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Just Kidding! Your “Green” Products Are Also Killing You

Without more stringent labeling laws, we’re all flying blind as we shop.

Just Kidding! Your “Green” Products Are Also Killing You
[Photos: ChiccoDodiFC via Shutterstock]

It’s hard to be a health-conscious consumer. Organic produce is healthier, except when it isn’t. BPA-free plastic prevents nasty hormone-disrupting chemicals from entering your body, except when it doesn’t. As for all those “green” cleaning products, laundry supplies, and personal care items? They emit just as many harmful air pollutants as their regular, non-“green” counterparts.”

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A new study, published in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, examined the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in 37 products, including laundry supplies, personal care products (like soap, sunscreen, and shampoo), and cleaning products. Some were labeled as being “green” or organic, and some weren’t.


Some 156 different VOCs (organic chemical compounds that become gases or vapors) were emitted from the products–42 of which are labeled as “hazardous or toxic” by U.S. federal law. On average, each product emitted 15 different VOCs. The most common chemicals found in fragranced products were terpenes, which emit unpleasant pollutants like formaldehyde. Emissions from the so-called green products weren’t notably different from any of the other tested items.

No matter how much research you do on any given product, there’s no way to know any of this; according to the researchers, fewer than 3% of the VOCs found were disclosed on product labels or material data safety sheets. The big problem is that ingredients used to create a product’s fragrance are exempt from disclosure.

When a product’s label lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, you can assume that means there are a lot of individual ingredients that are being left off the label. Note that only personal care products and cosmetics even need to reveal the existence of “fragrance” or “parfum.” In air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and laundry products, the inclusion of fragrance doesn’t need to be listed on the label at all.

The main lesson is that without better labeling standards, we’re all just flying blind in the grocery and drug store aisles.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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