The Worst Ingredients in Laundry Detergent
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When most people think of pollution, they think of the outdoors—garbage-choked streams or industrial waste.
But you probably spend a large portion of your time indoors—as much as 80 to 90 percent of your life.
You work, study, eat, drink and sleep in enclosed environments where air circulation may be restricted.
The typical American home contains 3-10 gallons of toxic materials—everything from glass and bathroom cleaners to garden pesticides and fertilizers.
Health effects of ingredients in common household products include:
- Respiratory problems
- Eye irritation
- Disruption of the endocrine system
As a result of cleaners and other toxic household products, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the air inside the typical home is 2-5 times more polluted than the air immediately outside—and in extreme cases, 100 times more contaminated.
Did you know that cleaning products are responsible for nearly 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers?
In one New York medical center, reports of burns, rashes, dizziness and scratchy throats among hospital employees plummeted after the staff switched over to less toxic cleaning products. The number of missed work days due to cleaning product injuries declined from 54 in 2004 to zero in 2009.
Contributors to indoor pollution include the products you use every day in your home, which can come in contact with your skin and lungs. Household products have been found to contain very powerful and often toxic chemicals that you unknowingly expose yourself to in the course of an ordinary day. One of the most common household products is laundry detergent.
Getting Down on Dirty Detergents
The average family washes approximately 80 pounds of laundry per week—or 35 billion loads of laundry per year! This means that 17.5 billion cups of laundry detergent are being used every year in the U.S. alone. Not only can you come in contact with caustic chemicals via your clothing, from having been laundered in them, but you can breathe them into your lungs once they become airborne in the process of doing your laundry.
The detergent you’re using may contain a cocktail of potent cancer-causing chemicals, some of which the manufacturer doesn’t even have to list on the label. This loophole reduces the odds that you’ll ever discover what’s in there.
Four of the worst offenders are:
1. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)/sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
3. NPE (nonylphenol ethoxylate)
Not only are these chemicals potentially damaging to your health, but they are also contaminating waterways and harming the environment.
According to an article in the Journal of Oleo Science, a laundry detergent concentration of only 2 ppm can cause fish to absorb double the amount of chemicals they would ordinarily absorb. The accumulation of these compounds—phosphates and toxic surfactants—in the environment through wastewaters has had a terrible impact on aquatic wildlife. First, let’s take a look at the surfactants, SLS and SES.
Any discussion of SLS/SLES must include a discussion of 1,4 dioxane because the manufacturing process of SLS/SLES results in its being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane—a known carcinogen.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate (ALS)
Sodium lauryl sulfate is a surfactant, detergent and emulsifier used in thousands of industrial cleaners and cosmetic products. It is present in nearly all shampoos, scalp treatments, hair color and bleaching agents, toothpastes, body washes and cleansers, make-up foundations, liquid hand soaps, and laundry detergents.
Although SLS originates from coconuts, the chemical is anything but natural.
SLS is mixed with sulfur trioxide or chlorosulfuric acid and then neutralized with aqueous sodium hydroxide (lye). SLS is the sodium salt of lauryl sulfate and is classified by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Cosmetics Database as a “denaturant, surfactant cleansing agent, emulsifier and foamer,” rated “moderate hazard.”
Similar to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is sodium laureth sulfate (short for sodium lauryl ether sulfate, or SLES), a yellow detergent with higher foaming ability. SLES is considered to be slightly less irritating than SLS. SLS goes by other names, including:
- Sodium dodecyl sulfate
- Sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sodium salt
- Sodium salt sulfuric acid
- Monododecyl ester sodium salt sulfuric acid
- Akyposal SDS
- Aquarex ME
- Aquarex methyl
Ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) is another variation commonly put into cosmetics and cleansers to make them foam. ALS is similar to SLS, showing similar risks.
Sixteen Thousand Studies Document the Hazards of SLS
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Reviews, research studies on SLS have shown links to:
- Irritation of the skin and eyes
- Organ toxicity
- Developmental/reproductive toxicity
- Neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, and biochemical or cellular changes
- Possible mutations and cancer
If you visit the SLS page on EWG’s website, you will see a very long list of health concerns and associated research studies. In fact, you will also see mention of nearly 16,000 studies in the PubMed science library (as well as their link to that list) about the toxicity of this chemical.
