5 toxic ingredients you had no idea were in your laundry detergent (and 5 alternatives)

“Mountain fresh.” “Spring rain.” “Ocean breeze.” The names of laundry detergents and fabric softeners sound gentle, safe, even comforting. But in spite of the clean-and-natural terminology, mainstream laundry products actually saturate your clothes in a wash of harsh, irritating, and possibly toxic chemicals.

“What are the short- and long-term health consequences of exposure to these chemicals?” asks Jeffrey Hollander, author of Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe and Healthy, Non-Toxic Cleaning (New Society Publishers, 2005). “What happens inside our bodies when we come into contact with multiple chemicals from multiple sources at the same time? The fact is, we really don’t know, since no government agency requires research to determine the safety of household chemicals.”

Conventional laundry products contain a range of chemicals that irritate skin and eyes, trigger allergic reactions and asthma, damage the environment, and may have harmful long-term effects. Scientists suspect that some of these chemicals cause cancer; others disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with the reproductive health of both humans and wildlife. But most of these chemicals haven’t been tested for their long-term effects on humans. The reason? Potentially harmful ingredients in laundry products enter the body primarily via inhalation or skin contact, not ingestion.

“Chemicals are generally tested for safety by feeding them to animals,” says Theo Colborn, PhD, a leading researcher on environmental toxins and coauthor of Our Stolen Future (Penguin USA, 1997). “So the dermal and inhalation effect of many chemicals has never been studied. Safety tests don’t address the way we’re usually exposed to chemicals: not by drinking them and not in large quantities, but by touching them or inhaling the fumes in small quantities, in repeated doses, and over a long period of time.”

We also come into contact with some of these harsh chemicals through residues left in clothing, towels, sheets, and other washables. “Clothing is up against your skin all day, you lie under your sheets all night, you rub towels all over your body,” says Karyn Siegel-Maier, author of The Naturally Clean Home (Storey, 1999). “There’s a lot of exposure—and a lot of opportunity for irritation and harmful effects.”

Dirty laundry

Experts suspect many ingredients in laundry products of causing long-term harm, as well as immediate and direct reactions, especially allergies and skin, lung, and eye irritation. Here are some dirty cleaning products to watch out for:

• Surfactants. These compounds, which create bubbles and suds in laundry detergents, carry such potential for harm that many European countries have banned them. The most commonly used surfactants, alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs), classify as endocrine disruptors. Scientists have linked endocrine disruptors with many adverse health effects, including decreased sperm counts and increased risk of testicular cancer. Especially dangerous to the developing fetus, these substances also may affect the urogenital tract and nervous system. What’s more, experts suspect endocrine disruptors of “programming” the function of the uterus in the developing fetus, which can lead to infertility and cancer later in life. Green alternative: Surfactants derived from corn, coconut, and soy create gentle sudsing action and have much less impact on the environment and human health.

• Chlorine. Found in laundry bleach and some detergents, chlorine irritates the lungs, eyes, and mucous membranes. We inhale chlorine when we use bleach in a washing machine with hot water, because the vapor it forms is dispersed into the air and then into our noses; we also inhale a certain amount just by opening the bottle or box. Even at very low concentrations, bleach can trigger respiratory disorders, asthma attacks, and even neurological and behavioral effects. Green alternative: Hydrogen peroxide, which breaks down into water and oxygen, or sodium percarbonate, made by combining hydrogen peroxide with the nontoxic mineral sodium carbonate, brightens your whites as effectively as chlorine.

• Fragrances. The chemicals that give mainstream laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets their fresh scent can irritate skin, cause allergic reactions, trigger asthma, and harm the nervous system. Some ingredients used in fragrances are also known carcinogens. What’s more, studies link the phthalates in some fragrances with malformations of the penis and testes in male infants. Phthalates quickly build up in indoor air, and exposure via inhalation can have serious health effects. Green alternative: Natural essential oils and citrus oils add a fresh, light scent to laundry, without irritating skin or causing harmful reactions.

• Dryer sheets. Some of the chemicals that saturate dryer sheets (chloroform, camphor, and ethyl acetate, for instance) appear on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list and can cause nervous system disorders. And because dryer sheets enter the scene after the rinse cycle, the chemicals permeate clothing, sheets, and towels, meaning we’re exposed to them for long periods of time. Green alternative: Wash-cycle natural fabric softeners contain vegetable-based softeners and essential oils to make clothes soft and naturally fragrant.

• Optical brighteners. Chemicals that brighten or whiten fabrics coat surfaces with fluorescent particles that act like mirrors and reflect visible light. Many come from benzene, a highly toxic compound and carcinogen that harms wildlife and the environment and can cause allergic reactions when it comes into contact with the skin. Green alternative: Natural enzyme cultures remove stains safely and effectively, and hydrogen peroxide brightens clothes without harmful chlorine.

While natural laundry products cost a bit more than conventional brands, they’re well worth it. And they’re not as pricey as you might think. For example, if you do one load of laundry a day, and you’re currently using conventional detergent, bleach, stain remover, and dryer sheets, you’re probably spending about $15 a month on laundry products. In most cases, switching to natural laundry detergent, fabric softener, bleach, and stain remover will add a little more than $10 to your monthly budget.

The best advice for healthy washing and drying? Toss out the toxic surfactants, chlorine, perfume, and brighteners and stick to the natural stuff. When you do your next load of laundry, it may be the first time your clothes, sheets, and towels will ever truly be clean.

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