Laundry day… again. You mean to clean your clothes, but thanks to substandard labeling laws, all you’re really doing is swishing your dirty clothes in a vat of warm water and toxic chemicals. It was quite a disturbing experience to dig into the toxic chemicals I draped over my body that doesn’t rinse out of clothes during the washing and drying process! I was so put off that I just can’t keep the information to myself and needed to provide you with help identifying toxic ingredients in your laundry products and walk you through how to safely switch to healthier options.
Why is this important? Because YOU need to be INFORMED about what you put on and in your body. Without being informed, you cannot give informed consent.
You may not know your laundry is more harmful to your body and your family than the crud you’re trying to wash off, and that is a problem. When you clean your clothes, they should truly be clean, and not just swished in a toxic vat of expensive “shady marketing promises.”
Your hard-earned money should not be spent making you and your family sick. You deserve a lot better treatment from the companies you purchase from.
Common Laundry Product Ingredients:
There are eight common harmful chemicals used as laundry detergent ingredients to be aware of.
- Linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS) are synthetic anionic surfactants. During production, LAS releases carcinogenic toxins into the environment that can also cause reproductive harm. Because they are very slow to biodegrade, they are an environmental hazard.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate (ALS) are commonly used in many detergents and act as surfactants and emulsifiers, giving the detergent foaming abilities. There are over 16,000 research studies showing SLS may cause irritation of your skin and eyes, organ toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, biochemical or cellular changes, and even cancer.
- Petroleum distillates (napthas) are chemicals that have been linked to cancer, lung damage and inflammation, and damage to mucous membranes.
- Phenols can be deadly to hypersensitive individuals, even at low exposures. It is rapidly absorbed when in contact with the skin, and can cause toxicity throughout the body, specifically the central nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs, and kidneys. No, rinsing clothes with water (cold or hot) will not “wash” the chemicals away. (Nonylphenol ethoxylate, a common surfactant in US laundry detergents has been banned in Europe after researchers found it to stimulate breast cancer growth and feminize male fish.)
- Optical brighteners don’t actually “brighten” whites, as catchy marketing slogans would have us believe. They are synthetic chemicals that actually convert UV light wavelengths into visible light, which makes laundered clothes appear “whiter and brighter.” So your clothes aren’t actually whiter, we just perceive the manipulated color differently. They are toxic to fish and are known to cause bacteria to mutate. They are also photosensitive, which means your skin can develop a rash after being exposed to sunlight after coming into contact with it.
- Phosphates are used to remove minerals found in hard water to make detergents more effective and to prevent dirt from settling back onto clothes while washing. However, when they are released into the environment, they disrupt the ecosystem. Many states have laws restricting phosphate use, which is why you see many detergents advertise “low-phosphate” or “phosphate-free” on their products. Some brands still use them.
- EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate) is a phosphate alternative used to reduce minerals in hard water, prevent bleaching agents from activating before being put into water, and stabilizes foaming. EDTA is NOT biodegradable and can release previously dissolved heavy metals into the environment.
- Bleach is highly toxic and actually causes the most amount of household poisonings than any other chemical. It is carcinogenic and can cause reproductive, endocrine, and immune system disorders.
- 1,4-Dioxane, also called Dioxane or Diethylene Oxide – Dioxane is a byproduct of ethoxylation, which is an inexpensive shortcut process companies use to produce softer, sudsier detergents. It’s not added intentionally, but it is an extremely common ingredient in detergents, appearing in about 2/3 of laundry products studied. Since it is a byproduct rather than an ingredient, it is not required to be listed on product labels. It is considered by the State of California to cause cancer and may be toxic to your brain, central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and respiratory system. The U.S. federal regulation systems consider dioxane’s potency to be equivalent to or greater than many pesticides considered dangerous to humans. Detergents contaminated with 1,4-dioxane may also have traces of other contaminants, including formaldehyde, nitrosamines, and phthalates. The National Institute of Health (NIH) warns trace amounts are cause for concern. The EPA has classified dioxane as a possible carcinogen. When you use a laundry detergent contaminated with dioxane, it goes everywhere. It never breaks down. Water filters can’t remove it, and it isn’t biodegradable. To avoid 1,4 dioxane, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recommends avoiding products with indications of ethoxylation. Look for the following suffixes in the ingredient list: PEG, Polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, Oxynol, SLS, Myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, and any other “eth”
- Artificial fragrances. The lack of governmental oversight on artificial fragrances is cringeworthy. “Fragrance” on the label could mean anywhere from one to several thousand natural and synthetic compounds. Even products labeled as “unscented” often contain fragrance ingredients because a manufacturer could add just enough fragrance to cover up ugly smells from other ingredients. Companies are legally allowed to list “fragrance” instead of the individual fragrant components because the information falls under proprietary trade secrets.
Most of these chemicals are derived from petrochemicals and are designed to stick in clothes and not fully rinse out (to give that “fresh, clean” smell), inevitably resulting in repeated contact through absorbing into your skin and breathed in.
Additionally, very few of these laundry care products have been thoroughly tested for safety. The U.S. government hasn’t passed any commerce law regulating them since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976! This is why it’s important to know the products you’re using.
Some brands are worse than others. Some are perfectly safe. Tide, Gain, Clorox, Dreft, Green Works, Woolite, Downey, and Resolve are among the 250+ worst offenders. It, unfortunately, seems as though the most prevalent products in TV commercials and in retail stores earned the “worst” grades. Though tides are changing, more and more stores are stocking up on healthier alternatives (especially in the baby section). Though, it’s clear that even the “healthier” options sold in most stores are not actually healthy.
