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What to look for when reading cleaning labels

Buying safer and more environmentally-friendly cleaning products sounds like a nice idea, but how can you tell what really is safe and what isn’t? We asked Linda Cobb, author of "Talking Dirty with the Queen of Clean," to demystify labels for us.Don’t fall for buzz wordsWith their attractive designs and lofty promises, product labels are mostly advertising techniques and not the whole truth. 

Buying safer and more environmentally-friendly cleaning products sounds like a nice idea, but how can you tell what really is safe and what isn’t? We asked Linda Cobb, author of "Talking Dirty with the Queen of Clean," to demystify labels for us.

Don’t fall for buzz words

With their attractive designs and lofty promises, product labels are mostly advertising techniques and not the whole truth. 

“Don’t blindly believe the big words on the front label that get you to buy without thinking,” Cobbs said. “Words like 'safe,' 'natural,' 'green' and 'oxygen-based' are buzz words to get you to feel safe buying products labeled that way.”

The use of those terms are poorly regulated and even the term “non toxic” means very little, Cobb said. In fact, non toxic only means that it is does not meet the definition of toxic under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, which defines a product as toxic if it can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin, or causes long-term chronic effects like cancer birth defects or neurotoxicity. However, just because a household product is not toxic by this definition, that does not mean it is harmless. 

Instead, look for labels that say the product is "designed for the environment" or that have the Green Seal or Ecologo symbol on the bottle. “These are products that must meet certain standards and guidelines,” Cobbs said.

Research the ingredients

It’s not always easy to tell what ingredients are safe, Cobb said. “You need to be proactive and check out the names of ingredients and chemicals you don’t know,” she advises. “I often will Google an ingredient on my phone standing in the store. Get a feel for what the ingredient does and what the downsides are.”

Cobbs said some ingredients she’s researched and feels are safe are citric acid (a weak organic acid), hydrogen peroxide (a naturally-occurring chemical compound), and alkyl polyglucoside (derived from the renewable resources sugars and fatty alcohols), while she avoids anything with chlorine or optical brighteners.

Today

“Chlorine is a harmful, caustic chemical,” she said. ”It is corrosive and can cause irreversible eye damage and skin burns.” Optical brighteners are blue dyes in laundry detergents that reflect yellow light and make clothing appear whiter. 

“They can build up on fabrics even after rinsing and be harmful to the environment and your skin,” Cobb said.

Instead, Cobbs suggests soaking clothing in lemon juice and water prior to laundering and then hanging them out to line dry in the sun to whiten clothes. “Also, using a hydrogen peroxide and water solution works,” she adds.

Once you find good basic products that are safe for your family, stick with them, Cobbs said, but “check out those product labels now and then to be sure nothing has changed.”

Beware of fragrance

Labels promising the scent of a “spring breeze“ or a “fresh meadow” may sound natural, but they are typically anything but. 

“The word fragrance on a label means a ‘chemical cocktail,’” Cobb said. “Fragrance may contain dozens of ingredients, which may include petroleum-derived solvents.” And unfortunately, the exact list of what comprises a fragrance is not always disclosed on labels.

Instead, look for labels with the word "free" on them, meaning no color and no fragrance. 

“Once you buy the free cleaner, you can experiment with an essential oil of your choice, doing it slowly to be sure no one has a reaction to it,” Cobb said.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer living, parenting, and working in New York City. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Google+.