It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Search for (Truly) Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products
We are excited about our Nantucket Footprint cleaning products and we wanted to share with you the thought process and goals that led to the choices we made for the particular ingredients we have included in our products and why we opted not to go in certain other directions.
Those of us who care about our household health and the greater environment have often struggled to find products that are truly eco friendly and safe. Words like “green”, “safe” and “eco-friendly” have been overused and often abused by companies determined to wear the “green” mantel without doing the work or making the changes to formulations that would actually make products less toxic or have a lower environmental impact. Sometimes the changes made by greenwashers are simply to packaging colors – clear, brown or white plastic and plastic-lined packages that signal that the contents are less toxic than alternatives. But we all know that substance matters.
We decided to make our own line of cleaning products because for us, none of the existing options ticked enough of the important boxes: Many products we tried were heavy on artificial perfumes or fragrances or contained questionable ingredients, including some banned in other countries. Many were weak on ingredient disclosure and used vague, general language or had no ingredient disclosure at all. Even the concentrated versions of these products were packaged in single use, often heavy and bulky plastic. We noticed that most of the “green” products contain the toxic preservatives methylisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone. Other products with “cleaner ingredients” smelled unpleasant and didn’t work well at all– they tended to smear windows, leave streaks and were ineffective at cutting grease.
Through trial, error and lots of research we have come up with our own formulations delivered in a truly eco-friendly, compact and fully biodegradable format. We hope you agree that our products do tick all of the boxes - Safe and eco-friendly while managing to still be highly effective.
What do “eco-friendly” or “safe” even mean?
At Nantucket Footprint we decided that the words “eco-friendly” and “safe” should embody certain principles and goals. This was our starting point:
- Packages should be plastic-free, light, small and compact and be made from biodegradable and renewable materials;
- All packages that contain concentrated products should be child-resistant;
- Every ingredient chosen should be the least toxic option chosen from the database of reliable, independent sources – we chose to be guided by the EPA’s Safer Choice ingredient list, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database and the Suzuki Dirty Dozen list. These organizations evaluate ingredients on factors such as whether they can cause or contribute to allergies, respiratory problems, cancers, reproductive, developmental issues or organ toxicity. They also evaluate ingredients according to their environmental toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation.
- Products should be delivered as “just-add-water” concentrates or direct use in order to minimize package and product size of the product itself while also making it unnecessary to include toxic preservatives;
- Household cleaning product ingredients should not only be safe as cleaning products but the threshold should be even stricter. We decided to use the cosmetic safety threshold which is stricter than what is permitted in household cleaning products – our thinking is that household cleaning products should only contain ingredients that are safe enough to use on your body directly since you are often breathing them and otherwise in close contact with them (not that they are intended for this purpose of course!);
- They should contain no artificial fragrances; and
- There should be full ingredient transparency – customers deserve to know what is in the household cleaning products they are using.
Packaging and Format
“Green” packaging is a pretty easy concept to define — you know it when you see it. Packages and products with the lowest ecological footprint are the lightest, smallest containers made with renewable and plastic-free materials that fully break down in the natural environment. The most eco-friendly alternatives for cleaning products are super concentrates where you add your own water or use directly – The strip format we have chosen is the most concentrated, driest and lightest alternative . The packages are cardboard and not coated with plastics so they are compostable as well as biodegradable.
The USA does not require often dangerous household cleaning products to be packaged in child-safe containers. Every day in the USA, poison control centers receive about 350 calls regarding accidental ingestion of household cleaners by young children. The danger of child poisoning is increased the more concentrated a product is. While concentrates and pods may help to lessen our ecological footprint, they can be dangerous to other little footprints – and for some reason, some concentrated tablets and pods have been designed to resemble pretty colored candies and to be naturally attractive to children. We chose to make our concentrated strips “homely” instead of “pretty poisons” and to put them into child resistant boxes – not because we had to but because it is the right thing to do.
Soaps vs Detergents
We learned a lot about “soap-science” on our journey to come up with our best products. Our initial instinct was to make all of our products with pure soaps – castile or otherwise rather than detergents because we thought this would be a more eco-friendly alternative – right? But We quickly learned that the choices are not always as black and white as we would hope. Many bar or liquid soaps have ingredients added to them to help them work better with hard water and these additional ingredients are seldom disclosed.
Soaps and detergents are made two different ways - Soaps are made by cooking animal or vegetable fats with a reactant (traditionally lye) while detergents are made by heating and then drying compounds made from either natural or chemical ingredients. The terms “soap” and “detergent” are often used interchangeably – we talk about laundry detergent or sometimes laundry soap and we refer to things like hand soap, shampoos and liquid dish soap as ‘soaps” while they are often actually detergents.
Soaps unfortunately are no friend of hard water: Soap reacts with minerals in hard water - principally calcium or magnesium and instantly forms a scale coating – you may have wondered why those homemade cleaning tips like using castile soap in your laundry or dishwasher turn out disastrously for some people – causing a hard film or laundry buildup– this is why. As a result many bar “soaps” have seldom-disclosed added ingredients to attempt to address this problem and some may not be made of soap at all.
