Sunday, February 20, 2005

What’s in Laundry Detergents?

Consumers have become much more concerned about how the products they use impact the environment in recent years. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for even highly educated consumers to find out just what ingredients are in certain products, and how they might impact humans or the environment.

I cannot provide you with specific ingredients used in Tide or other name brand laundry detergents, for a couple reasons. First of all, companies are not required by law to list their ingredients, and claim that their formulations are confidential. Secondly, the ingredients they use change periodically, whether due to reformulation or simply the use of alternative ingredients to reduce costs. However, the following list of ingredients commonly used in the leading brands, along with a description of how they impact the environment, should give you a good idea of what’s inside.






ABS – Alkyl benzene sulfonates.

Cleaning Agent – also called a surfactant

Very slowly – seldom used


This is a type of anionic surfactant. Anionic surfactants work better in hot water for greasy stains and actual dirt.

LAS – Linear Alkyl Sodium Sulfonates

Cleaning Agent – (surfactant)

Very slowly

Low to moderate toxicity.

The most common surfactant in use. During the manufacturing process, carcinogens & reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. They are of low to moderate toxicity. The pure compounds may cause skin irritation on prolonged contact, just like soap. Because oleo-based alternatives are available, LAS should not be used.

Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols

Cleaning Agent – (surfactant)

Very slowly

Biologically Toxic

They have been implicated in chronic health problems. Researchers in England have found that in trace amounts they activate estrogen receptors in cells, which in turn alters the activity of certain genes. For example, in experiments they have been found to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and feminize male fish, birds and reptiles. Also found to increase the chance of prostate cancer and fertility problems in men. As a matter of fact, one member of this family of chemicals is used as a common spermicide.

Quaternium 15

Cleaning Agent, disinfectant and deodorant



An alkyl ammonium chloride that releases formaldehyde, a potent toxin

Xylene sulfonate

Cleaning Agent – (surfactant)

Very slowly


Xylene is a synthetic that, when reacted with sulfuric acid, creates a surfactant.


May be considered a surfactant – helps clean away organic dirt & stains.


It is a skin sensitizer & may cause skin dermatitis (rashes) & allergic reactions.

Often not mentioned specifically, most detergents have enzymes. Silk and wool may react badly to enzymes. It can be safe under correct conditions, but it's easy enough to obtain a detergent with no enzymes.

Artificial fragrances

Many detergents, if they were without perfume would smell unpleasant.

Many do not degrade at all.

May have toxic effects on both fish and mammals.

Artificial fragrances are made from petroleum. They often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.

Water softeners

They remove salts, magnesium, and calcium from the water because otherwise they may interact with the cleaning agents and prevent the cleaning agents from acting properly on your laundry.


Once introduced into the general environment can re-dissolve toxic heavy metals trapped in underwater sediments, allowing them to re-enter and re-circulate in the food chain.

EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate). EDTA is also used to prevent bleaching agents from becoming active before they're immersed in water and as a foaming stabilizer.

Optical brighteners (also called fabric whiteners)

Chemicals that, when applied to clothing, convert UV light wavelengths to visible light, thus making laundered clothes appear "whiter" (may even cause your clothes to appear clean when some stains were not entirely washed out).


They are toxic to fish when washed into the general environment and can create bacterial mutations. They can cause allergic reaction when in contact with skin that is then exposed to sunlight.

Their inclusion in any formula does not enhance or affect the product's performance in any way; they simply trick the eye. Natural fibers such as cotton, linen and wool tend to turn yellowish with age. This is an irreversible biological process which can be covered up by the use of optical brighteners. They reflect blue light, reducing the perception of yellowing and giving an illusion of brightness to the garment. Most optical brighteners are given trade names which consumers are unlikely to see on a label.

Petroleum distillates (also naphthas)




A broad category encompassing almost every type of chemical obtained directly from the petroleum refining process. Any ingredient listed as a "petroleum distillate" or "naphtha" should be suspect as it is, firstly a synthetic and, secondly, likely to cause one or more detrimental health or environmental effects.

Phosphates (Alkaline Builders)

Anti-redeposition agents. They break up soil into fragments small enough to remain suspended in water so they are not deposited back onto fabrics. They also help to soften hard water and prevent corrosion in the metal parts of washers.



Key nutrients in ecosystems, phosphates are natural minerals important to the maintenance of all life. While relatively non-irritating and non-toxic in the environment, they nonetheless contribute to significant problems in waterways by fostering dangerously explosive marine plant growth. For these reasons they are banned or restricted in many states. Products containing phosphates should be considered unacceptable. They may be listed on a label as silicates or carbonates. Note: The major laundry detergent manufacturers no longer use phosphates in their formulations.


Anti-redeposition agent



These are phosphate substitutes. Because they are recent additions, their effects on human and environmental health remain largely unknown. They do not interfere with treatment plant operation and generally settle out with sludge during water treatment, but until further study and analysis are conducted, use of this ingredient is not recommended.

Polyethylene glycol (also PEG)

Anti-redeposition agent


Not considered toxic, it takes large doses to be lethal in animals.

PEG is a polymer made from ethylene oxide and is similar to some non-ionic detergents (works better in cold water).

Polymers (color protection agent)

It is the job of polymers to prevent the transfer of dye from one fabric to another.



Polymers capture loose dye and hold it in suspension in the water. These dyes bond strongly with polymers and are thus kept from transferring onto fabrics in the wash load. Another type of color protection agent attempts to permanently set the dye in place on the fabric it’s supposed to be on in the first place.


Neutralizes the alkalinity – results in giving fabrics a softer feel.


May cause skin irritation

When a load has been thoroughly rinsed, a small amount or residual alkalinity remains on the fabrics. To prevent this, an acidic rinse is used to neutralize the alkalinity. Before today’s sophisticated hair care products were available, women often used vinegar (a mild acid) as a final rinse after shampooing. Just as sour gives a better feeling to fabrics, the vinegar made hair feel silkier.

Diethanolamines (a type of sour)

Neutralizes acids in products to make them non-irritating.


They react with natural nitrogen oxides and sodium nitrite pollutants in the atmosphere to form nitrosamines, a family of potent carcinogens.

A synthetic family of surfactants.

Anti-sudsing Agent

Reduces suds



Suds, which we often think of as a sign that things are getting cleaned, are actually a bad thing in laundry, because they can make it hard to wash out all the detergent after the garment is clean. Therefore, most detergents have something that reduces suds by breaking the bubbles as they form. This is also handy because the stronger the anti-sudsing agent is, the more detergent you can put in for a particularly dirty load without having suds overflow the washer.


These make the detergent look the color you expect it to be.




Sodium Hypochorite

Not Sure



Causes lung irritation – Bronchitis/Respiratory, Cardiovascular Damage – Eye & Skin damage. Lethal fumes if mixed w/Ammonia.

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