Safer Laundry Detergent Buying Guide

As we all know too well, harmful chemicals lurk in the products we use everyday, from household cleaners to face creams. What’s worse? They often hide in products that market themselves as “green” and “natural.” We polled the Beautycounter team about the laundry detergent they use, and while everyone thought they were making a good choice, many picks actually got failing grades on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. Here, the safer detergents that made the cut—and an essay from our own Head of Health & Safety, Mia Davis, on cleaning up cleaning products.

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Laundry detergents: Have you thought much about yours? Many of us just use what we always have (or what our moms used) without a second thought, while some of us have added detergent to the list of items we’re “greening” in our homes. When I speak with people about detoxing their makeup bags, conversation often leads to questions about other products, including detergents. So I decided to spend a few hours sorting through research, reviews, and marketing claims. Turns out, there is a lot to uncover about this seemingly simple topic.

Much like cosmetics, the world of laundry detergents is under-regulated, and even kind of mysterious. When I look at the labels I’m left wondering, what are these ingredients? What are the companies not telling me? Below, I offer you a crash course in cleaning not just your laundry—but cleaning your laundry detergent.

First—what companies don’t want us to know.

Companies do not have to disclose all the ingredients they use on the labels of their household cleaning products. Why? Because unfortunately, outdated, toothless consumer product laws allow companies to keep their formulations proprietary. Trade secrets may have been a reasonable excuse many years ago, but this day in age, when companies can so easily figure out what ingredients other brands are using, and when there are so many toxic chemicals on the marketplace, this lack of disclosure is simply unacceptable.

Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit environmental health organization, has been encouraging cleaning product companies to fully disclose the ingredients in their detergents and other products. Companies like Seventh Generation, CitraSolv, Better Life and Planet have all committed to fully disclosing their laundry detergent ingredients. Check out the No Secrets coalition of over a dozen cleaning products companies that have nothing to hide.

There are a few things you should simply avoid in laundry detergents.

Optical Brighteners:

According to Seventh Generation, optical brighteners are synthetic chemicals that “don’t have anything to do with getting things clean—they’re only added to detergents to make us think our laundry is brighter and whiter than it really is.” Hmm…last we checked, most consumers are not fans of being tricked into thinking they’re getting something they’re not. To add insult, these chemicals may irritate skin, and they build up in the environment and in aquatic life. Design for the Environment (DfE), an EPA program, says optical brighteners may be potentially toxic to humans and may cause developmental and reproductive effects.

Undisclosed Fragrance:

In cosmetics and household cleaning products alike, “fragrance” is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t have to disclose what it is. Unfortunately, it is often a synthetic concoction including phthalates and synthetic musks, which are hormone disruptors, as well as chemicals that are allergens and neurotoxins. Some companies even have “fragrance boosters” that claim to last through many washes. It takes some pretty intense chemistry to get fragrances to infuse/stick to fabric through multiple wears and washes. But for the most part, as consumers, we don’t know what those chemicals are and what they might be doing to our health. So, try to steer clear of “fragrance” or “parfum”—and don’t just go by the words “fragrance-free” on the front of product labels. You have to check the ingredient label, because sometimes companies do not use a perfume-y scent but do use “masking fragrance” to cover the chemical smell of their product. Tricky!

Love scented detergent? Then look for products with scents spelled out clearly on ingredient labels (e.g. lavender oil, orange oil, clary sage oil instead of the mystery “fragrance”).

Single-Use Laundry Pods:

Single-use laundry pods pose a serious health threat to kids. With their bright swirling colors and small size, they look like fun little snacks to toddlers, but can cause real harm, or even death, when  ingested. The detergent in pods is highly concentrated, and unlike liquid or powder detergent, kids can swallow them without tasting a nasty, soapy product. It’s best to just skip them altogether.

Now, how to find a better detergent….

Of course, finding the right detergent depends on your preferences. Different people have different standards, desires, and needs. Maybe you have sensitive skin, or you’re using cloth diapers; Maybe there is an athlete or a mechanic in the family with particularly stained clothes. You’ll have to find the magic fit that works for you.

The good news is, that as you can see on the charts above, it’s getting easier to find safer alternatives. Cassidy Randall of Women’s Voices for the Earth puts it well: “Five years ago, toxic chemicals like phthalates and triclosan were commonly used in household cleaners, and companies routinely kept all ingredients secret. Now, because women have used their economic power to demand safety and transparency, companies are increasingly disclosing ingredients (although the mainstream ones still keep fragrance ingredients secret) and continue to announce the removal of toxic chemicals from their products.”

Thing Outside the Jug:

Some better, safer detergents might not be detergents at all! Dr Bronner’s castile soap can work wonders, as do soapnuts or soapberries, which literally grow on trees (see above for specific brands to look for). And instead of fabric softeners, try wool dryer balls (like Woolzies), which soften clothes without the use of toxic fragrances and other chemicals.

Environmental Working Group:

Our friends at EWG have a Guide to Healthy Cleaning Products that you can search for free online. EWG looks at products’ ingredients for any health concerns or environmental impacts, and where the company stands with respect to ingredient disclosure and “green” certifications. EWG gives products a grade (A through F). There are brands that you might expect to make the top grade (Seventh Generation, Ecover, Dr Bronner’s) and some that might surprise you (Arm & Hammer and OxiClean). But! It isn’t that straightforward. Some of the companies that make the top scoring products make other products that score poorly in the EWG Guide.

Whole Foods Eco-Scale:

In the absence of solid government regulation over household cleaning products, Whole Foods Market developed their own Eco-Scale to help consumers make informed decisions. The scale rates products red, orange, yellow, or green based on several health and environmental criteria, including the safety of ingredients, the company’s ingredient transparency, and several other factors. Red products are not allowed on  store shelves. On the other end of the spectrum, green products boast 100% natural fragrances, no formaldehyde-donating chemicals, and plant-derived ingredients.

Design for the Environment (DfE):

The US EPA allows companies whose products have met certain criteria to use EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) label. DfE separates ingredients into functional class (e.g. “surfactants” which allow for suds and cleansing), and then evaluates companies’ choices within that category. This approaches encourages companies to use the least hazardous chemicals in the functional category, while still making high-performing products. Check out their list of DfE approved laundry products.

Make Your Own:

Not everyone wants to make their own detergent and household cleaners, but for those who are interested in simplicity and saving dollars, try  some of these DIY recipes from Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Remember that small exposures to toxic chemicals in the products we use everyday can add up to big harm. It’s worth diving into the project of cleaning up your detergent. I hope I’ve made it a wee bit easier for you. Share your experience and findings in our comments section, and good luck!

Be well,