What Harmful Chemicals Are in Your Laundry Detergent What Harmful Chemicals Are in Your Laundry Detergent

What Harmful Chemicals Are in Your Laundry Detergent

Is Your Laundry Detergent Toxic? A Closer Look

You might not think too much about what's in your laundry detergent. Most of us have never really looked beyond the marketed cleaning power, fragrance, and price. But it's important to be in the know. Why? Because although detergents leave your clothes smelling like a summer breeze, they often contain a mix of harmful chemicals that have negative side effects on our health—some chemicals can cause irritation and allergies. Not to mention that they damage our clothes and leave them faded and worn out. What’s more, every time we wash our clothes, these chemicals wash into our sewers and pollute our waterways.

The dangers of laundry detergents are real and that's because most manufacturers are not required to reveal every ingredient that is used in their products. The ingredients that they do list are usually vague. Toxic chemicals are hidden behind complex words or secret numbers.

So just how toxic are traditional laundry detergents? Does it really matter what is in them so long as our clothes are clean? What is in your detergent may surprise and alarm you. 


Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products vs. Regular Cleaning Products

In a world where chemicals are not explained, it can be hard to find laundry and household cleaners made with truly safe ingredients which can make you worry about using harsh chemicals unknowingly. 

Conventional detergents are comprised of a concoction of fragrances, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and potent cancer-causing chemicals. So each piece of laundry you pull out of the washing machine contains toxic residues from detergents, which not only lingers in the fabric, but rubs off on your skin.

We also see a lot of "chemical free cleaning products" being advertised, but "chemicals" are simply a reaction between two or more substances (even water can be considered a chemical substance). No matter the formula, every cleaning product contains chemicals of some kind. Any claims of "chemical free household products" are erroneous, but there are plenty of products out there that use questionable ingredients like bleach, ammonia, and formaldehyde.


The Harmful Chemicals In Conventional Detergents 

  • Chlorine Bleach: Often found in cleaners and disinfectants, exposure to chlorine bleach has been linked to chronic respiratory problems (like asthma). Some people suffer from extreme allergic reactions, chemical burns, and permanent tissue damage. If swallowed, bleach will cause life long damage. Bleach is a carcinogen within laundry detergent and has been linked to throat and breast cancer. Bleach is involved in more household poisonings than any other chemical. Is it possible to whiten clothes without using bleach? Absolutely. And we’re happy to prove it to you.

  • Optical Brighteners: You’ll find these in detergents advertising their “brightening” powers. Brighter whites! Brighter colors! What’s creating all this brightness? Chemicals that are formulated to intentionally remain on the clothes to reflect light to help clothes “appear” brighter. Optical brighteners are meant to make clothes, especially white ones, appear whiter by converting UV light into visible light. Optical brighteners have the capacity to make skin become photo-reactive and more sensitive to sun exposure. Many people develop skin irritation and rashes from exposure to optical brighteners. Not to mention that they are toxic to fish and cause bacterial mutations!

  • Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is a low-cost preservative and antibacterial agent commonly used in detergents and dishwashing liquids. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that can also cause skin irritation and allergic responses. Regular contact with formaldehyde can cause allergic reactions such as eczema and contact dermatitis. Daily contact with formaldehyde is toxic to humans and has been linked with cancer. Check your detergent label for mention of this ingredient or look up the manufacturer’s website for more information. It may also be known as Formalin, Formic aldehyde, Methanediol, Methanal, Methyl aldehyde, Methylene glycol, Methylene oxide. 

  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylates: A notorious chemical that is a known endocrine disruptor in humans and animals, nonylphenol ethoxylated is banned in several European countries, but not in India. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) identified it as a chemical of global concern in its region-based Assessment of Persistent Toxic Substances. It disrupts endocrine function by mimicking estrogen, so that, with repeated exposure, our bodies won’t be able to tell the difference between estrogen and nonylphenol ethoxylate. The chemical is not biodegradable and remains in the soil, groundwater and surface water bodies for several years where it is highly toxic to marine organisms.

  • Benzene: The most commonly used benzene-based surfactants in laundry detergents are alkylbenzene sulphonates (ABS) and linear alkylbenzene sulphonates (LAS). Surfactants lower the surface tension between the liquid and the stains on clothing, suspend the dirt particles in the water and make them easier to dissolve and wash off. Indoor air has high levels of benzene, emitted by household products such as detergents, paint and furniture polish. It irritates the skin, nose and eyes, and is toxic to aquatic life.

  • Phosphates: Phosphates make detergents more effective by reducing the action of calcium and magnesium and making water less hard. The most commonly used phosphate in detergents is sodium tripolyphosphate. Despite their effectiveness, phosphates have been banned in several American states and European countries because of their adverse impact on water bodies. Phosphates lead to the buildup of algal blooms in lakes and rivers, which deprives marine organisms of oxygen supply, thus killing them. An eco-friendly laundry detergent is one that is phosphate-free and does not degrade natural eco-systems.

  • Petroleum distillates (aka napthas): These are solvents used to dissolve dirt, grease and grime that have been linked to mucus membrane damage, lung damage and inflammation, asthma, and cancer. They are derived from synthetic crude oil.

  • Phthalates: These endocrine-disrupting "plasticizer" chemicals are everywhere in modern society. They are widely used chemicals that pollute almost everyone's bodies. They are often used in soft plastics like PVC and a component in some fragrances.

  • Synthetic Fragrances: The fragrances in conventional laundry detergents are a mixture of about 4,000 chemicals, many of which are petroleum derivatives. We smell them because they vaporize into the air where they release harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as terpenes which pollute indoor air. Harsh artificial fragrances are known to irritate the respiratory system and cause problems such as asthma. Opt for a detergent that is fragrance-free or contains a mild aroma.

  • Harmful Dyes: Some dyes cause developmental and reproductive toxicity. They can be an endocrine disrupter which is linked to risks involving fetal development, reproductive systems, brain, immune and other problems.


Boulder Clean Laundry Detergent on a counter next to a bin of dryer balls.

Green Cleaning Products Are Created for Homes & Families

So now that you have educated yourself on the harmful effects of carcinogens in laundry detergent on your health, it's time to think about some alternative. We don’t have to subject ourselves and our families to all these chemicals for the sake of clean clothes. There are many other laundry detergents that are green or eco friendly, and are also safe (or at least safer) for your skin and your health.

The EPA recommends using eco-friendly cleaning products that are low in volatile organic compounds like glycol esters, limonene, and hydrocarbons. What are the benefits of eco-friendly cleaning products? They are numerous—from environmental to health.

Boulder Clean is an eco cleaning brand that takes care of what matters most: our loved ones and the environment. That’s why our team of chemists carefully create eco-friendly, plant-based cleaning products with completely transparent ingredient lists (and highly effective formulas). We've tested all of our plant-based cleaning products for safe use around your family. No fumes, residue, or “bad stuff" involved. You should feel confident the ingredients you bring into your home are safe for you, your family, and the planet.


  • Love the liquid citrus laundry detergent!!!!
    The only negative comment I have is Grand Rapids Michigan Costco does not sell it like Arizona does!! Hard to find and to expensive ordering and paying shipping.

    Posted by Margaret Myers on November 01, 2022

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