The thought of clean laundry brings to my mind fresh clothing and crisp linens with a snuggly bear touting a particular brand of fabric softener. But what they don’t advertise is how these just-washed sheets & clothing are now covered in enough chemicals, toxins, and irritants to harm your family’s hormones. It’s no wonder so many kids suffer rashes or eczema from detergent! We’ve heard so many complaints about detergents over the years that we knew it was time to answer the question: Is laundry detergent toxic for your family? This expose might surprise you. You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like safest cookware, safest kitchen appliances, & safest shampoos, now join us as we explore laundry detergent, the chemicals you want to stay away from and the brands you want to purchase.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and was fact-checked by Rebecca Elizabeth Sherrick Harks, Registered Nurse.
15+ Toxic Chemicals Commonly Found in Brand Name Laundry Detergent
Our research shows that laundry detergent is toxic, and a number of brands fail in this area. What were we surprised to find? The sheer volume of problematic chemicals that can be found in detergents. These include everything from mild irritants and allergens to endocrine disruptors and cancer-causing agents.
Let’s take a peek at what toxic chemicals may be lurking in your laundry room products in this toxic detergent chemicals list:
We’ve written about the dangers of fragrances in your favorite perfumes before but these same chemicals can also be found in many scented laundry detergent products as well. Although fragrances give you that sense of things smelling clean, they do more to trick you than actually help you. Your brain is hard-wired to associate certain scents with clean, but did you know that those scents can also contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that are linked with hyperactivity in children, weight gain, lowering testosterone and cancers? Yikes. Phthalates are plasticizer chemicals used to make scents carry longer and they are typically found in “fragrance” without a label telling you they are there. The ingredients of these substances are considered to be trade secrets and, therefore, companies are not required to disclose their components to the general public.
If you see “fragrance” or “perfume” on the ingredient list, the product may also contain chemicals such as acetone or ethanol, just two of thousands of possible ingredients that can disrupt your family’s health.
Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are an EDC that mimics estrogen and is linked to both hormonal problems and cancer. According to the EPA, NPEs have been associated with reproductive and developmental effects in labs studies on rodents and are highly toxic to aquatic life. They have been found in human breast milk, too. While the EPA is starting to take action on NPEs, they have not yet banned this item.
Although this chemical is not supposed to be used in products, studies have discovered it in a number of laundry detergents. 1,4-dioxane isn’t added directly to your laundry detergent, it’s a contaminant that gets in during a process called ethoxylation when ethlyene oxide is added to other ingredients to make them less harsh. processing. Ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate are ethoxylated because they are harsh on the skin. This process is what creates the contamination of 1,4-dioxane. The EPA has determined that this chemical is a probable human carcinogen.
Synthetic and Petroleum-Based Surfactants
Surfactants help to clean your products. When they are synthetically derived or petroleum-based, they are the most harmful. One example is ammonium laureth sulfate (ALES), which can be harmful to your children, causing possible eye damage, and to the health of animals. ALES also contains polyethylene glycol (PEG). This chemical can penetrate the skin and is listed as a skin irritant in EWG’s Skin Deep Database.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) /Sodium Laureth Sulfates (SLES)
SLS and SLES are naturally derived surfactants but that doesn’t mean they are not harmful. Both have been shown to be a skin and eye irritant by the Journal of the American College of Toxicology. There is debate over whether SLS is a carcinogen, and some research indicates it may damage the immune system. Both are harmful to the environment.
Phosphates are difficult to remove, even in wastewater processing systems, and can pose a threat to the environment. According to the EPA, they promote algae growth that decreases the oxygen that many aquatic life forms need to survive. Studies also link them to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and death in animals.
Chlorine bleach, such as Clorox, can burn the skin, and can cause eye damage and respiratory issues. It is classified as a hazardous chemical in its initial state.
Ammonium Quaternary Sanitizers (Quats)
Lab studies have shown this chemical to harm fertility, cause miscarriages, and cause severe birth defects in animals. According to Chemical of the Day, they can also trigger skin and respiratory irritations as well as allergies. Some quats are also EDCs and some are toxic to aquatic life. Not much is known about its effect on humans, but this is definitely a chemical you don’t want around your children.
Benzyl Acetate, and Other Benzene Ingredients
According to its own material safety sheet, this benzyl acetate is toxic if inhaled or ingested. It’s also irritating to eyes, lungs, and skin. Benzene-based ingredients are often toxic.
The EPA states that this chemical can irritate your throat, skin, or eyes and may have even more serious health effects. In animal lab studies, it has also been associated with harmful effects during pregnancy, neurological effects, and more.
These chemicals create the “optical illusion” of brighter whites. They “coat” your clothing and remain after washing, meaning that your family’s skin is constantly exposed to them. According to the material safety sheet, they are extremely toxic to aquatic life. They are also an irritant to skin, eyes, and lungs, and can be harmful if ingested.
Quaternium-15 & Formaldehyde
Quaternium-15 releases formaldehyde. Additionally, some companies add formaldehyde to their products. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and toxicant.
Artificial Colors and Preservatives
We know that artificial dyes are associated with ADHD. And artificial preservatives, like BHT and BHA, may be carcinogenic or an endocrine disruptor. You should avoid these as much as possible.
