Glass cleaner is part of a huge household cleaners market that’s expected to reach $47.1 billion USD by 2028. Increased awareness for sanitation, more disposable income among consumers, and an increase of mirrored surfaces as a design preference have all been drivers of this growth. At a rate like that, production of this cleaner is gobbling up natural resources and we should probably smarten up about the best - or at least the least harmful - choice to make when buying it. Let’s stare into the looking glass and start unpacking the facts.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
Opt for ammonia-free glass cleaners to reduce the risk of inhaling toxic chemicals, and if possible, look for a formula using ethanol instead of isopropyl alcohol. Don’t be entranced by pretty colors! A clear liquid cleaner is best, meaning no unnecessary dyes were added. Bonus? Choose a bottle that includes recycled plastic content and has a third-party certification that verifies a brand is upholding environmental health and safety thresholds.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
The most commonly found ingredient in glass cleaner is ammonia. Ammonia is a gas made up of nitrogen and hydrogen compounds and when dissolved in water, becomes ammonium hydroxide, a pungent, colorless liquid. While one study notes severe inhalation of ammonia has led to chronic pulmonary issues, others have determined that there should be no adverse health effects if levels are concentrated at or below 50 ppm, which is in line with the latest Occupational Safety and Health Association guidelines.
An important side note because we care about you: never mix ammonia-based products with products that contain chlorine bleach. When those two mingle it’s highly toxic, releasing lethal chloramine gasses. Better yet, choose a glass cleaner that’s ammonia-free, and, voila! Problem solved.
More commonly known as ‘rubbing alcohol’, isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is another typical ingredient you may notice on glass cleaners. It’s popular due to its fast drying properties - and evaporation means streak-free glass. For starters, IPA (not to be confused with the tasty craft beer) is made through a process called hydration that combines water with Propene - a byproduct of refined fossil fuels like petroleum.
Inhaling IPA can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs, and may affect the liver and kidneys if prolonged exposure exceeds safe thresholds. In lieu of IPA, try finding a cleaner that uses plant-based ethanol. It’s found to be just as effective as a disinfectant and it’s derived from corn and not fossil fuels. As corn grain is processed through a cool and science-y grinding process, the remaining proteins are used as animal feed while the remaining starch is fermented into alcohol. Ethanol can also irritate the skin, and probably for a longer time since it won’t evaporate as fast as IPA. But - the big difference is that the human body has enzymes that can process and detoxify ethanol. All that said, it’s never a bad idea to wear protective gear when cleaning your home. Think eyewear, gloves, and a mouth covering.
Another thing to note is that both ammonia and IPA have a sharp odor that, to be commercially enticing, needs to be masked by more appealing fragrances. This brings us to our next point.
It can be tricky to sniff out the truth with fragrances. Simply put, vague mentions of “fragrance” are often a proprietary blend of synthetic and undisclosed chemicals. Essential oils, which are obtained from mechanical pressing or distillation, are concentrated plant extracts that retain the natural smell of their source. The use of essential oils in cleaning products is on the rise as consumers are looking for more ‘natural’ options.
While we don’t want synthetic fragrances, the quality of things like essential oils can be hard to verify. Regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration do not enforce a rigorous review process for essential oils since they’re considered cosmetic ingredients. Although essential oils are generally considered to be safe, due to the lack of full transparency with fragrances on product labels, users are left to hope high-quality products are being used. Still, we would opt for plant-derived essential oils over “fragrances”.
Remember when we described ammonia as colorless? Well IPA is too, and someone, somewhere decided clear liquid cleaners just don’t seem to have the same “oomph” on the shelf. Dyes have been added to spray cleaners to attract customers, and so that people can see where the product has been applied and how much cleaner is left in the container. While color-coding cleaners may have benefits in industrial settings to avoid mix-ups of application (i.e. blue = glass, green = food prep), for home use, dye adds no additional cleaning function and since specific formulations are usually protected under patent, no one really knows what’s in it. Some companies publish this information on their website or through the Environmental Protection Agency, so if you’re loyal to a blue or yellow brand, we recommend searching for their safety data sheet (SDS) or material safety data sheet (MSDS) to see what you can find out.
Ingredients aren’t the only thing that makes an impact. Glass cleaner packaging may be an afterthought, but it’s a critical one that factors into choosing the most sustainable option. The vast majority of commercial glass cleaners come in high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles. HDPE is super common, but comes from - you guessed it - fossil fuels. That’s why it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for bottles that contain post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. The higher the percentage of PCR, the less virgin (aka petroleum-based) plastic needs to be sourced, refined, and manufactured for use.
Just because a material is recyclable (aka able to be recycled) doesn’t mean it ultimately is recycled. The U.S. has a strikingly low plastic recycling rate (about 5% in 2021) and of all the plastics that are recycled, only a portion are HDPE. Although HDPE is recyclable (yay!), a recent press release from the Association of Plastic Recyclers says that of recycled plastics, only 28% are HDPE or PE (polyethylene). If plastics aren’t recycled, there’s no PCR content to be used again. Catch our drift?
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications and standards to look out for on glass cleaners.
Environmental Working Group (EWG)
The Environmental Working Group has created a database that aims to be the gold standard in rating personal care and cleaning products based on their ingredients, ensuring products are free from chemicals of concern. Look for the EWG logo to make sure you’re avoiding those pesky ingredients.
EPA Safer Choice
The EPA Safer Choice label indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. The EPA also tests the quality of these products to ensure that they perform as well as conventional products.
Leaping Bunny Certification
The Leaping Bunny certification is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any ingredients in a product. Look for this label when prioritizing animal welfare in your glass cleaner purchases.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
From a life-cycle perspective, making decisions about the contents inside the bottle can be just as important as the bottle itself. Support brands that are making better and healthier choices about their ingredients, packaging, and operational practices by looking for ammonia and dye-free options, natural and understandable fragrance additives, and ideally a certification that tells you they are putting in the work to maintain high safety and environmental standards.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
What is the most sustainable glass cleaner?
Good question. All options will have an impact one way or another, but we can reduce the negative harm by choosing ammonia-free and dye-free options packaged in bottles using PCR plastic content. Ditch artificial fragrances for natural or plant-based options, and purchase from brands that optimize resource use in their production and source clean energy. Check out our Top Products page to browse what we consider to be the best options.
Can I make my own glass cleaner?
Why, certainly! You likely already have what you need to make a do-it-yourself cleaner, and you'll be in full control of the ingredient list. A few things you may want to grab from the cupboard include white vinegar, organic essential oil, cornstarch and ethanol if you’re feeling fancy, and some good old-fashioned H2O. Read more here.