Have you ever aimed cleaning spray at your kitchen countertops and wondered what is actually inside the bottle? With all of the confusing chemicals and terms listed on product labels, it can be hard to know what is inside the cleaning products we bring into our homes. It might be impossible to recognize every ingredient in your cleaners, but if you read the label carefully, there are ways to determine the safer options on the market. If you are confused by your cleaning product labels, here is a guide to help you decode some of the common label terms you’ll find.

Continue reading below
Our Featured Videos

“People are surprised to find that dozens of toxic chemicals are in the [conventional] household products we use every day and go almost totally unmonitored and unregulated by our government,” said Dr. Alan Greene, clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and author of Raising Baby Green.

Related: 5 tips for a cleaner, greener kitchen

In fact, it can be nearly impossible to research all of the ingredients listed on cleaning products. The Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates labeling for household products that are hazardous and requires companies to list the main hazardous ingredients along with first aid information. However, it does not require companies to list any other ingredients. Because there isn’t a thorough health and safety review of these products, there is no way of knowing what you are spraying in your home. Below are some of the most common cleaning labels decoded to help you understand what exactly you are using to clean.

Sponges and cleaning products placed on countertop


This is a common marketing term that is typically seen on most product labels. The term implies the ingredients are not harmful to the environment or your health. However, there is no standard definition for “non-toxic,” so this term alone will not help you find the safest cleaners.


When you see the term biodegradable, the manufacturer is saying that the ingredients in the product will break down once they enter a landfill, wastewater treatment plant, river or stream. Unfortunately, there is no regulation for the use of this term, and products labeled “biodegradable” are no better than those that aren’t labeled.

Spray bottle

Safer Choice

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a voluntary program that works with manufacturers to make products safer for people and the environment. If a product has a Safer Choice seal, that means they use ingredients that meet the program’s standards.

EPA scientists develop standards after looking at scientific data to make sure product ingredients are safer than what you would find in common products. The Safer Choice program also encourages companies to disclose all of their ingredients, and the program also has an audit program to make sure the Safer Choice products are meeting the criteria.


This term is a bit trickier as it can simultaneously mean anything or nothing at all. There are no rules when it comes to calling a product organic, even though the implication is that the ingredients come from plants grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

However, if you do see a product that has the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Certified Organic” logo, then those products are legally required to have ingredients that back up the claim.

Related: Don’t mix these green cleaning ingredients

Feather duster and cleaning products


Enzymes are proteins added to cleaners that will break down and remove stains. There is no evidence that using these cleaners will put you at risk, but don’t assume they are safe. And be aware of manufacturers that often use boric acid (a toxic chemical) to stabilize the enzymes.


Any product with these words on the label can cause major chemical burns to the skin, eyes or lungs. Some of the cleaning products that have corrosive or caustic on the label are bleach, drain openers and oven cleaners. You want to be extremely careful if you bring these products into your home, and you always want to keep them away from children.

Mopping wooden floors

Active ingredient

As a rule, active ingredients are antimicrobial pesticides that manufacturers add to products to kill bacteria, viruses or molds. You want to avoid any product that has an “active ingredient” because they are hazardous chemicals, and you don’t need them to clean your house.

Fragrance or scent

Many cleaning products like to advertise their fragrance or scent, or the lack thereof. Added fragrances are not necessary and are known to cause allergic reactions. Basically, the term “fragrance” means the product has a chemical cocktail of unknown substances. Avoiding products with the term fragrance, scent or dye is the right choice. Instead, try something labeled “free and clear.”


Images via PublicDomainPictures, Pascalhelmer, Stevepb, Jarmoluk, Rawpixel