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Laundry Detergent & Toxicity: What You Need to Know

Guest Post by: Tru Earth 

We spend a lot of time washing and drying our clothes – as much as 6,000+ minutes and 406 loads per yearAnd if you’ve visited grocery store recently, you’ve probably noticed an entire aisle filled from top to bottom with laundry detergentwhich has become a staple for cleaning and freshening clothes in nearly every household (in America). But be weary of the toxicity found in many leading brands of laundry detergent. They often contain chemicals that have been linked to various health issues, ranging from skin and throat irritation to carcinogenicity, anthat can negatively impact the environment. 

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ChemicalsWhich Ones You Need to Know About

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First: fragrances. Products with added scents and fragrances give pleasure to billions of people around the world every single day – from a fresh-smelling shampoo to a scented candle and freshly-laundered sheetsThey are also great for making products seem more effective and healthier to consume. Here’s what manufacturers don’t want you to know: smelling good can come at a cost for your health. 

Key Facts: 

  1. Fragrances have been classified as allergens, hormone disruptors, and neurotoxins. They commonly contain phthalates, which are chemicals that help scents last longer but have been linked to cancerreproductive harm, and respiratory toxicity.
  2. Fragrance chemicals, like other toxic chemicals, can pass from the skin and into the bloodstream.
  3. So called “natural fragrances” can be just as toxic as synthetic fragrances.
  4. Fragrances do not make products healthier or more effective; this is a perception encouraged by companies that sell cleaning products, deodorants, shampooscandles, and/or laundry detergents.
  5. According to The Guardian, “About 4,000 chemicals are currently used to scent products, but you won’t find any of them listed on a label. Fragrance formulations are considered a ‘trade secret’ and therefore protected from disclosure – even to regulators or manufacturers. Instead, one word, fragrance, appears on ingredients lists for countless cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. A single scent may contain anywhere from 50 to 300 distinct chemicals.” What’s more, the ingredients found in personal care and cleaning products can change as manufacturers reformulate for effectiveness or cost savings. 

The bottom line: it doesn’t matter if a bottle has “free” or “clear” written in big letters to draw you in; “free of dyes and perfumes” on the label doesn’t mean “free of carcinogens.” Consumers are often left in the dark about what’s really inside of the products they are using and putting on their skin every single day.

Though many hidden chemicals are labeled as “fragrance” or “perfume”/”parfum”, there are at least a handful of ingredients that have received public safety warnings: 

  • 1,4-dioxane is a contaminant that may be found in trace amounts of cosmetics or household cleaners. It forms as a byproduct during the manufacturing process of certain ingredients (detergents, foaming agents, emulsifiers and solvents) and has been identified as a “potential human carcinogen”. The FDA has been monitoring the includion of 1,4-dioxane in personal care and household products. The levels have notably dropped over the past several decades; still, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that, “People are exposed to [trace amounts of] 1,4-dioxane every day because of its widespread use in medicines, shampoo, cosmetics, detergents, and household items.” 
     
  • Alcohol Ethoxylate (AE) and Alcohol Ethoxy Sulfate (AES) are often used in hand dishwashing liquids, laundry detergents, shampoos and other specialty industrial applications. They essentially help mix water and grease to lift and remove stains from your clothing. However, research shows that these chemicals are toxic to aquatic organisms and rats, and may cause skin or eye irritations in humans.
     
  • Ethanol is a natural byproduct of plant fermentation often used as a preservative in personal care products or as a solvent in detergents. (But you probably know it best as the principle ingredient in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine or brandy.) While this chemical has many purposes and potential benefits, it can be hazardous if not used correctly. For example, direct contact can irritate the skin and eyes, cause headaches, nausea, or difficulty concentrating. Studies also indicate that ethanol may make your skin more absorbent. In other words, if you’re using a detergent that – no pun intended – a laundry list of hidden chemicals, including ethanol, those chemicals are more likely to enter your body through your skin.
     
  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to hormonal and reproductive effects, as well as cancer. Commonly used in household products, cleansers, cosmetics, and insecticides, the abundance of these chemicals has led to a global environmental and human contamination. In fact, they have been detected in human breast milk, blood, and urine. They are also highly toxic to aquatic life and are associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing a Significant New Use Rule, also known as a SNUR, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) for (15) NPs/NPEs in the effort to protect human health and the environment.
     
  • Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is a polymer that allows water to penetrate clothes more deeply and prevents dirt from re-depositing on clothes. The major concern with this solvent is that it may produce byproducts that are contaminated with ethylene oxide and/or 1,4-dioxane, which are “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” according to the EPASome studies show that PEG can also irritate the skin or have species-specific effects.
     
  • Sodium Percarbonate, also known as washing soda or soda ash, is a moderately strong oxidizer and a major component of laundry and dishwashing detergents. It’s typically used as a bleaching agent – so it gets your whites white. But what else is it doing to you? Note that sodium percarbonate is classified as a poisonous agent.  If swallowed, a person may experience symptoms including (but not limited to):  
      • Breathing problems due to throat swelling 
      • Diarrhea 
      • Drooling 
      • Eye irritation, redness, and pain 
      • Hoarseness 
      • Low blood pressure (may develop rapidly) 
      • Severe pain in the mouth, throat, chest, or abdominal area 
      • Shock 
      • Difficulty swallowing 
      • Vomiting 

           Even if it’s not ingested (Pod challenge, anyone?), skin or eye contact with sodium percarbonate can still cause: skin or eye irritation, drainage, pain, or vision loss.

