“No phthalates, no sulfates, no parabens, no toluene…” Look familiar? As consumers demand more natural products, the “no list” has become a major marketing tool. Brands big and small are now bombarding us with all the things they do not contain.

This tactic is often used alongside greenwashing to effectively market cleaning and home care products to today’s educated consumers. But how safe and sustainable are the ingredients that are being used? 

These lists fail to give us the full picture regarding a product’s safety and sustainability. When decoding ingredients, I like to ask “What is it?” and “Where’s it from?” to really understand the impact of the products I bring into my home.

While green cleaning products on the market do forego many dangerous chemicals, they still often contain ingredients that are not as eco-friendly as they seem.

Here are the top five ingredients you’re likely to find, and why I choose to avoid them: 

1. Sodium lauryl sulfate/sodium laureth sulfate (SLS)

What is it? A surfactant, which means it lowers surface tension and helps clean things. Simply put, it’s the ingredient that makes your products sudsy! 

SLS is the most common surfactant surfactant on the market. You can find it in almost every product category, from toothpaste to shampoo, to laundry detergent.

Where’s it from? Brands that use SLS in their products tout it as being plant-based. While this is true, almost all of the SLS available to us is derived from palm oil. 

Why I avoid it: Palm trees need a very specific and large area to grow, which makes the rainforest the perfect terrain. Every day acres and acres of precious rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa are destroyed to create the space needed to grow palm trees. (1)

As this forest habitat is cleared, endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. Plus, indigenous people are often brutally driven from this land. (1) 

I should also note that some brands now claim to use “sustainable palm”. I am not familiar with the practices/certifications involved, which is why I steer clear–especially when there are coconut-derived surfactants like sodium olefin sulfonate which can be used instead.

Found in: Blueland, Sal’s Suds Cleaning Concentrate

2. D-Limonene or Orange/Lemon peel oil

What is it? A terpene that comes from the rinds of citrus fruits. It works really well in cleaning products as both a solvent and degreaser. 

Where’s it from? D-limonene is plant-based, mostly from oranges and lemons. It also has a naturally citrusy smell that is easy to love!

Why I avoid it: It’s safe for us humans to use in our homes, so that means it’s a perfect green cleaning ingredient, right? Not exactly. D-Limonene/citrus peel oils are extremely toxic to aquatic life. When we flush it down our toilets, rinse it down our sinks, or use it in our appliances, it ends up in our rivers, lakes, and streams.(2) I avoid it because I never want the things I use to keep my home clean and tidy to cause harm to the homes of other creatures.

Found in: Cleancult, Seventh Generation

3. Polyethylene glycol/Laureth 7

What is it? A solvent that dissolves grease and grime. It is often used as a safer substitute for propylene glycol/PPG, and can be taken internally for medicinal purposes.

Where’s it from? Polyethylene glycol is made from ethylene glycol. It’s petroleum based and is the main ingredient in antifreeze. Laureth 7 is further derived from polyethylene glycol, which is why I’m grouping them together here. 

Why I avoid it: The sustainability concerns with petroleum are clear. But the lesser known danger with polyethylene glycol and laureth 7 are actually impurity concerns. They may be contaminated with  ingredients like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.(3) Both are on CA Proposition 65 since they are known to cause genetic defects, reproductive toxicity, and cancer. This is a serious enough concern to make me steer clear of both of them.

Found in: Blueland, Mrs.Meyers

4. Essential Oils

What is it? A concentrated plant-based distillate. They’ve been used for many centuries in the practice of aromatherapy. Only in the last decade or so did we start using them in personal and cleaning products. Although they are very volatile chemical compounds, their natural origins attract green consumers and have become a staple in many households.

Where’s it from? Plant-based

Why I avoid it: When I began formulating my own products, I dug into essential oil research only to confirm how great they were. I had always planned on using them. I was very shocked to find that any research indicating their disinfecting claims or cleaning capabilities were all funded by multi-level marketing companies. These companies depend on people making lots of purchases, and adding essential oils to vinegar is a great way to get people to add lots of expensive plant extracts into a sour bottle to improve the smell!

There are a multitude of sustainability issues regarding essential oils that are often left unconsidered. For one, it takes a ton of plant matter to create them. Putting five drops of rose essential oil in your bath water would be like taking a bath in 75,000 rose petals!(4) And many DIY cleaning recipes call for 20 drops of essential oils at a time. Using safe, synthetic alternatives and natural fragrance isolates use significantly less resources. 

I am not against the use of essential oils under the guidance of a reputable aromatherapist. But in my opinion, our society’s consumption of these tiny unrecyclable bottles has gotten out of hand. Further, possible damage to surfaces, allergies, use restrictions for pregnant women and cats, aquatic toxicity, lack of regulation, and incompatibility with lots of other great natural ingredients round out the reasons I choose not to clean with them. 

Found in: DIY solutions, Young Living Thieves concentrate

5. Methylchloroisothiazolinone & Methylisothiazolinone

What is it? A preservative. These ingredients give natural products a long shelf life with no spoiling concerns, which make them a popular choice in commercial cleaning and personal care products.

Where’s it from? Synthetic

Why I avoid it: Sadly, the problems with this preservative, both safety and sustainability, are heavily ignored. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cites issues ranging from skin irritation and allergies, to mutations, and an extremely high aquatic toxicity.(5) There are tons of better preservative options out there, including leucidal (made from radishes!) and silver citrate.

Found in: method, Seventh Generation

We are all spending more time at home these days, which is why it is more important than ever to feel good about the products we’re using in it.

Personally, I felt duped when I learned about these five ingredients lurking in all my favorite green cleaning products. That’s why I started Viren Apothecary, where our mission is to provide green cleaning without compromise. To learn more, head over to www.virenapothecary.com. You can also fill your jars and bottles with our products at The Glass Pantry in Walker’s Point!

1 – Rainforest Rescue: 5-minute Info – Palm Oil
2 – d-Limonene, Safety Data Sheet, Federal Register / Vol. 77, No. 58 section 12: ecological information
3 – Environmental Working Group: EWG Skin Deep® | What is LAURETH-7
4 – The Heart of Aromatherapy by Andrea Butje
5 – Environmental Working Group: METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE | Substance