Luxury, Sustainable Cleaning Products Are Taking Over — But Are They Worth The Hype?
Are you ready to pay $26 for surface cleaner?
Twenty-six dollar dish soap. Thirty-two dollar laundry detergent. Twenty-two dollar surface cleaner. Thanks to posh packaging; sophisticated scenting that stacks the notes like pricey perfume; and technological advancements that proponents say square plant-based ingredients with conventional synthetics in dissolving and removing grime, the once pedestrian category of household cleaning supplies has officially entered its prestige era. For the price, these luxury, sustainable cleaning products boast earth-conscious formulas that deliver a more elevated cleaning experience. They’re even housed in bottles beautiful enough to leave on the counter. But does plunking down a half-tank of gas money for household cleaner really make for a more environmentally friendly or health-conscious choice?
Bio-luxe cleaners tend to eschew conventional, synthetic surfactants and strong disinfectants (like bleach, ammonia, and quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, known to kill a wide range of harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi) for plant-derived biosurfactants (from coconut, beets, fermented sugar, and corn), alkalis (commonly, alkali salts, like baking soda and washing soda — aka sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate), light acids (such as citric and glycolic), and essential oils.
To pivot away from powerful disinfectants may seem counterintuitive in an age dominated by COVID. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now reports that we have less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of becoming infected with COVID by touching a contaminated surface, while the agency recommends removing household germs by cleaning and sanitizing surfaces with more mild products, like soap, water, and steam.
To this end, the gentler cleaning agents typically used in bio-luxe cleaners pack enough power to adequately clean and sanitize homes. Biosurfactants work to release grease and sticky grime from surfaces; alkalis remove oily dirt and food spills; and citric acid erases water stains. Meanwhile, enzymes (naturally occurring proteins) used in bio-luxe laundry detergents (like Dedtergent from cult-favorite fragrance brand DedCool and L’Avant Collective High Performing Laundry Detergent) break down food stains and dirt into smaller particles before they’re washed away.
What Are The Environmental Benefits Of Using Bio-luxe Cleaners?
To meet what Kristin DiNicolantonio, director of stakeholder communications at the American Cleaning Institute calls, “an increase in what we call ingredient-conscious consumers,” many luxury cleaning brands are packaging their products with sustainability in mind. When Saje Natural Wellness first entered the home cleaning market in 2018, it did so with cleaners housed in plastic spray bottles. But last year, the range was relaunched in chic, amber glass bottles, made to be refilled with concentrated cleaner and water. Now, the brand says the packaging is estimated to help reduce its carbon footprint by up to 60%.
Supernatural, a home cleaning brand that makes formulas for everything from granite to stainless steel, also uses a silicone-footed glass bottle and concentrated refill system to cut down on plastic use and overall packaging. (The move away from plastic offers a design perk, too: the brand’s white, frosted glass is etched with designs to rival the coolest of single-needle tattoos.)
The cleaning supply formulas themselves may be better for the environment, too. “The growing demand towards using environmentally friendly technologies has enhanced the research and development of biodegradable compounds that come from natural sources such as corn and coconut,” says Kristi Lord, co-founder of luxury cleaning brand L'AVANT Collective. These biosurfactants take the place of conventional surfactants made from petrochemicals (derived from petroleum) — and they’re biodegradable, too.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Using Bio-Luxe Cleaners?
Some might think we don’t need to be as concerned with the ingredients used in cleaning products as with those that we ingest or apply to our skin. But studies have linked respiratory and dermatological symptoms experienced by professional cleaners (like custodians and housekeepers) to the cleaning products they use. Meanwhile, research comparing so-called “greener” cleaning formulations to conventional ones indicate potential health benefits.
A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine associated “environmentally preferable” cleaning products with reduced odds of health symptoms in janitors. While respiratory issues are more commonly documented in the literature, reproductive and hormone disruption issues are also of concern, says Kim Harley, Ph.D., associate adjunct professor of maternal, child, and adolescent health at UC Berkeley and reproductive epidemiologist.
Harley recently led a study with women as subjects, a demographic disproportionately exposed to chemicals in cleaning supplies. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 49% of women do housework on an average day, compared to just 21% of men. Meanwhile, the Bureau’s Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey shows some 88% professional maids and housekeeping cleaners are women. Researchers in the study monitored the personal air of 50 subjects while they cleaned their homes with conventional and “green” cleaning products; When the “green” cleaning products were used, she and her cohort observed statistically significant decreases in air concentrations of 17 chemicals of concern found on California's Proposition 65 list of carcinogens, reproductive/developmental toxicants and suspected endocrine disruptors (including 1,4-dioxane, chloroform benzene, naphthalene, toluene, and hexane).
“Respiratory irritants are a really common issue with cleaning products — and clearly, that's something we need to be concerned about. But in our research, we're also concerned about chemicals that are carcinogens and in cleaning products,” Harley says. “There are chemicals that are suspected hormone disruptors in cleaning products — this could impact reproductive health, breast cancer, and other reproductive cancers.
Other research has shown that the chemical reactions that occur when conventional cleaning products are released into the air can create noxious fumes ripe for inhalation. Take a study authored by Colleen Marciel F. Rosales, Ph.D., an atmospheric and indoor air chemist (who now serves as director of strategic partnerships at real-time air quality data firm, OpenAQ): a 15-minute indoor mopping simulation showed limonene, alpha pinene, and beta pinene (popular monoterpenes used in citrus and pine cleaning products) to react with the air’s ozone to form particles small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs.
