Is Your Laundry Toxic?

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Our laundry. Washing it should make us feel clean and fresh to start a new day or bring about happiness when we snuggle up in some fresh linens while reading a good book or watching a movie. That warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from donning clean clothes and linens should not be a mind trick. We shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick or risking long term health and wellness because of the things we wear, and the associated assumed cleanliness.

As mentioned in my last post when we talked about removing toxins from your kitchen, The Enviromental a Working Group (EWG) has a fantastic database where they assign grades to most products available on the market to help guide to you be as informed as possible in your purchasing decisions. It’s full of information that provides you with a means to search brands and products and see how healthy they are to use. Even companies claiming to be “green” aren’t as safe as you might think.

My son and I have sensitive skin and my husband does a lot of work that leaves him filthy with engine grease. I appreciate gentle, yet effective cleaners as much as anyone else, but also need to be comforted knowing we don’t have to sacrifice our long term health for a heavy duty chemical to remove the stains or synthetic fragrances to make our clothes smell good again.

Freshly laundered linens – one of my favorite smells. But are those freshly laundered linens really clean? If you’re using conventional laundry detergents, softeners, and stair removers, chances are you’re laundry was actually “cleaner” before putting them in the wash. Laundry care products most often contain chemicals that can cause negative health issues including throat irritation, cancer, skin irritations, reproductive harm, lung damage… etc. In fact, researchers have found that dryer vents can emit more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs – hazardous air pollutants) when scented laundry detergent and dyer sheets are used. If the dryer vent is blocked, these can pollute the air inside too.

Companies who make laundry detergents (and softeners, brighteners…etc) are not required to list all ingredients on the packaging, making it even more difficult for consumers to navigate their way into choosing healthier choices. I keep promoting EWG’s database (as linked above) because its the best place to be able to search for specific products and see how healthy they are. Laundry detergents are comprised of cleaning agents, buffering agents, stabilizers, brightening agents, and fragrance. That list really doesn’t tell anyone anything about what is really inside the product, so the next few paragraphs we will identify the most common ingredients.

Dirty. Wash. Dry. Fold. Put away. Repeat. Doing laundry should be actually cleaning your clothes... but is it?? Or are you just swishing your clothes and linens around in a vat of toxic chemicals, and then wearing them? These chemicals may take a toll on your health...

Common Laundry Product Ingredients:

  • Linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS) are synthetic anionic surfactants. During production, LAS releases carcinogenic toxins into the environment that can also cause reproductive harm. Because they are very slow to biodegrade, they are an environmental hazard.
  • Petroluem distillates (napthas) are chemicals that have been linked to cancer, lung damage and inflammation, and damage to mucous membranes.
  • Phenols are toxic, and can be deadly to hypersensitive individuals, even at low exposures. It is rapidly absorbed when in contact with the skin, and can cause toxicity throughout the body, specifically the central nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs, and kidneys. No, rinsing clothes with water (cold or hot) will not “wash” the chemicals away. (Nonyl phenol ethoxylate, a common surfactant in US laurndry detergents has been banned in Europe after researchers found it to stimulate breast cancer growth and feminize male fish.)
  • Optical brighteners don’t actually “brighten” whites, as catchy marketing slogans would have us believe. They are synthetic chemicals that actually convert UV light wavelengths into visible light, which makes laundered clothes appear “whiter and brighter.” So your clothes aren’t actually whiter, we just perceive the manipulated color differently. They are toxic to fish and are known to cause bacteria to mutate. They are also photosensitive, which means your skin can develop a rash after being exposed to sunlight after coming into contact with it.
  • Phosphates are used to remove minerals found in hard water to make detergents more effective, and to prevent dirt from settling back onto clothes while washing. However, when they are released into the environment, they unbalance the ecosystem. Many states have laws restricting phosphate use, which is why you see many detergents advertise “low-phosphate” or “phosphate-free” on their products.
  • EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate) is a phosphate-alternative used to reduce minerals in hard water, prevents bleaching agents from activating before being put into water, and stabilizes foaming. EDTA is NOT biodegradable, and can release previously dissolved heavy metals into the environment.
  • Bleach is highly toxic, and is actually causes the most amount of household poisonings than any other chemical. It is carcinogenic and can cause reproductive, endocrine, and immune system disorders.
  • Artificial fragrances. The lack of governmental oversight on artificial fragrances could quite possibly makes me cringe the most. “Fragrance” on the label could mean anywhere from one to several hundreds of natural and synthetic compounds. Even products labeled as “unscented” can contain fragrance ingredients because a manufacturer could add just enough fragrance to cover up ugly smells from other ingredients. Companies are legally allowed to list “fragrance” instead of the individual fragrant components because the information falls under proprietary trade secrets.
Healthy Home, Happy Life online course teaches you all about how to identify toxic ingredients in common household products, including cleaners, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soaps, skin care, cosmetics, hair care, and laundry products. It provides lists of chemicals to avoid, how to read labels, and suggest safe alternatives.

