11 Toxins Lurking in Your Laundry Detergent

It’s often said that death and taxes are the only guarantees in life. If anything else could be added to this adage, it’d be laundry. A never-ending cycle, it often seems like you’ll spend the rest of your life cleaning clothes.

You probably haven’t considered the impact all this laundry has on the environment, but billions of laundry cycles each week are a veritable toxic time bomb.

Here’s how most laundry detergents hurt the environment and what toxic chemicals are responsible.

How Is Laundry Detergent Toxic?

If laundry detergent cleans clothes, and people wear clothes, it can’t be that toxic, right? Wrong.

Wastewater from your washing machine is called “gray water.” Gray water is kept separate from toilet wastewater and does not undergo the same intense treatment because it’s largely free of contaminants and pathogens. What it’s not free of, however, are the chemicals in kitchen and laundry soap. After leaving the treatment plant, gray water is often reused for such purposes as irrigation, where these chemicals enter soil and water sources.

Most laundry detergents contain harmful chemicals, though there are a few exceptions. Here are some of the effects, both environmental and human, of some of the worst chemicals lurking in your laundry detergent’s rinse cycle.

The environmental effects of laundry detergent chemicals

Toxic laundry detergents and laundry pods pose a threat to aquatic life. Some chemicals in laundry detergent attack the protective mucus layer that coats fish and protects them from pathogens. They can also cause respiratory issues as a result of algal blooms, which starve aquatic environments of oxygen. Laundry detergent also reduces water’s surface tension, increasing the number of harmful chemicals the water takes in, compounding the chemical effects even more.

As little as 5 ppm of laundry detergent can achieve this. You probably put way more than that into your washing machine every week. 

Laundry detergent pollutes in other ways than through gray water. Manufacturers of laundry products mine and drill for many of the dangerous chemicals in their products, such as phosphate. The mining process in Florida alone is responsible for one billion tons of radioactive waste and the displacement of countless wildlife species.

The human costs

Laundry detergent doesn’t just affect the environment. 

Some of the toxic chemicals in laundry products are known to cause cancer and irritate sensitive skin. Should the harmful chemicals in laundry detergent make their way up the food chain, they could cause respiratory issues and other serious health consequences in people.

Environmental damage has an economic cost as well. When even one aquatic species is lost to pollution, it affects the whole aquatic food chain, including fishing communities, which can lose their livelihoods as a result of marine pollution. The communities and food systems that rely on aquatic life face increasingly severe economic consequences. 

Laundry detergent can even pollute the air, both indoors and out. Pollutants called volatile organic compounds increase the likelihood of cancer and multiple other diseases. Dryer sheets, fabric softener, and other household cleaning products all contribute to indoor air pollution.

11 Toxins in Your Laundry Detergent

Now that you know about the potential effects of laundry detergents, let’s break down the substances in most household laundry soap products and each chemical’s individual impact.

1. Phosphates

Mineral phosphates are a form of the element phosphorus. In detergents, they soften water and loosen dirt particles, increasing the effectiveness of laundry products, such as laundry soap and dish detergent. They are also one of the leading chemicals that contribute to the destruction of aquatic ecosystems. 

How are they harmful?

Phosphates cause algae blooms, which take up all the oxygen of an ecosystem as they decompose. Biodiversity in the aquatic environment is destroyed by this pollution. Phosphate mining also causes air pollution and destroys wildlife habitats.

2. 1,4 dioxane

1,4 dioxane is a man-made industrial chemical and a by-product of chlorinated solvents. It may be the worst of the toxic ingredients found in laundry detergents. 

How is it harmful?

A known carcinogen, 1,4 dioxane is also highly combustible and bursts into flames with the slightest heat. Once on fire, it releases toxic fumes that affect the respiratory system and kidneys, causing cancer. Even short-term exposure to this chemical by-product results in headaches, nausea, and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can damage the liver or kidneys. Unfortunately, 1,4 dioxane is found in groundwater throughout the US, and traces of it have even been found in food products.

