Traditional laundry detergent is terrible for the environment. Despite advancements in renewable energy, electric cars, and other eco-friendly innovations, one area of everyday life that’s still overlooked is the home—specifically, how we clean.
From chemical pollution and carbon emissions to the use of plastics in packaging, the environmental impacts of cleaning products starts in your laundry room.
Keep reading to learn the extent to which your detergent is destroying the environment.
How Detergent Chemicals Impact the Environment
Laundry detergent chemicals are most harmful to aquatic life. You might not think it matters to you if some random invertebrate from a bog down the street is affected by phosphates, but when marine organisms die off, so do the animals that eat them, and the animals that eat those, affecting the fisherman that catch them and the beaches and rivers you play on, and so on and so forth, until economies struggle and communities fail.
Your life is inherently connected to the environment—and the environment is likewise connected to your actions and choices. Here are the chemicals in laundry detergent that are dangerous for the environment (and your health).
As low as 5ppm of laundry detergent is enough to poison aquatic life. The toxicity of laundry detergents stems from its main ingredients. Though these have varying levels of harm individually, they add up to a chemical cocktail designed to destroy the environment as much as it cleans clothes.
Here’s a description of each of the most harmful of these chemicals.
Typically used to preserve corpses, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies this as a carcinogen. It’s linked to an increased risk of cancer and has a significant impact on aquatic life.
Not only does it interfere with marine species’ ability to breed, but it’s also highly toxic and shortens their life spans. The chemical has also been shown to reduce oxygen levels in water, suffocating aquatic life.
These have been linked to heart disease and can cause environmental havoc, such as algae toxins, when released into the environment. Additionally, phosphate mining pollutes the air, destroys wildlife, and contaminates water.
One of the most serious and common effects of phosphates are algal blooms, which use up the oxygen in aquatic ecosystems. This starves aquatic life of oxygen, killing species and destroying biodiversity. Over time this leads to far-reaching consequences for the local ecosystem and beyond.
Phosphates, though banned in the European Union, may pose the biggest risk to aquatic life of all laundry detergent ingredients.
Laundry detergents contain synthetic and cationic surfactants, which are known to reduce water’s surface tension. In turn, that lack of surface tension can leave water more susceptible and force it to absorb pollutants.
When reading through a detergent’s ingredient list, consumers will find surfactants represented by the following materials:
- Alkyl sulfates
- Alkyl ethoxylate sulfates
- Fatty alcohol ethers
These surfactants are known to have environmental effects, including undermining the food chain in aquatic environments and causing acute poisoning in fish.
A household staple, bleach brightens whites. Chlorine is one of the more toxic by-products in detergents and is known to affect aquatic organisms, other wildlife, and humans while having environmental effects.
If mixed with other chemicals, such as ammonia, it can become highly toxic. Inhaling bleach fumes and similar chemicals increases the risk of respiratory disease. Contact with the skin or eyes is also known to cause burns.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds
Used as an antibacterial, quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs or Quats), such as ammonium sulfate and ammonium quaternary sanitizers, impact biota—living things—in aquatic ecosystems, “including algae, invertebrates, fish, and plants.” QACs have already been found in wastewaters and surface waters worldwide and may also lead to antibiotic resistance, a serious phenomenon with implications for the future of treating human bacterial infections.
Dioxane is a dangerous solvent because it stays in water indefinitely, never breaking down. Dioxane forms as a result of detergent ingredients mixing. Another carcinogen, 1-4, dioxane is also a combustion risk. It’s a flammable material that may release toxic fumes if heated. Exposure to dioxane can affect a person’s lungs, kidneys, and respiratory system.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Also found in shampoo and hand soap, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are foaming agents. SLS and SLES can irritate the skin and eyes upon contact with detergents and may have carcinogenic implications, but their environmental toxicity is debatable. According to the National Institutes of Health “SLS is considered a sustainable material because of its 100% biobased content, biodegradability, and low potential to bioaccumulation.” Others insist these chemicals are toxic to aquatic life.