Most of these chemicals are derived from petrochemicals and are designed to stick in clothes and not fully rinse out (to give that “fresh, clean” smell), inevitably resulting in them coming in contact with and absorbing in your skin.

Additionally, very few of these laundry care products have been thoroughly tested for safety. The U.S. government hasn’t passed any commerce law regulating them since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976! This is why its important to know the products your using.

Some brands are worse than others. Some are perfectly safe.

Tide, Gain, Clorox, Dreft, Green Works, Woolite, Downey, and Resolve are among the 250+ worst offenders. I cringe looking at those brand names because each and every one of them at one point were products we used and trusted.

It unfortunately seems as though the most prevalent products in TV commercials and in retail stores earned the “worst” grades. Though times are changing, and more and more stores are slowly starting to stock up on healthier alternatives.

Just take it with a giant “buyer beware” warning and make sure to check out the labels or EWG before subjecting your family to that level of toxin exposure.

So, how can you avoid these?

There are several things you can do instead of lining the pockets of companies who care more about profits than your health.

1. Make your own. You’d be surprised about how inexpensive laundry soap can be when you take a DIY approach. The biggest downside to making your own… laundry soap will void your washer machine’s warranty… AND it doesn’t have the same cleaning power as detergent, unless you’re taking your laundry out back to scrub on a washboard. You actually cannot properly DIY your own detergent without some impressive lab equipment.

2. Purchase from a company you know you can trust. The EWG’s Database is a great starting point, looking specifically at products with A grades. Seventh Generation, Arm and Hammer, Dr Bronner’s, and Green Shield Organic are a few brands in the list of 53 products earning an ‘A’ rating.

I personally love to use Young Living’s Thieves laundry detergent. Thieves laundry detergent is powered by Thieves essential oil blend, containing clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary essential oils in a biodegradable plant-based detergent. It’s tough on yuck, smells good, and is gentle. It’s even effective to use on stains!

Instead of fabric softener and dryer sheets, I use white vinegar in the rinse cycle and wool dryer balls. I love adding essential oils to the dryer balls too (just takes a couple drops during the last 5 minutes of the drying cycle). I use lavender the most often, but also enjoy alternating:

  • Lemon essentail oil
  • Purification essential oil blend (citronella, lemongrass, rosemary, tea tree, lavendin, myrtle) smells light, clean, and refreshing
  • Lavender and rosemary together make your laundry smell like a spa

Wearing clean clothes and using clean linens doesn’t need to be a false sense of reality. You can have clean cloth in your life without all the additive chemicals, and not necessarily subject yourself to the DIY projects all the time. Keep using EWG’s website to search for quality products as you continue to remove toxins from your home. Your body will thank you.

Have you made the switch yet to healthier laundry products?

If not, what is holding you back? If so, which one is your favorite??

​If you’re feeling overwhelmed and would like a detailed guide to making your home healthier, join our Healthy Home Online Class! This is an online class where you’ll receive a daily lesson for 30 days, and learn all about common toxins in common household products, and I’ll also provide you with some of my favorite DIY recipes and a few non-DIY safe options to switch to to help make your home happier and healthier.

Nicole Graber, team leader, author, and editor to EssentialOils.Life and blog websites.

Did you find this post helpful? If you enjoyed this post, please comment below and share.


PS, we have a wonderful complimentary coaching program for our members who purchase cleaning products through us. For more information, please contact us.

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For more information, check out our Healthy Home, Happy Life online course! In this course we will go room by room, showing you where to find common household products that contain toxic chemicals that may be harmful to your and your family’s health. We will also provide you with some DIY recipes and non-DIY solutions to help you replace harmful products with safe alternatives that doesn’t require you to totally shift around your lifestyle.

Healthy Home, Happy Life online course teaches you all about how to identify toxic ingredients in common household products, including cleaners, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soaps, skin care, cosmetics, hair care, and laundry products. It provides lists of chemicals to avoid, how to read labels, and suggest safe alternatives.

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