Get the FAQs about Formulating Organic Household Cleaners


According to the Organic Trade Association1, American consumers spend more than $43 billion on organic products. In fact, organic products are present in more than 75 percent of all categories on supermarket shelves. Millennial parents in particular are more likely to choose organic products over non-organic. Foods and personal care products make up the majority of purchases, but organic household cleaners are also entering the mix.

As a formulator, product developer, or marketing decision-maker, it is important to understand this demographic, and what is required for organic product development.

How is “organic” defined?

In order to add “organic” to a product label in the United States, the producer must follow strict guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These guidelines specify that a certain percentage of a product’s ingredients contain organic agricultural ingredients2. According to USDA3, products carrying the organic seal must meet the following requirements:

  • Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
  • Produced using allowed substances4.
  • Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.

Does my organic household cleaner need to be made with 100% organic ingredients?

For the most part, if you are not certified, you must not make any organic claim on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package3. That said, there are different categories for classifying products5.

  • 100% Organic:
    • All ingredients and processing aids must be certified organic.
    • Product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
    • Organic ingredients must be identified via asterisk or other mark.
  • Organic:
    • All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on National List4.
    • Non-organic ingredients allowed per National List may be used, up to a combined total of five percent of non-organic content (excluding salt and water).
    • Product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
    • Organic ingredients must be via identified asterisk or other mark.
  • “Made With” Organic:
    • At least 70 percent of the product must be certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water).
    • Any remaining agricultural products must be produced without excluded methods.
    • Non-agricultural products must be specifically allowed on the National List.
    • Product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
    • Organic ingredients must be identified via asterisk or other mark.

Why are organic household cleaners important?

In a recent Nielsen survey6, 26 percent of respondents indicated organic/all-natural ingredients are very important in their purchasing decisions. Interest in using everyday household ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and ordinary soap and water is also gaining popularity, with DIY cleaning techniques showing up frequently on Pinterest.

Formulators can take advantage of these trends and interests by including these ingredients in their organic cleaning product formulations. New-product development strategies must fulfill primary needs of efficacy and value, but they also must appeal to other relevant trends like natural, ecofriendly offerings6.

What ingredients are allowed in organic formulations?

Any ingredient or mixture that USDA has declared Certified Organic may be used in organic products. The National List4 identifies the allowed and prohibited substances, while 7 C.F.R. § 205.6057 lists synthetic/non-organic and non-synthetic substances that are cleared for products labeled as “organic” or “Made with organic.”

Why is it a challenge to formulate Organic cleaning products?

The strict (and short) list of allowed substances and organically produced ingredients is only the beginning of formulation challenges. It goes beyond that. Many ingredients conventionally used in cleaning formulations aren’t allowed or don’t have effective organic replacements, such as surfactants, emulsifiers, viscosifiers, and preservatives. It is tough to compete with non-organic cleaning products containing materials whose results and user experience have consumer appeal, but aren’t as eco-friendly.

Further, Whole Foods has published a list of what they consider to be “unacceptable ingredients8” for “green cleaners,” which further ties the hands of formulators, due to the retail chain’s consumer popularity and figurehead status for those interested in natural living.

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