Laundry detergent can be a lot like a rich, decadent dessert. You can smell it from down the street and it’s baked to absolute perfection. But, deep down inside, you know that those refined ingredients and cups of sugar can have both short-and-long-term effects on your health. In the same way, just because laundry detergent can smell lemony fresh and make your clothes snow-white clean, does not mean they are necessarily safe.
People – yourself included – want safe, effective, cost-efficient ways to clean their clothes. Yet the very laundry detergent brands that promise all those things are the same ones that pose both environmental and health risks. Chemicals in laundry detergent can affect you directly, causing skin reactions like contact dermatitis, or indirectly through drinking water and chemicals that aren’t quick to degrade.
The Worst Ingredients Found in Laundry Detergent
In the past, we have said that if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t buy the product. Well, these are some of those ingredients. By no means is this an exhaustive list, however, if you see any of these chemicals staring back at you from the laundry detergent label, you may want to stay away from it after reading this…
1) Nonylphenols and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates
Also referred to as NE/NPEs, manufacturers use these detergent-like chemicals in latex paints and lawn care and automotive products. What’s worse, nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates also exist in personal hygiene products and consumer laundry detergents. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there is evidence that NPEs are linked to cancer, DNA damage, skin allergies and irritation, asthma and respiratory problems, and hormone disruption. (1,2)
“NP has been detected in human breast milk, blood, and urine and is associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents,” says the Environmental Protection Agency. (1)
This toxin is a known (possible human) carcinogen, yet it remains one of the most widespread chemicals in personal hygiene products and laundry detergent. 1,4-dioxane is actually created in a process – ironically – that is supposed to reduce skin irritation risk in petroleum-based ingredients. Although the EWG describes its cause for concern about cancer as moderate, high concerns include skin, eye, or lung irritation and non-reproductive organ toxicity. (3)
“Though 1,4-dioxane can easily be removed from products before they are sold, its widespread presence in products indicates that many manufacturers fail to take this simple step.”
In addition to hiding in laundry detergent and dishwashing soap, EWG found the carcinogen in the drinking water supplies of almost 90 million Americans’ in September 2017. (4) This helps put into perspective just how widespread 1,4-dioxane is and that it’s not just in store-bought products, but the water we use every day.
3) Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
You can find one or both of these ingredients in numerous shampoos and dishwashing soaps, and many laundry detergent brands. Manufacturers mainly use it as a bubbling or foaming agent, but also as a detergent. Depending on the manufacturing processes, sodium laureth sulfate can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and another human carcinogen called ethylene oxide. (5)
When these chemicals are washed down the drains and run through pipes, they do not easily degrade and thus pose an environmental risk that affects both animals and humans. The longer these chemicals remain, the more likely people are to have an increased risk of skin, eye, or respiratory irritation and nervous system problems. (5,6)
4) Artificial Fragrances
Laundry detergent is not the only thing in which you’ll find fragrances. As we mentioned above, fragrance is present in countless household cleaners, personal care products, and cosmetics. Technically, it’s not even a single ingredient and can contain hundreds or thousands of chemicals that are mixed to create a given fragrance. In fact, according to the International Fragrance Association, “3,999 materials have been reported as used in fragrance compounds.” (7)
Studies have revealed that exposure to fragrances can have negative side effects, according to EWG. Described as a moderately high hazard, the health concerns of fragrance can include respiratory distress, dermatitis, and red, itchy, or watery eyes, as well as potential effects on the reproductive system. (8,15)
Almost All Laundry Detergent Brands Are a Cause for Concern
High-efficiency (HE) laundry detergent refers to products that boast their stain-removing or fabric-softening capabilities. Many people use HE detergents because they can be cost-efficient but, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they are safe. EWG reviewed 269 high-efficiency laundry detergents and found that over 60 percent couldn’t score above a D. Believe it or not, 36 percent of them received a failing F. (9)
How about general-purpose (GP) laundry detergents? When EWG reviewed 434 GP laundry detergents, more than 65 percent of scored a D or worse, with 37.6 percent getting an F. (10) It’s important to recognize that this “laundry list” is not exhaustive, but still emphasizes how poor and arguably unsafe many of these popular laundry detergents are. That said, there are brands that have multiple products, some of which received A-grades while others received poorer ones. So, don’t write off a brand right away – make sure you check the grades of their individual laundry detergents because you could have one of the safe ones.
A Brief List of Laundry Detergent Brands That Scored ‘F’
Arm & Hammer
Don’t be fooled by some “natural” and “organic” brands either. Even Babyganics, Green Works, and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday laundry detergent were on that failing list. (11) To be extra safe when cleaning your clothes, you might always want to skip the fabric softeners as well. In addition to even more fragrances, they can also contain quats (or “quaternary ammonium compounds”) as well as artificial colors and preservatives that have been linked to skin allergies, difficulty breathing, reproductive problems, and even cancer. (12)
If you didn’t see your laundry detergent brand in the list above, visit EWG’s website for a full list of reviewed products and their grades. (13)
The Dirty Truth About Cleaning Your Clothes
Now that you’re well aware of all the toxic chemicals in laundry detergent and the accompanying health concerns, we hope you seek out truly safe products that aren’t likely to harm you or your loved ones.
Some of these A-grade laundry detergent brands include Attitute, Better Life, biokleen, Dr. Bronner’s, Fit Organic, GrabGreen, Green Shield, Lion Bear Naked Soap Co., Meliora Cleaning Products, Nature Clean, and Seventh Generation. (14)
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