Washing your clothes with traditional detergents kills animals and destroys the environment. Despite how much effort you might put into sustainable living, this one simple household chore causes countless environmental problems.
Chemical emissions are just the tip of the melting iceberg, and the environmental impacts of laundry detergents continue to get worse.
Read on to find out how your laundry detergent may leave your clothes clean, but not your hands.
The 11 Worst Chemicals in Laundry Detergent
Each of the following chemicals harms ecosystems in its own way. Combined, they’re a chemical weapon that destroys aquatic environments and kills aquatic organisms. And they aren’t too good for humans, either.
Eleven specific chemicals commonly found in laundry detergent harm people, animals, and the environment.
Phosphates are made of phosphorus, a mineral that encourages plant growth. Phosphates in laundry that are washed into water sources through washing machines are responsible for algal blooms that use up the oxygen in aquatic ecosystems resulting in the suffocation of aquatic life.
Entire ecosystems are killed off and destroyed, and biodiversity is increasingly threatened.
Phosphate-free products are now mandatory in the European Union, but the chemical still threatens the environment because of its use in multiple other countries.
Classified as a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, formaldehyde is commonly used to preserve corpses. Doesn’t feel so clean, does it? The environmental impact of this chemical will make you feel even worse, as it’s been linked to the destruction of aquatic life.
Marine animals affected by formaldehyde are unable to breed and its toxicity shortens their lifespans. It also decreases oxygen levels in these environments, resulting in suffocation and respiratory failure in any species unfortunate enough to be living there.
3. Chlorine bleach
Chlorine bleach is found in multiple products around the house. Used to brighten whites, it’s also one of the more toxic ingredients of laundry products and harms the environment and aquatic life as much as it affects human health. When mixed with ammonia, it becomes highly toxic and leads to respiratory disease when inhaled. Skin contact is also known to cause burns.
Surfactants—both cationic and synthetic—reduce the surface tension in water and causes water to absorb pollutants and absorb pesticides in greater volumes. The more you reduce the surface tension in water, the more toxic chemicals are found in it.
These “surface-active agents” also cause acute toxicity in fish, attacking the central nervous system. They also degrade the protective mucus layer that coats fish, exposing them to pesticides, pathogens, and bacteria. Surfactants ultimately undermine the food chain in marine environments.
Laundry detergents list surfactants in three ways on the packaging. Look for fatty alcohol ethers, alkyl ethoxylate sulfates, or alkyl sulfates on the ingredient list.
5. 1-4, dioxane
Dioxane is one of the more dangerous ingredients in laundry detergents because it doesn’t break down in water and is a known carcinogen. A highly flammable chemical, it can spontaneously combust and release toxic fumes when near any kind of heat. Exposure results in damage to the lungs and kidneys.
6. Quaternary ammonium compounds
Traditional detergents with quaternary ammonium compounds impact all living things found in marine environments. These compounds include ammonium quaternary sanitizers and ammonium sulfate, both of which lead to increased antibiotic resistance. After working its way up the food chain, this has implications for how humans treat bacterial infections.
7. Optical brighteners
Optical brighteners make white clothes look whiter and give laundry detergents their blue color. They’re not biodegradable and their environmental effects could last hundreds of years. Generations of wildlife are at risk of mutations in aquatic life and bacteria that might be irreversible.
8. Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are foaming agents found in laundry detergents, hand soap, and shampoo. They’re what’s responsible for the irritation if any of these products get in your eyes. Whether or not these chemicals are environmentally friendly is debatable.
The National Institutes of Health argue that it is safe, thanks to its “100% biobased content, biodegradability, and low potential to bioaccumulation.”
Others claim it’s toxic to aquatic life, making it a contested ingredient in detergents. As surfactants themselves, these chemical compounds also destroy the protective mucus layer that coats fish, making them vulnerable to countless pathogens.
9. Artificial dyes and fragrances
Laundry detergents make clothes smell nice after being washed, right? Well, artificial dyes and fragrances are responsible for this, but their environmental effects make them an unwelcome ingredient. These volatile compounds affect local aquatic life and wildlife and have been tied to air pollution. Contact dermatitis and other conditions are common after contact with these chemicals.
10. Nonylphenol ethoxylate
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) have several uses outside of laundry detergents and you’ll find them in multiple household products, including lawn care products. Once they make their way to aquatic ecosystems, which they inevitably do, they cause decreased male fertility in organisms. It also leads to increased feminization among these species.