Optical brighteners give detergents their blue color and make white clothes appear whiter. But they’re not biodegradable. Rather they’re a hazard to the environment and have been found in waterways, affecting the surrounding areas.
The impacts of these are observed across generations of wildlife, with optical brighteners causing mutations in bacteria and aquatic life.
As a member of the chlorinated benzene family, dichlorobenzene is also used in pesticides, controlling shellfish populations, and as a fungicide. These uses demonstrate just what it could do once released into the environment. Soil and water is known to absorb pesticides.
One of the more notable effects of dichlorobenzene is causing tumors in animals and posing a cancer risk to humans. Though the chemical is typically breathed in, it can also be absorbed into the soil, thereby affecting plant life and the food chain.
Also known as NPEs, nonylphenol ethoxylates have multiple uses outside of detergents, such as in lawn care products and latex paints. They’re known to be toxic to aquatic life, which includes the feminization of organisms and decreased male fertility levels.
Artificial Dyes and Fragrances
The dyes and fragrances included in detergents simply make clothes smell nice. They harm wildlife and aquatic species, however, making them unwanted and unneeded additions.
The ingredients used to create these artificial fragrances and dyes are often not listed on the label. These are volatile compounds that worsen air pollution and contaminate aquatic wildlife habitats and waterways. They can also cause contact dermatitis and other symptoms in humans.
How Detergent Packaging Impacts the Environment
The production of plastic involves first removing natural resources from deep within the earth through mining, drilling, and fracking. Then the burning of these fossil fuels to form the plastic emits countless greenhouse gases into the air, worsening and hastening climate change.
The United States uses over 700 million plastic laundry detergent jugs, made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), every year. These single-use plastics—only 30% of these jugs are recycled every year—then end up in landfills.
Though laundry detergent plastic takes up a fraction of overall plastic pollution, the material kills millions of animals every year. Microplastics affect not only wildlife but humans as well— they were recently identified in the blood and lungs of most humans tested.
The chemicals in laundry jugs can leach into the soil and groundwater, causing water and soil contamination. These have a disastrous effect on the environment, with their effects ranging from depriving aquatic life of oxygen to causing hormonal changes, which also occurs in humans.
Types of Laundry Detergent and Their Individual Impacts
Liquids, pods, powders, sheets, oh my. There’s a lot to choose from these days, but not all laundry detergents have the same impact.
Each type of laundry detergent affects the environment in different ways, with some being worse than others.
Liquid laundry detergents are the worst environmental offenders, primarily because of the plastic containers used to contain them. Approximately 30% of these are recycled in the United States, with the rest ending up in landfills. The process involved in the production of plastic is also bad for the environment, usually involving natural resources and fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and crude oil.
A major ingredient in liquid laundry detergent is water. Even though many are “concentrated,” a great deal of water is still wasted in its production.
Furthermore, liquid detergents are heavy, so they require more resources to ship, increasing carbon emissions worldwide and ultimately contributing to climate change.
Laundry pods can appear more attractive to consumers who think pods require less plastic packaging. That isn’t the case, though. Out of the packaging used for laundry pods, approximately 75% ends up in landfills.
Pods might be convenient, but their environmental impact is still significant. They contain the same dangerous synthetic chemical compounds as all traditional detergents.
At this point I can only imagine you’d be disappointed if I didn’t mention the notorious Tide Pod Challenge of 2017. Ah, simpler times. Detergent pods were reportedly eaten by people thinking they were candy, resulting in countless sick children. Well, mostly children.
Though most laundry detergent powders come in a cardboard box—a sustainable material—it contains a litany of toxic ingredients. Though this surely uses less plastic, the toxicity of powder laundry detergent makes it more harmful than it’s worth.
Despite the minimal packaging for these products, I can’t recommend powder detergents. As many of their ingredients don’t degrade, the environmental impacts of these can compound over time, including toxicity in marine animals and soil pollution.