A Word About Silver Nanoparticles
More manufacturers are adding silver nanoparticles to clothing to combat odor-causing bacteria. These can seep back into wastewater, in this case, from your washing machine. They are harmful to ecosystems and can damage fish and other animals as well as their embryos, according to research. They can also prevent wastewater treatment systems from functioning properly. You may want to limit how many “odor reducing” clothing articles you buy for your family.
Mamavation Investigates Laundry Detergents
The list of harmful effects of laundry detergents sure is long! If all this made you freak out about ever having your kids wear clean clothes again, don’t worry. Mamavation has combed through the brands and we have the listing of the safest items as well as which brands and products you should avoid altogether. Without further ado, here is the big list of worst, better, and best laundry detergents for your family.
The Worst Brands
These brands contain some or many of the chemicals from our toxic ingredient list above. There are even brands that are frequently recommended for newborns. Basically, avoid these brands at all costs.
- All Free & Clear: Contains surfactants and brighteners
- Arm & Hammer
- ECOS™ Hypoallergenic Laundry Detergent, Magnolia & Lily has undisclosed fragrance.
- Green Works
- Just The Basics (CVS)
- Norwex: Contains surfactants and brighteners
- Thrive Market Fragrance-Free Laundry Detergent (UPDATE: Thrive Market has committed to reformulating this product and we hope to have good news for you soon!)
The Better Brands
These brands are better but may contain 1 or 2 of the above ingredients, including SLS, the safety of which is hotly disputed. Most have naturally derived versions of certain chemicals and derive their scents naturally, and are clear of the worst of the “bad” chemicals. However, these are better products than those listed above and do not contain the worst offenders on the above list. That said, these chemicals do not pose a high risk but may be something to avoid if you have sensitive skin, allergies, or are autoimmune compromised.
- Babyganics 3x Laundry Detergent, Fragrance-Free and Lavender
- Biokleen: Citrus Essense Laundry Liquid, Free & Clear Laundry Liquid, Cold Water Laundry Liquid
- DoTerra Laundry Detergent
- Dr. Bronner’s Sals Suds All Purpose Cleaner (can be used in laundry)
- ECOS laundry detergents, all except Magnolia & Lily (all contain preservatives)
- Grab Green Delicate Laundry Detergent Pods, Fragrance-Free
- Grab Green Scented 3-in-1 Laundry Detergent products
- Honest Company
- Melaleuca Laundry detergents (contain undisclosed brightener, preservative, and natural surfactant)
- Mrs. Meyer’s : contains undisclosed fragrance, however, they claim they are comprised of essential oils
- Planet by Ultra
- Seventh Generation Natural Baby Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear and Seventh Generation Natural Laundry Detergent Pack, Free & Clear
- Seventh Generation Energy Smart
- Seventh Generation Scented Liquid Laundry Detergents
- Seventh Generation Natural 4X Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear
The Best Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent Brands
We are happy to announce that this list is long enough to provide you with plenty of options! All of these products are either MADE SAFE certified, do not contain the ingredients listed above, or are naturally/organically grown with no added chemicals. If there are no products specified beside the brand name, you can safely use any laundry detergent they make. Note that this does not mean you can use ANY product they make for laundry or other uses.
365 Everyday Value Laundry Detergent (Whole Foods Brand)
- Biokleen: Citrus Essense Laundry Powder
- Branch Basics Concentrate
- Celedon Road Detergent
- Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder
- Eco Nuts
- Grab Green: Fragrance-Free Laundry Detergent Pods, 3-in-1 Powder, and Stoneworks
- Green Shield
- Honest Co. 4-in-1 Laundry Pods, Free & Clear
- Meliora: All products; their Laundry Powder is also MADESAFE Certified
- Miessence Platypus Laundry Liquid
- Molly’s Suds
- My Green Fills
- Nellie’s All-Natural Laundry Soda
- Planet Ultra 2x Ultra Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear
- Pure Haven Laundry Detergent
- Pure Natural
- Rockin’ Green Platinum Series Dirty Diaper & Active Wear Detergent product lines only
- Seventh Generation Natural Laundry Detergent Powder, Free & Clear
- Simple Truth Free & Clear
- Soap Nuts
- Thieves Laundry Soap by Young Living
- Trader Joe’s Liquid Laundry Detergent
- Whole Foods Unscented Market Baby & Organic Unscented Laundry Detergents
- Woolzies Laundry Detergent
- Zum Clean Laundry Soap: All except Frankincense & Myrrh for undisclosed fragrance
If this list of toxic laundry detergents surprised you, I’m sorry to say that it gets worse. Almost all laundry aides – dryer sheets, fabric softener, and stain remover – use toxic chemicals. Most fabric softeners, for example, contain quats but they also have fragrance, or artificial preservatives and colors. Dryer sheets fare even worse.
If you want to use these products, here are the safest choices:
- Dryer Sheets: Pure Ecosheet
- Stain Remover: Attitude, Biokleen Bac Out Stain + Odor Remover, Branch Basics Oxygen Boost, Fit Organic Baby Laundry Stain Remover, Nature Clean Oxy, Poofy Organics Pre-Spray, Puracy Natural Stain Remover, Pure Haven Master Blaster, OxyClean Stain Remover, Sun & Earth On The Spot!
Is laundry detergent toxic? Many brands are but you don’t have to stop washing your clothes. (Bad news for your teenager!) There are a lot of brands you can choose from to keep your family safe and freshly laundered. Or, take the plunge and DIY your laundry cleaners. You won’t regret it!