The Potential Toxic
Concerns Regarding Typical Laundry Detergent Ingredients
We all make a significant effort to ensure our clothes are clean and fresh,
but ironically the very detergents that we normally use to get our clothes
"clean" may actually be leaving them worse off than they were before we
ran the wash.
That is because most consumer laundry
detergents, the normal brands found at supermarkets, etc., may be loaded
with potentially toxic chemicals that could harm you, your family and
the environment. Residues of these chemicals remain on your clothing,
even after washing and drying the clothes, and are possibly
absorbed into your body through your skin and even evaporated into the air where they
may be breathed in.
A Typical Laundry Detergent
If you take a look at the label of a typical bottle of laundry detergent, you'll find that
the ingredients are rather vague. It may also use a qualifying
statement like "ingredients include", which deceives the customer into
thinking all ingredients are listed, when in fact they are not.
The few ingredients that are mentioned are vague and non-specific.
One popular brand listed, for
Cleaning agents (anionic and nonionic surfactants),
buffering agent, stabilizer, brightening agent, fragrance
From this list, it is extremely difficult to
determine what exactly is even in the
detergent, or what these ingredients do. The detergent companies are
not required by law to list their actual specific ingredients, and we
have found no major national brand that is willing to give full
disclosure to their customers on their packaging.
So after doing some research of ingredients
typically found in laundry detergent, we decided to do it for them and broke down some of the more common laundry ingredients
out there that have been reported by various sources, so you can at
least have an idea of what you are washing your family's clothes with.
After reading the list, I am sure you can understand the reticence of
detergent companies to fully disclose specific detergent ingredients to
their customers on their packaging. They would probably prefer that
you go on believing that you're simply using "soap". Although there
is no way to definitively determine the actual specific ingredients in
each laundry detergent brand, here's the list as far as we have been
able to ascertain from our research:
Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS): These synthetic
petrochemicals are normally listed as 'anionic surfactants' on labels, and
are one of the most common surfactants in use. During their production
process, carcinogenic and reproductive toxins such as benzene are
released into the environment. They also biodegrade slowly, making them
a hazard in the environment. The amount of LAS used in detergents may
vary to as high as 30% of the weight of the total product.
Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, but
it is usually synthesized from other compounds present in petroleum. The
US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) classifies benzene as
a known human carcinogen. The US Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure limit of 0.5 part
of benzene per million parts of air (.5 ppm) in the workplace during an
8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek. The short term exposure limit for
airborne benzene is 5 ppm for 15 minutes.
Benzene exposure has serious health effects. The
short term breathing of high levels of benzene can result in death,
while low levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate,
headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. Eating or drinking
foods containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation
of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and death.
Human exposure to benzene is a global health problem. Benzene targets
liver, kidney, lung, heart and the brain and can cause DNA strand
breaks, chromosomal damage etc. Benzene causes cancer in both animals
and humans. Benzene was first reported to induce cancer in humans in the
1920s. The chemical industry claims it wasn't until 1979 that the cancer
inducing properties were determined "conclusively" in humans, despite
many references to this fact in the medical literature. Industry
exploited this "discrepancy" and tried to discredit animal studies which
showed benzene caused cancer saying that they weren't relevant to
humans. Benzene may or may not be in the actual detergent bottle (we
cannot confirm this either way based on our research), but certainly benzene being released into the environment
during the production of these surfactants is cause for serious concern.
Ethoxylate (NPE): A common petrochemical surfactant in U.S.
laundry detergents. This chemical has been banned in the European Union
and Canada in detergents. Is it biodegradable? Yes. But it was found to
slowly biodegrade into even more toxic compounds.
Extensive research indicates that NPE metabolites
interfere with the hormones of fish and shellfish, thus affecting nearly
every cell and organ in the body. Exposure to NPE metabolites causes
organisms to develop both male and female sex organs; increases
mortality and damage to the liver and kidney; decreases testicular
growth and sperm counts in male fish; and disrupts normal male to female
development, growth, and reproduction.
