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Apr 23, 2018 BY Joy McCarthy

7 Ingredients You Don't Want In Your Laundry Detergent

Nowadays, most people are aware of harmful food additives and ingredients in personal care products that don't belong in or on the body. But have you thought about the household products you use and how you could unknowingly be exposing yourself and your family to unnecessary and potentially toxic chemicals?

We don't often question it, as we assume that household cleaning products that are sold at the store must be safe for human use. But for an area of the home that resembles cleanliness, it's said that the laundry room can be one of the most toxic rooms in the house!

The truth is that of the ~62,000 chemicals approved for use in the United States, only about 300 have been tested for safety.

All that to say, you might want to re-think that extra sniff you give your clothes after they've been tossed around with overly fragrant laundry detergent and dryer sheets.

Sadly, we can't rely on the government to regulate these chemicals, because simply stated – they don't. It's up to us as consumers to do our own research (which sometimes means contacting the company directly) and steer clear of ingredients that are hazardous to human health. 

This can be a tricky area to navigate as there is a lot of conflicting information out there, but hopefully this list of the top ingredients to avoid in laundry detergent will help instill confidence to make more informed and conscious decisions for you and your family moving forward :).

Top Ingredients To Avoid In Laundry Detergent

1. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

You'll often find SLS or SLES in personal care products from shampoo, laundry detergent, toothpaste, mouth wash and soap as these ingredients give these products their foaming and lathering nature.

I typically advise against using products that contain these ingredients as most brands don't prioritize safe and sustainable sourcing when using these ingredients. But it is possible to find a safe form of SLS; it simply comes down to being a diligent label reader and turning to products or brands that offer 100% transparency. 

So while you will might find SLS in certain laundry detergents, some laundry detergents use plant-derived (not petrol-derived lke the conventional form of SLS) – because who needs gasoline in their laundry, right?!

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In conventional SLS or SLES, the potential of skin irrtations, including itchy, cracked and dry skin is much higher. When it's used in shampoo, it can increase the risk of scalp irritation, stinging eyes and result in dry and dull hair. While these symptoms might not be immediate upon exposure, the longer these ingredients sit on the skin or scalp, the greater the likelihood of irritation.

It's easy to get SLS and SLES confused with Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) which is the cleaner and safer form of SLS that we use in our Natural Volumizing Lavender Shampoo to make it lather nicely. But SCS is different from conventional SLS or SLES in that it's plant-derived (typically from coconut); and I like my toothpaste, shampoo and laundry detergent without gasoline :) Don't you?

2. 1,4-dioxane

You won't often find 1,4-dioxane listed on ingredient labels as it's a contaminant from other chemicals added to laundry detergent, like SLES. This is a scary reality and a huge concern given that 1,4-dioxane is rated an 8 according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which suggests that it is a high hazard for human health. Unfortunately, if you want to find out whether this harmful ingredient is hiding in your personal care products, it’s up to you as the consumer to reach out to the company directly and get answers.

This unwanted byproduct is a result of a process called ethoxylation which is used to reduce the risk of skin irritation for petroleum-based ingredients. Seems like a silly trade off though, given that 1,4-dioxane is a known human respiratory toxicant and has strong evidence suggesting it can lead to cancer! While it can be removed from products before they’re sold, its widespread presence in products suggests that many manufacturers are not taking this step.

3. Petroleum distillates (aka napthas)

These petrochemicals that are derived from synthetic crude oil are often found in conventional laundry detergent for their ability to remove heavy oil, grease, tar and waxes. That means this ingredient is produced in oil refineries as the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstocks. 

But with that, you’re exposing yourself to this toxic ingredient that is rated 5 on EWG (posing it as a moderate hazard for human health) that is said to be both a possible human carcinogen and a suspected environment toxin. There is some concern that it can result in skin allergies or irritation and a high concern for it to contribute to cancer. I think it’s fair to say you’ll want to steer clear of this in your laundry detergent!

4. Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonates (LAS)

Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonates, also known as detergent alkylate, is often found in laundry detergent and used almost exclusively as a surfactant in detergents and cleaning products. While it’s not as great of a concern for human health (despite skin irritation when exposed to very high concentrated amounts), there is concern and evidence to support that the use of it in laundry detergent can lead to chronic aquatic toxicity and that it's not anaerobically degradable. With that said, it can be very toxic if it’s inhaled in powder form, with mortality occurring at a particle concentration of 310 mg/m3. This type of concentrated exposure would typically occur in an industrial setting. 

It’s easy to brush off an ingredient like this given that it isn’t as much of a risk for humans when using it in laundry detergent or dishwasher soap, but it’s in our best interest to take the environment and our planet Earth into consideration when shopping for household and personal care products. We don’t get another planet Earth once we destroy this one, after all.

5. Chlorinated Bleach

Chlorinated Bleach is a water solution of sodium hypochlorite which is a common ingredient in household laundry bleach used to whiten and disinfect laundry. Based on the warning labels on the packaging alone, it’s likely no surprise that this ingredient comes with a number of risks including potential irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract (simply by inhaling the gases it emits!). Yet, it’s perceived as being safe since it’s widely available in grocery stores and often a staple item in people’s laundry rooms.

