The soap we use to clean our laundry can be just as important as the soap we use to wash our bodies. Residue is left on the clothing and when we wear it all day it is transferred to our skin. This is especially important for cloth diapers. They are against your baby’s most sensitive areas and get wet. We also don’t want to forget where the soap goes once it is rinsed out of the clothes and flushed through the pipes. The FDA does not regulate the chemicals used in laundry cleaning products and most of them are very toxic. There are thousands of chemicals that are put on the shelf so it can be hard to avoid the bad ones if you are not informed. In this article I will break down the toxic chemicals to avoid and give you tips on finding a safe, healthy alternative. You will be able to save money, keep your family safe and become environmentally friendly in the process.
What do most companies use to make laundry detergent? You certainly won’t get an answer by looking at the bottle. It’s scary that companies aren’t even required to list them! I can promise you that most commercial laundry products contain one or more of these toxic chemicals:
(Don’t worry though; you don’t need to memorize all of these since they don’t even list them on the products. Just know that these chemicals are out there and most of them are in your cleaning supplies.)
Linear alkyl benzene sulfonates or linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS) also Alkyl benzene sulfonates (ABS) – Now try to say that 3 times fast… These are a class of synthetic surfactants*. LAS is more commonly used then ABS because it biodegrades a bit faster, although it is still quite slow. It is considered low to moderate toxicity but remember it is synthetic. During the manufacturing process carcinogens (cancer causing) and reproductive toxins, such as benzene, are released into the environment.
*Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants. (3)
Phenols (Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols and nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate or nonyl phenol) – Probably one of the most toxic on this list and are considered synthetic surfactants. “These are chemicals that are one or more of the following: highly acutely toxic, cholinesterase inhibitor*, known/probable carcinogen, known groundwater pollutant and/or know reproductive or developmental toxicant.” (4) Phenols are also found in pesticides! Eww. These chemicals, similar to phthalates, are hormone disruptors because they activate estrogen receptors in cells. In experiments they have been found to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and cause sex changes in male fish. You may recognize nonoxynol-9 which is a member of this family of chemicals. Nonoxynol-9 is used as a common spermicide, proving how highly toxic they really are.
* “Cholinesterase (ko-li-nes-ter-ace) is one of many important enzymes needed for the proper functioning of the nervous systems of humans, other vertebrates, and insects. Certain chemical classes of pesticides, such as organophosphates (OPs) and carbamates (CMs) work against undesirable bugs by interfering with, or ‘inhibiting’ cholinesterase. While the effects of cholinesterase inhibiting products are intended for insect pests, these chemicals can also be poisonous, or toxic, to humans in some situations.”(5)
Artificial Fragrances or even just “Fragrances”– These are also synthetic and produced from petroleum. They do not degrade in the environment. “Artificial fragrances are 95% derived from petrochemicals. The word “fragrance” listed on a label can indicate that as many as 600 separate chemicals have been used in the formula.”(6) Most of them contain phthalates, a plasticizer, which makes the smell last longer and remain potent. Remember these will stay on the clothing giving them that “freshly cleaned smell” which isn’t a good thing. It can cause skin irritation and most of the chemicals are carcinogenic. Please see my article on phthalates for more information.
Phosphates– Although they are non-irritating and non-toxic, they have been banned. Phosphates are actually a key nutrient in ecosystems. They are used to soften water and increase the effectiveness of detergents. They are also a deflocculating agent, meaning they prevent dirt from settling back onto clothes. The problem is they can very easily unbalance an ecosystem. Once disposed of, phosphates can feed algae blooms, which can decrease the amount of oxygen in the water for fish.
Ethylenediaminetetraacetate (EDTA) – This is a class of phosphate alternative compounds that are used to soften water (reduce calcium and magnesium). They are not readily biodegradable and when introduced into the environment can easily be re-circulated into the food chain. “It has been found to be both cytotoxic and weekly genotoxic in laboratory animals. Oral exposures have been noted to cause reproductive and developmental effects.” (3)
Petroleum distillates (also napthas) – A group of chemicals obtained from the petroleum refining process. They are obviously synthetic and are similar to benzene because they are both hydro-carbon based chemicals. They are skin irritants and bad for the environment. That means avoid Fels Naptha soap if you plan to make your own laundry detergent.
Optical Brighteners– These are used to make clothes appear whiter and brighter. These microscopic florescent particles create an optical illusion that tricks the eye into thinking clothes are cleaner. They can cause an allergic reaction and when rubbed of clothing onto the skin can become phototoxic (which means the chemicals become toxic when exposed to light, giving you a rash). Optical brighteners are not readily biodegradable and are poisonous to aquatic life. They really don’t serve a purpose in cleaning clothes.
Sodium hypochlorite– This is also known as bleach. This toxic chemical causes the most household poisonings in the U.S. It can be fatal to inhale. This powerful irritant is damaging to your skin and the environment. It breaks down very slowly.” A recent European study indicated that sodium hypochlorite and organic chemicals (e.g., surfactants, fragrances) contained in several household cleaning products can react to generate chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs).”(3) When chlorine is added to drinking water it can oxidize organic contaminates, producing the carcinogen trihalomethanes (also called haloforms).
::Phew:: That’s a lot of nasty stuff to look out for. I bet there are people sitting in labs right now creating more of these toxic chemicals. To me, they all seem so pointless when it is obvious we can make do without them. With the rise of green products, some companies have come up with better solutions for cleaning. Although there are still some ingredients I don’t agree with 100% (I am very picky) I would use them over Tide any day.
How do I find a safe laundry detergent?
Go to EWG.org/guides. You will be able to see all the ingredients even if they aren’t listed on the bottle! More natural products can be quite expensive though and I understand trying to work with a low-budget. So for all the ambitious “do-it-yourselfers” (DIY), make your own laundry detergent. You can spend less than $5 for over 120 loads of laundry and it will be free of toxic chemicals!
P.S. Remember: Consumers have all the power. Buy products that are safe and stop supporting companies that only care about about the money.