Is Laundry Detergent Toxic and Which Toxins Are in It?

Laundry is one of life’s inevitabilities. You hustle all day, washing endless amounts of laundry, trying to get to that last pile at the bottom of the basket before company comes over.

But have you ever really considered what lurks in your laundry detergent? Could your laundry detergent be toxic? The quick answer to this question is yes, most mainstream laundry detergents actually are toxic.

Here is a list of common toxins found in most laundry detergents:

Phosphates 

Phosphorus is a common element that already exists in the environment naturally. Phosphate ore is mined, refined, and then mixed with other elements to create multiple different compound chemicals for use in an array of products, including detergents. 

Negative effects

Phosphates damage aquatic environments through nutrient pollution. Because they’re not biodegradable, phosphates make their way through waterways eventually ending up in larger bodies of water, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. While phosphates occur naturally in water sources, excess phosphates from chemical runoff contribute to eutrophication and harmful algal blooms. The algae uses more and more of the water’s oxygen, in turn suffocating and killing aquatic life. 

In humans, excess exposure to phosphates can be linked to cardiovascular disease, and it can also have negative effects on your skin. Additionally, exposure to toxic algae blooms can irritate the eyes, skin, and nose, induce vomiting, diarrhea, and fever, and even affect your nervous system or other crucial organs. 

Most countries have recognized the negative impact of phosphates, and throughout the last decade or so, some countries have even banned its use in laundry detergent, replacing it with ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid. Although not as harmful, it’s also not biodegradable and still poses health risks.

Dioxane (1,4 dioxane/diethylene/dioxide/diethylene ether)

The organic compound 1,4 dioxane is not by itself an ingredient added to detergent, but rather is a chemical by-product formed as a reaction to other chemicals mixed together. In laundry detergent, dioxane is created by mixing ethylene oxide with sodium laureth sulfate (SLS). SLS is added as a foaming agent, while ethylene oxide is added to decrease the harshness of the SLS and make it safer for sensitive skin. But dioxane, which is not so safe, is created as a result. Dioxane is one of the top worst ingredients found in detergent.

Negative effects

The EPA classifies 1,4 dioxane as a probable human carcinogen. Exposure can irritate eyes, nose, throat, and skin, cause nausea, vomiting, vertigo, drowsiness, and headaches, and could even lead to damage of the kidneys, lungs, and central nervous system. High exposure can even induce coma and death. 

Although at-home users of laundry detergent won’t be at risk of high exposure or indoor air pollution, it’s another story for the factory employees and people who live near them inhaling the fumes each and every day.

Dioxane has also been found in open water sources, as well as groundwater. That means not only does it negatively affect the flora and fauna that call these ecosystems home, but it’s also in your water supply.

Bleach 

Bleach is not actually one product by itself, but a mix of toxic chemicals, and the different ingredients in popular mixtures determine which type of bleach you have. The most common household bleach is called chlorine bleach and is made up of diluted sodium hypochlorite, but you can also get hydrogen peroxide-based oxygen bleach, as well as powdered bleach, which consists of calcium hypochlorite. In laundry detergent, bleach’s main use is to brighten whites, remove stubborn stains, and disinfect clothing.

Negative effects

If you’ve ever opened up a bottle of bleach, you’re familiar with its strong chemical scent. Not only does bleach cause caustic (chemical) burns on contact with your skin, eyes, and internal organs, but inhaling the fumes from this ingredient can cause respiratory distress. Mixing bleach with other chemicals, such as ammonia or acids, creates deadly toxic fumes that, if inhaled, could be fatal.

Formaldehyde 

Formaldehyde is a strong-smelling, colorless gas that can be flammable at room temperature. Although formaldehyde occurs naturally in nature in small amounts, industrial man-made formaldehyde finds its way into more and more products and becomes a big health concern. You can find formaldehyde in pressed and treated woods and cigarette smoke, and it’s also used as a fungicide, disinfectant, and preservative. (If you’re wondering if this is the same chemical they use to preserve bodies in the morgue, it is.) Formaldehyde is also used in detergents and cosmetic products as a cheap preservative, and for antibacterial purposes.

Negative effects

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen in humans, and increased exposure can be linked to multiple types of cancers. Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, and throat. Most people are exposed to formaldehyde through either inhaling the toxic gas or absorbing it through their skin, which are two things you do when washing laundry.

Formaldehyde is quickly degraded in soil and water but can still have a negative effect on certain aquatic life, especially in areas that already have high rates of pollution.

Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats, or QAC)

Adding quaternary ammonium compounds to products allows a company to claim their products as “antibacterial.” And for good reason—quats have such extreme cleaning power that they can kill bacterias like E.Coli and Staphylococcus aureus. After use, quats actually stay on surfaces for an extremely long time, exposing you for even longer than you’d expect. Using quats to clean food surfaces can leave highly toxic chemicals behind, which you and your family could end up ingesting. 

Negative effects

Because quaternary ammonium compounds are so exceptional at killing bacteria, and because it’s so widely used, it has actually begun to create superbugs. These superbugs are resistant to quats, disinfectants, and even antibiotics, which poses a big problem to public health.

Even with minimal exposure, quats can damage the eyes, skin, and lungs. These extremely toxic chemicals are corrosive and can damage your gastrointestinal wall, as well as inducing coma, convulsions, or even death.

Synthetic surfactants 

Laundry detergents are made up of various amounts of different types of surfactants, along with other ingredients. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and nonylphenol ethoxylate are some commonly known surfactants used in laundry detergents. 