Chlorobenzene is also used as a fungicide and for controlling shellfish populations, which should give you a general idea of what it does to the environment. Part of the chlorinated benzene family, it causes tumors in animals and poses a cancer risk in humans. It can be breathed in and affect the lungs, but it’s also absorbed by soil and makes its way up the food chain.
Laundry Detergent Packaging Harms the Environment Too
The chemicals in laundry detergents are far from the only way the products harm the environment. The plastic packaging laundry detergents come in damages the environment from start to finish.
Plastic production relies on removing natural resources from the environment and burning fossil fuels to create the final product, worsening climate change. The United States alone uses over 700 million plastic laundry detergent jugs every year.
Only 30% of these plastic containers are recycled, the rest are either non-recyclable or simply thrown out to end up in landfills. Chemical compounds still found in the containers leach more toxic byproducts into the soil. As these large plastic jugs break down, microplastics, miniscule pieces of plastic shorter than 5 mm in length, also make their way to waterways and other habitats, choking and killing fish.
Different Detergent, Different Impact
From powders to pods, liquids to sheets, there are quite a few laundry detergents to choose from. Not all have the same environmental impacts and some are much worse than others.
Most powder laundry detergents come in a cardboard box that is disguised as sustainable but is often non-reusable. Unfortunately, the lack of plastic can’t make up for the laundry list of toxic chemicals in these detergents.
Liquid laundry detergent is heavy. To ship heavy liquid detergents in giant plastic jugs across countries and continents requires a lot of money and a lot of fossil fuels. As if the plastic containers aren’t already bad enough for the environment, adding liquid detergent full of the harsh chemicals I listed above makes it even worse.
Laundry pods are coated in plastic, or, more specifically, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) film. But still, for some reason, people think laundry pods are safer than other detergents. Far from it, as 75% of this plastic ends up in ecosystems and the detergent in the pods contains the same chemicals as their counterparts. They’ll harm the environment in exactly the same ways.
Laundry detergent sheets are a recent addition to the laundry room, but they’ve picked up steam because of their environmental benefits. Made from natural substances, they don’t carry the environmental implications as those made from plastic, liquid, or powder. They’re more lightweight and compact than other laundry detergents, so laundry detergent sheets don’t need as many resources to be transported.
How You Can Help
People can’t exist without having some environmental impact. The goal of sustainable living is to make this as minimal as possible. Adopting eco-friendly laundry habits is a step in the right direction. Avoid synthetic fabrics—rayon, polyester, and nylon—all of which leach microplastics into waterways and use questionable production practices.
Since you have to wash your dirty laundry at some point, it’s best to practice an eco-friendly laundry routine to minimize the environmental effects you’re responsible for.
- Minimize the number of washes you do weekly.
- Install a water softener. Soft water cleans clothes better than hard water.
- Wash at cooler temperatures to minimize energy use.
- Line dry your clothes instead of using a dryer.
- Avoid fast fashion and only choose sustainable brands and clothing.
- Use an energy-efficient washing machine.
- Switch to an all-natural detergent with no harsh chemicals, plastic, or other pollutants. Newly emerging detergents contain enzymes or plant saponins that clean clothing just as effectively.
How do you tell the difference?
An eco-safe laundry detergent is one that contains sustainable and natural materials and avoids the use of toxic synthetic chemical compounds. When you’re looking for a detergent, simply look at the ingredients list. Avoid options containing any of the chemicals I listed above.
A sustainable detergent comes in minimal packaging made of plastic-free, compostable materials. Here are a few of the leading sustainable laundry detergents:
- Earth Breeze
- Pur Home
- Tru Earth
- Grove Collaborative
- Seventh Generation
As appealing as each of these products is, they’re not your only options. Perhaps you want to stop using laundry detergent altogether. This isn’t practical for everyone, as clothes still need to be washed, but there are alternatives. Read my article on the topic for more info about substitutes for laundry detergent.
Another effective option is making your own laundry detergent. You can do this easily without sacrificing cleaning power. For a guide and recipe for DIY laundry detergent, click here.
Your choices for cleaning products and laundry detergent affect the environment more than you’d think. Laundry detergent chemicals fuel climate change, kill fish and wildlife, and make aquatic environments uninhabitable. They can also cause health problems in people, from afflictions as minor as contact dermatitis to those as serious as cancer.
To end the harmful environmental impacts of laundry detergent, switch to an eco-friendly brand or even go a step further and make your own cleaning products.