Laundry rooms are usually where you take things to make them cleaner, but it turns out that some of the “cleaners” we commonly use today may be making our clothes dirtier than they were to begin with. While detergents contain many chemicals that are excellent at removing odors or stains, they are also leaving a chemical residue that your skin has plenty of time to absorb when you wear that article of clothing. Fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain many of the same troublesome compounds. Let’s look at the details.
Laundry detergent comes in all shapes, sizes, and scents. And colors, for that matter. And while they may vary somewhat in how well they clean your clothes, they all have one thing in common – the very chemicals that make your clothes so clean may be absorbed through your skin into your body, where the effects are not quite so positive. Many people have switched to simpler detergents, like ones that exclude dyes or scents in hopes of avoiding this issue, but it may not be enough. The problem is even more complicated by the fact that manufacturers do not include an ingredient list with their products, making it difficult to quickly determine which is the safest.
Some of the chemicals found in most commercial laundry detergents include:
- Sodium polyacrylate
- Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE)
- Disodium diaminostilbene disulfonate
- Alcohol ethoxysulfates
- Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
- Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
- Tetrasodium edta
- 1,4 dioxane
- Petroleum Distillates(naphthas)
Some pretty big names there, some of which you may recognize. Let’s go over a few of the more serious offenders on that list.
1,4 dioxane has gained a degree of notoriety in recent years, and it is well deserved. It is classified by many environmental/health groups and agencies as a likely or a known carcinogen (which means it can cause cancer) such as the IARC 1, NTP 2, US EPA 3, and the state of California 4. It can also cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Not to mention it is very irritating to the eyes and the respiratory tract. Despite all these concerns, it is still found in many cosmetics and detergents. The FDA does not require that manufacturers remove 1,4 dioxane from their products 5.
SLS and SLES
Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are similar in many ways, and both can present a problem for your health. Both are known as potent irritants to the skin 6 and eyes, and are also very likely to contribute to organ and developmental toxicity. They may even have a carcinogenic effect thanks to other compounds that they are frequently contaminated with, like the previously mentioned 1,4 dioxane. Although some sources contest the assertion that SLS could be harmful to humans in the doses found in household products 7, they fail to take into consideration that humans are exposed to this chemical (and others) not just once while using a product containing it, but often for long periods such as when it is left on clothing after washing it. Additionally, the effect of repeated exposure over long periods is often disregarded. And if that wasn’t enough, SLS (when exposed to other chemicals that it is frequently packaged with) may also improve the body’s absorption of nitrates, which are known carcinogens found primarily in processed meats like sausages or hot dogs.
Phenol is used in the manufacturing of many detergents, and those found in laundry detergent are no exception. Like SLS and SLES, it is very irritating to the skin and eyes, as well as the respiratory system 8. More troubling than that, however, is that phenol is also harmful to the heart and central nervous system 9. And if that wasn’t enough, extended exposure to phenol is damaging to the kidneys and to the liver 10. It is also a probable developmental toxin, posing a risk to unborn infants and small children 11. That’s a pretty scary list but don’t worry too much, you won’t find much of it in almost any detergent. That said, trace amounts are still too much to reasonably tolerate when there are alternatives available.
There are two particular considerations about dryer sheets to keep in mind. First, whatever residue they leave on your clothing will stay there until you wash it again or it wears off on your skin. And second, the high temperatures and agitation in a dryer can make many of the chemicals in a dryer sheet airborne, where they can be easily inhaled. The chemicals you can find in dryer sheets overlap somewhat with those found in laundry detergents, but a few of the more notable ones you’re more likely to find in a commercial dryer sheet include:
- Alpha Terpineol
- Benyl Alcohol
- Benzyl Acetate
Camphor is often found in chest rubs, the sort people use when they’re sick with a cold and having a little trouble breathing 12. Although it can make you feel a bit better by making your airways more sensitive to cold air, it doesn’t actually do anything to relieve congestion. More importantly, it can cause siezures, depressed breathing and vomiting, and is easily absorbed through the skin 13.
Benzyl alcohol is known to be quite lethal in large doses, but that doesn’t really apply to what you may be exposed to from a dryer sheet’s residue on your clothing. What is relevant is that it can be quite dangerous for infants 14 15 and may also actually cause skin allergies 16.
The trouble with commercial laundry detergents and dryer sheets is plain to see. But what alternatives are there? Perhaps the easiest and most straightforward option is to buy an alternative product that doesn’t contain these troublesome chemicals and opts for alternative ingredients. The next time you’re buying a laundry detergent, keep an eye out for ones that say they’re free of NPE, phosphates, SLS, and/or everything else we just went over. There are a few good options out there for health-conscious consumers. A few examples are:
- Biokleen Laundry Liquid
- Planet Ultra Liquid Detergent
- Seventh Generation Free&Clear Natural Laundry Detergent
And if you’ve got a little extra time on your hands, you can always make your own laundry detergent! You can find some good recipes for that here, as well as some recipes for homemade fabric softeners and dryer sheets.
We couldn’t find any sufficiently safe dryer sheets for sale, but there are still a few options. First and easiest is to just not use any. Most clothes will be sufficiently soft without any extra softening. But if you have sensitive skin or just prefer your clothes to be extra soft (nothing wrong with that!), you might buy some dryer balls to do the job. These are also highly reusable and will last a very long time, making them an excellent budget alternative to dryer sheets or fabric softener.
(Header image credit to LWYang at Flickr)
- http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol71/mono71-25.pdf ↩
- http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/pubhealth/roc/roc12/index.html ↩
- https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/1-4-dioxane.pdf ↩
- http://www.oehha.org/prop65/prop65_list/files/P65single040210.pdf ↩
- http://web.archive.org/web/20080115201046/www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-hdb3.html ↩
- Lee C H, Kim H W, Han H J, Park C W. “A comparison study of nonanoic acid and sodium lauryl sulfate in skin irritation,” Exog Dermatol 2004;3:19-25 ↩
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26617461 ↩
- Budavari, S, ed. (1996). “The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemical, Drugs, and Biologicals”. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck ↩
- Warner, MA; Harper, JV (1985). “Cardiac dysrhythmias associated with chemical peeling with phenol”. Anesthesiology. 62 (3): 366–7. doi:10.1097/00000542-198503000-00030. PMID 2579602. ↩
- World Health Organization/International Labour Organization: International Chemical Safety Cards, http://www.inchem.org/documents/icsc/icsc/eics0070.htm ↩
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28059904 ↩
- Green, B. G. (1990). “Sensory characteristics of camphor”. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 94 (5): 662–6. ↩
- Martin D, Valdez J, Boren J, Mayersohn M (Oct 2004). “Dermal absorption of camphor, menthol, and methyl salicylate in humans”. Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 44 (10): 1151–7. doi:10.1177/0091270004268409. PMID 15342616. ↩
- Carl R. Baum (2008), “Examples of mass exposures involving the pediatric population”, in Jerrold B. Leikin; Frank P. Paloucek, Poisoning and Toxicology Handbook (4th ed.), Informa, p. 726 ↩
- Juan Gershanik; et al. (1982), “The gasping syndrome and benzyl alcohol poisoning.”, N Engl J Med, 307: 1384–8, doi:10.1056/nejm198211253072206, PMID 7133084 ↩
- EJ Curry; EM Warshaw (2005), “Benzyl alcohol allergy: importance of patch testing with personal products.”, Dermatitis (16): 203–8 ↩