7 toxic chemicals in laundry detergent
Many conventional laundry detergents harbor hidden hazards such as carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and skin irritants. The good news? There are safe, eco-friendly options to keep your clothes fresh without toxicity.
That fresh lavender scent from your laundry detergent? Don't bury your nose in it just yet. Studies of the University of Washington reveal mainstream scented detergents use synthetic chemical cocktails for those charming aromas. Many of the chemicals are linked to cancer and other diseases.
The bright packaging and fragrances of commercial detergents are an illusion distracting from their grim reality. Most detergents are packed full of carcinogens, neurotoxins, allergens, and other nefarious ingredients that infiltrate your clothes and home.
Here are some of the main toxic ingredients that detergents contain:
Not only are these chemicals bad for you, but they also wreak havoc on the environment, disrupting fragile ecosystems and contaminating waterways.
Let’s dive into the dangers lurking in your laundry detergent, and some healthier alternatives.
Speaking of alternatives, if you want a convenient, eco-friendly laundry detergent that’s toxin-free, buy our laundry strips and say goodbye to harsh chemicals.
Surfactants (LAS, APEs)
Surfactants give detergents their sudsing ability and grease-cutting power. Detergents contain surfactants because they lower the water's surface tension, helping it penetrate fabrics to lift away oils, dirt and stains. Here’s the dark side of surfactant use:
- Common synthetic surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and linear alkylbenzene sulfonates (LAS) can cause skin irritation, rashes, and eczema. SLES may also cause organ toxicity and reproductive issues when ingested in high doses over time according to animal studies.
- Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs) break down into hormone-disrupting alkylphenols that are toxic to aquatic life and can impact development and reproduction in wildlife and humans.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) resist biodegrading and persist in the environment. They've been shown to harm algae growth and be toxic to small aquatic organisms.
- When washed down drains, these surfactants discharge into waterways where they can accumulate up the food chain. They also bind to sediments, impacting organisms living on rivers, lakes, and ocean beds.
Fortunately, you have healthier options. Our breakdown of the best laundry detergents for sensitive skin is a great place to start your research.
Detergents contain phosphates to dissolve mineral deposits and suspend dirt in water so it can be removed from fabrics. Phosphates give detergents cleaning power, but they are terrible for ecosystems.
Here's what you should know about these chemicals:
- Common phosphate additives include sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) and tetrasodium pyrophosphate (TSPP). Even small amounts of phosphates from detergents can throw aquatic ecosystems out of balance.
- Phosphates fertilize algae growth, leading to excessive algae blooms. When algae die, bacteria feed on it and deplete oxygen levels in a process called eutrophication. This suffocates fish and other aquatic life.
- One study found laundry detergent is responsible for up to 30% of the phosphate contamination in waterways.
- Phosphates cannot be fully removed by standard wastewater treatment.
- Some research links high phosphate exposure to increased heart and kidney problems in humans.
Detergents contain optical brighteners because they attach to fabrics and absorb ultraviolet light, re-emitting it as a visible blue glow that makes clothes appear brighter and conceal stains.
They do make clothes look cleaner, but some concerning health and environmental issues are coming to light. Here's what's going on with these detergent additives:
- Common optical brighteners include stilbene derivatives like diamino stilbene. With prolonged exposure, some brighteners are linked to eye irritation and allergic reactions in humans.
- Several optical brightener compounds are toxic to fish and other organisms, especially in higher concentrations. They can bioaccumulate aquatic food chains and persist in the environment.
- One study tested for optical brighteners in surface waters and effluents from wastewater treatment plants across the state of Minnesota. Optical brighteners were detected in all surface water samples and 91-100% of wastewater effluent samples were tested.
- Exposure over time may also increase photo-oxidative stress, which can accelerate aging.
Detergents contain synthetic fragrances to give clothes a pleasant aroma. Popular scents include lavender, citrus, spring floral blends, and many others.
Artificial fragrances make laundry smell nice, but some worrying health issues are coming to light. Here's what's going on with these masking agents:
- Many synthetic fragrance chemicals are derived from petroleum. Common examples such as phthalates and synthetic musks can act as endocrine disruptors and have been linked to lung damage, allergies, and headaches.
- Studies show synthetic musks such as galaxolide and tonalide accumulate in the blood, breast milk, aquatic life, and even household dust. Their environmental persistence and toxicity spell bad news for your household health over the long haul.
- Fragrance formulations are protected proprietary blends, so they rarely disclose specific ingredients. This makes it impossible to avoid problematic chemicals and compounds of concern.
- Exposure to synthetic fragrances has been associated with increased incidence of asthma, eczema, and respiratory issues. Vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly may be most impacted.
Detergents contain preservatives such as parabens and formaldehyde-releasers to prevent microbial growth. But these can generate 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct.
Here’s why you should worry about 1,4-dioxane:
- 1,4-dioxane is classified as a probable human carcinogen and is toxic even at very low levels. Studies link it to liver and kidney damage with prolonged exposure.
