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Is Your Laundry Detergent Toxic?

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Unfortunately that “clean” smell you might associate with laundry isn’t always healthy for you or your family.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Jan 26, 2017

Laundromat

Laundry is one of those inescapable facts of life, like death and taxes. Some estimates suggest that the average American household does EIGHT loads a week. That’s a lot of laundry! And unfortunately most of that laundry is washed with synthetic chemicals that may adversely affect human health. And when your laundry drains? All those chemicals enter our water supply and affect aquatic life.

As you work to make your home as healthy as possible, don’t overlook the laundry room. Here’s what you need to know to make healthier choices when washing your clothes.

What’s Lurking in Your Laundry?

Like other common cleaning products, conventional laundry detergents can be laden with chemicals linked to health problems ranging from hormone disruption to cancer. Many others have little data to demonstrate their safety, and virtually nothing can be known about the effects they may have when tiny amounts of hundreds of chemicals get mixed together in our bodies. With 80,000 industrial chemicals currently in use and more entering the market every year, each of us has our own signature chemical cocktail running through our veins. Testing of newborns’ cord blood has revealed that babies begin life with more than two hundred synthetic chemicals already in their systems.

Dryer
Some of the common chemicals used in laundry products include hormone-disrupting phthalates and probable carcinogens like 1,4-dioxane. Fabric softeners contain compounds called quaternary ammonium compounds, or “quats,” which are considered asthmagens, substances that cause asthma. Because quats are antibacterial, they may also promote drug-resistant bacteria strains.

Most stain removers use some very potent chemicals to do the tough work of getting out berry, wine, and dirt stains. Some of these ingredients have been linked to respiratory problems and reproductive and developmental toxicity. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have stains.

All those different scents detergent makers use – whether it’s “fresh,” “spring breeze,” or “rain” –are produced by hundreds of chemicals with little or no safety data. The “fragrances” chemical companies use are proprietary, so it’s virtually impossible to know what’s in most of your detergents. Chemical brighteners likewise contain an array of chemicals known to be harmful to human health. These products may leave behind residues that are dangerous for your pet.

Personally, I prefer to opt my family out of the vast science experiment being conducted on an unsuspecting public. Thankfully, there are plenty of safer alternatives that still get your laundry clean. From non-toxic detergents to DIY cleaning solutions, getting dangerous chemicals out of your laundry room isn’t difficult.

Cleaning Clothes Without Chemicals

A plant-based detergent lets you clean your clothes without chemicals that harm your family or the environment. But be a savvy shopper: Don’t get fooled by claims that a product is “natural” when it isn’t. The Environmental Working Group’s research into the safety of 2,500 cleaning products uncovered some surprising results, and some prominent “green” brands got alarmingly low ratings. Look up all your favorite laundry products in the EWG’s cleaning database to be sure your choices are as safe as possible.

Homemade Laundry Detergent

You can also make your own detergent. Besides avoiding chemicals, you’ll save money. Some recipes estimate three to five cents per load as compared to twenty cents or more for store-bought detergents. Recipes vary, but the simplest one can be made with only two ingredients: castile soap and washing soda. Washing soda (also known as sodium carbonate) is a laundry booster available at most large grocery stores. Simply Clean, VIP, and Arm & Hammer are three common brands.

Homemade laundry soap:

2 cups washing soda
1 5 oz bar castile soap

Simply grate the soap or cut into chunks and put in a food processor. Mix well with the washing soda. You can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil if you like. You can also swap out half the washing soda for baking soda or borax if you prefer, though borax may not work as well in colder water.

A word of caution:

Because DIY versions contain soap (and not much of it) rather than industrially-produced detergents specifically designed for cleaning clothes, they may not clean as effectively as commercial products. While plenty of DIY fans are perfectly happy with the results, some long time users of homemade laundry soap put their clean clothes through a stripping process to remove soap residue and found the rinse water dirty enough to make them give it up.

Soap Nuts
If you’re interested in DIY solutions, consider something called “soap nuts,” one of the coolest laundry detergents to hit the market in recent years. Soap nuts grow on trees in the Himalayas, and are not actually nuts but berries, so those with nut allergies have nothing to worry about. Soap berries have a naturally-occurring coating of a substance called saponin that dissolves in water and works like commercial detergents in your washer. But they are gentler on clothes and naturally soften fabric.

Soap Nuts
Soap nuts let you slash the impact of your laundry, since there’s far less energy required to process, ship and package soap berries than liquid or powder detergent. They can be reused many times, so your laundry can get clean for as little a nine cents per load. Note that the whole berries don’t always work well in many high efficiency (HE) washers, so the makers of Eco Nuts have a liquid product made from soap nuts they recommend for those machines instead.

I’m always looking for ways to make my household’s ecological footprint smaller, so I find soap nuts very appealing. I have a front-load washer, so I tried the liquid form of the product in place of my usual plant-based detergent and was very pleased with the results. My clothes were clean and fresh, with no scent at all, which is what clean should smell like! But it’s the unprocessed nuts that I think are so wonderful for cutting out packaging, so I’ll be using this tutorial to make my own soap nuts liquid in the future. You can use it for all sorts of household cleaning, and then compost the spent berries. Brilliant!

Stain Fighters, Bleach Alternatives, and Fabric Softeners

I’ll admit, my distaste for chlorine bleach has led me to avoid white clothes, especially for kids. It’s a pretty simple solution; our dark and vibrant colors are impervious to blueberry smoothie and tomato sauce. Once in awhile someone gives us something white, though, so thankfully there are many ways to remove stains without all the questionable chemicals.

Wool dryer balls

Natural Brightening and Stain Removal:

  • Oxygen-based brightners are a non-toxic solution to dingy clothes and stains.
  • Soaking in a 1:1 solution of hydrogen peroxide and water can help lift out food stains and whiten clothes. Hydrogen peroxide may weaken some fabrics if left soaking too long, so limit your soak to 30 minutes.
  • Treat stubborn stains by applying a paste of baking soda and lemon juice or white vinegar. (Always apply to the back of the fabric to avoid rubbing the stain in further.) Pre-treating the stain with dish soap or laundry detergent can help as well. Try working soap into the stain with a toothbrush.

Softening:

  • You can get softer clothes without the chemicals simply by adding a ½ cup of white vinegar to your wash load and letting them take a spin in the dryer with some dryer balls.

A few tweaks to your laundry routine and you’ve just made your wash a lot greener and healthier for your family!

susannahshmurak

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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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