Laundry waiting to be washed is as perpetual as doing dishes—the seemingly endless chore! However, your loads of literal dirty laundry are nothing compared to the dirty laundry of harmful chemicals in laundry detergent. And the dangers to your health! Let’s help these companies air out THEIR dirty laundry, shall we?
Table of Contents for Understanding Chemicals in Laundry Detergent
We All Have Dirty Laundry But Manufacturers Have Dangerous Chemicals in Laundry Detergent
What’s in there? Commercial laundry products are a chemical cocktail of harm to people, pets, and the environment. Following is a list of the most common harmful chemicals in laundry detergent products.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate/ Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate (SLS/ SLES). A main ingredient in laundry detergents as well as dish liquid, hand wash, and shampoo, SLS and SLES are surfactants intended to remove soil and as a foaming agent—they were originally developed as garage floor degreaser. Unfortunately, they also inflame skin, eyes, and lungs, and damage internal organs. SLS/ SLES is toxic in the environment as well. SLS is so irritating, in fact, that researchers frequently use it to induce acute skin and eye irritation, so they can measure other substances, such as healing agents.
- Phosphates. Phosphate exposure is linked to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and death from all causes in a general, healthy population. Banning phosphates in detergents is a crucial step in saving natural waterways from eutrophication—mineral poisoning that causes high die-off of native marine animal species.
- Formaldehyde. Yes, the toxic chemical used to preserve dead bodies is in many laundry products and dish detergents. Exposure, even at low levels, from breathing or smelling formaldehyde increases your risk of cancer according to the CDC. It has also caused spots of dying tissue with regular exposure (necrosis), and an immune response consistent with parasitic infection, an allergic reaction, or cancer. The EPA calls it a class B1 probable carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and says it causes acute toxicity when in contact with skin.
- Chlorine Bleach. It’s not surprising that bleach is a skin and lung irritant, but most people do not know either how common it is in laundry products or exactly how harmful it can be, not to mention, many people add at least an additional cup to every load of whites. The material data safety sheet from a major bleach manufacturer tells us exactly how dangerous this substance is.
Chlorine Bleach is Dangerous? Chlorine bleach causes: severe caustic burns to skin and eyes, blindness, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs that restricts breathing), respiratory failure, and more; use of personal protection equipment is required when using bleach, including a chemical resistant apron, chemical resistant gloves, safety goggles to protect eyes from fumes, and even air respirators!
This belies their cheery ads depicting completely unprotected models happily pouring bleach in the direct vicinity of their toddlers.
- Ammonium Sulfate. This laundry additive is so toxic, it’s manufacturers recommend not using it indoors! In addition to impermeable gloves, and eye and lung protection, the requirements for use of ammonium sulfate include never allowing the chemical or its empty containers to reach drains or waterways, and it is a category 3 oral, skin, and respiratory toxin.
- Dioxane (1,4 Dioxane/ Diethylene Dioxide/ Diethylene Ether/ Dioxan). This laundry additive belongs as far away from your home and family as possible. Its liquid and fumes can spontaneously combust; it’s a known carcinogen (known to cause cancer since 1988); it causes skin, eye, and lung inflammation (some irreversible); it should only be used with protective gear including respirators; and once you are exposed (via inhalation, skin contact, or eye contact including fumes in your eyes), it targets the following organs: kidneys, central nervous system, liver, respiratory system, eyes, and skin.
- Optical Brighteners/ UV Brighteners. Optical brighteners are included in laundry detergents as stain treaters; however, they do not remove stains at all. They coat clothing with a substance that reflects visible light, so you can’t see stains; they are stain-hiders. In addition, it is an eye, skin, and lung irritant; extremely toxic to aquatic life; may spontaneously combust and cannot be in the presence of static electricity—such as that from your clothes dryer; and correct use includes safely discarding any clothing that comes in contact with it!
- Ammonium Quaternary Sanitizers (Quats/ Synthesized Cationic Surfactants). This cleaning additive, commonly known by teenage food-service workers as “quat”, is known to be corrosive, and it should not be in household cleaning products, as it causes eye, skin, and lung damage. There's no reason to include these chemicals in laundry detergent.
- Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (Nonoxynol, NPEs). In addition to many warnings of harm to eyes, skin, and lungs, this laundry detergent ingredient states that prolonged exposure to inhaled fumes or mist may be fatal!
- Fragrance (Unspecified/ Parfum). Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients of their fragrances because of a legal loophole. Adding fragrance to detergent gives a false impression of cleanliness without improving the action of the product in any way. The deception goes much further than most people think—due to generations of indoctrination by unethical marketing schemes, studies show that women in particular choose products based almost solely on fragrance even when the product is clearly demonstrated to be ineffective at cleaning. Artificial fragrances are usually to blame in cases of chemical sensitivity, allergic reactions, and rashes. Pulmonologists almost universally recommend removing the artificial fragrance from commercial products unless specifically sold as perfuming agents, as our lungs are constantly inundated with harmful, unnecessary fumes. Many are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
- Dyes. Not only do dyes add no cleaning power at all, they are another frequent culprit when unexplained allergies or rashes appear. Many are proven carcinogens and almost all are endocrine disruptors.
- Benzyl Acetate. This additive is harmful if inhaled or spilled on skin and targets the kidneys and nervous system.
- Dichlorobenzene (P-Dichlorobenzene/ Benzene). Benzene has an immediate, highly toxic effect on aquatic life that can continue poisoning the watershed for years to come. The fumes cause optical damage, and it is listed with a carcinogen warning for humans.
Safer Alternatives to Dangerous Laundry Detergent Ingredients
Your laundry chore is not going away, so one popular option is to look for better modern detergents—detergents with safer and greener alternatives to the dangerous toxins. Always choose a detergent with plant-based surfactants that is free of phosphates.
