Toxic Chemicals That Could Be Hiding In Your Laundry Detergent

Toxic Chemicals That Could Be Hiding In Your Laundry Detergent

Toxic Chemicals That Could Be Hiding In Your Laundry Detergent

In the past few years, there has been more news coverage about the chemicals that are commonly used in both household cleaning products and personal care products. The most dangerous product in our homes is also one of the most used cleaning products. Laundry products are full of harmful and toxic chemicals that can easily enter your body and the environment. The question of how are these chemicals dangerous and what can you do to limit your exposure to them is an important one.

The Danger of Using Certain Laundry Products

A study conducted by the University of Washington revealed that many popular laundry products have hidden ingredients. This can include over a hundred of chemicals hidden behind ingredients like fragrance. The worst part is that at least one of these hidden chemicals have been classified as hazardous or toxic under federal laws. In the same study, there were almost 100 volatile organic compounds or VOCs found in six products.

Another study that was done in 2011, by the same researchers, found the air that was vented from laundry machines using the top-selling scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets contained high levels of toxic chemicals. The worst part is that even when you stop using these products, the chemicals are still being released for a few loads afterward. The analysis of the captured air from the air vent of the test dryer had over 25 VOCs, which included 7 hazardous pollutants. Two of these chemicals were Benzene and acetaldehyde, which are classified as carcinogens.

Chemicals That You Should Be Avoiding In Your Laundry Products

Most laundry products have long lists of ingredients that are printed in small print because most people never turn the bottle around to read what is in these products. However, turning the bottle around can tell you a lot about a product and how ‘green’ the product really is. Here are just a few of the laundry product ingredients that you should be avoiding for health reasons.


As stated above, fragrance is one ingredient that can hide hundreds of chemicals. The worst part is that most of them are not used to clean or scent our products. Most times, fragrance is used to trick us into believing that clean clothes need to have a smell.

According to EWG, fragrances are one of the top five allergens in the world and can easily trigger asthma attacks. The Environmental Working Group also revealed that around 75 percent of fragrances have phthalates in them. Phthalates are linked to hormone disruption, obesity, and diabetes. You should also be careful with essential oils and natural fragrances because they could have processed using harmful solvents to save time and money.


Stabilizers are a group of chemicals that are used to stabilize the formula of the laundry detergent. Some stabilizers include ethylene oxide and polyethylene oxide, which have both been linked to lung and eye irritation. They can also cause dermatitis.


Sodium hypochlorite or household bleach is well-known for having extremely toxic properties. There are people who attribute bleach to more home poisonings than any other cleaning chemical. When bleach reacts with organic materials, it creates chlorinated VOC’s, which can be very toxic and are classified as human carcinogens. When bleach is used in workplaces, OSHA requires gloves and a mask to be worn by the user and people who are working in the area. Scientists also only handle bleach when they have a mask and gloves on and the room is well ventilated. Now think about all the times that you have not used gloves and a mask when using bleach for laundry or cleaning.

Chlorine bleach is commonly used in cleaning products, include laundry soap. It is both highly potent and corrosive. Even breathing the fumes in can cause irritation to the eye and respiratory tract. If it happens to get on skin, it can cause chemical burns and bleached areas. However, it gets worse when you start adding in other chemicals. Depending on the chemicals that are mixed with chlorine bleach, a noxious gas can be created, which can be fatal. Ingesting bleach in any amount can create permanent damage to the mouth and throat, which can also be fatal if left untreated.

Continued bleach exposure is very dangerous because the toxins in the body start building up, so these toxins place stress on the lungs, kidneys, and liver. Most times, exposure to chlorine on its own is linked to the development of breast cancer.


Surfactants are cleaning agents, which are added to formulas to improve the cleaning power of the laundry product. There are many surfactants that are used in laundry detergent, but Naphtha or petroleum distillate is one of the most common because it is made from synthetic crude oil, which is used to dissolve dirt and grease. There is research that links Naphtha to damaged lung and mucous membranes, along with asthma, inflammation, and cancer.

Another common surfactant is phenol. There are people who are sensitive to phenol and experience severe side effects including death. Phenol is absorbed quickly by our skin and spreads quickly throughout the whole body, damaging the kidneys, heart, blood vessels and the nervous system.


NPE can also be listed as nonylphenol ethoxylates, which is an inexpensive, non-ionic surfactant. This chemical has been banned in both the EU and Canada, but it can still be used and found in products sold in the USA. NPE has a long list of health concerns, which includes damaging fetal development. It has also been shown in research to cause fish and shellfish to develop both sex organs because NPE interfered with the hormones during development.


LAS is also called linear alkyl benzene sulfonates, which are a type of synthetic petrochemicals. They can also be listed as anionic surfactants in ingredient lists. LAS is a common surfactant that is used in laundry detergents and can take up to 30 percent of the total product weight. LAS is a carcinogen and reproductive toxin. The EWG has classified LAS as a product that causes ‘some level of concern’ for the environment.

