Yeah, this sounds pretty fishy to me too, but this chemical agent has elusively slipped into your home starting with its history as “bluing.” Bluing served to diminish yellow light, giving the illusion that the yellow tinge of your clothes, caused by dirt buildup, has been cleaned away. Optical brighteners are fluorescent dyes added to your laundry detergent, paper, cosmetics, plastics, carpet, paints, fabrics (including cotton, linen, hemp, and silk), toothbrushes, sails, shoes, buttons, appliances, cereal boxes and other food packaging, and even golf balls with the sole intention of tricking your eyes into believing your clothes and such are cleaner and brighter than they actually are by reflecting light, more specifically by reflecting blue light. Here are some branded names for these chemicals so you can avoid them:
- Blankophar R
- DMS E=416
- Kolorcron 2B
What are optical brighteners supposed to do?
Ciba, one of the largest distributors and producers of optical brighteners, claims the benefits of what they call FWAs, or fluorescent whitening agents, include:
- Brilliant, bluish whitening effects
- Good light fastness
- Excellent resistance to heat
- Improved initial color
- Increased brilliancy of colored and black pigments
They claim these substances improve performance of products and are chemically stable, have low volatility, are readily soluble in organic solvents, and compatible with most substrates; however, by nature this is not true. Just as the term optical brightener itself is telltale as to what these substances really are—an optical illusion—there is always more to every illusion.
What chemicals are in optical brighteners?
Optical brighteners consist of anything from benzene to disulfonic acid (both of which are considered extremely toxic). They are synthesized from various chemicals, approximately 400 different types, so it is very difficult to confirm what an optical brightener actually contains. However, here are the most common types of optical brighteners that everyone should be aware of (don't worry, I can't pronounce these either):
Triazine-stilbenes uses cyanuric chloride as a bonding agent in its production. Cyanuric chloride is classified as “very toxic,” “harmful,” and “corrosive” by the European Union. It is considered very toxic by inhalation. Several studies have been reported on TOXNET—a database on toxicology, hazardous chemicals, environmental health, and toxic releases by the United States National Library of Medicine—that claim exposure to cyanuric chloride can cause,
“irritation of the skin, eyes and pharynx, followed by serious obstructive pulmonary syndrome with impairment of alveolar capillary exchanges. No effects on the heart function were seen (although a slightly abnormal ECG was reported from an pre-exposure investigation) and irritation/corrosion of the conjunctiva and skin irritation.”
Coumarins, found in more than 5,000 cosmetic products and detergents, are under the scope as of late. Researchers at the Germany-based Federal Institute for Risk Assessment warn that coumarins may cause liver damage and trigger allergies. In animal studies, high concentrations caused cancer.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission,
“Imidazolines are a family of drugs that are vasoconstrictors indicated for nasal congestion and/or ophthalmic irritation. Products containing imidazolines can cause serious adverse reactions, such as central nervous system (“CNS”) depression, decreased heart rate, and depressed ventilation in children treated with these drugs or who accidentally ingest them.”
Need I say more?
Benzoxazolines are aromatic substances used in pharmeceutical drugs such as Flunoxaprofen, which has adverse effects including hepatotoxicity, chemical-driven liver damage, and has been removed from the market. Benzoxazolines are not chemically stable either.
Biphenyl-stilbenes are a stilbenes derivative and have been found to have a hormone-like effect on humans. According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), "It was once used as a medicinal product for pregnant women but was withdrawn from the market because of severe side-effects on offspring (malformations and carcinomas in the genital tract)." According to the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) in Australia,
"Workers exposed to biphenyl fumes for short periods of time have experienced nausea, vomiting, irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, and bronchitis [...] Breathing small amounts of biphenyl over long periods has caused damage to the liver and nervous system of exposed workers. Other human health effects associated with exposure to small amounts of biphenyl over long periods are not known. Laboratory studies show that repeat exposure to large amounts of biphenyl by ingestion damages the kidney and blood, and reduces growth and life expectancy of animals. Limited evidence suggests that repeat exposure to biphenyl dust adversely affects the respiratory tract of laboratory animals."
