Take a walk down the laundry aisle of your neighborhood grocery store, inhale, and…choke, cough, wheeze? It’s true-your senses know best. Most popular laundry detergents are filled with toxic chemicals that can be harmful to the skin, sinuses, and even body cells-something you definitely want to avoid when going through cancer treatments.
How can laundry detergent affect our bodies? We clean our clothes every week, sometimes more often. The clean clothes then carry traces of detergent in their fibers, including surfactants, brighteners, and fragrances-all of which can harbor suspected toxins. Since clothes come in contact with our skin for hours every day, skin can absorb those chemicals, say nothing of the airborne particles that enter the sinuses.
Fragrances, for instance, can be full of harmful chemicals that manufacturers aren’t required to include on the ingredient list. According to a recent study on laundry products and air fresheners, they emit dozens of chemicals, including some regulated as toxic under federal law. “I didn’t find a brand that didn’t emit at least one toxic chemical,” says Anne C. Steinemann, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, who analyzed six different products. She found volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in many of them, including 1,4 dioxane and acetaldehyde, both classified as hazardous.
The latest thing on the market seems to be “brightening” products, guaranteed to make your clothes look “newer.” Unfortunately, it’s all an illusion. Laundry detergents that promise to “brighten” are actually using synthetic chemicals that coat the clothing with microscopic fluorescent particles. (Yes, they cling to your clothes after they’re clean.) These chemicals then convert UV light into visible light, tricking the eye into thinking they look brighter, and cleaner. Meanwhile, the particles, which are derived from benzene, can poison aquatic life, and irritate skin. According to the U.S. Air Force, optical brighteners cannot be washed out, so this branch of the military doesn’t allow uniforms to be laundered with detergents that contain brighteners.
Then we have the cleansers themselves-the surfactants. Most detergents use either anionic or nonionic surfactants, used to lower the surface tension of water. These present low-level hazards to the environment, and can cause skin irritation. One common surfactant used in laundry detergents is nonyl phenol ethoxylate, which in studies has been found to stimulate the growth of certain types of cancer cells.
And don’t forget the bleach. It’s a potent irritant to the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as the respiratory tract and lungs, and when released into the environment, can create harmful compounds like chloroform and dioxin. The Environmental Protection Agency has found dioxin to be 300,000 times more potent as a carcinogen than DDT.
Fortunately, there are two easy solutions. First, you can purchase organic or natural laundry detergents that don’t contain these chemicals. Some good examples include Enviro-Rite, Burgie’s Organics (which offers a free sample), and Soap Nuts. Our personal favorite is Seventh Generation. Second, you can make your own detergent, using ingredients like borax and washing soda. The Family Homestead has a recipe, and TipNut.com has several.
Did you have a favorite chemical-free laundry detergent? Please share!
Photo courtesy of Snap Village.