3. Chlorine bleach

Chlorine bleach, or liquid sodium hypochlorite is a disinfectant found in countless products around your home. 

How is it harmful?

Bleach causes several cancers in humans and poses an extensive threat to the environment by killing fish and bird species. The chemical builds up in water supplies, causing increasingly more damage. A corrosive, it can burn the skin and eyes, and it produces toxic gases when mixed with other substances.

4. Formaldehyde

A pungent, colorless gas with multiple applications as a preservative and disinfectant, formaldehyde is most well known for its use to preserve human corpses.

How is it harmful?

Formaldehyde is associated with lung and throat cancers in humans and animals alike. This chemical also damages fish gills and causes oxygen deficiency in aquatic ecosystems. Highly toxic, it causes dizziness and suffocation when inhaled, as well as severe skin irritation and eye burns.

5. Quaternary ammonium compounds

Quaternary ammonium compounds contain ammonium sulfate and ammonium quaternary sanitizers. 

How are they harmful?

Both ammonium sulfate and ammonium quaternary sanitizers cause increased antibiotic resistance. While humans may not see an immediate effect, once they make their way up the food chain, the consequences of antibiotic resistance could be catastrophic. When concentrated amounts make contact with your eyes, they can cause permanent blindness.

6. Synthetic surfactants

A catch-all term referring to alkyl sulfates, alkyl ethoxylate sulfates, and ethers of fatty alcohol, these prevent microbial growth in detergents and balance out water’s acidity levels in washing machines.

How are they harmful?

Synthetic surfactants reduce the surface tension in water, allowing it to absorb toxic chemicals. Surfactants also cause acute toxicity in fish and are known to undermine their food system. They essentially poison habitats while starving out the species that live there.

7. Optical brighteners

Optical brighteners, typically composed of anionic diamino stilbene (DAS) or distyryl biphenyl (DSBP) derivatives, make your whites white and your colors brighter.

How are they harmful?

They’re extremely toxic and not biodegradable and impact bacteria and marine life for hundreds of years. The damage is irreversible, as they cause mutations with each generation of fish.

8. Artificial dyes and fragrances

Artificial dyes and synthetic fragrances make your clothes smell nice. They are typically made from coal tar or by-products of the petroleum industry.

How are they harmful?

Artificial dyes and synthetic fragrances are also toxic to aquatic life, compromising fish species’ defense systems and making them more susceptible to other harmful chemicals and diseases. Species face more and more harm because of this. Synthetic fragrance and artificial dye in laundry detergents have also been linked to air pollution and allergic reactions in people, as well as contact dermatitis.

9. Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate

Foaming agents, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) remove dirt and oil from clothes. 

How are they harmful?

They’re what cause the irritation if you ever get shampoo and similar household products in your eyes. The environmental friendliness of these chemicals is debatable, as they’re a biodegradable and natural ingredient. They’re also toxic to fish, however, and are known to be a respiratory tract, eye, and skin irritant.

SLES is less toxic than SLS and still an effective foaming agent. SLES is still not a perfectly safe ingredient, so it’s best to avoid both of them.

10. Dichlorobenzene

Dichlorobenzene is a “chlorinated volatile organic compound” used as a solvent or insecticide. Its main use outside of laundry detergents is to control shellfish populations. It’s also used as a fungicide. 

How is it harmful?

With uses like that, it’s no surprise that it’s destructive when released into the environment. Prominent side effects include tumors in animals and an increase in cancer rates among humans. Acute inhalation also causes liver damage, anemia, and skin blotches.

11. Nonylphenol ethoxylate

A type of surfactant known as persistent bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBTs), nonylphenol ethoxylate adds more cleaning power to laundry detergents.

How is it harmful?

Nonylphenol ethoxylate, also listed on laundry detergents as NPEs, leads to the feminization of fish species and decreased male fertility levels in organisms. Over several generations, fewer and fewer births leads to these aquatic organisms facing extinction.

These effects have led to the banning of such chemicals in the United Kingdom and European Union.

