Which Household Cleaners Contain Secret Toxic Ingredients?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

The label on my shower spray cleaner claims it’s supposed to smell like ylang ylang. To me it smells like, well, chemicals. I was curious to see whether any real ylang ylang actually made its way into my cleaner, so I looked up the ingredients online. No ylang ylang (or any other plant for that matter) in sight. Near the end of a long list of ingredients were the words “fragrance oil.” Mysterious. Is my shower spray hiding something?

The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice thinks it might be. Turns out that despite a New York state law that requires manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose the ingredients in their products, very few manufacturers are willing to cough up the full list. Earthjustice contacted dozens of companies and asked them to comply with the law, but four major manufacturers refused. (Full list of companies and products below.) Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups responded by suing them (PDF). Jamie Silberberger is the director of programs and policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth, another group in the coalition. “We know that there are chemicals in cleaning products that are linked to reproductive harm, asthma, and a whole host of other problems,” says Silberberger. “But if consumers don’t know what’s in these products, they can’t make an informed decision about what to buy. We have the right to know what we’re being exposed to.”

What we do know: Many common ingredients pose risks both to humans and the environment. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are used as “surfactants” to make cleaning solutions spread over a surface smoothly, are an endocrine disruptor and are banned in Europe. Ethanolamine, also a surfactant, can cause asthma attacks. Most troubling: Even chemicals that are relatively innocuous on their own can combine to create toxic substances. Ammonia and chlorine, for example, can form a toxic gas called chloramine, which can cause a whole host of respiratory symptoms. When all those chemicals end up in waterways, it’s bad news for wildlife.

A few companies (including those being sued) have set up a voluntary ingredient disclosure agreement, but Silberberger says it is incomplete: manufacturers are allowed to simply use the words “dyes,” “preservatives,” and “fragrances” instead of actually listing the ingredients in the additives. Scary, considering fragrances often contain phthalates, among other potentially toxic chemicals. Another problem: Companies are only required to list “intentional ingredients,” meaning substances created by combining two ingredients or added during the manufacturing process aren’t listed. What’s more, the website is controlled by the industry, meaning companies make their own rules. Points out Earthjustice’s Kathleen Sutcliffe, “If they’re listing their products on the website, then why are they still refusing to file them with New York state?”

There is some good news: S.C. Johnson has announced that it will list its product ingredients on a website. The California-based eco-cleaner manufacturer Simple Green reported its ingredients to Earthjustice (PDF). Or you could make your own. Earthjustice has a few recipes, and (contain yourselves) even instructions on how to host your own green cleaning party this week.

Are there mystery ingredients in your favorite cleaner? Here’s a list of manufacturers being sued for noncompliance with New York state law, along with the cleaning products in question:


1. Ajax Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner

2. Dynamo

3. Murphy Oil Soap (wood cleaner, soap spray, soft wipes)

4. Dermassage

5. Palmolive (dishwashing soap)

6. Ajax Dish Liquid


7. Calgon

8. Vanish

9. Resolve

10. Spray ‘n Wash

11. Woolite

12. Lysol

13. Finish (dishwashing detergent)

14. Electrasol (dishwashing detergent)

Procter & Gamble

15. Joy

16. Cascade

17. Ivory (laundry detergent and dish detergent only)

18. Dawn

19. Mr. Clean

20. Swiffer

21. Tide

22. Cheer

23. Gain

24. Dreft

25. Era

Church & Dwight:

26. Brillo steel wool soap pads

27. Brillo Scrub ‘n’ Toss

28. Scrub Free Soap Remover

29. Scrub Free Mildew Stain Remover

30. OxiClean (stain removers for clothing and carpet)

31. Arm & Hammer Clean Shower

32. SNOBOL Toilet Bowl Cleaner

33. Parsons’ Ammonia

34. Cameo Aluminum & Stainless Steel Cleaner

35. Cameo Copper, Brass & Porcelain Cleaner

36. Kaboom (various bathroom cleaners)

37. Orange Glo Hardwood Floor Care

38. Orange Glo Wood Furniture Cleaner & Polish

Got a burning question? Submit your econundrums to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.