The research says it. These types of optical brighteners may cause developmental and reproductive effects on humans.
What are optical brighteners really doing?
As if it wasn’t bad enough, when added to your laundry soap, these optical brightening agents (OBAs), fluorescent brightening agents (FBAs), fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs), synthetic fluorescent dyes, or bluing agents offer no cleaning benefits to your clothes whatsoever. On the flip side, there are several dangers to using these chemical dyes. Knowing some of the harm these chemicals can cause humans, you can only begin to imagine the damage they do to wildlife and the environment as they slip through the sewage treatment facilities and into our lakes and streams. Optical brighteners don’t work forever. They fade with time and exposure to UV rays, and while doing so are absorbed into your skin. But while the illusion of their usefulness does fade, their toxic effects do not. These agents are not biodegradable, in fact they bioaccumulate, so they won’t just go away—and it isn’t something we can simply ignore until millions of dead fish wash up on the beach.
Affect on the environment
No, these optical brighteners won’t heighten the color of your world. Quite the opposite. They are proven toxic to fish and animals. Their negative affect on water quality is immeasurable. These chemicals are bioaccumulative, meaning they stick together to form sludge in high concentration, killing aquatic life and even causing mutations in bacterial cells adding to the problem of resistant bacteria. According to a report by the European Ecolabel Commission on criteria for laundry detergents in 2011, “as optical brighteners undergo photo degradation, numerous metabolites may be produced that are not yet identified, which means we may not know the true potential impacts upon the environment.”
Optical brighteners in food
These chemical agents can be found in your food, too. “Food grade optical brighteners” can come into contact with your food via plastic and paper packaging. As that cereal box sits on the store shelf, exposed to UV light, those bright colors you see are seeping into those crunchy flakes you love so much. It’s in your soap, the paint on your dishes, the fabric of your dish towel and the inside of your dishwasher. According to a study on the migration of optical brighteners into jam and fruit drinks from the packing materials, published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology,
"Optical brighteners are commonly used to modify the appearance and to improve polymer properties of packaging. They are not chemically bound to polymers and able to migrate from packaging into the foods. These migrants are potentially harmful to human health."
How to avoid optical brighteners
Optical brighteners have infiltrated the market to the extent that it may seem impossible to avoid them. It’s quite simple really. Anything claiming to make your clothes, “whiter than white” probably contains some form of these chemicals and should be avoided. Here are five simple tips to help you ditch the illusion of optical brighteners:
- Make your own soap using organic ingredients such as soap nuts, or use natural products from companies that state they don’t contain optical brighteners.
- Buy your food in glass rather than plastic.
- Buy organic clothes and fabric.
- Read the labels and avoid disodium diaminostilbene disulfonate, disodium distyrylbiphenyl disulfonate, coumarins, naphthotriazolylstilbenes, benzoxazolyl, benzimidazoyl, naphthylimide, and anything that lists optical brightener as an ingredient.
- Many times these ingredients won’t be labeled because it is not required by law. If it isn’t and you're not sure don’t buy it. Better to be safe than sorry.
Short of carrying around a black light to expose these chemicals, the best advice I can give you is to become more self-sufficient. Grow your own food, read labels, avoid plastic and colorful packaging like the plague, and buy 100 percent certified organic as there are stricter regulations regarding certified organic products. As I said, the FDA doesn’t require listed ingredients for products like laundry soap, and let’s not forget they don’t require labeling of GMOs either, so do the research yourself. As the old adage goes, knowledge is power.
Kate Hunter enjoys organic gardening, whole-food cooking, crafting, making natural products and following up on politics and the latest health food news. After changing her major from art to biology to English, she finally obtained a B.A. in English with an emphasis on writing from Southern Oregon University and has been writing about nutrition, healthy living, cooking and gardening for more than nine years. Kate is a published author, both online and in print, and has owned, operated and published a literary journal. She is a mother of three, speaks sarcasm, some Spanish, but mostly English and spends her time baking, taking pictures, canning, growing and drying herbs, reading, selling natural products and homemade crafts in her Etsy store HomemadeByKate, and checking food labels, of course.