Dirty Secrets: What’s Lurking in Your Freshly Laundered Clothes


Common laundry detergents with toxic non-biodegradable ingredientsWhen you think about toxic chemicals, you probably think about outdoors industrial waste or garbage-choked water streams. And, since you spend 80 to 90% of your time indoors working, eating, sleeping, studying, and even exercising you think that you are well protected from toxic substances. Well, think again!

A typical American household contains about 3 to 10 gallons of toxic chemicals composed of anything from window and oven cleaners to pesticides and fertilizers. The toxins from such household products you use, are absorbed through your skin and breathed into your lungs. Sometimes is the routine things you do and the habits you never give much attention to that can expose your family and yourself to dangerous toxins. Yes, I’m talking about basic things like your laundry.

Toxic chemicals in conventional laundry detergents

While conventional laundry detergents are making your clothes smell “fresh like the morning breeze”, they are often made of a combination of toxic ingredients such as:


  • Petroleum distillates (aka naphthas such as benzene or 1,4 dioxine) – these are cancer causing petrochemicals that are refined from crude oil and are far from being biodegradable.
  • NPE (nonylphenol ethoxylate or alternatives such as alcohol ethoxylate) – NPE is an inexpensive surfactant frequently used in laundry detergents that has been linked to toxicity throughout the entire body. NPE is an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and can potentially cause hormonal problems, or even cancer. According to the Sierra Club, when rainbow trout are exposed to NPEs, they become part male and part female! “NPE pollution is likely to be at least partly responsible for a variety of odd gender bending phenomenon now being seen in aquatic species. And while human effects remain unknown, scientists believe it may be affecting people, too.” More than 61% of the US streams tested contain metabolites of NPEs. NPEs are extremely difficult to be removed even when using the latest hi-tech water treatment technologies. As a matter of fact, such treatments can make NPE metabolites more toxic, more estrogenic, and more persistent than NPE itself. According to the Sierra Club, approximately 270 million pounds of NPEs are used in the United States each year and most of it is being rinsed down your drain.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)/sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) – The surfactant sodium lauryl sulfate is an emulsifier and an extremely harsh detergent that creates suds and is found in 90% of the commercially available shampoos, hair conditioners, soaps, toothpastes and detergents. Sodium lauryl sulfate can cause improper eye development in children and cataracts in adults, it corrodes hair follicles, impedes hair growth and it builds up in the eyes, heart, liver and brain causing major health problems in the affected areas. “Sodium Lauryl Sulphate is routinely used in clinical studies deliberately to irritate the skin so that the effects of other substances can be tested.” (Study cited by the Wall St Journal, 1st November 1998).
  • Polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80 – Polysorbates are a class of emulsifiers that may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and are commonly used by the pharmaceutical and food industries.
  • 1,4-dioxane – this known cancer-causing chemical that is found in products that create suds, like shampoo, liquid soap and bubble bath. It acts as a solvent, and is an expected contaminant when chemicals like Sodium Laureth S  ulfate, PEG compounds, polysorbate 60, polysorbate 80 and other are present. Dioxane is an increasing threat to waterways across the country, can’t be removed by water filtration systems, and it isn’t biodegradable.
  • Sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) – This is a neurotoxin that causes liver and skin damage even in minute quantities and is the number one cause of household poisonings.  Furthermore, when Sodium hypochlorite reacts with organic materials from the environment, it produces carcinogenic and toxic compounds that later on put you at risk for reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders.
  • Phosphates – are used in detergents to enhance their effectiveness. They can cause nausea, diarrhea and skin irritations in humans. When introduced in the waterways they are very difficult to remove. They contribute to unbalanced ecosystems by promoting algae growth, which in turn depletes the water of oxygen, and subsequently killing fish.
  • Detergent with optical brighteners glowing under ultraviolet light

    Detergent containing optical brighteners glowing under Ultraviolet light
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/e-coli/4383592066

    Optical brighteners (aka brightening agents, fluorescent bleaches, and optical whiteners) – these additives are chemicals designed to enhance the appearance of fabrics by giving a “whiter” and “brighter” effect. When using laundry detergents with optical brighteners clothes look less yellow as they increase the overall amount of blue light reflected. They intentionally leave residue on your clothes and can rub off on your skin causing sunburn-like reactions. When they get washed down your drain they frequently survive waste-water treatment causing mutations in bacteria and accumulating in aquatic life. Optical brighteners are not readily biodegradable and they remains in waste water for long periods of time, polluting our lakes, rivers, and streams.

  • Artificial fragrances – linked to various toxic effects on fish and mammals. “Fragrance” aloe as an ingredient, may refer to a combination of several hundred chemicals including many that are toxic. Conventional laundry detergents are often made from petroleum-based chemicals  and contain synthetic fragrances, even when advertised as “fragrance-free.

That said, it takes 3 or more washes with a non-toxic detergent or up to 16 rinses with plain water to remove most of the poisonous chemicals left behind by conventional laundry detergents. If you want to be sure that your laundry is as non-toxic and safe as possible for you and your family you must seek out natural brands of laundry detergent that are vegetable-based and break down safely and rapidly in the environment. Brands such Ecos Laundry Detergent Free and Clear, Seventh Generation Free and Clear Laundry Detergent, Biokleen Free & Clear Laundry Liquid Allergen-fighting Formula and EnviroRite Clearly Clean Laundry Detergent are easily available at your local health food stores or online.

Or, next time when you’re ready to do your laundry check out these quick and easy homemade laundry detergent recipes using safe and effective household ingredients such as baking soda, laundry soda, white distilled vinegar, borax, castile soap, glycerin and essential oils.

4 Responses to Dirty Secrets: What’s Lurking in Your Freshly Laundered Clothes

  1. Sinnary Sam January 8, 2013 at 1:54 PM #

    Wow, I had no idea! I’m really going to have to change the products I’m using!

    • Anna March 20, 2013 at 8:51 AM #

      I have made my own laundry denregett for years now. I also add the Oxy-Clean to my denregett when I make it. I to have found that vinegar is a great substitute for fabric softener and helps give a real dingy load a boost when I add it to the wash to. When I do buy fabric softener though, I like to freeze it then thaw it out. Once it is thawed out it is really thick. I squeeze out half of the bottle into an empty fabric softener bottle and then fill each half bottle with vinegar and shake it until it is thoroughly mixed. This gives you two bottles of fabric softener for almost half the price. The consistency is basically the same and it doesn’t affect the smell or the quality.


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