Chemicals in cleaning: the good, the bad and the misconceptions

GECA's Emma Berthold sheds light on the 'chemical' vs 'natural' terminology debate.

‘Chemical’ is a word that is frequently misunderstood and misused, by industry professionals and laypeople alike. GECA’s Emma Berthold sheds light on the ‘chemical vs natural’ terminology debate.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “chemical?”

For a lot of people, it’s nothing good. Chemicals are hazardous, unnatural, harmful substances that should be avoided wherever possible. They are viewed with suspicion and distaste – who knows what might happen to your health if you clean with something brimming with all sorts of nasty chemicals? It’s better to go for all-natural solutions instead, because if it’s “natural”, it must be good.

“Chemical” is a word that is frequently misunderstood and misused, by industry professionals and laypeople alike. After all, a “chemical” is any distinct compound or substance.

While it is more commonly used to refer to artificially produced or refined substances, it is nevertheless technically correct to refer to plain old water as a chemical. The entire universe, and all living things, are made up of chemicals.

However, much to the dismay of chemists everywhere, the term has been hijacked and given new meaning. Marketers have been quick to take advantage of consumers’ perceptions that chemicals are nasty things and reinforce this idea even further, such that these negative associations now speak far more loudly than the true meaning of the term.

Language is constantly shifting and evolving, for better or for worse, and it can be convenient to exploit new understandings when they are held by the majority of the population – but perpetuating these misconceptions is unhelpful.

It is still worth noting that some of these fears aren’t entirely misplaced. It’s probably fair to say that artificially produced substances are more likely to be harmful compared to naturally occurring substances, especially if we know nothing about them or how they might react with our bodies or the environment.

A growing number of individuals experience genuine pain as a result of coming into contact with particular harmful substances, often without knowing the precise cause of their suffering.

This alone is enough to make anyone suspicious of unknown substances, particularly in the case of cleaning and personal care products. Their experiences are valid and cannot be dismissed, even without a proven direct causal link.

The answer for many people is to turn to “all-natural” solutions. After all, if it’s natural, it must be good, right? Natural products won’t cause undue harm to the environment or nasty allergic reactions, or trigger other dangerous health effects. “Natural” represents the preferable second half of the dichotomy, at least as far as health and safety is concerned.

And yet, even a cursory glance at the diversity of what we find in the natural world demonstrates that, in many cases, natural definitely isn’t good – at least, not for humans. A blue-ringed octopus, for example, is a beautiful creature that can easily kill a human thanks to an entirely natural toxic compound.

Eucalyptus oil is an example of a naturally-occurring compound that can be of great medicinal benefit or cause severe poisoning depending on its use. Even a certified organic apple will contain naturally-occurring poisonous cyanide inside its seeds.

For any substance, natural or otherwise, what matters most is how the substance is used, and how much of it is involved. This is where chemical classification systems, such as the Globally Harmonized System (GHS), come into play.

By studying and classifying chemicals based on their unique properties, we can know (or reasonably predict) whether a substance will be harmful to the environment or human health, and how it is likely to interact with other substances. This information is contained in the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for a product, which can be used to inform and communicate whether there are any hazards associated with using the product.

Of course, for those unfamiliar with chemical terminology, reading an SDS may be a challenging task – and that’s assuming someone is able to access the document in the first place. Will the average buyer staring at a variety of cleaning products be willing (or able) to take the time to investigate every substance it contains? Third-party certification systems, such as the GECA or Environmental Choice New Zealand (ECNZ) ecolabel, can help product manufacturers communicate to potential buyers that their product has a low environmental impact and is safe from a human health perspective, eliminating any confusion or questionable marketing.

Both the GECA and ECNZ ecolabels also communicate that a product has been deemed “fit for purpose”. A common criticism of “all-natural” cleaning products is that they are less effective compared to their traditional counterparts.

Anyone who has ever successfully cleaned their kitchen with simple vinegar or baking soda can testify that this isn’t the case, but either of these ecolabels provide proof that a product has been tested and found to be effective at getting the job done. With certified products ranging all the way from conventional cleaning solutions to aqueous ozone units, it’s clear that “natural” does not mean “ineffective” – and that a product full of “chemicals” need not be feared, either.

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