Don’t assume that “green” consumer products—those labeled organic, natural, nontoxic, or environmentally friendly—emit fewer risky chemicals into the air than their conventional counterparts. The terms have no legal definitions.
In a study in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, an Australian researcher tested 37 common products (most available in the U.S.) for potentially harmful volatile chemicals, notably terpenes (such as pinene or limonene), which come from the oils of plants and are used as fragrances and solvents. When vaporized, terpenes can combine with other air pollutants (ozone, for example) to create hazardous compounds such as formaldehyde (a carcinogen).
The products included air fresheners, cleansers, detergents, soaps, deodorants, and shampoos. On average, each product emitted 15 volatile chemicals, many classified as toxic or hazardous by U.S. regulations.
As prior studies have found, “green” products were just as likely to emit risky chemicals. Manufacturers are not required to disclose specific fragrance ingredients in household products (they may simply list “natural fragrance” on the label, for instance), so you usually have no way of knowing what’s in them. Fragrance-free products generally release fewer volatile chemicals.