Thankfully there are websites, like The Environmental Working Group’s database, where you can see the truth about chemicals and additives found in common products.
Washing your laundry without harmful chemicals
As for our laundry, my family always used Tide. My mother never used anything else, swearing nothing else would work as well. I believed her… until I became chronically sick and started looking into ingredients in the products we use. When you start digging into the ingredients of the products you use, pay close attention to how they interact with your body.
When I saw Tide’s EWG rating, my heart sank.
Making better, healthier laundry product choices
As a family of four with two giant dogs, I often feel like my laundry activities are never finished, especially during our time living full time in an RV with a half-sized washer. Finishing the sheets means it is time to retackle the growing dirty clothes pile, and when that is done it’s time to wash towels… just in time to start the cycle over again.
Time is precious. While there are tons of DIY alternatives to toxic detergents, you don’t necessarily need to DIY everything just to avoid toxins. Plus, some things should not be DIYed at all.
The Problem With DIY Laundry Soap
I do not recommend DIY laundry soaps because soap is not the same as detergent. To make detergent, you would need a specialized lab, and combine ingredients using special heat and pressure requirements that just isn’t possible at home.
Laundry soap just doesn’t clean well at all. While it does some cleaning for your clothes and linens, there is a lot of dirt that remains or is reabsorbed during the drain and rinse cycles. If that wasn’t enough of a detractor, using homemade laundry soap can gum up your washing machine, and will void your washing machine’s warranty.
The only time DIY laundry soap is a good idea is if you’re washing your laundry by hand, scrubbing over a washboard. If you’ve been using soap, we would like to challenge you to try some of the options recommended in the next section and pay attention to all the yuck that comes out of your clothes.
Healthy Non-DIY Laundry Products
There are a few alternatives that are pre-made and perfectly safe for your family to use. Molly’s Suds laundry powder, for example, has an A rating from EWG. You can see a complete list of laundry products EWG assigned an A rating to here.
You may be surprised by your results using a nontoxic laundry detergent compared to homemade laundry soaps! I have had a surprising number of Healthy Home students and customers who did take the challenge and were shocked by the amount of dirt and grime that came out of their “clean” clothes.
Healthy laundry detergents my family and customers have had great success with include:
Nontoxic Stain Remover
Bleach alone is toxic to your body. Swishing your clothes around in it before putting them on may cause skin irritations, among other symptoms (including lung and neurological problems). This is one item I do DIY.
DIY Bleach without using harmful chemicals
While often just our favorite nontoxic cleaner helps by itself and often lemon oil will also work by itself (or with your healthy cleaner), we do make a “hippie bleach” that we use and is effective. It even took the poop stains out of my potty training toddler’s undies!
DIY Hippie Bleach Recipe
- 2 cups Hydrogen Peroxide (3%)
- 1/4 cup Lemon Juice
- 2 Tbsp Citric Acid
- 1 capful of a non-toxic cleaner concentrate (this one works great too)
- 10 drops of Tangerine Oil
- 10 drops of Tea Tree Essential Oil
- 5 drops of Clove Essential Oil
Simply mix the ingredients all together. Then soak your clothes in it as needed.
This also works really well at removing ink stains from pens.
The best way to dry your clothes, honestly, is on a line outside. That is the best way to make them last the longest. Of course, dryer sheets seem to be the WORST. In fact, they contribute to poor indoor air quality and have been known to make people very sick.
Reading through Michelle Schoffro Cook‘s book, The Brain Wash, the 7 most common toxic chemicals in dryer sheets include:
Alpha-Terpineol can cause central nervous system disorders, loss of muscular coordination, central nervous system depression, and headaches.
Benzyl Alcohol can cause central nervous system disorders, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, central nervous system depression, and (in severe cases) can be fatal.
Camphor is on the US EPA’s Hazardous Waste list. It is a central nervous system stimulant, causing dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles, and convulsions.
Chloroform is also on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list. It is neurotoxic and carcinogenic.
Ethyl Acetate is also on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list and is listed as a narcotic. It may cause headaches and narcosis (stupor).
Linalool can cause central nervous system disorders. It is also labeled as a narcotic. In studies of animals, it caused ataxic gait (loss of muscular coordination), reduced spontaneous motor activity, and depression.
Pentane can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, and loss of consciousness. Repeated inhalation of vapors can cause central nervous system depression.
When you use dryer sheets, all you’re accomplishing is coating your clothes in a toxic film of artificial chemicals.
Dryer Sheet Alternatives
We switched to using reusable wool dryer balls (which are easy to make on your own if you don’t want to buy them), and add a few drops of essential oils (we usually use a couple drops each of lavender and rosemary) during the last 15 minutes of the dry time. A nice perk of using wool dryer balls is also the fact that they shorten the drying time of your clothes. This is the next best thing when you can’t air your laundry outside.
Some people do complain of static with dryer balls. A quick insider tip: shorten your drying time. When you dry your clothes for too long in a clothes dryer, they will contain static.
Clothing wrinkles and static. Nobody got time for that!
Instead of grabbing a spray bottle of knowingly questionable or toxic (if labeled) ingredients, just dilute some Thieves Cleaner, and spray on your laundry to release fabric wrinkles!
Have you ditched the toxins in your house yet?
Tell us in the comments what nontoxic laundry routines you employ!
A Note From Nicole
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Nicole is a military-trained research analyst, homeschooling mom, healthy lifestyle coach, and flexible business consultant. After living through and overcoming a season of homelessness and chronic health, Nicole developed a passion for helping others using functional nutrition, herbalism, and aromatherapy. She now uses simple lifestyle shifts, self-care, and developing healthier habits to help people move through difficult times.