Dangers of Laundry Detergent & Softeners

Companies try hard to make us believe we are wrapping our selves in clean spring air or the fresh scent of wildflowers every time we wear our freshly washed clothes or cover ourselves in our bed sheets. But in reality we are wrapping ourselves in a toxic blanket of chemicals. The skin is exceptionally permeable; it quickly absorbs outside substances directly into the blood stream. 

Although these commercial detergents may take the stains off your child’s shirt, they are leaving something far worse behind.

If you take a look at the label of some bottles of laundry detergent, you may find that the ingredients are somewhat vague. It may also use a qualifying statement like “ingredients include”, which may make the customer think that all ingredients are listed, when they are not. The few ingredients that are mentioned are unclear and non-specific. For example one brand s ingredients read:

“Cleaning agents (anionic and nonionic surfactants), buffering agent, stabilizer, brightening agent, fragrance”

From this list, it is extremely difficult to determine what exactly is even in the detergent, or what these ingredients do. The detergent companies are not required to list their actual specific ingredients; even the majority of the new “Green” cleaners keep their ingredients secret. And though many manufacturers are now marketing their products to appear safer and healthier, their formulation is still primarily made up of synthetic chemicals, many of which we may not know their full effects for generations.

Here are just some of the chemicals commonly found in commercial laundry detergents:


Petroleum distillates (aka napthas): These petrochemicals, derived from synthetic crude oil,
have reportedly been linked to cancer, lung damage, lung inflammation and damage to mucous membranes.


Phenols:  According to the United States National Institutes of Health, phenol is toxic and people who are hypersensitive to it could experience serious side effects at very low exposures. Plus, it is rapidly absorbed and can cause toxicity throughout the entire body. Potentially, death and severe toxicity may result from phenol’s effects on the central nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs and kidneys.

Optical brighteners:  This popular ingredient in detergents trick the eye by altering ultraviolet wavelengths to make clothes look whiter. The result may be a facade, but the chemical dangers from these products are very real. Studies have shown these agents are extremely toxic to fish and can cause mutations in bacteria. They can also trigger strong allergic reactions in humans. Optical brighteners are not effective unless they remain on the fabric after washing, whereby they are constantly being breathed in and absorbing into your skin.


Sodium Hypochlorite (Household Bleach): This is a chemical precursor to chlorine, which is extremely toxic and involved in more household poisonings than any other chemical. When it reacts with organic materials in the environment, carcinogenic and toxic compounds are created than can cause reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders.


EDTA (ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid ): EDTA is a grouping of compounds used as an alternative to phosphates to reduce mineral hardness in water, prevent bleaching agents from becoming active before they are put in water and also as a foaming stabilizer. EDTA has been found to be both cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic in laboratory animals. Oral exposures have been noted to cause reproductive and developmental effects. EDTA is not degraded or removed during conventional wastewater treatment. EDTA does not readily biodegrade and can redissolve toxic heavy metals in the environment, allowing them to reintroduce into the food chain.


Surfactants: A surfactant is a substance which basically binds to oily particles and carries them away with water during washing. These are what make our clothes clean when we wash them. Surfactants can be natural or synthetic. Natural surfactants are generally safe for people and the water supply, but chemical surfactants are not. Commercial laundry detergents are loaded with synthetic surfactants.

FragranceThe term “fragrance” alone may refer to a combination of several hundred laundry chemicals including many that are hazardous The chemicals in fragrance additives can cause itchy, watery eyes and stinging nostrils. But the effects go much deeper than that. Chemical fragrances can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate allergies. They can even affect your thinking, making concentration and coordination difficult. All of these irritations show their worst in sensitive individuals, although no one is immune to the effects of these chemicals.

Any one of these chemical additives causes plenty of harm on its own, but all of these substances are combined and can react with each other in laundry detergents, becoming even more dangerous together than they were by themselves.

Research has found that dryer vents can emit more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets are used, including seven VOCs classified as hazardous air pollutants. This is of particular concern when dryers don’t vent outside or are blocked, causing indoor air pollution.

Unfortunately, few of the chemicals used in laundry-care products have been thoroughly tested, particularly in combination with other chemicals, and some chemicals that have been shown to be harmful are still widely used. The U.S. government has taken a largely “innocent until proven guilty” approach to the use of chemicals in commerce, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing on only a small portion of all the chemicals used in commerce since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976.