A number of studies report SLS being damaging to oral mucosa and skin. This is not at all surprising since SLS is actually used as a skin irritant during studies where medical treatments for skin irritation require first using an intentionally irritating agent. A study appearing in Exogenous Dermatology confirmed SLS to be a very “corrosive irritant” to the skin—irritation which persisted in research subjects for 3 weeks. SLS exerts its damage by stripping your skin of protective oils and moisture.
SLS has also been linked to nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are potent carcinogens that cause your body to absorb nitrates, also known to be carcinogenic. For more information about SLS/SLES, please refer to my earlier article.
Two-Thirds of Laundry Detergents Contain 1,4 Dioxane
David Steinman, an environmental health consumer advocate with the Green Patriot Working Group (GPWG) and former representative at the National Academy of Sciences, has been on a mission since 2007 to organize product testing for the petrochemical 1,4-dioxane in your personal care and household cleaning products. He forged a partnership between his organization and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to get the dirt on dioxane-laden products.
In 2008, the focus was personal care products, and 2010 has brought the spotlight to laundry detergents. In 2008, the findings were shocking.
Many popular brands of shampoos, body washes, lotions, and even baby products—as well as many “natural” and “organic” brands—were found to contain 1,4-dioxane.
Levels of contamination were so high that many companies have come under legal attack for poisoning consumers. Unfortunately, this phase of testing proved no lesser threat. About two-thirds of the laundry detergents tested contained 1,4-dioxane. Results suggest it’s time for these companies to clean up their acts.
It is reassuring, however, that all brands with the USDA organic certification were found to be dioxane-free.
At a press conference in Anaheim, California, on March 12, 2010, Steinman shared the test results from 20 laundry detergents—13 conventional brands and 7 “natural” brands. As you would expect, the natural brands fared better.
The Organic Consumers Association and Green Patriot Working Group have put together a handy printable guide for Personal Care and Cleaning Products that includes everything from dish soap to hand soap to deodorant, and everything in between.
Why You Should be Concerned About 1,4-Dioxane
Don’t confuse 1,4-dioxane with dioxin— they are completely different compounds. Dioxin is not manufactured commercially but is a byproduct of combustion. For example forest fires and the burning of garbage, produces a family of 17 different compounds of varying toxicities. Dioxane (also called 1,4-dioxane) is a byproduct of an industrial process used to make cleaning ingredients, and this is what can contaminate your personal care and cleaning products.
How does 1,4-dioxane get into your products? It’s not added intentionally. As I mentioned earlier, it is a by-product of SLS, which is an extremely common ingredient in detergents.
According to the “1,4-Dioxane Product Safety Watch” website, dioxane is a byproduct of ethoxylation, “a cheap shortcut process companies use to provide mildness to harsh cleaning ingredients.” Ethoxylation involves combining low-sudsing ingredients with ethylene oxide (which is a known human carcinogen) to produce softer detergents that produce more suds. The result is diethylene oxide, or 1,4-dioxane, or simply dioxane.
Since it is a byproduct rather than ingredient, it doesn’t have to be listed on product labels. But you really DON’T want to have your skin coming into contact with this stuff, byproduct or not. 1,4-dioxane is considered by the State of California to cause cancer and has been found to be potentially toxic to your brain and central nervous system, kidneys, liver and respiratory system, according to the CDC. According to the Organic Consumers Association’s 1,4-Dioxane Facts Sheet:
- The cumulative effects of 1,4-dioxane exposure, even at very low levels (a few parts per billion) resulted in laboratory animals developing cancer.
- 1,4-dioxane is readily absorbed through the lungs, skin and gastrointestinal tract of mammals.
- The U.S. federal regulation systems consider dioxane’s potency to be equivalent to or greater than many pesticides considered dangerous to humans.
- Cosmetics (and detergents, presumably) contaminated with 1,4-dioxane may also have traces of other contaminants, including formaldehyde, nitrosamines, and phthalates.