But the following safety precautions it comes with will make you wonder how it’s been deemed as being safe for human use (via Collective Evolution)

  • Dilute the chlorine bleach with water. The lower concentration poses a potentially lesser risk of unwanted exposure
  • Wear a safety mask and rubber gloves when working with bleach as a preventative measure
  • Only use chlorine bleach in a well ventilated area to allow for sufficient air flow to prevent the unwanted gasses from remaining stationary in the working space
  • Never mix chlorine bleach with any other household cleaners
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It has also received a whopping "F" rating on EWG, suggesting that it poses potentially significant hazards to health or the environment. Some of the risks and concerns include:

  • Very toxic to aquatic life
  • Potential skin burns and eye damage
  • Contributes to skin allergies and irritation
  • Suspected of causing cancer
  • Risk of reproductive toxicity

You’re better off making your own or using a natural stain remover from a company you can trust that is transparent about their ingredients and prioritizes ingredients that are safe for human interactions.

6. Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) are often used in detergents and cleaners as they are noniconic in water, meaning they don’t have a charge, which helps them to make oily emulsifiers without generating foam. It seems convenient, but it comes with a cost.

NPEs are actually highly toxic to aquatic life and have been detected in human breast milk , blood and urine. They have also been associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents.

An easy way to avoid products that contain NPEs is to look for products with EPA’s Safer Choice Label. 

7. Optical Brighteners

Optical brighteners are synthesized from approximately 400 different types of chemicals and are typically added to laundry detergents to make clothing appear whiter and brighter.

The key word being: "appear". They do so by using chemical fluorescent blue dyes that diminish the yellow tinge in clothes.

In other words, they offer no cleaning benefits to your clothes whatsoever! Isn't that nuts?

You may also see it under any of the following names: brightening agents (OBAs), optical whiteners, fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs), fluorescent white dyes and organic flueorescent dyes. But despite whatever name it falls under, optical brighteners still come with the same negative effects. Optical Brighteners are toxic to aquatic life asthey do not break down easily and accumulate in the environment.  This bioaccumulation forms a sludge which kills aquatic life and causes mutations in bacterial cells, adding to the problem of resistant bacteria.

Frequent exposure to the chemical dyes are also harmful to humans given that they are constantly in contact with the skin and are breathed in through the lungs. It’s not uncommon for people to experience skin irritations and rashes from them. They also have the capacity to make skin become photo-reactive and more sensitive to sun exposure.

Final Thoughts

And while it’s not in my list of 8 ingredients to avoid in laundry detergent, I always recommend to avoid fragrance in products unless the ingredients in that fragrance are disclosedsince fragrance is often a trade secret that isn't shared to the public. This means fragrance found in everything from perfume, soap, lotions, shampoo or laundry detergent.

Typically when you see the word “fragrance”, it can contain up to 3000 chemicals in just one scent!

So while your weekly task of doing laundry (or maybe daily routine, if you're a parent of little ones) may seem more overwhelming than ever now, remember that I'm not sharing this to induce fear but to educate and help you be a more informed consumer.

The more we know, the more we can do to protect the health of ourselves and our families. And like I mentioned earlier, what we put onto our bodies and expose ourselves to is just as important as the quality of food we eat!

Apr 23, 2018 BY Joy McCarthy
26 Comments
Meagan   •   April 27, 2018

Do you have any recommendations for detergent that doesn’t contain any of these chemicals?

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   April 30, 2018

Andrea   •   April 28, 2018

Great info! Are there any brands you would recommend? We usually use Ecos or Nature Clean. Thanks!

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   April 30, 2018

Laura   •   April 28, 2018

What are some brands that you would suggest for washing newborn clothes? :)

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   April 30, 2018

Kelly   •   April 28, 2018

Hi Joy! Is their a laundry detergent that you recommend?

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   April 30, 2018

Ashley   •   May 1, 2018

We are using a cleaner laundry detergent but with 5 boys one through ten it’s not quite up to the job—any extra natural cleaning boosts that you suggest?

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   May 1, 2018

Verónica   •   May 1, 2018

Thank you so much for this very helpful article. I have just switched to a different detergent in hopes that it would be non toxic. It’s from as over. Not sure if you know the brand? I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, but I will be checking the ingredients list later to see that none of the above toxics are included. X

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   May 1, 2018

Heather   •   May 2, 2018

Any advice on how to clean

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   May 2, 2018

Grace   •   May 2, 2018

Do you recommend a good laundry detergent!

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   May 3, 2018

Adriana Smith   •   May 16, 2018

Informative post. Researchers have found that dryer vents can emit more than 25 volatile organic compounds when scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets are used, including seven VOCs classified as hazardous air pollutants. This is particularly concerning when dryers don’t vent outside or are blocked, causing indoor air pollution. house cleaning services nj :)

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   May 16, 2018

Amy   •   June 25, 2018

I looked up the seventh generations natural laundry and it is rated a C on EWG site. I know that is Joy's recommendation but wondering why it is rated low.

Reply
Joy McCarthy   •   June 26, 2018

Janet Allen   •   July 26, 2018

What do you think about Method laundry detergent and Method Stain remover?? We've been using it and what do you use in place of bleach?

Reply
Joy McCarthy   •   July 27, 2018

Janet Allen   •   August 2, 2018

If I may ask, what do you use to sanitize and whiten whites?

Reply
Joy McCarthy   •   August 3, 2018

Janet A.   •   August 14, 2018

Is Molly suds oxygen whitener better than bleach?

Reply
Rachel Molenda   •   August 21, 2018

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