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Is Citric Acid Safe to Use as a Cleaner?

If you’re wondering if citric acid is a safe cleaning alternative to toxic chemicals, you’re not alone. A Consumer Reports’ survey found 44 percent of respondents said they were willing to pay more for cleaning products that are safer for their health and the environment, and another 46 percent answered “maybe.” Why the sentiment?

Consumers are increasingly aware of the potential hazards of using traditional cleaners for their home, laundry, dishes, and appliances. Thanks to social media, mainstream media and multiple publicized studies, consumers now know the typical cleaners their parents may have used aren’t as “clean” as they once believed. The Environmental Working Group tested 21 commonly used cleaning products and found they emitted more than 450 chemicals into the air. A number of those chemicals have been directly linked to asthma, developmental and reproductive harm, and even cancer.

Because of the concern and associated consumer demand for cleaner cleaning products, many manufacturers are changing their formulas, non-toxic brands are gaining in popularity, and other “green” companies are springing up. It is a true exercise in supply and demand.

Millennial Moms Leading The Way

Perhaps leading the charge for safer, non-toxic cleaning products are millennial moms who account for a significant piece of the consumer-buying pie. McKinsey predicts millennials will drive consumer growth for the next 20 years and 70 percent of them are concerned about the safety of ingredients in household cleaning products.

But it’s not only what’s in their products that millennials care about. It’s what’s not in them. Nielsen found more than 50 percent of consumers believe that “the absence of undesirable ingredients is more important than the inclusion of beneficial ones.” Because so many cleaning products do not list their ingredients on their labels or their websites, it’s difficult for consumers to know exactly what’s in their cleaning products. It pays, however, to be more transparent.

According to a 2015 study of more than 2,000 consumers, 94 percent said they are more likely to be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency, with 56 percent vowing to be customers for life. For millennial moms, 83 percent say they trust a brand more if it offers product transparency, five percentage points higher than all survey respondents. Those numbers should get the attention of every brand. If they want to build market share and stay relevant, it appears an investment in safer products with clear labeling is the way to go.

One of the most common ingredients in these “better for you” cleaners is citric acid. But is citric acid safe and does it work?

Citric Acid Safety

Citric acid is a common ingredient in many products, including household cleaners, detergents, cosmetics, and food. It is a naturally-occurring, raw material that is easily biodegradable because it is produced by the natural fermentation of raw materials derived from corn or citrus fruits. Acidpedia says of citric acid, “This acid is favored over other additives because it is environmentally friendly, biodegradable and is relatively harmless.”

In cleaning products, citric extracts make detergents work better by conditioning the water. That means citric acid breaks down hard water that contains calcium, magnesium or other minerals found in groundwater. Those minerals cause scale to build up inside of the water pipes leading into a home, meaning it affects showers, sinks, hot water heaters, dishwashers, and washing machines. Hard water also reduces soap and detergent’s ability to lather, reacting instead to soap to form a sticky scum. These factors not only deteriorate appliances and cause residue and odors, but they limit the effectiveness of cleaners.

Many common household cleaners, therefore, include harsh, toxic chemicals to combat hard water or strengthen their products to account for the impact of hard water on efficacy. Citric acid is a safer alternative to these caustic substances and works equally well or better. 

Mild forms of citric acid are frequently included in cleaning products to break down hard water, optimize pH levels, dissolve grease and stains, and penetrate the cell walls of bacteria to kill 99.9 percent of germs on surfaces. These extracts provide powerful cleaning without toxic residue. They are relatively inexpensive to source that helps keep the cost of these non-toxic products down. 

How to Know If Cleaning Products Are Safe

Despite the push for more transparency in ingredient labeling, many companies still choose to keep their ingredient list under wraps. Whether including ingredients is cost-prohibitive (redesigning product labels is quite pricey) or these companies have something to hide, consumers have the EPA on their side.

The EPA launched their Safer Choice campaign to help consumers find cleaning and other products that are safer for people, pets and the environment. The initiative isn’t new. Nearly two decades ago, the EPA began labeling safer products with the “Design for the Environment” label. After consulting with product manufacturers, health advocates, and consumers, however, the DfE label was discontinued in favor of the new Safer Choice label. 

According to the EPA, participation in the Safer Choice program is voluntary. “Companies who make products carrying the Safer Choice label have invested heavily in research and reformulation to ensure that their products meet the Safer Choice Standard. These companies are leaders in safer products and sustainability,” they say. 

Consumers who choose products with the Safer Choice label can rest assured every ingredient in those products have been reviewed by the EPA and meet strict safety criteria for human and environmental health, despite the quantity of that ingredient in the product. This is an important point because many products are able to make claims of being “natural”, “green”, and “environmentally-friendly” without much oversight. In fact, many list these claims when only a percentage of their ingredients are, in fact, safe. 

Because product efficacy is even more important to most consumers, the EPA also requires any product seeking its Safer Choice label to pass defined performance standards that put them on par with conventional products. Packaging must also be sustainable, pH levels must be safe, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are restricted.

Beyond package labels, consumers can search the Safer Choice website to browse their safer products and chemicals listings. The EPA makes it easy for consumers to search by product type, offering an extensive database of Safer Choice-certified products. For consumers curious as to whether citric acid is safe, a simple search on this website yields a green circle, the EPA’s symbol that the chemical “has been verified to be of low concern based on experimental and modeled data.”

It’s safe to say that citric acid is considered safe and an exceptional alternative to harsh chemicals. It is effective, affordable and easy to find in many safer choice products.