, more chemicals were needed to make those products in the first place.
Evaporation of volatile components
Cappa said the majority of chemical compounds in cleaning products are organic, but volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a subset that more readily evaporate and can negatively impact indoor and outdoor air quality. Indoors, VOCs are released into the air via the usage of household cleaners like disinfectants, aerosol sprays, air fresheners and similar products. Outdoors, VOCs enter in the atmosphere and the resulting particulate matter can contribute to urban smog, or ozone pollution In high concentrations, Cappa said ozone and particulate matter are bad for our respiratory and heart health and can similarly negatively affect plants and crops.
If you use a cloth or sponge to wipe down surfaces with cleaning products and then rinse them out in the sink, the residual cleaning product will enter the water system. The EPA states that chemicals can enter our waterways through drains, which may contribute to poor water clarity, as well as disrupt the normal biological functions of wildlife.
Other cleaning product certifications
In addition to the EPA, nongovernmental regulators also evaluate and sometimes certify cleaning products based on their own environmental safety standards. For example, Simcox said some cleaning products are certified through programs like Green Seal, Ecologo and Cradle to Cradle. Each has its own set of standards and lists products that meet their requirements on their respective online databases. Reade also mentioned that the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit activist organization, has a Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which evaluates products and assigns hazard ratings for a variety of cleaners and ingredients. The Environmental Working group rates cleaning products according to its own standards, too.
Can you make your own cleaning products at home?
Reade said you can make eco-friendly cleaning solutions at home, but they won't work for everything.
“Homemade cleaning solutions do a really great job of cleaning your home, especially for low touch or low traffic areas. But when you should use them depends on what the job is,” Reade said. “If you’re concerned about disinfecting or sanitizing a surface, I would stick to products on the EPA’s Design for the Environment list.”
To make an all-purpose spray at home, start by filling a spray bottle with equal parts water and white vinegar to use on coffee tables, windows and blinds, recommended Bailey Carson, a home care expert at homecare marketplace Angi.
Simcox said you can also add baking soda to the mixture, and put it down drains to reduce odors and soap scum.
Additionally, beyond cleaning products, single-use items like paper towels, sponges and mop heads also impact the environment since they’re thrown away and can accumulate in landfills. Carson said to swap these items out for reusable options like biodegradable sponges or microfiber cloths, and mops and dusters with washable heads.