While a recent invention, detergent sheets are becoming increasingly popular. The cleaning power of detergent sheets is equal to that of traditional detergent, but their environmental impact is quite different.
Laundry detergent sheets are made out of plant-based, all-natural ingredients—which are biodegradable—so they’re more environmentally friendly than leading traditional brands. They’re also typically packaged in cardboard instead of plastic.
Laundry detergent sheets are lightweight and shipped in likewise lightweight containers, requiring less fuel and other resources to ship, and resulting in less carbon emissions than traditional laundry products.
To switch to detergent sheets today, read my review of the best laundry detergent sheets available.
An Environmentally Friendly Approach
Consumers worried about the harmful environmental effects of laundry detergent may consider alternatives, but washing clothes at all, regardless of what kind of soap you use, can have a negative impact on the environment.
Of course, humans can’t exist without some impact on the environment around us, and you have to wash your clothes. But there are ways to minimize your impact.
Specific fabrics, such as nylon, polyester, and rayon, can pollute water sources. These fabrics break down in the wash and release plastic derivatives—microplastics—into wastewater. Avoiding these synthetic fabrics is essential. You can do this by not buying fast fashion. Focus instead on brands that use sustainable materials that won’t break down and pollute waterways.
Choosing energy-efficient washing machines and an eco-friendly detergent is another way to ensure your weekly laundry chore isn’t damaging the environment. Do fewer, larger loads as well.
And, of course, choose environmentally friendly detergents that don’t contain harmful chemical compounds. “Environmentally friendly detergents” may sound like an oxymoron, but thanks to innovative brands, it doesn’t have to anymore.
What Makes Laundry Detergent Eco-Friendly?
Knowing how to spot a harmless or eco-friendly laundry detergent isn’t difficult. Focus on the ingredients and the packaging.
Choose detergents that ship in recycled, biodegradable materials. Ensure it’s not only plastic free but also compostable.
Focus on detergent ingredients that are biodegradable and nontoxic and won’t harm the environment.
Top Environmentally Friendly Laundry Detergents
Many brands focus exclusively on an environmentally friendly laundry detergent, including laundry detergent from the following brands:
- Earth Breeze
- Pur Home
- Tru Earth
- Grove Collaborative
- Seventh Generation
Not only do the above brands exclude toxic ingredients from their formulas, but they also use environmentally friendly packaging.
Environmentally Friendly Alternatives To Laundry Detergent
While there are multiple environmentally friendly detergents, consumers may want to stop using them altogether. Washing clothes is still a necessity, however. There are some environmentally friendly alternatives. To make your own detergent, read my guide to homemade laundry detergents. Focusing on natural substances with this is recommended.
Homemade detergents aren’t the only alternative consumers can choose from. A number of detergent alternatives are probably in your laundry room already.
Eco-Friendly Laundry Habits
If you must wash your clothes—and let’s be honest, you must—you can minimize your impact in several ways:
- Wash less frequently—The most obvious way of reducing laundry’s impact on the environment is fewer wash loads per week.
- Don’t use a dryer—Dryers release CO2, even when they’re energy efficient. Airing out clothes, while taking more time, ensures that’s not an issue.
- Install a water softener—Hard water doesn’t mix well with laundry detergent. Installing a water softener means you’ll use less laundry detergent.
- Use cold water—Washing at cooler temperatures is more environmentally friendly and just as effective as washing at warmer temperatures.
- Choose sustainable fabrics—As mentioned above, synthetic clothing leads to microplastics.
Though these involve a few small lifestyle changes, they’re worth implementing to protect the environment, aquatic life, and human health.
Laundry detergent has a significant impact on the environment. Not only does it affect human health, but it also harms wildlife, especially marine life, and increases carbon emissions, the cause of climate change.
Since manufacturers aren’t required to list all of their ingredients on packaging, finding out precisely what’s included can be difficult. That’s why it’s vital that you read the ingredients on everything you buy.
To help put a stop to the devastating effects that laundry detergent has on the environment, avoid traditional laundry detergents and choose an eco-friendly option instead.