Brighter Colors Don’t Mean Cleaner Clothes

Clean is good, right?  Most people want “their whites whiter and their non-whites brighter.”  That’s why now, more and more, many laundry detergents have begun adding bleach alternatives for colored clothes that add an extra “brightening” effect. However, the clothes aren’t necessarily any cleaner.

While the general public is becoming more aware of the problems concerning perfumes and dyes in their products, the use of optical brighteners (OB) is something that has stayed on the down-low, until recently. 

Seventh Generation, an alternative household cleaning supply company, has created a campaign against these brighteners. According to the company, rather than removing the dirt, sweat or stains, optical brighteners permeate the fabrics, causing them to alternatively absorb and fluoresce light, giving them the appearance of brightness. Sun and other factors make the color fade and the clothes are washed again to appear bright. Some examples of these OBs are:

  • coumarins
  • naphthotriazolylstilbenes
  • benzoxazolyl
  • benzimidazoyl
  • naphthylimide
  • diaminostilbene disulfonates

Unlike foodstuff or even beauty and hair products, cleaning products do not have to contain a list of ingredients, making it difficult to know which products contain these chemicals. Suffice it to say that anything that has the term “bleach alternative” most likely uses one of the OBs listed above.

Unfortunately, these chemicals don’t only affect those wearing the OB-laden clothes, but also marine ecology. Effluent from washing machines enter the sewer system, and 11-47 percent of OBs goes into waterways. Between 7-70 percent of the OBs biodegrade in the water, depending on a variety of circumstances, and the remainder can be toxic to algae and small fish. 

These chemicals, like mercury, can bioaccumulate in larger fish and eventually become ingested by other animals or humans. Besides waterways, the OBs can also absorb into the ground via septic tanks and while the EPA states that the OBs have low toxicity to humans (only Courmins, perhaps), other ingredients like Aminotriazine- or stilbene-based whiteners may cause developmental and reproductive effects.

While the general public has been relatively in the dark about these OBs, the military has been avoiding these ingredients for a while. They’ve developed fabrics that are undetectable by infrared or night-vision products, though laundering them with OBs renders the clothes visible. In fact, the military has compiled a list of usable detergents which include:

  • Bold Powder
  • All Powder (all versions)
  • Woolite (all versions)
  • Cheer Liquid and Powder (all versions)
  • Surf Powder (all versions)

Those that should never be used include all versions of Tide, All and Arm and Hammer.

Brighteners might make the clothes appear cleaner, but Seventh Generation has found a way to avoid OBs and still clean clothes properly. While there is still little research done on the effects of OBs on the environment and human health, the fact remains that we certainly don’t need additional chemicals in our water or food supply.  

Photo credit: Bizzimom


Melanie Clark
Melanie Clark8 years ago

I'm very allergic to fragrances and perfumes, especially in laundry detergent. I use Seventh Generation, as well as Martha Stewart's new plant-based detergent. I used another organic detergent as well. I also use this for my children's and husband's clothes.

Scott Vonwolf
Scott haakon8 years ago

This is very interesting another chapter and allergies and the cleaning products would be useful perhaps a alliance with Consumer Reports(who have labs and expert staff. We deserve a list of ingredients in case of ingestion if these items. As we deserve a list of ingredients in out food supply..

Kellie Noffsinger
Kellie N8 years ago

I use a dry mix recipe that has bar soap, borax and baking soda in it. Is that safe?

Haley S.
Haley S8 years ago

Interesting. Thanks for the post. Keep posting! :)

Shannon Murphy
Shannon Murphy8 years ago

I make my own laundry detergent, it's so much cheaper and is so much less chemically laden. Plus you can add essential oils if you want to personalize the smell of your laundry.

Stefani S.
Stefani A8 years ago

I love Seventh Generation products. I think they are a great company. Thanks for this post. Ecover is good too.

Tracy Schaal
Tracy Schaal8 years ago

I use something similar to Seventh Generation here in Switzerland. I am also thinking of going a step further and switching to soap nuts--has anyone used them?

Mia M.
Mia K8 years ago

I think we all should try to switch to cosmetics and house-hold products for cleaning, that are not toxic to produce, to use, or that do not, after they've been used, contaminate the air, water or the earth. To me, personally, the greatest human folly is our eagerness to poison ourselves.

Chandra K.
Paula P8 years ago

No wait, are Surf and Omo the same thing?

Chandra K.
Paula P8 years ago

I don't think we have any of those brands here in this country, or at least I've never used any of them. I wish there was an international version of that list.