What’s in the suds that clean your duds?
Today, shoppers need to be savvier than ever if they wish to keep their food, personal care products, and cleaning products free of harmful chemicals. Laundry detergents are no exception. In fact, with the myriad of industrial toxins found in conventional laundry products, it’s a great place to begin cutting the chemicals from your life.
With misleading eco-friendly sounding names like “Babyganics,” “Green Works,” or “Puracy Natural Laundry Detergent”—and innocuous sounding scents such as “Hawaiian Aloha”—it’s alarming to discover that even safe-sounding laundry detergents can be loaded with toxic ingredients. A study by the Environmental Working Group evaluating 398 laundry detergents found 150 products—many declaring their formulas to be “clean and clear,” “naturally derived,” or “environmentally friendly”—to contain dangerous chemicals, earning them an F-rating based on unhealthy ingredients. Common laundry detergent chemicals may have negative health effects ranging from allergies and skin irritation to reproductive harm and possibly even cancer.
Enticing product scent descriptions like “summer splash,” “mango tango,” or “outdoor sunshine” may make your clothes smell sweet, but unfortunately, they also leave a bitter aftertaste. Even products targeted for newborns contain preservatives, colors, fragrances, and other toxic ingredients that may harm our bodies and the environment. Dreft’s It’s a Girl hypoallergenic detergent, for example, contains a chemical called ethanolamine, which can negatively affect the developmental, endocrine, reproductive, and respiratory systems and may also cause nervous system issues, skin irritation, allergies, and other damage.
It’s important to be an informed consumer when it comes to your laundry product choices.
Knowledge is Power
Read the ingredient label! Keep in mind when reading ingredient lists that manufacturers aren’t required to list everything a product contains—and many don’t, choosing instead to blanket the specific chemicals used with a general term like “fragrance.” A University of Washington study on toxic chemicals in popular scented laundry products revealed dozens of chemicals—including those identified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws—missing from the list of ingredients. Thus, learning to read between the lines is crucial to avoiding unwanted exposure to chemicals. If you want to avoid the “fragrance” ingredient issue, choose laundry detergent formulas that are scent-free.
Arming yourself with the following “laundry list” of synthetic ingredients will also help you to steer clear of any nasty chemicals when choosing clothes-cleaning products.
Laundry List of Items to Avoid
- 1,4-Dioxane: Carcinogen.
- 4-Methylimidazole: Carcinogen.
- Alcohol Ethoxylates: Potential for chronic aquatic toxicity, cancer, and developmental/endocrine/ reproductive effects.
- Bleach: A known skin, eye, and lung irritant, bleach can form toxic organic compounds linked with respiratory issues or liver and kidney damage when mixed with wastewater.
- Boric Acid: Evidence of endocrine disruption, developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects.
- Brighteners: Chemicals that remain on clothes to enhance brightness, including naphthotriazolystilbenes (potential developmental and reproductive effects) benzoxazolyl, and diaminostilbene disulfonate.
- Cleaning Agents (Surfactants): A blanket term for multiple chemicals that may include quaternium-15 (releases formaldehyde), diethanolamine (may cause skin and eye irritation as well as liver problems), nonylphenol ethoxylate/NPE (a nerve toxin, skin irritant, potential hormone disruptor, and toxin to aquatic life), linear alkylbenzene sulfonates/LAS (may cause skin and eye irritation, toxic to aquatic life, and a known carcinogen), and petroleum distillates (linked to cancer and lung damage) potential for chronic aquatic toxicity, cancer, and developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects.
- Diethylene Glycol: Evidence of cancer, developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, general systemic/organ effects, found in 80 products.
- Ethanolamine: Evidence of skin irritation, allergies, and damage; respiratory effects; general systemic/organ effects.
- Ethylene Oxide: May cause genetic defects, cancer, reproductive toxicity in females.
- Formaldehyde: Evidence of cancer; general systemic/organ effects, asthma, respiratory, skin damage, allergies, and irritation.
- Fragrance: Often comprised of a “proprietary” blend of chemicals not required to be listed individually due to trade protection. May be hormone-disrupting.
- Furan: May cause cancer, damage to DNA, skin irritation/allergies/damage, genetic defects, organ damage.
- Imidazole, 2-Methyl: Carcinogen.
- Methylisothiazolinone: Evidence of acute aquatic toxicity, skin irritation/allergies/damage.
- Nonionic Surfactants: Nervous system effects, cancer, developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, respiratory effects, damage to DNA, digestive system effects, skin irritation/allergies/ damage, damage to vision, asthma/respiratory issues.
- Sodium Borate: Developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects, acute aquatic toxicity, may damage fertility or the unborn child.
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate: An irritant that may damage DNA and respiratory effects.
- Solubilizing Agent: Includes ethylene oxide; potential for cancer, developmental/endocrine/ reproductive effects, damage to DNA, genetic defects.
- Stabilizers: Linked with eye and lung irritation, and dermatitis.
What’s the Safest Bet?
The manufacturers of the natural, eco-friendly laundry detergents you’ll find at your local health food store will often voluntarily provide an ingredient list. These formulas are also more frequently made from plant-derived ingredients and have fewer chemicals than the “green” version of conventional brands found at your local super market. There’s simply more transparency with brands that only make environmentally responsible laundry detergents. If you’re worried about performance, don’t be. You can get your clothes clean even without the chemicals. That said, you might need to try a few natural brands before you find one that performs the best for you.
Win with DIY
For consumers facing health issues or chemical sensitivities, eliminating chemicals is critically important. Consider making your own detergent from nontoxic ingredients like washing soda, borax, and unscented soap—countless recipes are available online.
Online resources like the Environmental Working Group (EWG.org) also offer guides to help you find safer products sans harsh chemicals. Keep it simple by using natural ingredients like vinegar instead of fabric softener or washing soda. Baking soda and water is another way to remove stains to avoid potential harm from petrochemicals. Baking soda can be used to naturally brighten colors, and dryer balls, which are generally safe, can replace chemically laden dryer sheets to reduce static cling. Finding safer products, recipes, and ideas for natural cleaning hacks is often as easy as turning on the computer in today’s information age.
So check the ingredients in your laundry detergent, ditch the dirty chemicals, and safeguard your health by ensuring your laundry formulas are truly clean!