Surfactants play a very important role in detergents. The molecules are responsible for breaking the tension of the water’s surface to allow it to spread out and clean better, as well as attaching to dirt particles and rinsing away dirt and grease easier.

Negative effects

Most surfactants are considered skin irritants, but they can also irritate eyes and the respiratory system as well. Some types of surfactants can actually have negative effects on reproduction and hormones and are also classified as possible carcinogens.

Surfactants don’t just reduce the water’s surface tension in our washing machines to help clean our clothing better, they also cause reduced tension in our waterways. When this happens, the water source absorbs more pollution into it from the atmosphere, speeding up the deterioration of the aquatic habitat. Surfactants can also affect marine life directly by breaking down their body’s protective mucus layer and damaging gills, eventually resulting in death from absorption of chemicals and suffocation.

Optical brighteners (optical brightening agents, OBAs)

You may have noticed that most laundry detergents are blue. Blue optical brighteners create the illusion of a whiter garment. Optical brighteners make your clothing appear whiter and brighter by absorbing UV light and converting it to visible light. This tricks the eye into seeing blue hues, which in turn makes garments appear cleaner and whiter, but in reality it does not remove stains, it just hides the dirt deeper within the fabric. 

Negative effects

OBAs rubbing off onto your skin all day from your clothing can cause skin irritations and allergies. There’s also a chance that these chemicals can cause long-term effects, such as developmental and reproductive issues.

Optical brightening agents decompose very slowly and pose a hazard to the environment. Because they don’t biodegrade, they eventually make their way into waterways, negatively impacting aquatic ecosystems and their surrounding areas. 

Artificial dyes and fragrances

Dyes and fragrances in laundry detergent have absolutely nothing to do with cleaning clothes but are added in for aesthetic purposes. In detergents, synthetic fragrance and dyes are manufactured to stick to your clothing and last way longer than just the rinse cycle.

Negative effects

Because artificial dyes and fragrances are made to stick to your clothing, they also rub onto your skin all day long, which can lead to skin irritation and allergic reactions. But this also means that every fiber of your clothing is jam-packed full of these chemicals and cannot breathe. Bacterias, oils, and dirt end up becoming trapped inside, leading to even more skin issues. 

Some other issues that can arise from exposure to synthetic fragrances and dyes are headaches, dizziness, sensitivities, coughing, vomiting, neurotoxicity, and even cancer.

It’s not just wearing clothing washed with dyes and fragrances that causes health concerns but also inhaling the synthetic chemicals that come from your dryer vent. Although multiple hazardous pollutants are released from your dryer, acetaldehyde and benzene are the two worst—both are known carcinogens. 

Other harmful chemicals

Other unsettling chemicals found in laundry detergents are ammonia, phenols, ammonium sulfate, benzyl acetate, and dichlorobenzene (P-dichlorobenzene/benzene). All of these ingredients can have negative health effects, from either inhalation or contact with skin. 

But of these, ammonium sulfates are the most toxic to the environment and aquatic life. Requirements for ammonium sulfate use state that the chemical and its container must not reach sewage systems or waterways—which seems strange considering it’s an ingredient in detergents that are meant to go into water and out through your drain.

Can You Trust Labels?

Laundry detergent manufacturers are not required to list ALL their ingredients, especially if only trace amounts of an ingredient are present in their products. But if these are the chemicals they do list on their detergent labels, how much worse are the ones they don’t list?

Although manufacturers do put warnings on their labels, it’s only for the risks of ingesting the detergent and not for anything else. (Remember the detergent pods/Tide laundry pods challenge?) 

All these ingredients are chemicals, and any chemical that’s rubbing against and absorbing into your skin all day should warrant a warning too.

There’s Never Been a Better Time to Make the Switch

Not only do toxic laundry detergents have a big impact on your personal health, but it also has an even worse effect on the environment, polluting waterways and harming the aquatic life that lives there. 

And that’s just what we know so far. With increased use of harmful chemicals it could take years to know the full negative impacts from long-term use. 

You should note that not ALL commercial detergents are bad. More and more eco-friendly, non-toxic laundry products are rolling onto the market every day. There’s never been a better time to switch to a more sustainable natural laundry detergent alternative.

Laundry detergent sheets 

Laundry detergent sheets are an eco-friendly alternative to traditional laundry detergents, especially ones that come in heavy plastic bottles. Most laundry sheets come in lightweight, biodegradable packages and are made of plant-based ingredients. To make it easier for you, I’ve reviewed the leading laundry detergent sheets.

Make your own

You can even DIY and make your own laundry detergent or laundry soap. The ingredients are inexpensive and you can lower your carbon footprint considerably by making your own laundry detergent. Making your own detergent guarantees that you’ll know exactly what’s going into your wash cycle and your clothes.

Alternatives to laundry detergent

Another option is to try creative home substitutes for detergent. There are many ways to clean your clothes and other fabrics, including washing soda, baking soda, white vinegar, and castile soap. For more information about non-toxic and simple alternatives to laundry detergent, read my article about laundry substitutes

Conclusion

Is laundry detergent toxic? Yes. Toxic to you, toxic to aquatic life, and toxic to the environment. 

Now that you know about these dangerous chemicals and their effects, you can opt for a more sustainable, eco-friendly laundry soap or detergent, protecting your home and the planet. 

And while you’re at it, don’t just stop at detergent, maybe you could try to use fewer harsh chemicals in your other household cleaning products as well!