“In the 15 minutes in which the mopping modeling was done, the number of particles that was produced from that chemical reaction was about the same as what you would observe from a vehicle’s exhaust,” Rosales says. “What's surprising is that we typically associate these airborne particles that were formed with burning, such as with the burning of fuel. But in a mopping situation, the same particles are formed — even if you don’t see them — without something having been burned.”
Rosales also points out that this type of reactivity occurs naturally in the outdoors. Pinene emitted from trees reacts with isoprene (a hydrocarbon also emitted by trees) before reacting with the ozone in the atmosphere. But due to the scale of the environment, the chemical load isn’t nearly as concentrated as when we’re creating a similar chemical reaction within the much-smaller confines of a home, where we’re more likely to inhale more of the exhaust-like particles created.
The Fragrance Factor
Beautiful packaging aside, where eco-luxe cleaning products really stand out is with their elevated fragrance profiles. Using notes of Guatemalan cardamom, Sri Lankan cinnamon, Indonesian patchouli oil, and vetiver oil, like Homecourt does in its “Cece''-fragranced products makes every pump of dish soap or spray of surface cleaner feel like you’re floating through the lobby of an absurdly expensive hotel. (No wonder the cleaning brand created by actor Courteney Cox is marketed as "Fine fragrance-infused, skin care-inspired beauty products for the home".) L’Avant Collective’s linen scent conjures more of a coastal spa experience than that of doing chores. Even the essential-oil driven fragrances that scent Supernatural and Saje’s cleaning products go beyond one-note lemon, pine, or lavender for more complex scents that smell as if they are coming from a bougie candle. In some cases, natural fragrances and terpenes are included in formulas as surfactants to loosen dirt and grime, too.
But as environmental scientists Rosales and Harley point out, even natural ingredients, like essential oils can produce unwanted fumes — as evidenced by Rosales’ study. Meanwhile, in Harley’s research, a natural compound (the plant-derived terpene beta-myrcene) was identified as a common ingredient in cleaning supply fragrances is also found on California's proposition 65 list of suspected carcinogens.
“There's a lot of marketing pressure to make your house smell ‘clean,’ which is different from having your house actually being clean,” Harley says. “Even the most natural products are made with fragrances which, in many cases, may be fine and in some cases, may include fragrance compounds that we're concerned about.” Fragrances in cleaning products, including those derived from natural sources, can also irritate those with asthma and allergies, thanks to chemical reactions with other compounds, Harley says. “Just because a formula or fragrance is ‘green’ doesn't mean it’s completely innocuous.”
To this end, Rosales and Harley suggest scouring cleaning product ingredient lists, like we would for packaged food or skin care — which isn’t always the simplest feat. A 2017 California law requires ingredients be listed on cleaning product labels, but this isn’t the national standard. What’s more, there’s no industry-wide definition for what makes a cleaning product “green,” though consumers can search the Environmental Protection Agency’s database of “safer-choice” cleaning products.
The so-called cleanest cleaners may be what our great grandparents used: everyday items like soap, water, baking powder, and diluted vinegar. “I recommend to people concerned about their exposure to chemicals to use lower chemical products and fragrance-free products as much as possible,” Harley says. “A lot of the homemade products can be really helpful. Why not glass cleaner made of vinegar, water, and a couple of drops of dish soap, as opposed to buying something with ammonia in it? We're seeing that choices like this can really help reduce chemical exposure.”
So, Are Luxury Cleaning Products Worth It?
Like with any luxury item, whether the product is worth the money comes down to individual priorities. More affordable “green” cleaning products made with similar ingredients, (like biosurfactants, light acids, alkalis, and essential oils) have been widely available long before double-digit luxury cleaning products were a thing. At about half the price of luxury cleaning products, Koala Eco, is a great choice for those who love the straightforward scents of eucalyptus or citrus and don’t mind the less fancy, recycled plastic containers.
But after using Supernatural Cleaning Starter Set (comprising gorgeously scented options for wood and floors; glass and mirrors; counters and granite; and tile); Homecourt Steeped Rose Dish Soap (which releases the lifelike floral-meets-green scent of rose on the bush during dish duty) and the aforementioned Cece Surface Cleaner; L’Avant Collective Fresh Linen Multipurpose Surface Cleaner (a dead ringer for your favorite coastal candle, thanks to ylang-ylang, bamboo, lavender, geranium, basil, and lemon); and Saje Natural Wellness Grapefruit and Palmarosa Glass and Mirror Cleaning Kit (with an ultra-light scent that isn’t too citrus-y), I experienced the value of a sophisticated scent profile in elevating the drudgery of housework. What’s more, these products’ plant-derived biosurfactants, alkalis, light acids and essential oils, clean just as effectively as conventional and more affordable options in the “green” category: Streaks from glass are easily wiped away, stainless steel backsplash is released of water stains, and dried, crusty orts are lifted from dishes with no more elbow grease than when using other cleaning products.
Of course, those with actual wealth have no use for luxury cleaning products — they pay someone else to do the cleaning for them. But when that’s not an option, the next best thing is creating a cleaning experience that offers an olfactory reprieve with the pump or spritz of a design-forward, textured-glass bottle — and for me, that’s worth a few extra bucks.