Toxic Laundry Detergent Ingredients to Avoid

Conventional laundry products often contain toxic chemicals that can harm you and the environment. Use our guide to help lighten your load.

| March/April 2012

Bedding Hanging To Dry

Forgo dryer sheets and hang your laundry out to dry to avoid some potentially harmful laundry ingredients.

Photo By Corbis

While they may make your clothes smell as fresh as a spring morning, conventional laundry-care products often contain chemicals with negative health effects ranging from skin and throat irritation to carcinogenicity. In fact, the laundry room may be one of the more toxic areas in your home. Researchers have found that dryer vents can emit more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) 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.

Because laundry-care product manufacturers are not required to list all laundry detergent ingredients on packaging, it can be difficult for consumers to make informed choices. The term “fragrance” alone may refer to a combination of several hundred laundry chemicals including many that are hazardous. Laundry detergents are often derived from petrochemicals and contain synthetic fragrances, even when advertised as “fragrance-free.” Most companies add optical brighteners to detergent formulas—additives that emit blue light, making whites appear whiter by tricking the eye. By design, optical brighteners stay in clothes after washing, which may cause skin irritation. They also decompose relatively slowly and can be toxic to marine life. Fabric softeners are also designed to stay in clothes and not fully rinse out, which means lingering chemicals come into contact with skin.

Unfortunately, few of the chemicals used in laundry-care products have been thoroughly tested, particularly in combination with other chemicals, and some chemicals that have been shown to be harmful are still widely used. The U.S. government has taken a largely “innocent until proven guilty” approach to the use of chemicals in commerce, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing on only a small portion of all the chemicals used in commerce since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976. Only once it is determined that a chemical may present “unreasonable risk to human health or the environment” can the EPA regulate or ban it.

Even if not all laundry detergent ingredients are disclosed on product packaging, it is still possible to gain useful information from laundry product labels. Our Laundry Chemicals to Avoid chart offers a list of harmful laundry chemicals to avoid, many of which are frequently listed on product labels. To protect your health and the environment, choose vegetable-based laundry products (see Resources at the end of this article). Or make your own homemade laundry soaps from safe ingredients such as castile soap and washing soda (see recipe below). It’s also wise to avoid conventional dry cleaning, which relies on the chemical perchlorethylene (perc). Instead, opt for a “green” dry cleaner, or reduce dry-cleaning needs using the tips listed later in this article.

Simple Washing Powder Recipe

This simple, homemade detergent is inexpensive to make and free of harmful chemicals.

16 cups baking soda
12 cups washing soda
8 cups grated castile soap
3 tablespoons lavender, lemon or grapefruit essential oil (optional)

5/7/2014 7:48:45 AM Quick video on how companies are not listing their ingredients, and links on the chemicals and their effects in the video description. go natural!

4/7/2014 7:00:38 PM

I have used Borax with white vinegar. It works pretty great. We love our laundry soap, Shady Creek Farm goat milk laundry soap.

Tonda Dean
3/11/2013 2:37:20 AM

Can 20 mule Borax be used with white vinegar?

Rick Lori Parr
3/5/2013 7:58:41 PM

and what we have to smell. I work in an office and it's so bad that I have a fan blowing away from me and I have had to leave the office several times over the past 4 years because I can not handle the fragrances.

Rick Lori Parr
3/5/2013 7:56:50 PM

Try Ecos free and clear! Awesome stuff and made in Illinois

3/3/2013 10:42:49 AM

Jen Walker, I have a HE machine and I use the same recipe. It is completely safe as it is low sudsing. It's also great for your clothes. I have been using it for about a year. My grandson has sensitive skin and my daughter uses this. He has absolutely no reactions at all. Try making a small batch first and see if you like it.

Jen Walker
3/1/2013 11:11:25 PM

Jennifer, I would also like to know *for sure* that these "recipes" are okay for use in HE machines. Would like to try the 3-ingredient unscented one, but also want to *know* that it won't harm our machine. We've tried several ecologically responsible manufactured suds, but have had negative skin reactions to we do with *everything* except All Free-n-Clear. So, right now, we are still using the All Free-n-Clear, but I'd LOVE to find something that won't cause any skin allergies for us *and* is okay for the environment.

3/1/2013 5:01:53 PM

Can you use the homemade washing detergent in energy efficient washing machines?

Anna von Reitz
2/28/2013 5:19:37 PM

This is a great little article, and very timely. People need to think about what they are putting in the fabric that stays next to their skin all day long and all night long, too. We don't often consider it, but the skin is the largest organ system of the human body and our greatest interface with the external world. I have often wondered how many skin conditions from acne to eczema are worsened by irritation caused by residues of chemicals from laundry detergent and fabric softeners.

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