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Ethical Home – Washing Up Liquid

For as lon‍‍‍g as petroleum-based surfactants continue to appear in the most popular washing-up liquid brands, clean dishes will equal a dirty planet. Fortunately, many retailers now offer a range of eco-friendly ethical alternatives, which substitute vegetable oil for petrochemical based derivatives. Some of these companies also use recycled materials in their packaging, and even offer facilities to refill old bottles once they are empty.


‍‍‍So much the modern world is dependent, both materially and economically, on products from crude oil. The science of the possible long-term effects of this dependence ‍‍‍on the environment and  on human health is developing. The base of scientific research and evidence is constantly growing in terms of which products, and their petrochemical derivatives, may or may not have adverse affects. There is a lot of unbased ‘fear’ about the hazard of many petrobased or general synthethic chemicals. It is important to follow the evidence, which, may not always be easy, because it is being updated all of the time.

When it comes to petrochemicals in general, the deeper issue concerns not always the immediate product itself – for example, it has been found that washing-up liquid is perfectly safe. Instead, it is a broader philosophical, scientific and empirical issue: what many leading s‍‍‍cientists and policy analysts warn of an over-dependence on petroleum based products. In some cases, the products themselves may not have adverse affects on the environment and human health – instead it is their production that is problematic.

Over-dependence on crude oil has been highlighted in environmental science and also as a result of climate science, emphasising the need for a transition to alternative and clean fuels. But the push to clean energy also correlates with a push to non-petrobased products – or to alleviate the over-dependence on products derived from crude oil. And that includes many, many things – from the materials of our buildings to our washing-up liquid!

The active ingredient in washing-up liquid is a surfactant. This helps to remove grease from an item by emulsifying oils and then dispersing and suspending them so they don’t settle back onto its surface. The most commonly found surfactants in handwashing detergents are anionic, which usually means that they create a lot of suds. Some products also list ionic or non-ionic surfactants.

Surfactants‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍ may either be produced from petrochemical sources or from vegetable oils su‍‍‍ch as coconut. Past life cycle inventory studies on vegetable-based or ‘oleo’ surfactants were shown to be better than their petrochemical equivalents in nine of the 13 impact categories. Not only this, but petrochemical surfactants were found to be slower to biodegrade and were more damaging in terms of aquatic and air toxicity, global warming, depletion of water, acidification, petrochemical oxidant formation and consumption of energy sources.

However, these findings have been challenged in recent papers. A big problem is that vegetable oils derived from palm are often unsustainably produced, and have been found by certain researchers to have an even greater environment impact than traditional petro-sourcing. In fact, one of the most recent studies we are aware of suggests that PKO-FA (palm based derivative) due to varying practices in palm cultivation had higher impacts on average for 12 out of 18 impact categories evaluated. A list of resources as well as an updated summary can be found here.

Synthetic perfumes and colourings in washing-up liquids, also often based on petrochemicals, can be slow to degrade and may cause problems for those with sensitive skin. The ‘green’ brands tend to be colourless and use natural fragrances such as volatile plant oils.

Toxic Chemicals Policy:

‍‍‍‍‍‍For the Washing-Up Liquid sector, we have introduced a new ethical criterion: ‘Toxic Chemicals Policy’ which assesses a company’s‍‍‍ policy – or usage – of certain chemicals in their products. There is a lot of ‘chemophobia’ about synthetic chemicals, as well as a lot of misinformation about which are harmful and which are not. To be fair, a lot of the science is still catching up in this area. Some synthetic chemicals are listed as ‘controversial’, with evidence still lacking. Other sythentics that were once listed as ‘controversial’ and which were once promoted as a ‘hazardous’ have been found to not be harmful on the scale of human consumption.

It is important to keep up with the latest science. Based on the opinion of various experts in this area (scientists, environmentalists, public health organisations, etc), we have specifically focused on the following chemicals which are considered to be most harmful to the environment and human health but are legally allowed for use in products: formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates and triclosan.


Formaldehyde can be found in cleaning (and beauty) products and is used as a preservative to help prevent bacteria growth.  Formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant that can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing and nose and throat irritation.  It has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and allergies in children and is also recognised as a human carcinogen.


Parabens are widely used in cleaning (and beauty) products as preservatives – preventing the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast.  Some studies point towards parabens containing estrogen-mimicking properties, which are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.


Are used in numerous cleaning (and beauty) products, with the main benefit of increasing flexibility and softness and they are also used in synthetic fragrances.  Phalates are known to be an endocrine disruptor and have also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive birth defects.


Triclosan, which can be found in cleaning (beauty and health) products, is used as an anti-bacterial/fungal chemical.  Triclosan is known to be an endocrine disruptor – especially thyroid and reproductive hormones and as a skin irritant.

Company group

The Toxic Chemicals Policy ratings are based on the policies of the Company Group – not the brand itself (this is because an ‘eco’ brand which excludes these chemicals, could be owned by a company still using these chemicals in other brands).  To find out about the methodology behind the ratings, see the Toxic Chemicals Policy information here.


Most washing-up liquid bottles are made from high density polyethylene (labelled PE or HDPE). This is one of the few plastics that can be recycled in the UK, although provision of local collection schemes is patchy. Look out for the numbers 1 and 2 inside a triangular recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic bottles, as these indicate that they are suitable for recycling.

Bio-D’s bottles contain 55 per cent recycled material which, according to a company spokesperson, is the maximum amount possible without the plastic becoming too brittle. Bio-D, Ecover and Ecoleaf are three brands we are currently aware of that provide natural products suppliers with large drums, allowing customers to refill their bottles rather than throwing them away.

In general, plastic pollution has received increasing focus from the media and the general public. The issue directly affects the washing-up liqiud sector. Pressure is growing on companies to act. In response, big brands like Fairy (and others) have announced commitments to new supply chain approaches when it comes to using recycled plastic in their bottles, with the ultimate aim of tangible circular schemes.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic was once touted as a solution. But scientists and other experts have since challenged those claims.

Key Research

Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Home & Office:

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Caurnie, Bio-D, Clear Spring, Ecover, Surcare, Morning Fresh, Persil,Fairy.

Disclosure:  Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning we earn commission if you click through and make a purchase. Placement and use of these links has no bearing in terms of the ethical scores that we give to a brand.  All commission earned by The Good Shopping Guide is re-invested into the research carried out by The Ethical Company Organisation.

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