Look, it’s fair to say that some chemicals truly work wonders when it comes to washing and drying clothes. But these ingredients can have serious consequences on the environment  which directly impacts the health of more than 7 billion people and over 11 million species of animals, plants, insects and bacteria: 

  • Amine Oxides are commonly used in detergents and household cleaners (with bleach)and like most cationic chemicals, they are highly aquatically toxic. There have been concerns regarding the formation of nitrosamines during the manufacture of amine oxide because nitrosamines are toxic compounds as well as potent animal and human carcinogens. The U.S. EPA has classified some of these compounds as priority pollutants in industrial wastewaters, potable waters, and hazardous wastes (Science Direct).
  • Alcohol Ethoxylates (AE) are high production volume (HPV) chemicals used widely as ‘down-the-drain’ chemicals in detergent and personal care products. Basically, when your washing machine empties into the drain system, it goes through municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) and then into receiving surface waters like lakes and streamsThe good news is that 95-99% of AE is biodegraded by WWTP; the bad news is that there are still residuals that make it through the water treatment facilities and pose a level of toxicity to plants, animals and aquatic life
     
  • Ammonium Sulfate is often used in cleaning products because of its ability to disrupt hydrogen bonding in water and separate different contaminants. Note that this additive is so toxic (category 3 oral, skin, and respiratory toxin) that its manufacturers recommend not using it indoors! Additionally, the requirements for use of ammonium sulfate include never allowing the chemical or its empty containers to reach drains or waterways.
     
  • Phosphates are a little more complicated. Your body needs these essential minerals to help your kidneys, bones, and muscles function properly. But like with any essential nutrient, it’s all about balance. People have become overexposed to what’s called “synthetic phosphates”, which can easily bond with other substances such as salt, calcium, oil and vitamins. These additives are not only found in our food, they are also in these synthetic forms: 
      • Orthophosphates: detergents 
      • Pyrophosphates: water treatment, metal cleaning 
      • Tripolyphosphates: meat processing, dish detergent 
      • Polyphosphates: kaolin (a type of clay) production 

Like our bodies, the environment doesn’t respond well to an oversaturation of (synthetic and natural) phosphates. Unfortunately, many sources of phosphates, including laundry detergent, often drain into lakes and accelerate eutrophication, the process in which aquatic environments become overloaded with nutrients, leading to the development excess algae that ultimately kills wildlife and emits carbon dioxide.

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Plastic Waste and High Carbon Footprint are Big Concerns Too

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Laundry detergent alone accounted for over $1 Billion in sales in 2018 in the U.S., but only 29.1% of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars are recycled annuallyThat means a staggering number of laundry jugs are sitting in landfills, where they’ll stay forever because PET plastic bottles do not degrade. 

It’s also worth noting that non-concentrated liquid laundry detergent is 60-90% water. So, in addition to all the plastic jugs filling up landfills, a LOT of energy goes into the manufacturing, filling, transporting, storing and selling of heavy detergent bottles (that are primarily composed of water). 

Simply put: purchasing standard grocery-store laundry detergent can have many implications on human health and the environment. 

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How You Can Help

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To reduce the environmental impact of doing laundry, and proactively preserve your family’s health, follow these eco-friendly laundry tips: 

  1. Switch to natural detergents and stain removers. Natural products are typically plant-based, biodegradable surfactants that do NOT contain fragrances, dyes, optical brighteners, or chlorine bleachIt can be hard to spot the bad actors, just bdiligent about reading the fine print on packaging when shopping!
  2. Consider making your own laundry productsThe only real way to know what’s going into your laundry is to create your own formulas. The good news is that your pantry is probably stocked with a lot of ingredients that are naturally safe for the environment – such as vinegar, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, and baking soda. (You can also use essential oils to add that fresh scent you love!)
  3. Rethink dryer sheets and fabric softeners. For the most part, these are made with the same chemicals as popular detergents and can be harmful for both human health and the environment. Instead, opt for eco-friendly dryer sheets or dryer balls. Specifically, consider using wool dryer balls because they effectively separate clothes, allowing hot air to circulate more evenly and efficiently, which then reduces drying time by 10-25%.
  4. Keep it cool. Almost 90% of a wash machine’s energy consumption is used just to heat the water. The solution: Turn that dial to cold.
  5. Wash full loads. If you run your washing machine or dryer with only half a load of clothes or dishes, you’re not maximizing efficiency. (Same thing goes for when you clean dishes in your dishwasher!) According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a typical household can save 3,400 gallons of water a year by running full laundry loads instead of half loads. This is not only eco-friendly but will also help you save BIG on your utility bills.
  6. Use energy-efficient machines. If you’re in the market for a new washer and/or dryer, consider getting a more efficient model to help save water and energy.
  7. Hang clothes to dry. The bottom line is that keeping your clothes out of a dryer extends their life, reduces energy use, and cuts costs. Line drying – whether indoors or outdoors – is something that you can do year-round. 

No matter whether doing laundry feels like a chore, or it brings you a sense of happiness, it’s important that you understand what your body is being exposed to, and how your actions can directly impact the environment. Be sure to read the labels of everything you buy carefully and understand what the ingredients are so that you can make informed decisions for you and your family, as well as the planet.