What Does Chemical-Free Really Mean?

By Marilee Nelson |

What Does Chemical-Free Really Mean?

The term “chemical-free” has become a hot buzzword in cleaning, clean beauty, and natural living spaces.

But what if we told you there’s no such thing as a chemical-free product? 

Because the truth is that everything—from cleaning products to human beings—contains chemicals. 

The difference is some chemicals are naturally occurring and beneficial, like oxygen, hydrogen, and flavonoids, while others are synthetic or human-made, like phthalates, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), and phosphates.

In this article, you’ll learn to discern the difference between products labeled “chemical-free” and those that are truly natural, and safe.

What Does Chemical-Free Mean?  

Many excellent, products use the term chemical-free on their labels and marketing materials.  

We even fell into this trap when we started Branch Basics all those years ago. Back then, chemical-free indicated a product was safe, natural, and free from harmful ingredients.

However, we quickly realized/remembered that even water (made from two hydrogens and one oxygen) is a chemical! 

So, we cannot technically claim Branch Basics is chemical-free. However, we are free from harmful chemicals, as verified by our EWG-Verification, Made Safe Certification, and low-tox ratings.

Even our bodies produce chemicals like ammonia (different from synthetic ammonia used in cleaning products), hormones, and neurotransmitters.

We also eat chemicals in 100% organic and natural whole foods, such as polyphenols, isoflavones, catechins, terpenes, water, minerals, electrolytes, and other nutrients.

More accurate descriptions of products made from safe, naturalingredients would be “free from synthetic chemicals,” “free from toxic chemicals,” or “free from harmful chemicals.”

Other Buzzwords To Be Wary Of

As discussed in previous articles, greenwashing is prevalent in the green cleaning and natural products industries.

That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful companies with genuinely pure, human- and/or environmentally-safe products.

However, the following is a list of buzzwords to watch out for, in addition to chemical-free:

  • A blend of science and nature: This typically means the product contains some natural and some (or mostly) synthetic chemicals.
  • Eco-conscious: A very vague term suggesting a company cares about the environment.
  • Eco-safe/eco-friendly: Means a product contains ingredients that won’t harm the environment.
  • Environmentally responsible: Means a product/company takes environmentally responsible initiatives.
  • Fragrance-free: Although synthetic and natural fragrances can be highly toxic and allergenic, fragrance-free products may contain additional synthetic fragrance-masking chemicals and other harmful ingredients.
  • From nature: Similar to naturally derived, it can mean a product has ingredients that came from nature and were chemically altered or not.
  • Green: An undefined way of saying a product or company takes environmental initiatives.
  • Made with organic ingredients: This may mean a product contains primarily organic, natural ingredients or just a little bit of something organic.
  • Made with essential oils: This could mean a product only contains vital oils for fragrance or contains essential oils plus synthetic or “natural” fragrance plus other natural and/or synthetic ingredients.
  • Mineral-based: This can mean a product contains natural minerals, like sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), or minerals that have been synthesized into more harmful chemicals, like phosphates.
    • Naturally derived: Suggests ingredients have been derived from a natural source (plant, mineral, animal, etc.). However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been adulterated into an unnatural end-product, though this isn’t always the case. 
      • Sustainable: This term generally refers to a product’s environmental impact, not human safety.
      • Vegan or plant-based: Many synthetic chemicals and harmful ingredients are vegan and may come from plants.
      • Water-based: This term means a product has a water base, which could also include harmful chemicals and/or all-natural ingredients.
      • XYZ % plant-derived: Many harmful chemicals are derived from natural substances, like plants. However, they are not all equal regarding toxicity or human/environmental safety.

            These terms don’t necessarily mean a product is toxic or unsafe. Many excellent and ethical companies use them to distinguish their healthy products from other brands. Unfortunately, they are also used by less-than-ethical companies to create an image of a safer and more eco-friendly product than is the case.

            Learn more in: What Does Eco-Friendly Mean?

            Why Going Harmful-Chemical-Free Matters

            As you can see, going chemical-free without leaving your body and this planet is not possible!

            However, reducing exposure to harmful synthetic chemicals is essential for preserving your health and wellness.

            One of the best ways to accomplish this is to become aware of the harmful chemicals lurking in everyday household cleaning and personal care products.

            Harsh Chemicals to Look For in Cleaning Products

            No matter where you are in your journey to health, eliminating harmful chemicals from your home is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family.

            So, where do you start? Look no further than your cleaning caddy and laundry room.

            The following are some of the most harsh and harmful chemicals found in some of the most popular synthetic chemical cleaning and laundry products:

            • Alkylphenol ethoxylated (APE) surfactants: A group of nonionic surfactants banned by the European Union due to their highly toxic effects on aquatic and human life. These are commonly used in detergents.
            • Ammonia: Ammonia is toxic when inhaled or ingested and is a lung and respiratory irritant that can trigger asthma and other breathing problems. When combined with bleach, it also creates a deadly gas.
            • Bleach: This common cleaning and laundry chemical creates a chloramine gas when combined with other chemicals or organic matter (like the dirt and grime you’re cleaning for example) that is highly irritating and corrosive to the skin, lungs, and eyes.[Sources: 1,2,3 ]
            • Ethanolamines: A surfactant used in cleaning and personal care products rated “6” on EWG’s Skin Deep Database (a rating system that scores ingredients on a scale of “1”—least toxic to “10”—most toxic) and therefore not allowed in EWG-verified products. These go by various names, including:
              • 2-Amino- Ethanol
              • 2-Aminoethanol
              • 2-Hydroxyethylamine
              • Ethanol, 2-Amino-
              • Ethanol, 2amino
              • Ethanolamine
              • Monoethanolamine 
            • Dioxins: 1,4-dioxane is a by-product of surfactant manufacturing classified as a Class B possible carcinogen by the EPA. Since it’s a byproduct, it is not listed on labels but is common in detergents. Detergents containing 1,4-dioxane may also have traces of other contaminants, including formaldehyde, nitrosamines, and phthalates. To avoid 1,4 dioxane, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recommends avoiding these suffixes in the ingredient list:
              • Myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, and any other "eth"
              • PEG
              • Polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, or polyoxyethylene
              • Oxynol
              • Sodium laureth/laurel sulfate
          • Formaldehyde (aka: formaldehyde donors): Although formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and universal sensitizer (meaning it can make you sensitive to all chemicals), it is still used in cleaning and personal care products as a slow-release preservative. These formaldehyde donors go by various names, including:
              • Diazolidinyl urea
              • Imidazolidinyl urea
              • DMDM hydantoin
              • Quaternium-15
              • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (most commonly known as bronopol),
              • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
              • Fragrance: Also known as “the new secondhand smoke,” over 3163 chemicals are considered “fragrance,” including VOCs, and are not required to be listed on labels.
              • Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS): Typically listed as 'anionic surfactants' on labels, these common surfactants release carcinogenic and reproductive toxins during their manufacturing process, including benzene. They also biodegrade slowly, making them a hazard to the environment. 
              • Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs): A common nonionic surfactant banned in Canada and the European Union, but it is still found used in American detergents. NPEs are endocrine disruptors that adversely affect physical function and fetal development.
              • Petroleum distillates (aka naphthas): These are solvents used to dissolve dirt, grease and grime that have been linked to mucus membrane damage, lung damage and inflammation, asthma, and cancer. They are derived from synthetic crude oil. 
              • Phthalates: Commonly found in plastics, fragrance, and other cleaning chemicals.
              • Phenols: This group of chemicals found in detergents is so toxic that people who are hypersensitive to it could experience death or serious side effects at very low exposures. It is rapidly absorbed and can cause toxicity throughout the entire body, wreaking havoc on the central nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs, and kidneys.
              • Phosphates: Derived from phosphorus, phosphates are the leading cleaning ingredient in many detergents and household cleaners. Phosphate residues have been known to cause nausea, diarrhea, and skin irritation. Phosphates are also highly toxic to aquatic systems, which is why their use has been banned or restricted in many countries and US states.
              • Quats: Also known as quaternary ammonium compounds or QACs, these ammonia-based disinfectants, like benzalkonium chloride, are used in everyday cleaning and disinfecting products. Quats are asthmagens and have been associated with reproductive system toxicity, neurodevelopmental issues, inflammation, and disruption of cholesterol, and are highly toxic to aquatic life. 
              • SLS and SLES: These synthetic surfactants are banned by the European Union (EU) due to human and environmental safety issues.
              • VOCs: Also known as volatile organic compounds, synthetic VOC exposure is considered triggering for people with asthma and causes sick building syndrome, among other things. Research has shown cleaning products, including “green” and “eco-friendly” brands, are a primary source of VOC pollutants.

              This is not a complete list of all harmful chemicals used in household cleaning products. 

              However, these are some of the most common and easy to spot in various cleaners and laundry products.

              Helpful Tools For Identifying Harmful Cleaning Products

              If that last list of ingredients to avoid seemed overwhelming, these tools will be a breath of fresh air!

              Tools like EWG Skin Deep allow you to quickly plug in ingredients in a  cleaning product and get a toxicity rating from 1-10 (1 being the least toxic and 10 the most toxic). 

              We recommend only choosing products with all ingredients rated 1-2 on this app or site.

              We also love the Think Dirty app for cleaning, skin, beauty, and personal care products and recommend products rated “0” on this app.

              You shouldn’t have to be a chemist and investigative reporter to read labels—though cleaning product companies and loose regulations make it hard to discern exactly what’s in them. These tools and technologies make it easy and stress-free!

              Getting Rid of Harmful Chemicals in Your Home Safely

              Do you need help safely identifying and getting rid of harmful chemicals in your home? 

              You’ve come to the right place.

              The Branch Basics Toss The Toxins Online Course takes you through our founders’ step-by-step, room-by-room process to quickly identify, eliminate, and replace all toxic products in your home, from cleaners and laundry products to personal care and food with safer alternatives.

              Already know of some products you want to toss?

              Check out: How To Dispose Cleaning Products Safely (and legally) for helpful disposal resources.

              Toss the Toxins With Branch Basics

              If you’re looking for a healthy and harsh-chemical-free cleaning line that’s simple to use and super effective, check out Branch Basics all-in-one cleaning system.

              Our  Made Safe Certified, Cruelty-Free, cleaning line was designed to replace every cleaner and laundry product in your home with just one natural Concentrate.

              Our Starter Kits (available in refillable plastic or glass) come with everything you need to make your own All-Purpose, Bathroom, Streak-Free, Laundry, and Foaming Wash using just Branch Basics Concentrate plus water.

              How simple is that?

              For more information about Branch Basics products, check out our Starter Kits and How To Get Started With Your Branch Basics Kit for a full written and video tutorial.
              Marilee Nelson

              Marilee Nelson

              Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.