Other toxic cleaning products

As toxic as laundry detergent is, it’s far from the only product around your house that hurts the environment. Any household cleaning products containing the chemicals mentioned above hurt the environment, including fabric softeners, air fresheners, and dryer sheets. 

In fact, 70% of the products in these categories receive a D or F rating from the Environmental Working Group. Up to 95% of the synthetic chemicals found in these products come from petrochemicals. Chemicals in this category cause cancer, damage the central nervous system, and result in multiple other conditions, including asthma and metabolic disorders.

Dryer sheets, detergent pods, and fabric softeners contain multiple chemicals you should avoid:

  • Alpha terpineol
  • Benzyl acetate
  • Benyl alcohol
  • Chloroform
  • Ethanol
  • Linalool
  • Limonene
  • Ethyl acetate 

Switching to an Eco-Friendly Alternative

Toxic laundry detergents affect not only the environment and aquatic life but also your personal health and air quality. They lead to respiratory disease, cancer, and other conditions. Clean laundry just isn’t worth this potential damage.

Choosing an earth-friendly fabric softener or laundry detergent should be as simple as looking at the ingredients list. While that’s a good start, laundry detergent manufacturers don’t have to list all the ingredients in their detergents. Some of the more dangerous chemicals don’t need to be included if they’re only found in trace amounts.

But even trace amounts of toxic chemicals add up significantly with each wash cycle, especially with billions of people doing laundry every week. The effects of the listed ingredients are massive. How bad must the effects of the hidden chemicals be?

Thankfully, each of these cleaning products has more than a few eco-friendly alternatives. Here are some natural options that remove stubborn stains as effectively as their harmful counterparts:

But not all commercial detergents are bad. A few eco-friendly options are available. 

If you can’t do without it, choose an eco-friendly and natural laundry detergent. Here are some of the best:

For more information about ethical laundry detergents, read my guide of the leading safe, non-toxic laundry detergents.

When you’re choosing a laundry detergent, practice care when picking a natural, non-toxic option. You can clean clothes without releasing nearly as many chemicals through your washing machine with these earth-friendly alternatives.

Laundry detergent sheets

Laundry detergent sheets don’t contain the toxic chemicals of their counterparts. 

Detergent sheets are also lightweight and come in compostable cardboard packages. The giant plastic bottles that traditional liquid detergents come in are made of petroleum products, require fossil fuels to produce and ship, and 70% of them end up in landfills. They take hundreds of years to break down, all while leaching chemicals into the soil, water, and air. 

The earth-friendly packaging of detergent sheets doesn’t have any of these problems..

To help you choose the best detergent sheets to fit your needs, I’ve written a review of the eight leading detergent sheet brands.

DIY laundry detergent

You could also make your own laundry detergent, which takes less work than you’d think. You’ll need just a few materials:

  • Salt
  • Baking soda
  • Washing soda
  • Castile soap
  • Your favorite essential oil (for natural fragrance, or go fragrance free)

Making your own detergent doesn’t take much time and involves a few specific steps:

  1. Grind up the castile soap and mix it with 2 ½ cups of washing soda and 2 ½ cups of baking soda.
  2. Mix these up until blended.
  3. Add between 10 and 30 drops of essential oils. (Or go fragrance free.)
  4. Stir the mixture up until it has a consistent texture.

Laundry detergent alternatives

One of the more effective ways to cut out laundry detergent’s impact on the environment is to stop using it completely. You can still clean your clothes by choosing an ethical laundry detergent substitute. These non-toxic options will have the same cleaning power as their toxic counterparts:

  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Hot water
  • Friction
  • Natural shampoo or body wash
  • Lemon juice
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Vodka
  • Natural bar soap
  • Essential oils

Wrapping Up

Is laundry detergent toxic? The broad answer to this is “yes.” There’s no time like the present to switch to an environmentally friendly alternative.

You don’t need to sacrifice cleaning power to avoid toxins in your cleaning products. Either use substitutes, make your own, or buy from responsible brands. Whatever you decide to do, be sure to avoid the 11 toxic chemicals common in laundry products.