A move by Clorox to disclose the ingredients in the fragrances used in its cleaning products is being lauded by activists who say it exposes a loophole in Canada's labelling rules and will put pressure on other corporations to follow suit.
"This is the iconic, noxious 1950s cleaning brand and it is now moving to the head of the pack in terms of the cleaning industry," said the Broadbent Institute's Rick Smith, co-author of Toxin, Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out Of Our Bodies And Our World.
The Clorox Company, which makes the eponymous bleach, Lestoil, Pine Sol, S.O.S and Tilex among other brands in Canada, announced on Sept. 16 it will voluntarily move to disclose allergens in its products' fragrances.
"We know people are interested in using more sustainable products, and they want to know what's in the products they use in and around their homes," Clorox chairman and CEO Don Knauss said in a release.
The company has also created a free app for iPhones and iPads that will allow consumers to check the ingredients on their iPhones (the company says an Android version is coming soon).
The ingredients are also listed on a mobile version of its website that Clorox says is available for all platforms. Iin addition, the company says it is starting to reformulate some of its products to remove certain chemicals.
Smith says the move to list ingredients shines a light on what he says may be the biggest loophole in labelling laws in Canada over the last 50 years.
"Even if fragrance ingredients are a significant overall component of your product, you are not obligated to disclose those specific chemicals on the labelling because of these archaic laws that deferred to the early history of the fragrance industry," Smith says.
In its Labelling of Cosmetics rules, Health Canada allows manufacturers to use the words "parfum" or "aroma" in place of a list of individually named ingredients. It is a nod, Smith says, to the days of Coco Chanel, when fragrance ingredients were a closely guarded secret.
"That kind of exemption isn't relevant anymore in a world largely full of synthetic fragrances where any good commercial lab can tease apart the component parts of these products."
The exemption "isn't fair to Canadian consumers, who don't have the straight goods on what they're buying," he says.
"So the fact that Clorox has now upended that and challenged its competitors to do better I think is a watershed moment in the cleaning products industry."
For consumers who are sensitive to the fragrances in some commercial products, the move by Clorox is welcome.
"I think it's a great first step," says Sheryl Kirby, a Toronto resident who says she suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity.
Multiple chemical sensitivity is a controversial affliction not recognized as a distinct physical disorder by several American medical groups, including the American Medical Association. The Canadian Medical association hasn't taken a position on multiple chemical sensitivity.
Kirby says within seconds of smelling of certain fragrances she gets a debilitating migraine.
"Cleaning products fragrances are actually even worse for me because perfumes have some natural essential oils. They're based on real things. Cleaning products are almost always synthetic. So dish detergent, laundry detergent, fabric softener is the worst one for me."
Kirby uses a homemade citrus vinegar to clean her near-spotless apartment in west-end Toronto. She mixes the vinegar with olive oil and beeswax to make furniture polish.
"People like me are the canary in the coal mine. The chemicals in these products are affecting everybody. Some of us just show it sooner than others," Kirby says.
Clean goes green
The decision to list ingredients in its fragrances is not the only "green" move made by Clorox in recent years. The company also has a separate line of products called "Greenworks" it says are made entirely of plant ingredients.
And in 2007, Clorox spent nearly $1 billion US to acquire Burt's Bees, known for its eco-friendly, natural products.
Clorox may also have been motivated by stricter rules set to come into effect in Europe in 2015 that crack down on the use of certain allergens in fragrances. Those rules are having an affect on more than just Clorox, Smith says.
"This trend towards less toxic products is accelerating with brands like Proctor & Gamble, Avon, Johnson & Johnson basically going to one safer global formulation."
Clorox is just the latest company to clean up its chemical act when faced with customer concerns about ingredients. Sandwich chain Subway faced a similar problem with Azodicarbonamide, a whitening agent and dough conditioner.
The ingredient is banned in Europe and Australia, but it was widely used in Subway bread in North America until it was revealed the chemical is also used to make yoga mats.
The widespread public outcry prompted Subway to quickly announce it would remove Azodicarbonamide from its North American ingredient list.