Leigh Beisch

For decades, cleaners and cosmetics have been made with surfactants, synthetic preservatives, and solvents. Harsh on the body and brutal on the environment, most of these ingredients carry serious potential health hazards; others, such as butoxydiglycol and ethoxylates, are banned in Europe yet remain common here, even in “natural” products.

“Green chemistry” aims to change that. The precepts, developed by Paul Anastas and John Warner of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, range from designing and using safer ingredients to improving energy efficiency during production. Green chemistry especially holds that “[a product] must have an environmental benefit, it must be economical, and it must perform just as well or better than an alternative,” says Amy Cannon, co-founder and executive director of Beyond Benign, an organization dedicated to green chemistry education.

Pushing definitions

Green chemistry’s main boon is that it helps replace petroleum-derived and other caustic ingredients with plant-based alternatives and renewable materials. Furthermore, green chemistry education teaches people to think beyond “natural” and “organic” as equivalent to “safe”—in other words, to understand that chemicals actually can provide solutions. “As chemists, we know that just because something is organic or natural, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better than something synthetic,” Cannon explains. “We can make an ingredient in the lab using quite benign processes.”

In your store ... soon?

To help shift the market, ask your retailer about its product standards and the ingredients used in its own brands. Online resources and emerging technologies can help you (and your retailer) screen for potentially harmful ingredients.

And remember: A green product may not work exactly as you think it “should,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not working! “It’s like relearning how to wash your hands with soap and water rather than using hand sanitizer with triclosan,” says Joel Tickner, program director for the department of community health and sustainability at the University of Massachusetts. “The feel and look of conventional products are often social constructs that were created 30 or 40 years ago. We have to reeducate people about what [clean] means.”