- There are many inexpensive and effective alternatives to ethoxylation in the manufacturing of your personal care and cleaning products.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) substance profile sheet confirms that 1,4-dioxane is “reasonably expected to be a human carcinogen” based on the research to date, and even trace amounts bring cause for concern.
Dioxane is a Major Groundwater Contaminant
Dioxane is an increasing threat to waterways across the country and is of growing concern to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dioxane has fouled the water in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in several towns in Orange County, California. But it is likely present in many other places that do not routinely test for it. Since it has only recently been identified as a health hazard, it hasn’t been tested for. So no one really knows just how prevalent it is. Water filters can’t remove it—and it isn’t biodegradable.
When you use a laundry detergent contaminated with dioxane, it goes everywhere. It never breaks down. According to a quotation Steinman uses from the March 2008 issue of Chemosphere:
“As a groundwater contaminant, 1,4-dioxane is of considerable concern because of its toxicity, refractory nature to degradation, and rapid migration within an aquifer.”
What we do know is, when it’s tested for, it often shows up—and that fact is of great concern. To be proactive about your own health, you have to learn how to read labels. 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:
- “Myreth,” “oleth,” “laureth,” “ceteareth,” any other “eth”
- “Polyethylene,” “polyethylene glycol,” or “polyoxyethylene”
Remember, sodium laureth sulfate (as well as sodium laurel sulfate) are often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. But there is more bad news. SLS and SLES are not the only surfactants warranting concern.
NPE (Nonylphenol Ethoxylate)—the “Gender Bender”
Like SLS and SLES, NPE is an inexpensive nonionic surfactant frequently used in laundry detergents. NPE is an endocrine disruptor and estrogen mimicker that can potentially cause hormonal problems, or even cancer. When you absorb NPE, your body can’t tell the difference between NPE and estrogen.
Organisms exposed to NPE show kidney and liver damage, decreased testicular growth and sperm count, disrupted growth and metabolism, and increased mortality.
When rainbow trout are exposed to NPEs, they become part male and part female! According to the Sierra Club, who recently petitioned the EPA to regulate NPE, roughly 270 million pounds of NPE are used in the United States each year—and the majority of this ends up being rinsed down your drain. A U.S. Geological Survey study found metabolites of NPEs in more than 61 percent of tested streams in the U.S. (reported by Sierra Club).
According to a Sierra Club paper, researchers now believe that:
“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.”
NPEs have been banned already in Canada and Europe. Even Walmart has listed NPEs as one of three chemicals they’re asking suppliers to phase out.
Even the most sophisticated water treatment plants are unable to remove NPEs and their toxic metabolites. In fact, according to the Sierra Club report, sewage processing can make NPE metabolites more toxic, more estrogenic, and more persistent than NPE itself.
Look for evidence of NPE on your laundry detergent label—or declaration that it’s not in there. Some detergents contain NPE alternatives such as alcohol ethoxylate, which the Sierra Club suggests is less toxic and can break down naturally. Another enormous threat to your water supply is phosphates.
Phosphates and the Choking of Aquatic Life
Phosphates are the main cleaning ingredient in many detergents and household cleaners because they break down dirt particles and remove stains by softening the water and allowing suds to form, which enhances the cleaning power of the detergent. Some dishwasher tabs are more than 30 percent phosphates!
However, there are human health problems as well as major environmental hazards associated with phosphates. Phosphate residues on items that have been cleaned with phosphate-containing detergents have been known to cause nausea, diarrhea and skin irritations.
The largest concern with phosphates, however, is the environmental hazards they are creating.
Phosphates are difficult to remove from wastewater and often end up in rivers and lakes, where they increase algae growth, choking off waterways and suffocating salmon and other aquatic life, literally starving them of oxygen. Phosphates act like a “fertilizer” in waterways. When the overabundant algae die, they release toxins that deplete the waterways of oxygen. Phosphates remain active even after wastewater treatment.
Phosphate Wars and Water Spots
Detergents are available with or without phosphates—so you have a choice! As of March of 2008, twenty-five states had issued phosphate detergent bans, and the list continues to grow. Fifteen new states joined the cause in July of 2010. These new laws ARE making a difference. In Spokane, officials reported a 10.7 percent decrease in phosphate coming from the city’s sewage treatment plant, which discharges into the Spokane River, after their phosphate limit was put into effect.
