The toilet cleaner test is part of a project to compare household products in Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. We are investigating whether individual products vary in quality depending on in which country they are purchased. We are also looking more broadly at the types of products available in each country and their ingredients, marketing, and performance.

Dual Quality

Of the forty-nine toilet cleaners that we tested, ten products were found in more than one country.  Of these ten, two had different versions in different countries. In addition, four products appeared the same but showed differences in one of our test results (how fast the product flows down the toilet bowl) suggesting production or formula variations between countries.

The Coop, Coop Rainbow and Coop Änglamark products were also completely different products from country to country but are not included in the tally above. They are private label products that appear to be developed specifically for there national grocery store chains.

The products with different versions were Lidl’s W5 Maxx Power and W5 Eco Lemon. Both products had different formulas, packaging and EAN numbers in Sweden than in those sold in Denmark and Finland.  It is unclear whether those differences are intentional responses to different consumer needs (e.g., water hardness or perfume preferences), or if one version is in the process of being phased out.  We have not yet received a response from Lidl on that.

Our market research shows product availability differences on the country level regarding chlorine bleach, perfume, and colorants in the formulas:

  • In our test of 49 products, nine products contained chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite). In total four products in Finland, three products in and Denmark and two products in Sweden.
  • The only products that did not contain perfume were those that have the Asthma and Allergy label. This applies to three products each in Sweden and Denmark, and one in Finland.
  • 13 products did not contain colorant. This includes the seven Asthma and Allergy products, the Duck foaming bleach products, Ecover products and Seventh Generation. In total five products each in Sweden and Denmark, and three products in Finland.
  • However, a similarity between the countries was that just over half of the products in each country had the Nordic Swan or EU Ecolabel.
  • Another similarity is the average cleaning performance per country did not vary widely.

Problematic chemicals present in some toilet cleaners

  • Sodium hypochlorite – is on the Danish List of Unwanted Substances. Sodium hypochlorite is problematic to the environment and has a potential to form toxic compounds in contact with organic material. If sodium hypochlorite is mixed with acid (for example an acidic cleaner) a toxic chlorine gas can form, raising concern for accidents and health risks. 
  • Sulfamidic acid – (also called amidosulfonic acid) is problematic to the environment. It is classified by the EU as harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
  • Isothiazolinones – a group of sensitizing preservatives (for example benzisothiazolinone) that can cause skin allergy. This effect is less relevant in toilet cleaners, as they should not be put on the skin. Isothiazolinones can also be problematic to the environment.
  • Perfumes – can cause skin allergy. Limonene and linalool, present in some toilet cleaners, are considered sensitizing fragrances, but many more perfume substances are sensitizing. Skin allergy is not an issue with toilet cleaners because they are not in contact with the skin, but perfume content could still be considered. Some people have a sensitivity to perfume, and can react to it with headache, especially if it is in high concentrations.

Packaging and information

Information accessibility

For cleaners, not all ingredients must be marked on the package, but the manufacturer must provide a website where a customer can find the full ingredient list. In many cases (about one in five), the ingredient information customers have a right to know by law was not on the package and was inaccessible or outdated online. It is simplest for customers if manufacturers list all ingredients on package – as is done by Coop in all countries (Finland, Sweden and Denmark), and Grøn Balance and REMA 1000 in Denmark.  Furthermore, the ingredients should be provided online given the prevalence of online shopping. 

The EU ecolabel criteria states that "The product shall be accompanied by instructions for proper use so as to maximise product performance and minimise waste, and reduce water pollution and use of resources. These instructions shall be legible or include graphical represen­tation or icons…"  We saw all sorts of variants of this, and rather few providing the desired level of information and legibility.

Hazard information and warnings

Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) mixed with acid forms toxic chlorine gas. Therefore, chlorine products require a warning, for example, "Warning! Do not use with other products. May release dangerous gases (chlorine)" In all cases, these warnings should be more visible. The text was particularly small and nearly illegible on the Domestos thick bleach products.

A warning on the non-chlorine products can help prevent accidents as well: "Do not use with chlorine-based products". However, this type of warning was missing from more than half of the products.

Several products are very acidic (pH <2) or very basic (pH >11.5). The very acidic products often contained hydrochloric acid, while the very basic ones contained chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite). In all cases, these products were correctly marked with the "corrosive" hazard icon, indicating risk for injury. Products that are not so acidic och basic often had the "warning" hazard icon, indicating risk for irritation. Many products recommended wearing gloves and eye protection. How well consumers understand that certain toilet cleaners pose higher risks than others and take recommended protective measures is an open question.

Recycled material & recyclability

Packaging material content, design for recycling, and information to the customers were rated in this category.  Bottles made with a high percentage post-consumer recycled plastic or certified sustainable bioplastic were given highest scores for material.  While all bottles were recyclable and marked with the recycle symbol, white or clear bottles without shrink wrap are more easily recyclable, and therefore scored higher. Clear information to the customer was also helpful, for example, whether the contents are considered hazardous waste or whether the bottle and cap can be recycled together.

Greenwashing

Environmental claims that are vague or misleading are considered "greenwashing". For example, some bottles claim to have recycled content but not how much, which could mean it is a rather small percentage. Statements on some products such as "Powered by plants" and "Made in our clean green factory" are quite vague and may be more about marketing than environmental attributes.

In contrast, the EU Ecolabel and the Nordic Swan label are reliable, according to BEUC, The European Consumer Organisation, due to their transparent and routinely updated criteria that considers environmental and health aspects of the product and packaging. Similarly, products with the Asthma Allergy label must fulfill specific requirements regarding allowable ingredients.

Information sources: The EU Ecolabel criteria, the Nordic Swan criteria and background document for cleaning products, the ECHA Substance database, and the chemical database and app provided by Astma-Allergi Danmark called Kemilex.  Information by email from Nordic Swan and experts within the project.