How to read soap & cleaner labels

What's in the small print can make a big difference in your lake’s water quality

By Ray FordRay Ford


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Words to watch for


Ratty old cottage chesterfields are biodegradable, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to dump them in the lake. To ensure your shampoo breaks down more rapidly, check for:

  • Credible third-party verification, such as an EcoLogo symbol;
  • A reference to a specific biodegradability test, usually a standard set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials);
  • Or simply an explicit definition, such as “Fully biodegradable (99% within 28 days).”


Common antibacterials both, triclosan shows up in everything from liquid soaps to toothpaste and triclocarban is common in bar soaps. University of Victoria researchers found minute traces of triclosan (measured in parts per billion) hampered thyroid function in tadpoles.


A chemical that keeps products stable and softens water by binding to metals, EDTA can also help make those potentially toxic metals more available in the environment by holding contaminants in the lake sediment, or suspending them in the water if the lake bed is stirred up. At the same time, it’s so commonly used that it’s nearly impossible to avoid. To be on the safe side, select products with the least EDTA (the lower down the list of ingredients, the less there is).


A UV blocker common in sunscreens and used to keep sunlight from damaging liquid soaps, shampoos, and scents, benzophenone is a mild estrogen mimic that has hampered thyroid activity in lab rats. An Oregon study found benzophenone in rural septic-system effluent in the parts per billion range.


Typically used as a preservative in amounts of 0.3 per cent or less, parabens (including methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, and benzylparaben) are suspected endocrine disruptors and weak estrogen mimics, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says they’re 10,000 to 100,000 times less potent than the estrogen in the birth control pill. Researchers also found the substance in breast tumours, according to a 2004 study, but the FDA stresses no causal link has been established between the preservative and that cancer.


There’s a good chance product scents, typically listed under these generic terms, include persistent synthetic musks. Try unscented products or ones scented with natural essential oils such as lavender or lemongrass. “If a company is going to spend the money on an essential oil, they’re going to tell you that on the label,” says Nature Clean CEO Bernie Ross.

This article was originally published on April 24, 2008

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