Canada and the European Union have banned the use
of NPEs in detergents, as NPE metabolites are toxic and their use “may
have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its
biological diversity.” In 2004 alone, more than 260 million pounds of
NP was used in the U.S.
The Sierra Club has developed an extensive report exposing the risks of
NPEs and their usage in laundry detergent, which can be found here.
Petroleum distillates (aka napthas): These
petrochemicals have been
linked to cancer, lung damage, lung inflammation and damage to mucous
membranes. Derived from synthetic crude oil.
Phenols: According to the
United States National Institutes of Health,
phenol is toxic and people who are hypersensitive to it could experience
death or serious side effects at very low exposures. Plus, it is rapidly
absorbed and can cause toxicity throughout the entire body. Typically,
death and severe toxicity result from phenol's effects on the central
nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs and kidneys.
Optical Brighteners: These synthetic chemicals convert UV
light wavelengths into visible light, which makes clothing laundered
with them to "trick" the eye into seeing a
brighter shade and reflect more light. (although does not actually affect the cleanliness of the
clothing). They've been found to be toxic to fish and to cause bacterial
mutations. Furthermore, they can even cause allergic reactions in humans when exposed to
skin that is later exposed to sunlight.
How do optical brighteners work?
You may remember your mother or grandmother using a product called
"bluing" in the laundry to make whites appear brighter. Bluing agents
remove yellow light to lessen the yellow tinge, but optical brighteners
act differently. These agents "absorb ultraviolet light and emit it back
as visible blue light. This blue light masks any yellowing that may be
present in the treated material and makes it seem brighter and whiter
than it would otherwise naturally appear to the eye" (seventhgeneration.com).
Your clothes are no cleaner than they would be without
brightening agents, but they appear to be.
Optical brighteners are not effective unless they remain on the
fabric after washing, whereby they are constantly being breathed in and
touching and absorbing into your skin. Clothes washed in detergents
containing these agents will have a potentially health threatening
chemical residue left behind on the fabric. This is why line dried
clothing often feels stiff unless fluffed in the dryer. Clothing
laundered without optical whiteners will feel soft right off the line.
What are the human health and environmental
concerns of using optical brighteners?
Frequently, skin rashes commonly blamed on
fragrance and dyes are actually caused by optical brighteners, so
optical brighteners (found in most detergents) should not be used by
individuals with sensitive skin. Eye irritation can also occur. Optical
whiteners contain chemicals that can be toxic to fish and other animal
and plant life. Many have also been shown to cause mutations in bacteria
(seventhgeneration.com). In addition, these chemicals are not readily
biodegradable, so pollution remains in waste water for long periods of
time, negatively affecting water quality and animal and plant life.
U.S. military cannot use optical brighteners, because they may put their
lives at further risk in the field.
Artificial Fragrances: Many of these can be made from
petroleum (see petroleum distillates above), and do not degrade in the
environment. They've been linked to various toxic effects on fish and
mammals, and often cause allergies and skin and eye irritation.
Phosphates: These chemicals are used to remove hard-water
minerals to make detergents more effective, and to prevent dirt from
settling back onto clothes during a wash. A major problem with them is
that, when released into the environment, they stimulate the growth of
certain marine plants, which contributes to unbalanced ecosystems. In
the 1970s, the U.S. government recognized the problem of phosphorus
pollution -- it can cause massive algal blooms in waterways that damage
ecosystems by robbing the water and aquatic life of all-important
states have banned or restricted the use of phosphates for this reason,
and you may see laundry detergents advertised as "low-phosphate" or
"phosphate-free." Many brands have thankfully eliminated
phosphates from their formulations.
EDTA (ethylene diamine
tetraacetic acid ): EDTA is a
compounds used as an alternative to phosphates to reduce mineral
hardness in water, prevent bleaching agents from becoming active before
they are put in water and also as a foaming stabilizer. EDTA has been
found to be both cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic in laboratory animals.
