The laundry detergent aisle can be a confusing place to navigate. Is this laundry detergent toxic? Is that one? What’s the difference between all of these products, anyway? For many people, the answer is none. That’s because most conventional laundry detergents contain ingredients that have been linked to allergies and eczema. The invisible toxins from laundry detergent can cause harm – even when used in small amounts on clothes every day.

Every moment of your waking hours, your skin is in constant contact with clothing which has been washed with laundry detergent. The chemicals used in laundry detergent can cause skin irritation, allergies or eczema.

Basket overflowing with  clothes

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Is laundry detergent toxic?

Invisible toxins from laundry detergent ingredients can cause harm to people and the environment.

Unfortunately mainstream or “big brand” laundry products are often loaded with toxins. Brands like Tide have become the most recognized laundry product by consumers. The fact is that many billion dollar companies may not care about what their products do to those who use them or our environment.

What are some of the toxic ingredients in laundry detergent?

  • Fragrances – contain hormone-disrupting chemicals which are not required to be disclosed.
  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) – according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these are associated with reproductive and developmental harm and are also highly toxic to aquatic life.
  • 1,4-Dioxane – a contaminant created during processing and linked to cancer. 1,4-Diethyleneoxide Hazard Summary.
  • Surfactants (Synthetic and Petroleum-Based)
    • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) – linked to skin irritant, organ toxicity, hormone disruption, reproductive issues.
    • Ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES)
    • Polyethylene glycol (PEG),
  • Chlorine Bleach – can burn the skin, and can cause eye damage and respiratory issues,. It is also classified as a hazardous chemical in its initial state.
  • Ammonium Quaternary Sanitizers (Quats)
  • Benzyl Acetate, and Other Benzene Ingredients
  • 2-Butoxyethanol
  • Optical Brighteners – They “coat” your clothing and remain after washing giving the illusion of brighter whites
  • Quaternium-15 & Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen

How Hidden Toxins are Sabotaging Your Health

Finding Safe nontoxic laundry for the whole family

Switching laundry detergent is a big undertaking. It can sometimes be hard to find one that is both non-toxic and works for all your families needs including allergies, or just being able to get clothes clean. How do you go about finding a laundry detergent that is non toxic?

  1. Don’t fall for pretty containers or labels. “natural” doesn’t mean nontoxic.
  2. Check EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning
    • here you can simply search for any brand of laundry detergent .
    • You will see a safety score from A (best) to F (worst).
    • Review this list of top ranking laundry products. Try something new until you find something that works for your family.
  3. Use an App
  4. Use your consumer power to vote out companies that don’t have the communities best interests at heart and be sure to support the businesses that do.

What is the safest laundry detergent for babies?

Does the baby need a special hypoallergenic detergent such as Dreft? In my opinion what’s safe for the family is safe for baby. All the clothes from family members end up touching each other and transferring any residues. Did you know it can take up to 9+ washing cycles to get out old laundry detergent residues?

A special note on dreft. Why is Dreft bad? Dreft products have very bad scores on EWG, so they are best avoided.

Cancer Causing Chemicals in Shampoo? Here’s How to Ditch Them

Spilled Tide detergent.

Our Journey to Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

Doing Laundry is a chore that everyone must do.  Add trying to get clothes clean in a non-toxic way and 4 small kids and you’ve got a huge undertaking.  After 7 years of trail and error and some research we’ve finally found the best non-toxic laundry detergent for our family. Our journey to finding a good laundry detergent was long, hard, and sometimes stinky (literally). Asking myself “is laundry detergent toxic” led me down this path.

Stage 1 – Going with the flow

My parents always used Wisk laundry detergent. I went off to college and did my own laundry using Wisk laundry detergent.  My Tide using roommate often commented how my clothes seemed less faded despite the fact that she only did laundry once a month and I did mine weekly.

I was concerned to learn how laundry detergents contain cancer causing chemicals which stick to your clothes and touch your skin 24/7, as well as the dangerous scents being breathed in all day long.   At this point in my life it was just a side thought, because after all EVERYONE is wearing these chemicals and nobody is falling down sick.

Stage 2 – Attempt at change

Lured by both the idea of getting away from toxic chemicals and the idea of saving some money I attempted to make some homemade detergent. There are a billion homemade laundry detergent recipes out there and entire eBooks on amazon all about non-toxic laundry detergent.  Most recipes claim that making your own can cost you only a few pennies per load.

BUT the homemade laundry detergent I made gave me rash. I did not save the recipe, but I think the washing soda was causing my issues. Then I came across the Environmental Working Group (EWG) a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting health and the environment.  I love that they have a searchable database with easy to understand toxicity scores. This has been my go to source for researching non-toxic laundry products.

