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Soaps & Detergents: Human Safety


As consumer needs and lifestyles change, and as new manufacturing processes become available, the soap and detergent industry responds with new products. A commitment to safety is a top priority from the time a company begins working on a new product and continues as long as the product is in the marketplace. Companies evaluate the safety of existing cleaning products by talking with consumers, reviewing scientific developments and monitoring product use data that may affect the safety assessment process.

To determine the safety of a cleaning product ingredient, industry scientists evaluate the toxicity of the ingredient. Toxicity is generally defined as any harmful effect of a chemical on a living organism, i.e., a human, an animal, a plant or a microorganism. Since all chemicals, including water (H2O), are toxic under certain conditions of exposure, scientists must consider a number of factors affecting exposure. These include the duration and frequency of exposure to the ingredient; the concentration of the ingredient at the time of exposure; and the route and manner in which the exposure occurs, e.g., eye, skin or ingestion. This information is essential whether assessing the effect on humans, animals, plants or microorganisms.


Because human safety and environmental evaluations consider different types of exposures, they are evaluated by different procedures. The principal steps in the assessment process are, however, the same. They involve:

  • assembling existing data on toxicity and exposure;
  • determining where new information is needed and, if necessary, carrying out appropriate studies; and
  • determining whether predicted exposure levels are below levels that cause significant toxic effects.

This safety evaluation process enables scientists to predict the potential risk, if any, associated with the use of the ingredient or product, and determine if it is safe for consumers and the environment.

02sftyMedical science has long confirmed the important relationship between cleanliness and health. The regular use of cleaning products is fundamental to the health of our society and the well-being of its people.

Because cleaning products are part of our everyday lives, it is essential that they not present a significant risk to health. In considering the human safety of an individual ingredient or product, toxicologists (scientists who assess the safety of a chemical) are concerned with the effects from two types of exposures: intended and unintended. Intended exposures occur with use of a cleaning product according to the manufacturer's directions. Unintended exposures can result from misuse, through improper storage or by accidental contact, such as when a liquid detergent is splashed in the eye.

Hazards from these types of exposures are evaluated from information obtained through 04sfty03sftyacute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) tests and through a review of existing data. Expected exposure routes are considered as part of this evaluation.

Human safety evaluations begin with the specific ingredients and then move on to the whole product. The effects for all ingredients are considered as the product is formulated.

05sftyToxicologists compare the expected exposure to the expected effect during both product manufacture and use. How will workers be exposed in the plant? What is the intended use of the product? Is it to be diluted? Undiluted? Used daily in the home? Weekly in the workplace? Toxicologists also consider the expected effect of an unintended exposure. What is the potential hazard, for example, if a child drinks a product directly from the bottle?

If this human safety evaluation indicates an unacceptable risk, it may be possible to make the risk smaller by changing the manufacturing process; reformulating to reduce or eliminate an ingredient contributing to the toxic effect; or using labeling or a child-resistant closure. If the risk cannot be reduced, the product will not be marketed.

Even though manufacturers formulate cleaning products to ensure that they are safe or 06sftyhave very low risk, human health effects can still result from unintended exposure. To warn consumers about a specific hazard, household cleaning products carry cautionary labeling whenever necessary. For consumers, this is one of the most important features of the label.

Federal regulations govern how precautionary statements related to human safety are used on household cleaning product labels. The regulations require that statements follow a standard format. There is first a "signal word," followed by a short description of the potential hazard. The following chart shows the signal words - CAUTION or WARNING and DANGER - and what they mean:


POISON, which rarely appears on household cleaning products, is the strongest indication of hazard and means that accidental exposure could cause severe medical effects. The term may be found on household lye and on some car care products, such as antifreeze.

Along with the safety evaluation process and cautionary labeling, an extensive consumer education program on the proper use, storage and disposal of cleaning products supports the human safety efforts of the soap and detergent industry. In addition, the industry works closely with poison control centers to assure that, should an accidental exposure occur, treatment information is available to health care providers. Together, these activities enable consumers to use cleaning products with confidence in both their safety and performance.