Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” toilet bowl cleaner, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Toilet bowl cleaner may be a dirty business, but it’s not an unpopular one! Sales for the toilet care market are expected to grow another $1.89 billion USD by 2025, with a key driver of growth being the emergence of eco-friendly marketed options. But what does that mean, exactly? Allow us to come clean about some of the key aspects of these types of cleaners so you make the best, most informed choices when it comes to your next toilet bowl cleaner purchase.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
Cleaning solutions will have a different environmental impact depending on what’s in them. If you need the convenience or added power of conventional toilet cleansers, stick to ones made with plant-based ingredients that are sold in packaging using a high percentage of recycled content. If you have a few extra minutes, we recommend a fun DIY situation using household products that leverage the antibacterial properties of citrus and the cleansing power of vinegar.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
A common formula for toilet-bowl cleaners is bleach-based products. Bleach is the generic name of any chemical product that is used to remove color or stains. More specifically, it’s usually made up of chemicals like chlorine, sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite, or hydrogen peroxide. Bleach-based cleaners are super popular for their ability to disinfect and kill viruses, fungi, and bacteria.
A life-cycle assessment (LCA) assessed various cleaners, including household detergent products, to identify the most relevant environmental hotspots. When it came to bleach-based toilet cleaner, the driving factors in environmental impact were ingredient type, plastic packaging, and transportation to the retailer. This means that for these types of cleaners, we must keep in mind what they’re made of, the packaging they come in, and how they’re manufactured.
97% of all impacts on natural land transformation could be attributed to ingredient sourcing for bleach-based cleaners, mainly due to the need to source palm or coconut resources that could be used as surfactants (aka a substance added to the liquid that increases its spreading or foaming capability). Packaging, in particular polyethylene plastics, contributed over half the impact shown on fossil fuel depletion, while transportation to the retailer was responsible for impact categories like ozone depletion, particulate matter formation, and terrestrial acidification – i.e., changing the chemical properties of soil.
While not part of the study, it’s worth mentioning that bleach cleaners are corrosive, meaning they can inflame parts of the body through contact or inhalation. They have a particularly irritating effect on sensitive tissue like our eyes, throat, and airways, so ventilation - and careful use - is key when using this type of product. Bleach-based cleaners are especially toxic to humans if accidentally mixed or mingled with other cleaners, like acid-based ones, since the combination of bleach and acid can release lethal gasses. No, thank you.
Most acid-based toilet cleaners contain hydrochloric acid (HCl). These types of cleaners are popular for breaking down rust and stains. HCl is super strong and concentrated, so while it’s found in common household cleaners, it’s also common in labs where scientists are using gloves and eye protection under a ventilation hood. Always proceed with caution!
In the same LCA, acid-based toilet cleaners stacked up similarly to bleach cleaners in that ingredient type, packaging, and transport were the main drivers of impact. While sourcing ingredients for acid cleaners also significantly impacted water and ozone depletion, natural land transformation made up the lion's share of impact. Polyethylene packaging for acid cleaners influenced agricultural land occupation and freshwater eutrophication - excessive growth of aquatic plants of algal blooms. Transportation to the retailer differed in impact from bleach cleaners in that the most impacted categories were photochemical oxidation (which is air pollution formed by sunlight’s interaction with fossil fuel emissions), particulate matter formation, and urban land occupation.
Comparing Bleach and Acid-Based Cleaners
Relatively speaking, both bleach and acid cleaners have a close extent of impact, even if they’re impacting different environmental categories. The differentiation can be seen in a few areas. On one hand, we see a less harmful impact on ecosystem quality with bleach-based cleaners. On the other, there’s reduced harm in regards to human health and resource depletion using acid-based cleaners. Sort of a mixed bag. But, when the cumulative energy demand is compared across all lifecycle aspects, acid-based formulas come out slightly ahead. So, when choosing between bleach and acid-based cleaners, if health, less intensive resource use, and less embodied energy are at the top of your priority list, choose acid-based cleaners. If gobbling up natural and agricultural land in the name of cranking out more toilet cleaner is what grinds your gears, you’ll be helping to reduce that with bleach-based options.
