It’s an unfortunate fact that our bodies are on “toxic overload” today.
We’re being bombarded with toxins from the cosmetic and personal care products we feed our bodies via our skin, from the food we feed our bodies via our mouths, and from the very air we breathe.
Even for those in peak health it’s a problem, because the human body may not be equipped to handle the volume of toxins it is facing today.
And chances are high the very clothes you wear day and night are a significant part of the problem.
In large part, that’s because “typical” laundry products can be loaded with chemicals that may harm health in a variety of ways.
Of course, you wouldn’t know this from watching advertisements for those laundry products. Those ads want to sway you into equating their products with clean, fresh-smelling clothing — they don’t want to draw any attention to what may be hiding in their formulas.
Therefore, I’ll draw your attention to that important knowledge here, along with what to look for to choose better options.
Why Laundry Products Are a Problem
More and more people are becoming aware of just how many toxins are hiding out in their homes, but laundry detergent is one product that often gets overlooked.
Furthermore, some companies are “greenwashing” consumers — which essentially means fooling them — by using phrases on their labels that sound health-conscious. When you turn the product around and read the ingredient label, however, they can be anything but health-conscious.
Also, much of the attention surrounding toxic laundry products has focused on dryer sheets. There’s good reason for this, since they may be toxic to your skin and lungs. But don’t let that draw attention away from what you use to wash your clothing — detergent.
In brief, one obvious reason you want to avoid potentially toxic laundry detergent is because your clothes contact your skin all day, and for many people, all night, too (as do the sheets and other bedding you wash). The chemicals in detergents are not magically all washed away in the rinse cycle — many can and do remain in the clothing. And make no mistake, your skin is a prominent doorway into your body, meaning you can literally be consuming many of the chemicals where they may be absorbed into your bloodstream.
Furthermore, even while you are washing clothes using these typical detergents, the chemicals can off-gas into the air you breathe and land on surfaces, etc.
Who Is Most at Risk?
It should be clear that anyone who wears clothing (which includes everyone, or nearly everyone!) may be at risk for health problems from toxic laundry detergent.
However, those who usually suffer the most from immediate effects are children, the elderly, and anyone with sensitive skin. These groups tend to have more reactive skin and lower immune function, which makes them particularly vulnerable to any type of chemical.
Another frequently overlooked group is pets.
Dogs, cats, and other animals are often in contact with bedding that has been washed, blankets, the clothing of the people around them, etc. (They also breathe the air inside homes where the chemicals can off-gas, and they move about and rest on surfaces where the chemicals can reside.)
In short, it’s possible that unexplained allergies in your pets could come from laundry products — just like they can for humans.
These may be the most at-risk groups.
BUT it’s important to keep in mind that the toxins in laundry detergent may cause harm to anyone.
And, again, considering how we are bombarded with toxins from seemingly “every angle” today — and considering that, like switching your cosmetics to safer choices, this is a relatively easy fix — it just makes sense for everyone to consider making healthier choices in this area!
Top Toxins to Avoid in Laundry Detergent
Synthetic fragrances are in countless household products and represent some of the worst chemicals you can be exposed to. Unfortunately, they are very common in laundry products, including detergent.
Fragrance chemicals frequently cause allergic reactions. Symptoms may include rashes, respiratory issues, and even migraines and sinus problems. Some fragrance chemicals are also suspected or known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
Companies are not required to disclose fragrance ingredients, but the word “fragrance,” “parfum,” or a similar term does have to appear on the label. You can usually tell a detergent contains fragrance even without reading the label because scent terms are part of the marketing game (think words like “fresh,” “clean,” or “breeze”).
However, do be aware that even products labeled “unscented” may still contain fragrance to mask the scent of other chemicals. Always read the label to be sure.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a commonly used chemical in laundry detergent. It’s classified as a surfactant, which means it helps remove dirt and other debris from clothing. It also adds foaming action to detergents, soaps, etc.
Be aware that SLS can be naturally derived, so you may find it even in “green” detergents. Also, lookout for a closely related chemical- sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). It has similar dangers and is often contaminated with other toxic chemicals (more on that next)
1,4 dioxane is a nasty chemical that you definitely don’t want in your home. It’s classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen and can also cause skin, lung, kidney, and liver issues. It easily penetrates the skin and is even suspected of causing birth defects.
An added problem with 1,4 dioxane is that you’ll never see it on the label. This chemical is a contaminant that is produced during a manufacturing process known as ethoxylation. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is frequently ethoxylated and contaminated with 1,4 dioxane (yet another reason to avoid this ingredient).
USDA Certified Organic standards do not allow ethoxylation, so choosing organic products is the best way to avoid 1,4 dioxane.
Benzene ingredients go by a few names, including benzyl acetate and dichlorobenzene. The warnings for benzyl acetate include skin irritation, respiratory distress, and effects on the kidneys. Dichlorobenzene is also an irritant, very toxic to aquatic life, and known to cause cancer.
Another downside is that benzene is a petroleum derivative- something you really don’t want in contact with your skin.
Formaldehyde is known to be a dangerous chemical, carcinogen, and skin irritant. Yet, you’d be surprised to learn how many common household products it’s in — including many laundry detergents.
Some companies do still add formaldehyde to their products, but it is most often hidden (meaning you won’t see it on the label).
Quaternium-15 is a common preservative that releases small amounts of formaldehyde over time. Other preservatives, like DMDM hydantoin and any with “urea” in the name, can also release formaldehyde.
Fragrance is another hiding spot for formaldehyde. It can be added in small amounts to fragrance formulas (and manufacturers don’t have to disclose it), or it can be produced when certain fragrance chemicals react with ozone.
Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)
Besides being tricky to pronounce, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are another toxic group of chemicals often found in laundry detergent. They are considered endocrine disruptors and also breakdown into an even more problematic chemical: nonylphenol (NP).
NP is known to accumulate in the environment and has been found in human breast milk. It’s very toxic to aquatic wildlife and has shown reproductive and developmental effects in lab studies.
Some companies have voluntarily phased out NPES, but they aren’t officially banned, so you still need to be on the lookout.
Bleach has become practically a staple laundry product. There’s no doubt that it can get white clothing whiter, but it’s also a very harsh chemical with toxic effects.
Acute exposure to bleach can cause severe caustic burns, blindness, fluid in the lungs, and respiratory failure. In fact, chlorine bleach is considered a hazardous chemical in its original state.
Even less significant exposure has been linked to health problems. For example, some research indicates that “passive exposure” to bleach is linked to higher rates of respiratory illness and infection in children. Using it to do laundry can also release toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are harmful to breathe in.
Have you ever wondered how laundry detergents make your clothes look whiter, brighter, and stainless?
One secret is optical brighteners — also known as optical brightening agents (OBAs) or UV brighteners.
Surprisingly, these chemicals don’t actually whiten or brighten clothing at all. What they really do is coat your clothing with a substance that absorbs UV and violet light rays and reemits them in the blue region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
This technical explanation for how optical brighteners work translates to one basic thing: They trick your eyes into thinking clothes are whiter and brighter — without doing a thing to truly remove stains.
Unfortunately, besides creating an optical illusion, optical brighteners may cause skin irritation and “long-lasting harmful effects to aquatic life.” They are basically chemicals with no useful effect that can potentially harm your health.
Ammonium Sulfates and Other Surfactants
We’ve already discussed the problematic surfactants SLS and SLES, but there are more to watch out for. Ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES) and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) are two examples of synthetic, petroleum-based surfactants.
Of course, we don’t want to consume petroleum products by mouth, and so, because the skin consumes, too, it makes sense to keep petroleum products away from skin.
But ALES can also cause eye and skin irritation and may be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane (the suspected carcinogen).
Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is another petroleum-based chemical that’s commonly used as a surfactant and in a range of other products. It’s yet another substance that can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane and can also trigger anaphylaxis.
Quats is short for quaternary ammonium compounds — chemicals frequently added to cleaning products for their disinfectant properties. They can also be used as surfactants, which is why they are found in certain laundry detergents.
As potentially toxic chemicals, quats can cause eye and skin irritation and may trigger allergies or respiratory problems. They also may play a role in skin sensitivity, which can develop over time as your skin is consistently exposed to chemicals.
Some organizations are calling for quaternary ammonium products to especially be discontinued around children. This is because they have been found to “disrupt important cellular pathways,” which can have a big effect on small, developing bodies.
It may seem strange that dyes are added to some laundry detergents. After all, detergents are meant to clean clothing, so why would synthetic colors be added?
There’s really no great answer to this question, but adding dye is unfortunately a common practice. Sometimes, it’s just done to make the product look more appealing. Other companies may add a small amount of blue tint to their detergent to make clothes look brighter after washing (somewhat similar to optical brighteners).
As with fragrance, dyes may not be good news for sensitive skin. They can cause irritation and allergic reactions and don’t even get your clothes clean in the process!
There are other potentially serious potential dangers of food dyes, including a link to ADHD, tumor growth, asthma, and behavioral changes. There are likely similar downsides to dyes in household products, including detergent.
Choosing a Better Detergent: What to Look For
To avoid petroleum-based chemicals and synthetic ingredients, choosing plant-based alternatives is important. Unfortunately, it will require some work on your part because you can’t believe everything companies advertise.
There isn’t a strict definition of “plant-based,” so you’ll need to do some label-reading to make sure the ingredients in a specific detergent are really natural. Also, keep in mind that SLS and SLES can be considered naturally-derived ingredients and show up even in green and plant-based laundry detergents.
Use the EWG database as needed to check up on ingredients.
Zero Fragrance OR Naturally Scented
If you have sensitive skin, it’s almost always best to go with unscented laundry detergent. Again, always read the label to make sure “fragrance” or “parfum” isn’t listed. They can show up as scent-maskers even in supposedly unscented products.
A second option is to choose a naturally scented detergent. Don’t fall for a product that has the vague words “natural fragrance.” Instead, make sure the company lists the ingredients used in their scent. They should be pure essential oils, plant extracts, or something similar.
Safe for Humans and the Environment
While you always want to scan labels to avoid ingredients toxic to humans, don’t forget about the environment! Chemicals in laundry detergents are very likely to end up in our waterways — both after consumer use and during the manufacturing product.
Avoiding the chemicals listed in this article automatically helps out the environment. But you can also look for laundry detergent brands that go an extra step and reduce waste involved with their products, have recyclable options, etc.
Best Plant-Based Laundry Soap: Truly Free
If you are in the market for a truly natural, completely non-toxic laundry detergent, look into Laundry Wash by Truly Free (formerly MyGreenFills).
This unique laundry detergent is free of common toxic chemicals. This means no SLS, formaldehyde, dyes, 1,4 dioxane, optical brighteners, or any other questionable ingredients.
Instead, the Laundry Wash uses a proprietary Quadrasalt Formula that is plant-based and actually gets rid of stains (no hiding them with optical illusions). You can choose the detergent that’s scented with a calming blend of 100% natural essential oils or opt for the unscented version.
On top of all this, the laundry detergent comes in refill packets that can be added to your original jug. This revolutionary system has already saved an estimated 2,000,000 jugs from the landfill and our oceans!
Read more about Laundry Wash by Truly Free here (and claim 300 free loads) for plant-based, non-toxic laundry care.