- It's not intentionally added to products but testing has found concerning levels of 1,4-dioxane contamination present in many laundry detergents, especially "free and clear" versions.
- 1,4-dioxane is also extremely mobile and persistent in the environment. It readily leaches into groundwater from landfills and sewage sludge and is very slow to degrade naturally.
- The EPA has set a health advisory limit of 0.35 μg/L for 1,4-dioxane in drinking water, but experts argue this level still poses long-term risks of cancer, especially with bioaccumulation.
Detergents contain dyes to give a vibrant color to the liquid, make it look appealing, and help with branding and marketing. Here’s why dyes are bad:
- Common synthetic dye ingredients include triphenylmethane dyes, nitro dyes, and azo dyes. These petroleum-derived compounds can be toxic if ingested, causing organ stress and irritation.
- Certain azo dyes break down into carcinogenic compounds like benzidine. Exposure is linked to hypersensitivity and asthma attacks in sensitive individuals.
- Dyes are resistant to biodegrading and can persist in wastewater, accumulating in the environment and marine life over time through bioconcentration up the food chain.
- Discharges of dye-containing detergent effluent have been shown to be toxic to organisms like daphnia and fish in lab studies. Effects include mortality, impaired reproduction, and inhibited growth.
Bleach is added to detergents as a disinfectant to kill germs and brighten clothes. It disinfects but creates concerning byproducts. Here's what you should know:
- The active ingredient in bleach is sodium hypochlorite. When sodium hypochlorite breaks down, it creates organochlorines like chloroform and carbon tetrachloride as byproducts. These compounds are toxic and persist in the environment.
- Short-term bleach exposure irritates the eyes, skin, and airways. Long-term exposure is linked to impaired thyroid function and adverse reproductive effects in lab animal studies.
- Chlorinated byproducts formed when bleach reacts with organic matter in wastewater can be even more toxic than the original bleach. They resist biodegrading and bioaccumulate in wildlife and humans.
- The carcinogenic potential of chlorinated organics is debated but concerning. Experts recommend minimizing exposure as a precaution, especially for children.
The cumulative impact of these harmful toxins on human health and the environment is troubling. The solution lies in plant-based detergents focused on biodegradable ingredients free of toxic baggage.
Choosing gentler options and using only the minimal effective amount protects you, vulnerable populations, wildlife, and critical waterways. Think about that!
Safer laundry detergent alternatives
The good news is there are plenty of non-toxic, eco-friendly laundry detergent options to replace hazardous conventional formulas. By being a mindful shopper and reading ingredients lists, you can easily find effective plant-based detergents without all the harmful chemicals.
Or get back to basics and whip up your tailored DIY laundry detergent using natural ingredients like Castile soap and essential oils. You can keep clothes fresh and clean without subjecting your family or the environment to a chemical overload.
Let's explore some healthier, sustainable alternatives for your laundry routine.
- Plant-based detergents
- Fragrance-free formulas
- DIY laundry soap
Plant-derived ingredients like saponins from tree bark, plant oils, and fruit enzymes provide cleaning power without harsh chemicals. Brands like Seventh Generation, Meyer's Clean Day, and ECOS utilize coconut oil, lemon peel extract, and plant sugars as safer alternatives to synthetic compounds.
Smart Sheep detergent strips are also plant-based, using high-grade ingredients such as plantago ovata seed extract, and sodium carbonate to nourish clothes naturally. Our eco-friendly dissolvable strips mean no plastic waste!
“Most laundry detergents that leave your clothes smelling like a lavender garden or whatever they are trying to sell you on, are actually leaving a toxic chemical residue on your clothes. Which then absorbs into your skin as you wear them. I really enjoy this product and love knowing I am cleaning my clothes in a non-harmful substance.”—Kaylin W., Amazon purchaser (5 stars)
“Fragrance is always a reason for me to put a product back on the shelf and never touch it again. All of my items are unscented or fragrance free…These strips are a lifesaver, easy compact packaging slips in anywhere and no mess no spills no ruined nothing. Its also amazing for handwashing those more delicate items, works in hot water, cold water, tap water. I love these!!”—Meelo, Amazon purchaser (5 stars)
Perfumed detergents contain potentially hundreds of undisclosed fragrance chemicals. Opt for fragrance-free to avoid breathing in these volatile compounds and prevent skin reactions.
Brands like Smart Sheep, All, Tide Free & Gentle, and Arm & Hammer Essentials offer effective cleaning without added perfumes.
DIY laundry soap
Make your own DIY laundry detergent to control exactly what ingredients you use and avoid any potentially harmful additives. Homemade soap costs a fraction of store-bought too. And the best thing is you can use household products you may have at home.
Basic DIY soap contains just three key ingredients—Castile soap, washing soda, and borax. Castile soap serves as the cleaning base while washing soda lifts stains and borax brightens clothes. Add essential oils to your DIY laundry detergent to get a light fragrance.
