What Ingredients to Look for in Laundry Detergent

Shopping for laundry detergent? We can help. Here's our guide to what ingredients to look for

How to read your detergent's ingredient list

Doing laundry is one of those chores you can't easily escape. Clothes get dirty, they need to be cleaned. But, with the common household detergents being used today, are our clothes really getting clean? We assume that because the product is labeled laundry detergent and made to “clean” our clothes, that is what it does.

The truth of the matter is, most laundry detergents are chock-full of dangerous chemicals, contaminating our skin and the air we breathe. Research done by the University of Washington found that the air vented from laundry machines, using top selling detergent, contains toxic chemicals that include 25 volatile organic compounds, seven toxic air pollutants and two carcinogens.

Laundry detergent manufacturers are not required to disclose all of their ingredients, and some ingredients that they do list are masked by friendly words that give no way of knowing what is actually in it. We have seen this before in many personal care products, and laundry detergent is no different.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires testing on only a small portion of all the chemicals used in commerce. In fact, of the 62,000 chemicals that are approved for use in the U.S., only about 300 of them have actually been tested for safety.

A lot of the popular brands have newer lines of detergent that claim to be “green.” However, many of them still contain the same harmful ingredients made with added ingredients to mask the chemicals.

The following ingredients are very common in household name brands and can have negative health effects when used:

Sodium hypochlorite, aka: bleach, can cause severe burns and eye damage, as well as trigger allergy and asthma reactions. It is extremely toxic if inhaled or ingested.

Fragrances in laundry detergents are meant to remain in the clothing after washing, which means they can pass through the skin, entering your bloodstream. The scary part about “fragrance” is that it is one word that can contain thousands of chemicals and manufacturers don’t have to tell you what the fragrance is made from because they are considered “trade secrets.” In fact, the ingredient label “fragrance” can contain up to 3,000 chemicals in just one scent.

Phthalates are known to cause hormone disruption and according to the Centers for Disease Control, can be found in the blood of most Americans with the greatest quantities being in women. They are also commonly found in plastic containers, so avoid detergents with recycling codes 3 & 7.

Formaldehyde is classified by the U.S. government and the World Health Organization as a human carcinogen. Among the many health concerns are cancer, organ toxicity, and skin irritation.

Ammonium Sulfate is so toxic that manufacturers recommend not using it indoors. The use of ammonium sulfate requires never allowing the chemical to reach drains or waterways, and it is a category 3 oral, skin, and respiratory toxin.

Phosphates & EDTA are added to make detergents more effective when using hard water. They are associated with environmental damage, causing algae that damages the ecosystem.

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (Nonoxynol, NPEs) can be harmful to eyes, skin and lungs. Prolonged exposure to inhaled fumes can be fatal and they are already banned in Canada and Europe.

Dyes have no cleaning power whatsoever, and can cause unexplained rashes or allergies. Many are proven carcinogens and almost all are endocrine disruptors.

1,4 dioxane has been repeatedly shown to cause cancer in animal studies. The State of California considers it to be potentially toxic to the brain and central nervous system, kidneys, liver and respiratory system.

It is sad to know that the brands we have always trusted and purchased because they have been around for so long, are the brands causing us harm. In general, look for detergents that are made with plant-based surfactants and are free of phosphates.

Fortunately, there are many organizations fighting back and informing the public, providing us with lists of brands and rating them based on their ingredients. One of these organizations is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). You can search for specific brands on their website to see what grade a product receives and how harmful it is.

You can also look for the EPA’s Design For Environment logo, indicating that a product is formulated from the safest possible chemicals. Look for qualified products using their product database. Consult sources like this before purchasing that top-selling, chemical filled detergent that you normally buy.

Resources— Environmental Working Group, University of Washington, Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control