Written by Grove Collaborative

Do natural cleaning products work? Ingredients and tips for picking green products.

Last updated: August 12, 2021


Ready to ditch conventional cleaners for natural, nontoxic cleaning products? Here’s what to know and look for when making the switch to eco-friendly, sustainable alternatives.

Long before natural cleaning products became a thing, most people cleaned with whatever the big chemical companies offered. It didn’t occur to the general public that the chemicals in household cleaners might not be all that great for them — or the environment.


These days, decades of research have produced a large body of evidence showing the harmful effects of a long list of cleaning chemicals. We’re exposed to them both through our skin and the air when we do the dishes or scrub the tub. And the environment is worse off, with many chemicals (not to mention most products’ plastic packaging) finding their way into our oceans and waterways.


Since the natural product revolution kicked off in the 1970s, the variety of natural household cleaner products have come a long way. They’re safer and more effective than ever, thanks to new and emerging technologies. Read on to learn more about natural cleaning products, their ingredients, and if they really work.

What does "natural" mean (when it comes to cleaning products)?

Just because a product calls itself “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it contains only natural ingredients. “Natural” is not a regulated term, which means that conventional companies can add rosemary oil to a toxic stew of industrial chemicals and slap on a label that says, “Made with natural ingredients.” It’s true — but it doesn’t mean what you might think it means.


And not all types of natural ingredient additions are nontoxic. Just because it’s derived from plants or otherwise found in nature, it doesn’t mean it’s not harmful to humans.


Arsenic, botulism toxin, and urushion (which is the active ingredient in poison ivy) are all natural substances, but they’re far from gentle on the body.


When consumers are looking for a “natural” cleaning product, they’re usually looking for something that’s safe, nontoxic, biodegradable, naturally derived, plant-based, eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and/or responsibly packaged — and preferably from a company that lives up to its values.


Learn more about the good and bad ingredients in our most common cleaning products.

How to read a cleaning product label

One way to identify quality natural cleaning solutions is to look at terms on the label, such as “unscented,” “free of…,” “biodegradable,” and “nontoxic.” Although these terms, like “natural,” are unregulated, they’re far more specific, and consumer protection laws apply to claims made on labels.


The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides help brands and their marketers understand how they can qualify their claims to avoid being deceptive.


Learn more about how deceptive companies are actually greenwashing their products and their marketing to seem more eco-friendly.

These green guides are also very helpful for consumers, who can use them to better understand what label claims really mean. For example, “free-of” claims are considered deceptive if an alternate substance with the same or similar health or environmental risks is present in the product instead of the bad ingredients it's stating it is free of.


Another way to determine whether a product is truly natural, nontoxic, or cruelty-free is to look for third-party certifications. Certifications signify that a product has been thoroughly tested and found to meet rigorous industry standards for things like environmental impact, chemicals used, and sustainability of packaging.

Guide to green product certifications

ECOLOGO

The UL Environment’s ECOLOGO certification specifies criteria for safer chemicals, recyclable materials, and a low environmental impact.


It ensures all chemicals in the product are nontoxic to humans.

EPA Safer Choice Program

The EPA’s Safer Choice certification tells consumers that every ingredient in a product is one of the safest in its class for humans and the environment, based on the EPA’s standards.

Green Seal

Green Seal certification is for cleaning products sold in concentrated form. The standards prohibit harmful chemicals and require sustainable packaging.

Leaping Bunny

Leaping Bunny certification ensures a product contains no ingredients that have been tested on animals and that the company who makes it is in no way involved in animal testing.

Find natural and effective cleaners at Grove

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Did you know U.S. companies make 76 million pounds of plastic every day, but only 9% of plastic is recycled. At Grove, we think it's time to stop making plastic. Today, we're plastic neutral. By 2025, we'll be 100% plastic-free! Plus, everything sold at Grove is nontoxic, sustainabile, and cruelty-free.


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Types of cleaning chemicals and agents

The most effective way to tell whether a cleaning product is truly safe and natural is to determine what’s in it, but reading a cleaning product’s ingredients list can be challenging.


To make it a bit simpler, we broke down some of the top ingredients that are super effective.


Solvents


  • Dissolve solids like greases and oils
  • Keep a product’s ingredients mixed together
  • Help create the right viscosity (thickness)

Surfactants (surface active agents)


  • Reduce water tension to make water wetter
  • Consist of a two-part molecule featuring a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a hydrophobic (water-hating) tail.
  • The head stays attached to the water, while the tail tries to get away from it, grabbing onto dirt and grease instead — effectively suspending the soil in the water to be rinsed away

pH adjusters


  • Increases or reduces the pH of a solution, making it more acidic or more basic so it’s safer for the skin
  • The pH range affects how effective other ingredients are

Antimicrobial agents


  • Kills germs
  • Different disinfectant ingredients are more effective on different microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and mold

Fragrances


  • Scents the product
  • Synthetic fragrances — and some “natural” ones — can be toxic, but manufacturers aren’t required to list the ingredients in them

Ingredients in cleaning products to avoid

Conventional cleaning products contain a large number of harmful chemicals that are volatile, which means that without any prompting, they evaporate from a liquid to a gas when they’re exposed to air.


These volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, can do significant damage to the human body and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites studies that show VOC levels in the average home are up to five times higher than outside, in large part due to the chemical cleaners we use around the house.


Here are some harmful chemicals that are likely in those cleaners:


Terrible Ten Infographic

Grove Sustainability Tip

Did you know?

Cleaning chemicals end up in the water supply when they’re sent down the drain.


According to the EPA, wastewater facilities only treat organic materials, not hazardous chemicals, which end up in local rivers, lakes, and coastal waters — and the aquatic life that lives there.

How do I clean my house without chemicals?

The truth is that harsh chemicals really aren’t needed to get things clean around your home. Natural solvents, surfactants, preservatives, pH adjusters, and fragrances can make your rooms sparkle, shine, and smell fresh and fabulous just as well as the bad stuff can.


These are some common proven ingredients used in natural cleaning products, each with a score of 1 or 2 on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is the least toxic and 10 is the most toxic.

Safe solvents


  • Isopropyl alcohol: Also known as rubbing alcohol, it's made by the indirect hydration of propylene.
  • Water: Often called “the universal solvent,” it can dissolve both acids and bases.

Safe surfactants


  • Sodium lauryl methyl isethionate: Water soluble and derived from coconuts, this is considered to be one of the safest surfactants on the market. It's also used for its foaming properties.
  • Sodium methyl 2-sulfolaurate: Derived from plant-based oleochemicals, it's typically from coconuts.

Safe pH adjusters


  • Capryloyl glycine: This is a synthetic amino acid derivative that also acts as a surfactant.
  • Citric acid: This is an acid compound found in citrus fruits or derived from the mold-based fermentation of sugars. It's also used for its antimicrobial properties.

Safe antimicrobial agents


  • Lactobacillus ferment: This i a probiotic bacteria that works as a broad-spectrum antimicrobial in water-based products.
  • Sodium chloride: Also known as salt, this is used as a mild disinfectant and mold-preventer.

Safe fragrances


  • Essential oils: These are concentrated plant extracts that have various properties and luscious aromas.
  • Distillates: This is the aromatic water left over from the essential oil distillation process.

How to switch to natural cleaning products

Switching from toxic products to their natural counterparts doesn’t have to be confusing or stressful. In fact, the switch can happen over time. Relax, take your time, and enjoy the process of finding wonderful new products that smell great and feel good to buy.


Here are four ways to start the switch.

The monthly swap

Pick one or two natural products to try each month, and spend some time really getting to know them.


Decide if the products live up to your expectations. If they do, you’ve made the switch! If something doesn’t work the way you thought it would, try something else next time.

Replace as you go

Whenever you run out of a cleaning product, go natural when you stock up again.


Spend a little time perusing what’s out there and reading up on what other people like. By the time you’re ready for a refill, you’ll know if the product is for you. If it is, keep buying it! If not, keep looking.

Prioritize and replace

You may have a health condition that warrants replacing cleaners that cause lung irritants or which may be linked to cancer.


If you’re trying to avoid certain chemicals, suss out the cleaners in your cupboard that contain them. Replace those products with safer alternatives.

The complete overhaul

If you’re ready, make a complete list of the cleaners you use. Head to a large retailer with a big selection, or better yet, order a Grove box of our best sellers with everything you need.


When your new natural cleaners arrive, put the old ones in a box and donate them.

Tips for choosing natural cleaning supplies


  • Ask around. Maybe your friends and family have favorite natural cleaners they’d love to recommend.
  • Read online reviews. Numerous online product review sites will give you both sides of the story.
  • Follow your fancy. Buy based on a scent, a product design, or even the cool packaging.
  • Stick with a brand. If you love a brand’s toilet bowl cleaner, maybe you’ll love its dryer sheets, too.

The best natural cleaning products


Browse the 30 best (and top-rated) natural household cleaning products.

Getting started is always the hard part. At Grove, our overarching aim is to make choosing natural products easier and to provide more choices than the one or two typically offered in big-box stores. Here, we’ve gathered the top 30 natural cleaning products from our site that Grove members have reviewed and highly rated to get you going.

Browse the list

What to expect when you switch to natural cleaners

A little extra muscle

In some instances, you may feel like natural cleaners don’t perform quite like your old conventional products. For example, a natural dishwashing liquid may not be as powerful against cooking grease as the famous product used to degrease animals after an oil spill.


Sometimes, you may need to scour a little harder or scrub a little longer to get the best results, but the energy you expend in elbow grease, you make up for in clean air — and muscle tone!


A satisfied feeling

Green brands tend to give a portion of their profits to organizations and initiatives that educate, advocate, and support a clean environment. Grove Collaborative and many of the brands we partner with are Certified B Corporations, which are companies that balance profit with purpose, using their power, platform, and pocketbook as a global force for good.


Sustainable packaging

Most authentic natural or eco-friendly cleaners come in packaging that’s sustainably sourced and biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. Concentrated formulas usually come in smaller containers, and some companies sell refills that will fill your original container two or three times, which reduces waste and saves you a little money.

Find more natural cleaning products from Grove

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