"After ecstasy, the laundry," a Zen philosopher once mused. These days, the weekly wash may hit you with more than the soiled thud of earthly reality due to the chemicals packed into many common detergents. Each of the 35 billion loads washed annually by American households contributes a mounting dose of irritants and pollutants to the environment -- but they don't have to. With a growing selection of eco- and health-friendly alternatives, you can find a gentle, easy, and effective "green" clean. Exact compositions of detergents are protected trade secrets, so product labels often reveal little more than chemical acronyms and cautions to "keep out of reach of children." To help you make optimal selections for your family and home, we've listed the benefits and costs of common laundry products, as well as our picks from the greener alternatives.
Petrochemical-based synthetic detergents replaced flaked soap on supermarket and laundry-room shelves in the 1940s. Heavily marketed and quite effective, they quickly became the standard choice for American households. These detergents remove dirt and oils, rinsing them off so they don't settle back into the fabric, and they leave no mineral residue, even in hard water. Companies offer a wide-ranging palette of scents by using synthetic fragrances. And with powerful chemical preservatives, these products have a shelf-life that's essentially unlimited.
Conventional detergents do have their drawbacks, however, starting with the fact that they use nonrenewable resources -- among them, the petroleum-based optical brighteners found in many products. These potentially toxic "fluorescent whitening agents" make clothes appear whiter by attaching to fabrics and converting UV rays into visible blue-violet light. Some manufacturers will list these as "brighteners," or the trade names ER, KSN, OB, and OB-1. Often not on the labels of these detergents are the dyes, perfumes, softeners, enzymes, or bleaching agents the products may contain. Fragrance, for instance, often helps disguise the chemical smell of a detergent, even if the box says "hypoallergenic" or "fragrance-free"; these claims aren't regulated by any government committee or standards organization.
The extent to which conventional detergents compromise our health remains another cause for concern. These products are formulated to cling to clothes, rather than rinse out, placing harsh ingredients in prolonged contact with the skin, stripping it of moisture. They sometimes include synthetic surfactants, cleaning agents that biodegrade slowly and are associated with chronic health problems. Petrochemical-based surfactants called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) can break down to compounds that the Environmental Protection Agency considers highly toxic to aquatic organisms and potential "endocrine disruptors" for humans. This means they could harm your body's endocrine system, which is responsible for healthy metabolism, reproduction, and growth. Another chemical group, phthalates (indicated by nonspecific "fragrance" on many labels), is readily absorbed by skin, fingernails, and lungs, and they may cause birth defects. Finally, most conventional detergents include parabens, or chemical preservatives that can accumulate in the body with use and have been detected in breast cancer tumors. While early studies on the link between parabens and breast cancer have been inconclusive, some health experts still advise caution.
For their part, formulators of ecofriendly vegetable-based detergents have made major strides in recent years to achieve the strengths of conventional cleaners, without sacrificing responsibility to the environment and good health. In general, these detergents minimize pollution and residues by using renewable plant resources: Rather than tapping crude oil, their surfactants use vegetable oils, often from coconut. They won't attach to textiles (so you're not in constant contact with chemicals), and they're paraben-free. While risks associated with parabens are still unknown, these manufacturers opt for alternatives that are less questionable.
Of course, not all vegetable-based detergents will please everyone. Some contain strong fragrances that may aggravate allergies. Others can harbor unlisted additives, like their conventional counterparts. When hunting for alternatives, look for labels that state the origin of their scents and surfactants: "coconut-oil-based surfactant," for instance, instead of "cleaning agents," and "fragrance derived from lavender oil" rather than "fragrance." While we've found effective detergents from several brands (see "Detergents Put to the Test"), it's worth conducting your own tests, which will take into account your most common laundry dilemmas, as well as the type of water in which you wash your clothes. Find a detergent you like, and you can give those whites and brights a healthy hint of "green."
Learn more healthy laundry practices in our guide to better bleaches.
What About Softeners?
Many textile and cleaning experts advise against using synthetic fabric softeners altogether, especially for those items you want to remain absorbent or nonirritating to sensitive skin. That's because conventional softeners generate their namesake feel with a waxy chemical residue that attaches to your garments and can build up over time. This can inhibit towels and "wicking" athletic wear from serving their functions. The same innovation that allows a softener to enhance comfort and control static cling between washes keeps your body in close, constant contact with its potentially harmful ingredients.
In addition, most softeners contain derivatives of ammonium chloride, a chemical that is deadly to some aquatic life and a common trigger for allergy and asthma symptoms, including difficulty breathing, congestion, and watery eyes. Many softeners also contain tallow, or animal fat, making them undesirable to vegans and other people trying to avoid animal products. Fortunately, you can choose from a variety of gentler alternatives, some of which you may already stock in your kitchen. A quarter to one cup of white vinegar added to a final rinse (after any chlorine products have been washed away to avoid dangerous fumes) can help to fluff, deodorize, and prevent lint, and a quarter cup of baking soda added to the wash cycle can help to reduce static cling.
Text by Josie Garthwaite