Oral exposures have been noted to cause reproductive and developmental
effects. EDTA is not degraded or removed during conventional wastewater
treatment. EDTA does not
readily biodegrade and can redissolve toxic heavy metals in the
environment, allowing them to reintroduce into the food chain.
Sodium Hypochlorite (Household Bleach): This is a chemical
precursor to chlorine, which is extremely toxic and involved in more
household poisonings than any other chemical. When it reacts with
organic materials in the environment, carcinogenic and toxic compounds
are created than can cause reproductive, endocrine and immune system
disorders. Skin contact will produce caustic irritation or burns due to
defatting and saponification of skin oils and destruction of tissue.
Mixing bleach with other cleaning products can generate hazardous fumes
that are carcinogenic, and can even cause death.
A recent study indicated for the
first time that sodium hypochlorite and organic
chemicals (e.g., surfactants, fragrances) contained in
several household cleaning products react to generate
chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These
chlorinated compounds are emitted during cleaning
applications and most of them are toxic and probable
human carcinogens.The study showed that indoor air
concentrations significantly increase (8-52 times for
chloroform and 1-1170 times for carbon tetrachloride)
during the use of bleach containing products. The
significant increases observed in indoor air
concentrations of several chlorinated VOCs (especially
carbon tetrachloride and chloroform) indicate that the
household bleach use is a newly identified source that
could be important in terms of inhalation exposure to
Preliminary risk assessment
suggested that using these cleaning products may
significantly increase cancer risk.
In addition to its direct
toxic effects on living organisms, chlorine also reacts
with organic materials in the environment to create
other hazardous and carcinogenic toxins, including
trihalomethanes and chloroform (THMs), and
organochlorines, an extremely dangerous class of
compounds that cause reproductive, endocrine and immune
system disorders. The most well known organochlorine is
dioxin. Products containing chlorine (or any of its
derivatives or precursors, including sodium
hypochlorite) should be considered highly unacceptable.
Similarly, any chemical with "chlor" as part of its
description, or any ingredient listed as "bleach,"
should be considered unacceptable as this nomenclature
indicates the presence of a highly toxic and
environmentally damaging chlorinated compound. Chlorine
and chlorinated compounds are also a leading cause of
atmospheric ozone loss. Chlorine use in the laundry also
degrades both natural and synthetic fibers.
Chlorine is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a
hazardous air pollutant and is on the EPA’s Community
Right To Know list. In 1993, the American Public Health
Association issued a resolution calling for the gradual
phase-out of most organochlorine compounds.
Sources: United States Environmental Protection
Agency, United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS),
United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),
United States National Institutes Of Health (NIH), United States
Department Of Health and Human Services (HHS), United States Air Force, Wikipedia,
the Sierra Club, Sixwise.com, Associatedcontent.com,
The U.S. EPA has prepared a list of laundry detergent
ingredients that they have concern about. That information can be found
Special Note: This article is based on
our research regarding ingredients found in national brand laundry
detergents. We cannot guarantee that all of these ingredients will
be found in a particular product, because the detergent companies do
not disclose their specific ingredients to the public. This list has
been compiled and is accurate to the best of our knowledge, based on
the research information that is publicly available.
We would encourage you to contact your
congressperson and public officials to call for mandatory full
disclosure of all specific laundry detergent ingredients to be available
to the public on their packaging, so the consumer can determine whether
they feel safe and comfortable using a product or not. The public cannot
make informed and educated decisions without full and honest disclosure
from detergent makers.
“Each year, laundry product
formulators use billions of pounds of chemical ingredients to make
cleaning products. Ultimately, laundries release these chemicals to
the environment in their waste water. The EPA is concerned about the
effect chemicals in the waste water might have on the quality of
aquatic and sediment life, the biodegradability of laundry effluents
and laundry worker health and safety.”
--United States Environmental