Stage 3 – Allergies and Eczema

Then we had a baby with terrible eczema.  I learned how sensitives to chemicals in laundry detergents could be an eczema trigger.  Being new parents we didn’t know what to do other than to go with the public consensus “Use Dreft or ALL brand laundry detergent”.  The pediatrician office even had sample packets!  I tried both of these brands despite being extremely concerned about the bad EWG ratings.  WHY would anyone use these dangerous laundry detergents on tiny human beings who are even more vulnerable to chemicals than adults?  In reality you don’t really need a special baby detergent, any hypoallergenic laundry detergent will do.  All I wanted was a non-toxic laundry detergent for my little baby.

25+ Resources & Tips for Those Who Suffer with Childhood Eczema

Next I tried 7th Generation brand, and after that I finally settled on Whole Foods brand laundry detergent which had good ratings on EWG.

I was also plagued by the fact (and still am) that it takes as many as 9 washes to remove old laundry detergent residues.  Nobody has time to wash every article of clothing 9 times without detergent (or with a different detergent). Especially in a small apartment with a washer that is half the size of 1 laundry basket.

Stage 4 – More Allergies and a Front-Load Washer

Along came baby number 2 with worse eczema.  The red itchy rash was ALL over her body.  We did everything the doctors told us and more but nothing helped.  I never went back to Wisk brand, I never tried TIDE, I quit the Dreft.  One of the brands I felt better a little better about was Planet Powdered Laundry Detergent powder. However It was almost impossible to tell if laundry detergent was contributing to the eczema. So I researched more and I came across soap nuts.

Soap nuts were AMAZING.  They did their job well and there was absolutely no toxins from these little plant berries. The clothes were getting clean and I was happy for a while.

Since I had non-toxic and green in my head since before I had kids I had my short attempt at cloth diapering around this time. I used the ones with the inserts and it went ok for a few weeks. However It seems that a front-load washer can not really handle the stink of cloth diapers and I soon gave up on it.

Then a TERRIBLE thing happened, the washer began to stink. The clothes began to stink. I tried all kinds of methods to clean the washer, but the clothes still came out smelling. The fact that we were potty training a kid that constantly missed made it worse.  I even gave up on the soap nuts and despaired at EVER having clean clothes again.  I truly think our clothes became dirtier each week instead of cleaner.  Our clothes began to emit a strange odor even as we pulled them out of the dryer and wore them outside the house.

Stage 5 – A New Washer

We finally moved and bought a new top load HE washer to go with the new house and clothes started to get a little bit cleaner. But they still weren’t quite clean.  The copious amounts of Vaseline we used for eczema were coating our clothes in grease and preventing clothes from being cleaned.

This is my absolute favorite recipe for getting greasy vasseline out and making clothes brighter.

Homemade Oxiclean (DIY Oxygen Cleaner)

  • 1/2 cup baking soda or washing Soda
  • 1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide
  • 1 cup water

Mix all ingredients together and pour over stains. Let garment sit overnight, then launder as usual.

Stage 6 – A New Laundry Detergent

Finally I came across a blog post called “Why You Should STOP Using that Homemade Laundry Detergent” and I was absolutely shocked. It very clearly explains why homemade laundry detergent and things like soap nuts DO NOT WORK.  Although I did have a period where the soap nuts seemed to clean clothes just fine, eventually they quit working and I had huge problem on my hands.

Now we use Biokleen Laundry Powder and I am happy to say that our clothes are CLEAN.

Its been a very long 7+ year journey of finding a non-toxic laundry detergent that works for our family.  Now instead of worrying about toxic chemicals on our clothes causing allergies, eczema and invisible harm I can focus on more important things like spending time with my wonderful family.

In Conclusion

Is laundry detergent toxic? Is your favorite product safe to use on the clothes you wear every day and around your family? The short answer is likely no. Unfortunately, mainstream or “big brand” laundry products are often loaded with toxins that can harm people and our environment. Luckily, there are some ways we can avoid these harmful chemicals like fragrance surfactants and other chemicals associated allergies, skin irritants, reproductive issues or hormone disruption.

One of the best resources available now is EWG Cleaning Database from a non profit that makes it easy to find safety ratings of all the major brands of laundry detergent. Go check out how your detergent ranks and let me know in the comments!


photo credit: DanielJames via photopin cc

12 Comments on Toxins in Laundry Detergent: Finding a Safe and Healthy Alternative

  1. Your style is really unique compared to other people I have read stuff from.
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  4. Did changing detergent to Biokleen help clear up the eczema? 2 months ago i was diagnosed with eczema and was given steroid creams which did nothing. its moved from my legs to my torso. the only thing i can think of is that i had year old bottles of wisk i havent used until 2 months ago since i was finishing up my tide bottles.

    • Hi Bob,
      Unfortunately changing detergent did not clear up the eczema, but I feel like it did give some improvement. You might find this post about eczema useful.

  5. Do you still use Biokleen or have you found a better laundry detergent? Thank you for this wonderful blog!

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