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The Potential Toxic Concerns Regarding Typical Laundry Detergent Ingredients

We all make a significant effort to ensure our clothes are clean and fresh, but ironically the very detergents that we normally use to get our clothes “clean” may actually be leaving them worse off than they were before we ran the wash.

That is because most consumer laundry detergents, the normal brands found at supermarkets, etc., may be loaded with potentially toxic chemicals that could harm you, your family and the environment. Residues of these chemicals remain on your clothing, even after washing and drying the clothes, and are possibly absorbed into your body through your skin and even evaporated into the air where they may be breathed in.

A Typical Laundry Detergent

If you take a look at the label of a typical bottle of laundry detergent, you’ll find that the ingredients are rather vague. It may also use a qualifying statement like “ingredients include”, which deceives the customer into thinking all ingredients are listed, when in fact they are not. The few ingredients that are mentioned are vague and non-specific. One popular brand listed, for instance:

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 by law to list their actual specific ingredients, and we have found no major national brand that is willing to give full disclosure to their customers on their packaging.

So after doing some research of ingredients typically found in laundry detergent, we decided to do it for them and broke down some of the more common laundry ingredients out there that have been reported by various sources, so you can at least have an idea of what you are washing your family’s clothes with. After reading the list, I am sure you can understand the reticence of detergent companies to fully disclose specific detergent ingredients to their customers on their packaging. They would probably prefer that you go on believing that you’re simply using “soap”. Although there is no way to definitively determine the actual specific ingredients in each laundry detergent brand, here’s the list as far as we have been able to ascertain from our research:

Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS): These synthetic petrochemicals are normally listed as ‘anionic surfactants’ on labels, and are one of the most common surfactants in use. During their production process, carcinogenic and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. They also biodegrade slowly, making them a hazard in the environment. The amount of LAS used in detergents may vary to as high as 30% of the weight of the total product.

Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, but it is usually synthesized from other compounds present in petroleum. The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) classifies benzene as a known human carcinogen. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure limit of 0.5 part of benzene per million parts of air (.5 ppm) in the workplace during an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek. The short term exposure limit for airborne benzene is 5 ppm for 15 minutes.

Benzene exposure has serious health effects. The short term breathing of high levels of benzene can result in death, while low levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. Eating or drinking foods containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and death.

Human exposure to benzene is a global health problem. Benzene targets liver, kidney, lung, heart and the brain and can cause DNA strand breaks, chromosomal damage etc. Benzene causes cancer in both animals and humans. Benzene was first reported to induce cancer in humans in the 1920s. The chemical industry claims it wasn’t until 1979 that the cancer inducing properties were determined “conclusively” in humans, despite many references to this fact in the medical literature. Industry exploited this “discrepancy” and tried to discredit animal studies which showed benzene caused cancer saying that they weren’t relevant to humans. Benzene may or may not be in the actual detergent bottle (we cannot confirm this either way based on our research), but certainly benzene being released into the environment during the production of these surfactants is cause for serious concern.

Nonylphenol Ethoxylate (NPE): A common petrochemical surfactant in U.S. laundry detergents. This chemical has been banned in the European Union and Canada in detergents. Is it biodegradable? Yes. But it was found to slowly biodegrade into even more toxic compounds.

Extensive research indicates that NPE metabolites interfere with the hormones of fish and shellfish, thus affecting nearly every cell and organ in the body. Exposure to NPE metabolites causes organisms to develop both male and female sex organs; increases mortality and damage to the liver and kidney; decreases testicular growth and sperm counts in male fish; and disrupts normal male to female sex-ratios, metabolism,
development, growth, and reproduction.

Canada and the European Union have banned the use of NPEs in detergents, as NPE metabolites are toxic and their use “may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity.” In 2004 alone, more than 260 million pounds of NP was used in the U.S.

The Sierra Club has developed an extensive report exposing the risks of NPEs and their usage in laundry detergent, which can be found here.

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

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

Optical Brighteners: These synthetic chemicals convert UV light wavelengths into visible light, which makes clothing laundered with them to “trick” the eye into seeing a brighter shade and reflect more light. (although does not actually affect the cleanliness of the clothing).  They’ve been found to be toxic to fish and to cause bacterial mutations. Furthermore, they can even cause allergic reactions in humans when exposed to skin that is later exposed to sunlight.

How do optical brighteners work?

You may remember your mother or grandmother using a product called “bluing” in the laundry to make whites appear brighter. Bluing agents remove yellow light to lessen the yellow tinge, but optical brighteners act differently. These agents “absorb ultraviolet light and emit it back as visible blue light. This blue light masks any yellowing that may be present in the treated material and makes it seem brighter and whiter than it would otherwise naturally appear to the eye” ( Your clothes are no cleaner than they would be without brightening agents, but they appear to be.

