The Clean Clothes Conundrum: Is Scented Laundry Detergent Toxic?

Fresh laundry

The Clean Clothes Conundrum: Is Scented Laundry Detergent Toxic?

There are few scents as iconic as freshly washed laundry. While many of us may have loyalty to a laundry brand based partly on the alluring scent it leaves on our clothing, there may be an unwelcome surprise lurking in our favourite detergent.

As health and environmental wellbeing has increasingly come into the spotlight, scented laundry detergents’ toxic components are creating a cause for concern.

They may smell great and leave our clothes looking shiny and new, but mounting studies have revealed the danger of the chemicals that can be hiding in our washing powder or liquid.

Top laundry detergent brands have been found to contain substances that are known carcinogens, air pollutants and hormone disrupters. These harmful particles and substances pollute our homes’ air quality and cause an array of adverse health impacts when inhaled or worn against the skin.

Scented Laundry Detergent’s Toxic Hazards

Benzene and acetaldehyde, both toxic chemicals found to be present after washing with scented laundry detergent are known to contribute to cases of leukemia, throat and nasal cancers. On an equally serious, but often less severe scale, many of the substances in detergents can cause skin irritations and rashes, as well as allergic reactions and environmental harm.

While benzene and acetaldehyde are bad enough, studies have found that these compounds are not alone. One report from researchers at the University of Washington found close to 100 volatile organic compounds across six popular laundry detergents.

Putting laundry detergent in the machine
Scented laundry detergent is more toxic than you think. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Even more worryingly, five of these six brands were found to emit at least one compound that is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level.

While that laundry detergent may smell like a fresh, natural summer breeze, it is more than likely a cocktail of chemicals that is anything but natural.

National surveys have also uncovered further effects of scented products to human health. While not focusing on severe adverse health issues such as cancers, the study found that 20% of those surveyed reported negative reactions to air fresheners. These complaints were twice as common in those who already suffer from asthma.

An Unchecked Pollutant and a Legal Loophole

The issue of these dangerous substances is further worsened by unclear labelling and a lack of regulation for laundry emissions.

When checking the back of a laundry detergent bottle you may be far more likely to see ingredients listed simply as ‘fragrance oils’ or ‘perfume oils’ than their true ingredients. Detergent companies in many parts of the world aren’t legally required to list the specific names of the harsh chemicals used in creating fragrances.

While that laundry detergent may smell like a fresh, natural summer breeze, it is more than likely a cocktail of chemicals that is anything but natural.

By not including the names of actual substances used, companies are taking the ability to make an informed choice away from consumers. This legal loophole also stands for scented dryer sheets and fabric softeners, which can both also contain dangerous substances. 

Polluting Dryers 

Polluting dryers give off toxins from laundry detergents
Air vented by dryers gives off pollutants from laundry detergents. Photo by Jeremy Sallee on Unsplash

There are few to no regulations on the emissions that come out of our dryers. While you may not think of a dryer as a major cause of air pollution, those chemicals released from detergents have to go somewhere.

While emissions from more commonly talked about air polluters, such as car exhausts, are regulated; in most countries, there are no such restrictions on laundry dryers. This means that these chemicals can leak out into the air in our home, increasing exposure to dangerous substances.

That laundry suddenly isn’t smelling all that fresh.

How to Get Really Clean Clothes

So, this may all seem very gloomy and leave you asking yourself the vital question of what can I safely wash my clothes with? Well, there are some general guidelines to follow to make sure your scented laundry detergent isn’t toxic to you or the environment.

1.      Buy Fragrance-Free

A large majority of the harmful substances in laundry detergents come from the chemicals added to give them their appealing scents. By buying a fragrance-free detergent you are avoiding these chemicals altogether. As such, the most obvious way to improve the toxicity levels of your weekly laundry is simply not to purchase a fragranced product.

Now, I know what you are thinking, the scent of freshly washed laundry is something that can not be lived without. Luckily there is still a way to get that enchanting fresh scent. Try buying unscented detergent to avoid those nasties, and then add a few drops of natural essential oil of your choice to your eco-friendly laundry ball.

Fresh, sweet-smelling laundry without the nasties!