The hard water problem with soap caused us to choose to go with detergent ingredients instead so that we can create products that are effective as well as safe. Here is a quick comparison – the first one is the residue from a bowl rinsed with tap water and castile soap - you can see the reaction between the castile soap and the minerals in the hard water. The second one (the clear one) is what the bowl looks like after one of our laundry strips has been added to water instead. Incidentally, this reaction with minerals in tap water is a major factor that causes buildup on your laundry -- something we have avoided in our products. (The other major cause of buildup is overuse of laundry detergent -- also avoided by using our pre measured strips)
No Artificial Fragrances
As ingredient disclosure for household products is becoming more widespread, the fragrance ingredient list for household products often reads like a mini-novel. Fragrances are one of the top sources of household air pollution and can contribute to health problems, most notably to allergies or respiratory problems. The goal of a cleaning product should not be to mask odors and many people now realize that laundry detergent should not also be used as an air freshener and that “more fragrant” does not mean cleaner.
For the reasons of household air quality and toxicity we opted to not use any artificial fragrances in our products – we did decide to make them lightly scented with just a hint of essential oils so that they are still pleasant to use without being overpowering.
During COVID, there has been a surge in use of antibacterial soaps, detergents and hand soaps as people fear that viruses will linger on their household surfaces. It turns out that this is a largely misguided impulse that has the potential to leave household environments less safe than they would be if regular soap or detergent and water are used on their own – it is not likely to do that much to keep people safe from COVID either!
The CDC has been trying for more than a decade to persuade people to stop using antibacterial products. The big worry is that overuse of antibacterials, much like the overuse of antibiotics, can lead to the creation of “super-bacteria”. When you clean with detergent and water and a high quality microfiber cloth, you physically remove bacteria and viruses from surfaces together with the food and water that bacteria need to survive. The CDC estimates that the use of soap and water and a cleaning cloth will remove 95-99.9% of bacteria from household surfaces. Antibacterials also can remove up to this level of bacteria but they do so by physically killing the bacteria before removing it. Most types of bacteria aren’t harmful and leaving some behind isn’t a health risk. In fact, an ecosystem of bacteria is really important to human health. But the 0.1% of bacteria left behind after using an antibacterial cleaner are potentially the most harmful types - those that are resistant to being killed by antibacterial cleaners.
There is a difference between “sanitizing” surfaces and “disinfecting” surfaces. If necessary chemicals such as bleach can be used to disinfect the few surfaces where disinfection is necessary. But antibacterial products sanitize rather than disinfect – It turns out that antibacterial products may not work any better than other cleaning methods against COVID because COVID is a virus and they are designed to kill bacteria. In any case, the risk of getting COVID from a contaminated surface is low. Antibacterial products are likely a greater risk to our health than the bacteria they are designed to kill.
The most common antibacterial ingredient used in household cleaning products is triclosan - which earns a “7” on the EWG skin deep database (a terrible score). It is classified as an irritant, bioaccumulative and biopersistent and is banned from some body care products in Europe, the USA and Canada.
For these reasons, we decided not to produce any antibacterial cleaning products.
How we chose
When we chose our ingredients we chose only from ingredients that were
- On the EPA safer choice list
- Lowest rating on the EWG Skin Deep (cosmetic safety) database
- Not on the Suzuki dirty dozen list
The EPA safer choice list includes ingredients reviewed by the EPA and considered to have lower toxicity and be safer for the environment than other household cleaning products. The purpose of the list is to give consumers guidance when evaluating products for use for their families. The EPA reviews and classifies the most common ingredients and flags ingredients of concern with warning symbols and gives a green circle to others it has evaluated and found to be of low concern https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice/safer-ingredients#greenhalfcircle
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a healthy cleaning products list -- We initially turned to this list when we started to formulate our products but we found the list to be unhelpful as a guide to formulating new products because its ratings were a confusing calculus that blends judgment of a particular corporation’s behavior with an assessment of the safety of the ingredients themselves. We turned to the Skin Deep Database instead. This database formed a better guide for product formulation and was consistent with our philosophy that household products should be formulated to the same standard as body care or cosmetics. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
The David Suzuki Foundation publishes a "Dirty Dozen" list of ingredients to avoid in personal care products. We made sure that none of our cleaning products ingredients appear on this list. https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/dirty-dozen-cosmetic-chemicals-avoid/
Detergent strips are a new and exciting format for delivering concentrated cleaning products. This technology was recently developed in Asia and nearly all products offered in this format have been imported from China. We are working with a Chinese partner who manufactures our strips. We reviewed the stock formulae and decided that the formulations offered by the manufacturer did not meet our standards and therefore have developed our own custom recipes. The products we have developed contain no Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, phosphates, phthalates, parabens or other common ingredients unless they have the lowest (best) rating on EWG.
As a little company we are always trying to do better and challenging and revisiting our own ideas and we would love to hear your thoughts any time.
Here’s to a new chapter in what it means to truly “clean your house”!