Here is an easy beginner recipe:
- 1 bar Castile soap, grated
- 1 cup washing soda
- 1/2 cup borax
- 15-20 drops essential oil (optional)
Grate the bar Castile soap into flakes then mix with washing soda and borax. Stir in essential oil for scent if desired. Use 2 tablespoons per load.
The process takes just a few minutes and makes enough to last for months. You can also customize your homemade soap by experimenting with different oils for stain-fighting or skin-softening capabilities. DIY is an economical, non-toxic solution!
Changing laundry habits to reduce chemical exposure
Small changes to your laundry routine can significantly decrease contact with toxic detergent ingredients:
- Wash in cold water. Use the cold water setting whenever possible. Hot water causes more sudsing which increases exposure to chemicals through skin and inhalation. It also releases more VOCs into the air.
- Use less detergent. Stick to the recommended amount of detergent per load. More does not mean better cleaning. Excess detergent releases more toxins and is harder to rinse away.
- Line dry when possible. Hang drying allows clothes to ventilate toxic residues rather than circulating in dryer heat. It also prevents the release of chemicals through dryer vents.
- Buy EWG-verified brands. Check labels for certification by the Environmental Working Group, which indicates a non-toxic formula. EWG scientists rigorously evaluate ingredients.
- Wash new clothes first. New clothing often has sizing chemicals and excess dye. Wash before wearing to avoid direct skin contact.
Being mindful about how you use laundry products makes a big difference. And always choose natural laundry detergents!
Follow these steps for cleaner, chemical-free washing. Small changes add up to better health!
Laundry detergent FAQ
Are there dangerous chemicals in laundry detergent?
Common ingredients in detergents include carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, and compounds that are toxic to aquatic organisms. Artificial fragrances, preservatives, surfactants, and chlorine bleach are some toxic chemicals found in detergents.
What harmful toxins should be avoided in laundry detergent?
Avoid laundry detergents containing artificial fragrances, preservatives such as 1,4-dioxane, carcinogens such as benzene, chlorine bleach, phosphates, synthetic dyes, fabric brighteners, and harsh surfactants such as LAS. These compounds negatively impact health and the environment.
What is the main chemical in laundry products?
Surfactants are the main chemical ingredient in most laundry products. Harsh surfactants like LAS work by emulsifying oils and suspending soils. However, they can irritate skin, disrupt aquatic life, and persist in the environment after washing clothes.
How do you know if laundry detergent is toxic?
Read ingredient lists carefully and research any unrecognizable chemical names. Avoid detergents with artificial fragrances, preservatives, chlorine bleach, or "whiteners" which contain harsh toxins. Certifications like EWG Verified or USDA Organic indicate non-toxic formulas.
Is laundry detergent toxic after washing?
Yes, most mainstream laundry detergents leave chemical residues in clothes that remain even after washing. These residues get released over time through direct contact with skin or circulation in dryer heat, leading to ongoing exposure.
Why did New York ban laundry detergent?
In 2022, New York banned laundry detergents containing the toxic chemical 1,4-dioxane, which is a byproduct of manufacturing and contaminates waterways. This move aimed to protect public health and the environment from exposure to this likely carcinogen.
Is regular laundry detergent bad for you?
Most conventional laundry detergents contain many concerning ingredients linked to health issues. Synthetic fragrances, preservatives, surfactants, and chlorine bleach are not good for sensitive skin and can cause respiratory problems, hormone disruption, and cancer risk.
Luckily you have the option to buy Smart Sheep detergent strips! Our plastic-free detergent strips are a more sustainable option than traditional detergents because they are made with fewer chemicals and packaging materials. They dissolve completely in water, leaving no microplastics behind and minimizing the environmental impact.
What is the safest laundry detergent?
Plant-based, fragrance-free detergents certified by reputable bodies such as the EPA Safer Choice or EWG are the safest options. Laundry detergent brands such as Seventh Generation, Molly's Suds, and Smart Sheep avoid toxic chemicals and use natural, non-irritating ingredients.
Do personal care products contain harmful chemicals?
Many conventional personal care products such as shampoos, lotions, makeup, and cleaning supplies contain chemicals that can negatively impact human health and the environment. Human skin is the body's largest organ and is highly impacted by the things we put on it.
Some potentially harmful ingredients to watch out for in personal care products include:
- Parabens. Used as preservatives, certain parabens have been linked to hormone disruption and reproductive toxicity.
- Phthalates. Added to fragrances, phthalates are associated with developmental and reproductive harm.
- Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS). A detergent that can be a skin irritant and disrupt natural oil balance.
- Formaldehyde. Used in some hair straightening and smoothing treatments, formaldehyde is listed as a carcinogen warning.
- Oxybenzone. An ingredient in some sunscreens that can disrupt hormones and damage coral reefs.
- Triclosan. An antimicrobial chemical is added to soaps and toothpastes that is toxic to aquatic life.
- Synthetic fragrances. Can contain hundreds of undisclosed chemicals linked to allergies, asthma, and other health issues.
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