2.      Avoid Phosphates and Petrochemicals

As well as the wider slew of chemicals in scented detergents, two commonly found ingredients are phosphates and petrochemicals. These are particularly important to look out for in scented detergents, but can be found in unscented detergents too.

These nasty compounds can be environmentally disastrous as they pollute natural waterways. Petrochemicals, a substance derived from oil, are also often a culprit of causing skin irritation, so are particularly important to avoid if you have sensitive skin.

3.      Biodegradable, Fragrance-free and Dye-free

Laundry hanging between coloured houses
Go for naturally derived and biodegradable detergent. Photo by Charles L. on Unsplash

A good rule to follow is that if a detergent is naturally derived and biodegradable, it is generally safer for use. Similarly, the fewer additives that a product has, the less chance of lurking toxins.

Dyes and fragrances are both common additions to modern laundry detergents. While companies may not always list the chemicals in their detergents, make sure to avoid ingredients listed as ‘fragrance oil’, ‘perfume oil’ or ‘colours’. By opting for fragrance-free and dye-free detergents, both your health and the environment will thank you.

4.      Wash Your Clothes Less

This may seem like a simple solution but sometimes the simple ones are the best. If you can’t part with your favourite scented detergent, using it less may help to reduce the chemicals you are exposing yourself to. As every wash leaks new chemicals onto your clothes and into the air, by washing less, fewer chemicals are emitted.

Washing less also helps to reduce your environmental impact, such as reducing the emission of microplastics, and may even make your clothes last longer. For a pair of jeans, it is recommended that they are only washed once every three wears to get the maximum wear out of them while still keeping them fresh.

For more on how to reduce your environmental impact when caring for your clothes, read our articles “How to Build an Ethical and Sustainable Wardrobe” and “How to Avoid Microplastics in Clothing: 8 Things You Can Do Now“. 

The Best Non-Toxic Detergents

When you are in the laundry aisle of your local supermarket, looking up the ingredient lists on the product label of detergent bottles may not be your idea of fun. So, we have compiled this handy list of some of the best detergents that are safe for you and the planet, and will keep your clothes looking fresh and clean.

Pardo Naturals

Pardo Naturals is one that is great for sensitive skin. Made of only three ingredients (castile soap, washing soda, and baking soda), this innovative detergent achieves an impressive level of cleanliness without any of the nasties.

While it has an unscented option, if you aren’t quite ready to give up on scented detergent, Pardo Naturals has you covered. Detergents scented with enchanting lavender or citrusy lemon essential oils are available and still all natural.

Tru Earth Laundry Strips

Tru Earth laundry strips are good not only for you but for the planet too. Based in Canada but available around the world, such as through Amazon, Tru Earth strips can be ordered to be delivered to your door.

Coming in a cardboard envelope, you simply pop one of the dehydrated laundry strips into your laundry.  It then dissolves into a detergent that removes even the toughest stains and odours.

Laundry strips from Tru Earth are free from added dyes, chlorine bleach, phosphates and parabens, as well as being biodegradable, hypo-allergenic and vegan.

Laundress Signature Detergent

Sometimes you need a little luxury, even if that is just in the form of laundry detergent. Laundress Signature Detergent is for when you need that splurge. Smelling divine, this detergent is eco-friendly, non-toxic and biodegradable.

Making this luxury product even more irresistible is that it contains no petroleum, phosphates, phthalates or artificial colours, and is allergen free. You can also pick it up on Amazon.

Whoever said that laundry couldn’t be luxurious?

A Healthy Laundry Cycle

Laundry in a basket
Choose your detergent carefully and enjoy doing the washing! Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There is no escaping the need for laundry detergent. While mainstream detergent companies can make it difficult to achieve a health friendly, eco-friendly and clean laundry load, it is not an impossible task.

By understanding what scented laundry detergents’ commonly toxic components are, we as consumers can make an informed choice about the products that we use.

There are ways to make our laundry cycle less harmful, whether this is switching to a fragrance-free option or simply washing less. Innovative companies are also emerging that are offering a health-conscious, environmentally-conscious alternative to traditional detergents.

Clean clothes should never have to come at the price of our health.

See our article for more about the scary chemicals found in our clothes.

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