Since detergent manufacturers are not required to list all their ingredients, consult an organic watchdog group for a list of what is actually in there before you buy. Some also publish a list of known-good brands you can safely use for clean clothes and a clean conscience. We also make some recommendations of healthy products our family trust and use here.
New and improved clean, green laundry detergent options:
- Refills from a company dedicated to truly safe products (think of the plastic you’re not wasting!). We love MyGreenFills and other laundry brands.
- Homemade soap/ milled laundry soap (Mama Z has an essential oil based laundry detergent recipe as well as a natural stain removing DIY)
- The vinegar thing is REAL, but only if you wash daily and pre-treat stains (just vinegar, no soap or detergent required)
- Safer commercial detergents can be found if you carefully investigate
- Free and clear commercial detergents are NOT green cleaners! They are the same dye and fragrance laden product with added ingredients to HIDE and MASK the fragrance and/ or dye!
Note: Some of these soap-based laundry detergents may leave a residue on clothing if used incorrectly, but it is nothing like the residue from commercial toxic detergents. Any of these methods in combination, or alone will prevent or correct buildup: add washing soda, baking soda, or borax to the wash cycle and add vinegar or citric acid to the rinse cycle.
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Natural Bleach Alternatives
- Lemon juice + sun + time = natural bleach. I love adding lemon essential oil to my natural laundry detergent recipe for essential oil cleaning power.
- Diluted hydrogen peroxide works great, but unlike lemon, do not let it sit in the sun, as it may damage fabric. Keep a squirt bottle handy to spot treat before washing rather than treating an entire load.
- Pre-soak stains in an oxy-boost or enzyme stain remover from MyGreenFills prior to washing.
Safe Fabric Softeners Without Harmful Chemicals
- Baking soda in the wash and vinegar in the rinse is perfect for many clothes.
- Line dry for a fresh scent when the weather permits.
- If machine drying, try wool dryer balls or a couple balls of foil with or without essential oils.
- Essential oils for scent—add some to a spray bottle with water and mist the inside of your dryer or mist the clothes on the line.
- If your water is hard, you may find that washing with rain water or adding a water softener eliminates the need for fabric softener.
- Many people say that washing laundry with saponin plants requires no fabric softener.
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What About Laundry Detergent Chemicals Through History?
Commercial detergent is a modern invention, ergo, there are very viable alternatives from world history. Dangerous chemicals in laundry detergent aren't required to clean clothing.
As the millennial generation reaches adulthood and begins establishing families, many more informed consumers are choosing to let history teach valuable lessons about safer, more natural cleaning methods. Obviously, this is not limited to millennials—previous generations have also gained life experience and many people of all ages are no longer comfortable using harsh cleaners to clean house.
Historical options vary by culture and time period, and many are useful and viable today. So, if I don't want to use dangerous chemicals in laundry detergent at my house, what are my choices? (Also known as, “I just know there will be a mutiny at my house if I stop buying Laundry Pods?)
- Homemade lye soap. Whose grandma didn’t wash with lye soap? Lye soap boasts generations of effectiveness and safety, and it is an excellent stain pretreat product for all other natural laundry methods.
- Sal soap. This is a homemade or commercial lye soap with baking soda or washing soda added during processing. It is a standby for effective cleaning as the added soda softens hard water and magnifies the power of the soap to equal or exceed the cleaning power of detergents.
- Baking soda. Simple, safe, and natural—you can’t beat baking soda for basic, gentle washing needs. It is perfect for baby clothes (but remember to pretreat stains as needed).
- Washing soda. This soda is more caustic and more powerful than baking soda, making it a great product for anyone who wants a safe, simple wash routine, but has doubts about baking soda’s effectiveness. It's one of the ingredients in my natural laundry detergent recipe and it works very well against stains.
- Borax. Another naturally occurring soda, borax has been used for centuries alone or as a booster for other laundry products. It brings a lot of non-bleach whitening power to your wash day without harming colors or darks. Use borax to replace oxy-cleaners or on its own.
- Saponin plants, such as soapnuts, horse chestnuts/ conkers, and soapwort/ bouncing bet. Just soak fresh or dried raw material in water overnight (then strain) for an excellent, effective laundry liquid that will keep for up to a week. Many people gather their soap plants once a year when they’re in season and dehydrate them for use throughout the year.
- Vinegar / lemon water. Both will clean clothes effectively if used daily—the clothes can’t sit more than 24 hours before being washed with this method. However, it’s natural, so harmless that you can literally drink it, and so abundant that you can make it in your own kitchen out of scraps. Note: vinegar washing will not fade dark clothes, but lemon washing may.
- Boiling water. Kills pathogens. Very important for cloth diapers or if anyone in the house has been ill. Boiling also significantly softens clothes by breaking up and washing away residues.
- Fuller’s clay. Widely used to wash clothes and people in ancient Middle Eastern regions. Your children will love the idea of washing with “clean mud”. Great for hair, too. Rinse thoroughly.
- Water. Yes, even plain water all by itself will clean almost anything. Remember from science class that it is the universal solvent? Pretreat stains, especially with this method.
- Floral waters. Cleans as well as water, but with a lingering, light, natural fragrance.
- Airing, sunning, and brushing. Almost every pre-1950s culture practiced this method either between other washing methods or as the sole method.
Note: Many people are returning to use of soapnuts, horse chestnuts, bouncing bet / soapwort, and other saponin-producing plant methods out of concern for the environment and their health. However, please use a product that is relatively native to your area, as the sudden popularity and mass export of soapnuts to the US and other Western countries has made them prohibitively expensive in their native growing areas—an unintended social injustice.
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