Growing in popularity are “natural” cleaning products. What does natural mean? There’s no ‘real’ definition, but these formulas usually boast plant-based ingredients and fragrances derived from essential oils. In lieu of chlorine bleaches or acids, these products may use substances like natural lactic acid - an organic antimicrobial that is effective against bacteria, often without the use of added surfactants - or citric acid, which is an organic compound occurring naturally in citrus fruits that can remove rust and kill bacteria and fungi.
Chemical vs. Organic Cleaners
When we reflect on some of the ingredients in cleaners, it begs the question - if it’s as simple as something like citrus, do we really need all the other stuff? Harsh ingredients, extra plastic packaging? Decoding some of the typical ingredients means finding what’s really essential to do the job. And guess what? You may have exactly what you need in your home. Acetic acid for example can be found in distilled white vinegar. It’s more of a gentle grime lifter than a powerful disinfectant, but mix it with the sodium bicarbonate in your baking soda and you have a fizzy mixture ready for cleaning. Hydrogen Peroxide can be diluted with water and lemon juice, or a citrus-y oil extract for a DIY disinfectant. While there’s still plastic packaging involved in some of these pantry staples, they likely already exist and serve multiple purposes in your home, which means we don’t need to introduce additional packaging or trips to the store.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications and standards to look out for on toilet bowl cleaners.
Environmental Working Group (EWG)
The Environmental Working Group has created a database that aims to be the gold standard in rating personal care products based on their ingredients, ensuring products are free from the chemicals of concern to human health that are outlined in their unacceptable list. Look for the EWG logo to make sure you’re avoiding those pesky ingredients.
EPA Safer Choice
The EPA Safer Choice label indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. The EPA also tests the quality of these products to ensure that they perform as well as conventional products.
Leaping Bunny Certification
The Leaping Bunny certification is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any ingredients in a product. Look for this label when prioritizing animal welfare in your toilet bowl cleaner purchases.
Knowing that the largest environmental (and health) impacts around mainstream toilet cleaners are due to ingredients, packaging, and transportation, one of the best things consumers have the power to do is make their own right at home. But, since many of us have bottles of cleaner under our sinks, let’s chat about the best way to use those. The International Association for Soaps, Detergents, and Maintenance Products issues guidance on best practices in the use phase to make sure resources are used efficiently, especially when they’ve had a significant impact in their journey to the shelf. Pay attention to the labels and use instructions. There is usually guidance around diluting the product and the proper dosage to apply when cleaning, which help extend the life of the cleaner by making sure we’re not overdoing it, and ensure that we’re not breathing in any fumes at an unsafe level. Another way we can reduce impact in the use phase (and reduce the need for disposable packaging) is to reuse cleaning bottles when possible. Many retailers offer a refill option, so see what’s possible in your local area or online.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
Here are a few important takeaways to remember. Choose plant-based cleaning formulas. Purchase cleaners that come in bottles that are using recycled plastic or can be refilled locally. Make sure the dosage and dilution are aligned with the instructions to keep things safe and keep the product in use. And while we’re on a roll, why not try a DIY alternative? The more we can create effective cleaners from our own cabinets, the more we reduce the demand for harsher cleaners, and the more we can influence these upstream environmental impacts.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
What is the most sustainable toilet bowl cleaner?
All cleansers that require additives, surfactants, and plastic packaging aren’t really sustainable. But we can certainly rank products based on their use of post-consumer recycled content and the environmental impact tied to ingredient sourcing. Check out our Top Products page to browse what we consider to be the best options.
Do plant-based formulas perform as well as conventional ones?
Pretty much! If you’re looking to do some general toilet scrubbing, stick with the more natural route. If you’re looking to disinfect some big-time germs due to recent illness, you may want a stronger formula but be sure you’re using the proper dosage and dilution measurements. And crack a window or two!
Should I opt for a refillable bottle or a bottle with recycled content?
Good question. Unless a local retailer offers this option and you plan on taking them up on the service, it may be better to stick with the single-use recyclable bottle (made with recycled content). If the refill service requires that the empties be shipped back, we’re adding on additional transportation emissions. Also, a lot of refillable bottles are glass, which is more resource intensive than plastic, so you’d really need to utilize the refills to make the production of the glass bottle worthwhile.