You always know you’re making a difference when some serious pushback begins to occur. The transition to phosphate free products is no exception, in terms of bumps in the road.
Some folks report the performance of phosphate-free cleaning products just isn’t up to snuff, particularly with respect to dishwasher tabs. Many people have complained the greener cleaners just don’t do as good a job as the original (but more toxic) cleaners. One representative from Cascade said the conversion to low-phosphate has been “complex, with three or four ingredients needed to match what the phosphates accomplished alone.”
The phosphate war has even sparked a team of angry rebel dish detergent smugglers who, in vehement protest to the phosphate ban in Spokane, drove all the way to Idaho to buy phosphate-based detergents as a means of “sticking it to the environmentalists.”
But seriously, how clean do you really need to be? Are water spots on your glassware worth fouling the precious water filling them?
Get over the water spots. If they bother you, wipe them off with a towel. New products can butt heads with our old cultural concepts of cleanliness. As I see it, we all need to start making some concessions for the good of our planet and our health. Besides the chemicals I’ve already mentioned, are there other agents lurking in your laundry soap, for which you should be on the lookout? Unfortunately, yes.
Pretty Scary Laundry List
Besides surfactants and phosphates, the average detergent has a long list of other chemical ingredients—and most are not good for you or the Earth. Anything in those products can potentially be absorbed through your skin or breathed in through your nose, as well as passed down the drain to our waterways.
Typical chemicals include:
- Linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS), a.k.a. anionic surfactants
- Petroleum distillates (a.k.a. naphthas), which have been linked to cancer
- Phenols, which can cause toxicity throughout the entire body
- Optical brighteners, which cause bacterial mutations and allergic reactions, and can be toxic to fish
- Sodium hypochlorite (bleach)
- EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate)
- Artificial fragrances, which have been linked to various toxic effects on fish and animals, as well as allergic reactions in humans
And polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80 are also often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, according to Dr. Samuel Epstein. Over time, these toxins can build up in your body and cause a number of unknown, unpredictable effects.
Tips for Greener Laundering
Hopefully, public awareness about dioxane and surfactants will, in time, result in bans similar to those now being implemented for phosphates. The wheels of progress are slow, but at least they are turning.
In the meantime, there are some relatively painless steps you can take to decrease your exposure and shrink your ecological footprint (some of the tips below were incorporated from Planet Green’s How to Go Green Laundry page):
- Become a label reader. Look especially for “Does not contain…” because manufacturers are not yet required by law to list what is in the product. However, green companies will proudly display what is NOT in the product if they want to sell their product to environmentally conscious people like you.Look for “phosphate free,” “no bleach,” “SLE free” and “NPE free.” Look for “biodegradable” detergents since those often do not contain the harmful ingredients listed above. Look for plant- and animal-based ingredients, instead of petroleum-based.
- Buy concentrated detergents. These have reduced packaging and a smaller carbon footprint (requiring less space and fuel for shipping).
- Become a Soap Nut! Soap nuts are the dried fruit of the Chinese Soapberry tree (Sapindus mukorrosi). People have been using these natural soap-releasing berries for thousands of years, and they’ve recently caught on in the U.S.
- Wear it more than once. Too often, we just toss our clothing into the hamper after wearing it, out of habit, without regard to whether or not it’s really dirty. Washing less often also extends the life of your clothes.
- Wash and rinse in cold water. You will save a bundle on electricity (one estimate is $100 per year) just by doing this, because 90 percent of the energy required for washing lies in heating the water.
- Wash only full loads of laundry. It’s more energy efficient.
- Hang it out to dry. Put up a clothesline! Become part of the Right to Dry movement.
- Try making your own detergent. Here’s one formula costing pennies per load.
- Ditch the dry cleaning. Traditional dry cleaning is a very un-green and toxic process using harsh, carcinogenic chemicals, such as perchloroethylene (aka “perc”), which has been linked with a variety of cancers and other problems. Many “dry clean only” products can be safely hand washed. For those that can’t, try to find a greener dry cleaner in your area.
If you’re interested in the Enzyme Formula we produced, you can read more about it here!