Optical brighteners are not effective unless they remain on the fabric after washing, whereby they are constantly being breathed in and touching and absorbing into your skin. Clothes washed in detergents containing these agents will have a potentially health threatening chemical residue left behind on the fabric. This is why line dried clothing often feels stiff unless fluffed in the dryer. Clothing laundered without optical whiteners will feel soft right off the line.

What are the human health and environmental concerns of using optical brighteners?

Frequently, skin rashes commonly blamed on fragrance and dyes are actually caused by optical brighteners, so optical brighteners (found in most detergents) should not be used by individuals with sensitive skin. Eye irritation can also occur. Optical whiteners contain chemicals that can be toxic to fish and other animal and plant life. Many have also been shown to cause mutations in bacteria ( In addition, these chemicals are not readily biodegradable, so pollution remains in waste water for long periods of time, negatively affecting water quality and animal and plant life. U.S. military cannot use optical brighteners, because they may put their lives at further risk in the field.

Artificial Fragrances: Many of these can be made from petroleum (see petroleum distillates above), and do not degrade in the environment. They’ve been linked to various toxic effects on fish and mammals, and often cause allergies and skin and eye irritation.

Phosphates: These chemicals are used to remove hard-water minerals to make detergents more effective, and to prevent dirt from settling back onto clothes during a wash. A major problem with them is that, when released into the environment, they stimulate the growth of certain marine plants, which contributes to unbalanced ecosystems. In the 1970s, the U.S. government recognized the problem of phosphorus pollution — it can cause massive algal blooms in waterways that damage ecosystems by robbing the water and aquatic life of all-important oxygen. Many states have banned or restricted the use of phosphates for this reason, and you may see laundry detergents advertised as “low-phosphate” or “phosphate-free.” Many brands have thankfully eliminated phosphates from their formulations.

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.

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. Skin contact will produce caustic irritation or burns due to defatting and saponification of skin oils and destruction of tissue. Mixing bleach with other cleaning products can generate hazardous fumes that are carcinogenic, and can even cause death.
A recent study indicated for the first time that sodium hypochlorite and organic chemicals (e.g., surfactants, fragrances) contained in several household cleaning products react to generate chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chlorinated compounds are emitted during cleaning applications and most of them are toxic and probable human carcinogens.The study showed that indoor air concentrations significantly increase (8-52 times for chloroform and 1-1170 times for carbon tetrachloride) during the use of bleach containing products. The significant increases observed in indoor air concentrations of several chlorinated VOCs (especially carbon tetrachloride and chloroform) indicate that the household bleach use is a newly identified source that could be important in terms of inhalation exposure to these compounds.Preliminary risk assessment suggested that using these cleaning products may significantly increase cancer risk. In addition to its direct toxic effects on living organisms, chlorine also reacts with organic materials in the environment to create other hazardous and carcinogenic toxins, including trihalomethanes and chloroform (THMs), and organochlorines, an extremely dangerous class of compounds that cause reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders. The most well known organochlorine is dioxin. Products containing chlorine (or any of its derivatives or precursors, including sodium hypochlorite) should be considered highly unacceptable. Similarly, any chemical with “chlor” as part of its description, or any ingredient listed as “bleach,” should be considered unacceptable as this nomenclature indicates the presence of a highly toxic and environmentally damaging chlorinated compound. Chlorine and chlorinated compounds are also a leading cause of atmospheric ozone loss. Chlorine use in the laundry also degrades both natural and synthetic fibers.

Chlorine is listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant and is on the EPA’s Community Right To Know list. In 1993, the American Public Health Association issued a resolution calling for the gradual phase-out of most organochlorine compounds.

Sources: United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), United States National Institutes Of Health (NIH), United States Department Of Health and Human Services (HHS), United States Air Force, Wikipedia, the Sierra Club,,,,

The U.S. EPA has prepared a list of laundry detergent ingredients that they have concern about. That information can be found here.

Special Note: This article is based on our research regarding ingredients found in national brand laundry detergents. We cannot guarantee that all of these ingredients will be found in a particular product, because the detergent companies do not disclose their specific ingredients to the public. This list has been compiled and is accurate to the best of our knowledge, based on the research information that is publicly available.

We would encourage you to contact your congressperson and public officials to call for mandatory full disclosure of all specific laundry detergent ingredients to be available to the public on their packaging, so the consumer can determine whether they feel safe and comfortable using a product or not. The public cannot make informed and educated decisions without full and honest disclosure from detergent makers.