SUNDAY, Sept. 10, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- For consumers concerned about the environment and their own health, household cleaning products that promise to be "all natural" or "organic" have understandable appeal.
They promise to help you polish, buff or scrub without worrying about polluting the earth, having an allergic reaction or breathing in the organic chemicals widely used in conventional cleaning products. The makers of "green" cleaning products say they are made with "earth-friendly" ingredients and plant-derived essential oils, and they are touted as having the same cleaning power as conventional products filled with chemicals.
But how can consumers really be sure when they buy these products whether they are organic or not? Right now, natural cleaning products aren't regulated by the government, said Craig Minowa, a spokesman for the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minn., which promotes food safety and organic farming.
Jackie Dizdul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission agreed that at the present time, "There are no specific Federal Trade Commission regulations about use of the words 'natural,' 'all-natural' or 'organic' when describing cleaning products. But all claims need to be truthful, non-misleading, substantiated."
Claims for natural products offered by Caldrea and Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day, for instance, are substantiated, according to Monica Nassif, founder and president of both companies. "We make claims that they are earth-friendly, biodegradable, have no phosphate, no chloride, no solvents and are plant-derived, and not tested on animals," she said.
She said household cleaners made by Caldrea include plant-derived ingredients and essential oils. Prices are higher than conventional cleaning products. Caldrea liquid dish soap, available in high-end specialty stores, costs $8 for 16 ounces, for instance, while Mrs. Meyer's brand, sold in natural food markets, is $4.99 for 16 ounces. A similar-sized bottle of regular dishwashing liquid found in conventional groceries typically sells for $2 or $3, Nassif said.
Part of the higher price is due to the cost of the ingredients, which Nassif said cost more than those used in conventional products. "We buy the fragrances in the Caldrea line from sophisticated perfume fragrance houses," she said.
Do they work as well? Green-clean products do have their critics, but Nassif said her companies' cleaners perform just as well as their mainstream competitors.
"All our products are sent out to independent laboratories which test [them] for performance," she said. "There are industry standards for performance." The results for her products, she said, "have to be on par or better with the leader in the mass [conventional product] category."
"There's definitely benefit," said Minowa, referring to organic or all-natural cleaning products. "If you find a natural cleaning product, it's way better than conventional," he said. "You don't have the negative health and environmental effect."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, potentially hazardous chemicals are widely used in conventional household products. Cleaning and disinfection products as well as paints and varnishes all contain chemicals called organic solvents. The compounds can be released into the air during use and even when stored, according to the EPA.
Among the potential health effects with exposure are headaches; irritation to the eyes, nose and throat; and central nervous system damage. Some of these compounds have been found to cause cancer in animals, according to the EPA, and some are suspected of raising risks in people, as well.
Environmentally keen and health-conscious consumers are driving the move to "green clean" products. Nassif cited recent statistics that found the U.S. market for "natural" cleaning products now tops $100 million a year.
It's still a small part of the overall market, but sales growth has continued to rise by 18 percent to 25 percent each year for the past five years, according to WorldWatch Institute, an environmentally conscious organization.
However, Minowa pointed out that consumers don't always have to choose between mass-market brands and pricey, "green" alternatives.
Instead, you can fall back on old-fashioned remedies -- things your grandparents or parents may have used: Vinegar instead of Windex, for example, or baking soda rather than Comet.
One more suggestion? "Boil a big pot of water, add baking soda and vinegar," Minowa said. "Clean out the drain [with that] instead of drain cleaner."
To learn more about volatile organic compounds, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.