As the market for green cleaning products continues to expand, the call for standards to abolish greenwashing has become nothing short of deafening.

Objective, third-party certification from organizations such as Green Seal and EcoLogo are now and will remain the go-to guides for the savvy purchaser. These entities hold products to rigorous scientific, environmental and performance standards that only a fraction of applicants actually meet. This makes it easier for purchasers to choose from among the most environmentally preferable hand soaps and other sustainable jan/san products available.


Experts agree that green and biobased hand soaps perform equally well — but they are not one in the same. As clients and prospects interested in green cleaning grow savvier, they will expect their BSCs to become savvier too, and to help them become green leaders in their own industries. For instance, explaining the key differences between something as seemingly simple as green and biobased hand soaps sounds easy at first glance, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

"Not all biobased soaps are automatically green," explains UL Environment's Director of Market Development Scot Case. "The word 'biobased' looks at a single environmental attribute. It ignores toxicity, resource efficiency and manufacturing issues."

Though green and biobased products are often perceived to be the same thing, or at least very similar, green does not mean biobased, and biobased does not mean green.

Some BSCs may define a green hand soap based on the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) requirement that it not contain an anti-microbial agent. But there are other considerations, including lifecycle and packaging.

Certifiers evaluate a product's lifecycle impact, as well as how well the product performs. Green Seal's GS-41 and EcoLogo's CCD-104 certifications require that products meet environmental standards based on reduction of human and aquatic toxicity and reduced smog production potential. Interestingly, many traditional hand soaps also meet those standards.

Additionally, certified hand cleaners must perform as well or better than conventional hand cleaners, are biodegradable, are packaged in recyclable packaging, ideally incorporating recycled content and have eliminated ingredients likely to negatively impact health and the environment.

"Third-party certifications are a shortcut way of getting the greener product," says Case.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set the definition for biobased products, in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

"The USDA's formal definition of biobased is that products are determined by a list of plant, animal or marine materials that can be considered biobased and make up in whole or a significant part of a product of which 70 percent to 80 percent is typical," says Alan France, director of sustainability and environmental services for New York City-based ABM Industries. "If a client is using green hand soaps and wants to do a little bit more, we could then look into biobased versions of green hand soaps."

Many biobased soaps contain one or more of the following common ingredients: soy, corn, coconut, citrus and sunflower.

Green and Biobased vs. Traditional and Antibacterial

France lets his customers know that with different base ingredients they can expect a thinner viscosity, but as long as they're told about that up front, they have no issues with it. Without the proactive warning however, they often feel that they're experiencing a cheaper product and they will take issue with it or wonder if it's been watered down.

"If you communicate up front, there is very little push back," France says.

A positive benefit of green soaps is that they are often perceived as being gentler on hands than traditional soaps.

"In general, for people who wash their hands a lot, these tend to be gentler to some people's hands," France says.

Susan Daly of Daly Cleaning Services, Golden, Colo., says green soaps reject phosphate so they may not foam as much. Instead, they get foaming action from hydrogen peroxide, which can have a shorter shelf life. That is one of the challenges for green products, she says, adding that foam soaps are a great solution as they last longer and can reduce the amount of product used.

Specifying a green hand soap for most of her clients is a no-brainer, says Barbara Whitstone, senior vice president of business and development at Milwaukee-based CleanPower. They simply go by the standard set by the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification banning anti-microbials.

"Unless it's a kitchen or medical facility, as long as it doesn't contain anti-bacterial, it's an easy requirement to meet," she says.

There isn't a huge value added from adding anti-bacterial components to soaps, which also unnecessarily add bioaccumulative materials such as triclosan to the environment, says Ken Sargent, executive vice president for Loveland, Colo.-based Porter Industries.

There is a green, biobased antibacterial hand soap made with thyme oil, which will be more expensive — or, BSCs can go the ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, path. Ethanol-based products, unlike triclosan, have no endocrine disrupters.

The best thing a BSC can do is encourage proper hand washing techniques, as outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: using clean, warm running water, make a lather and scrub all hand surfaces for 15 to 20 seconds before rinsing well and drying with a paper towel or dryer.

This type of customer education is necessary, says Sargent, no matter what type of hand soap a facility carries. Encourage customers to consider carrying hand sanitizers, if they don't already, as an alternative and/or complement to hand washing.

Hand Sanitizers

While handwashing is the gold standard for removing germs, hand sanitizers remain appropriate when handwashing is unavailable and are especially effective in high-touch public areas.

EcoLogo recently issued a standard for Instant Hand Antiseptic products known as CCD-170. The standard spells out EcoLogo's requirements, including a formulation of at least 73 percent biobased raw materials — a percentage that follows the minimum biobased content standards set by the USDA BioPreferred program.

CCD-170 also prohibits formulation or manufacture with fragrances, dyes, known asthmagens, endocrine dispruptors, heavy metals or a number of substances including quaternary ammonium compounds, phenol and triclosan.

Green and Biobased Markets

Green soaps and hand sanitizers are most successful in buildings embracing greener approaches to facility management, especially LEED certified facilities.

Case adds that schools, colleges, universities and healthcare facilities — which, due to occupant health concerns, have an express interest in green products — are also on the leading edge in their use of green hand soaps.

Biobased soaps are most successful in government facilities and buildings where federal contractors work, because these populations are being asked by the government to follow its biopreferred mandate issued in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.

Any building can go to greener hand washing and cleaning products if there is an internal champion leading the cause, Sargent says, and since price and performance of green products is now commensurate with traditional, there is no reason to use green products.

"Consumers are asking for it," says Daly. "It's a question of: Are you willing to make some changes? In this economy people are willing to look at that, to do the right thing and still keep their budget in line."

Lauren Summerstone is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.