Phosphates and EDTA

Phosphates are added to laundry products to make them more effective in hard water. They can remove stains and dirt by softening the washing water and allows more suds to form quickly, which helps the cleaning power of a product. The main issue is that phosphates remain active even once the water enters that waste-water treatment process. These chemicals end up in lakes and rivers and cause increased levels of algae growth. Increased algae growth can kill all types of marine life because it removes the oxygen in the water. Phosphates have been known to be dangerous since the early 1970’s, so most laundry companies have stopped using them.

Today, EDTA or Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is used. While it is not as harmful as phosphates, this chemical is still toxic. In lab tests, EDTA has been found to damage DNA and kill cells in lab animals. EDTA matches phosphates ability to withstand water treatments, so it is not normally biodegradable.


This chemical can be listed as Dioxane, Diethylene Oxide or 1,4–Dioxane and is a chemical by-product of ethoxylation. This is one of the ways that companies make sudsier, softer detergents, without having to spend a lot of money. Since 1,4–Dioxane is not an intentional ingredient, manufacturers are not legally required to list it, unless they add extra amounts of the chemical in their products. 1,4–Dioxane is a well-known carcinogen.

The problem is that dioxane is very toxic and is currently in over two-thirds of the laundry detergents on the market. Since it is so commonly used in laundry detergent, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has started to consider dioxane an increasing threat to water supplies.


Just about every laundry product on the market advertises that they brighten your clothing but these products are not really brightening your clothing. Instead, there are chemicals that stay on the items and absorb UV light, which makes them ‘appear’ to be brighter. So, when brightening chemicals stay on the clothing, we are exposed to higher amounts of them because our skin absorbs the chemicals. Common brighteners include benzoxazolyl, diaminostilbene disulfonate, and naphthotriazolystilbenes, with many of them being linked to changes to reproductive and developmental processes.

Many people believe that they are not exposed to enough of these chemicals to have any adverse side effects. However, the average family in the US washes about 80 pounds of laundry every week. That is a huge amount of laundry and chemicals that you are being exposed to. The budget concerns about switching to natural laundry products are a concern, but there are ways that you can limit your exposure without spending excessive amounts of money.

Wear Gloves and a Mask

If you have to use harsh laundry products like bleach or other whitening products, you should make sure that you are at least wearing gloves. It would be a better option to also wear a mask, but this is not always an option. So, ventilating the rooms can limit the exposure. If there are not any gloves available, you should make sure to wash your hands afterward to remove any chemicals that may have gotten on your skin.

Buy the Safest Option that You Can

If you are not a huge fan of making your own laundry products or do not have the time, there are safer laundry products. The EWG has a great guide for laundry products and scores most brands using an easy ranking system. There is also an app that makes shopping easy since you can scan the bar code to find out more about a product.

Clean Your Washing Machine Regularly

Along with chemicals and soap scum, your washing machine can be a breeding ground for bacteria. The easiest way of cleaning out your washing machine is to add white vinegar to your machine and run on the hottest cycle. This should be done once every month, but if anyone has allergies, it should be done more often to help combat excess bacteria in the home.

No More Dryer Sheets

If you want to limit the number of chemicals in your laundry, but still want to reduce the amount of static cling, using a dryer ball is a great option. You can make your own or you can buy some online. You can easily add scent to your clothing because you can add some essentials oils to a damp rag and put it in with your laundry for drying.

Remove Stains Naturally

Instead of using harsh chemical stain removers, you can easily remove stains by creating a pre-treatment using baking soda, washing soda, and water.

For Softer Clothing

Adding a simple half-cup of vinegar to a rinse cycle has the same results as commercial fabric softeners, without the chemicals. This also is cheaper than most commercial fabric softeners, so you can save a huge amount of money on your laundry bill.

The number of chemicals that we expose ourselves to regularly to have ‘clean’ clothes is insane. Many of the chemicals that are still used today are known to be toxic. However, we are not even sure how toxic many products are because many of them are hiding ingredients behind terms like ‘Fragrance’ or are by-products of other chemicals being mixed together. This is a concern since there are limited laws about what chemicals can and cannot be used in household cleaning products. Even ‘green’ products and companies have been found to be using toxic chemicals.

While we cannot stop washing our clothing, we can make the decisions about the brands that we are going to be supporting. EWG makes it easier to find safe products because they rank most products available on the market. This ranking system also includes clear information about the chemicals and their side effects on their website and apps. No matter what choice you make, you should understand the risks that many commonly used chemicals in commercial laundry products are toxic, especially when combined with other chemicals. So, you also have the option of making your own laundry products to reduce the possibility of toxic chemicals when doing your laundry.


These are safe options in laundry detergent. Click pictures for more info

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