Laundry Tutorial 101: An Intro to Why Traditional Laundry Detergent is Hazardous & Alternative Options
My name is Francesca, and I am here to teach you the way of eco-friendly laundry. My aim is to upload video-tutorials and written pieces about the wonderful world of laundry. I will teach you how to change your practices to be more sustainable while maintaining that your little black dress looks new throughout the year!
First things first, we need to understand why it is important to go green in laundry. Although I have been using eco-friendly laundry products to wash my clothes for years, I have realized that I did not fully understand why it was important to put down the Tide and pick up the Biokleen.
I hit the Internet only to find sites that were either very vague and inconclusive or filled with complex scientific jargon that most of us have difficulty understanding. So, let’s review these basic questions that can easily explain why being eco-conscious with our laundry is better for our clothes, the environment, and us. Special thanks to those who contributed their questions and ideas as I did my research!
What is in traditional laundry detergent that is unhealthy to the environment and to us?
Traditional detergents are made up of a wide variety of chemicals, which, even though they are good at fighting stains, are rather toxic.
Although each detergent differs, some of the basic chemicals used are the same. For example, most detergents contain surfactants, which are non-biodegradable and are meant to “reduce surface tension in water and allow aqueous solutions to spread and penetrate more easily” (“A More Sustainable Approach to Everyday Cleaning”). When released into a body of water after the washing cycle, these surfactants can wreak havoc on local eco-systems. For example, they can cause marine life to become more vulnerable to other pollutants (such as pesticides and petroleum products) because of its ability to synergize with them.
They also have been known to change the qualities of fish gills, convert male fish and frogs into females, and more drastically, directly contribute to their deaths when they are exposed for long periods of time. Anionic surfactants, or LAS, are particularly carcinogenic and have been known to introduce benzene, a harmful toxin, into water streams. Surfactants are not only dangerous to marine life, but have been known to cause breast cancer cell growth in humans.
Aside from surfactants, other toxic chemicals in traditional laundry detergents include, but are not limited to, phosphates, napthas and phenols. Phosphates are used to get dirt off and prevent it from sticking back in the wash. There is a plethora of articles out there that indicate what is unsafe with phosphates, but the most poignant fact is that sixteen states have banned them from dishwashing soap since they are so disastrous to certain marine ecosystems. EDTAs, or ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, are their alternatives, however, sadly, they too are hazardous as they do not biodegrade with ease and can introduce heavy metals into the environment that can then be introduced into our groundwater. Napthas, which are petroleum distillates, are known to cause cancer, lung damage and inflammation. Phenol is a toxin that is rapidly and easily digested into our bodies and is known to cause death at low exposures. Bleach or sodium hypchlorite is equally dangerous as it creates carcinogenic and toxic compounds when it reacts with certain organic matter. Ultimately, these compounds can cause damage to our reproductive, endocrine and immune systems.
Apart from these dangerous chemicals we also have optical brighteners, which make clothes appear brighter and whiter. When I think of these I think of that commercial where a peppy British housecleaner goes around asking how to make something going from “dingy to white.”
The truth is, optical brighteners are just an optical trick: they make clothes look brighter through converting UV light to visible light. In short, we are using more unneeded chemicals to make something look cleaner when in fact it is not. Optical brighteners, on the contrary, can cause bacterial mutations and are also very toxic to marine life. They are also irritants that can cause allergies and skin problems in humans, which is not a very good sign if you think about it.
Similarly, the fake fragrances that are often used to attract people to buy softeners and detergents are also dangerous. Some fragrances are made up of petrol, which is not biodegradable. Just like everything else in traditional laundry detergents they are harmful to marine life and cause humans to have allergic reactions from time to time. Hence, the “sensitive, no-fragrance” detergents that we often see in supermarket aisles.
I don’t know about you, but I am not comfortable with the idea that my clothes are “washed” by chemicals that are so detrimental and dangerous. Now, many traditional companies that manufacture detergents argue that surfactants are the only successful stain lifters out there. However, a study conducted on National Geographic’s The Green Guide, about 75% of people thought that the eco-friendly detergents they were using were as effective at cleaning as traditional laundry detergents (Gilbert).
Okay, well eco-friendly detergents sure are expensive…
Eco-friendly laundry detergents can be a bit more expensive than traditional detergents. However, given the health risks involved with traditional detergents, it sounds like a decent deal. Also, many eco-friendly detergents last a long time, and thus are ultimately similarly priced as more conventional detergents. For example, according to ConsumerSearch.com, a bottle of Seventh Generation Natural 2X Liquid Detergent costs 1 cent less per load than Tide ColdWater Liquid Detergent. On a personal note, I do my laundry at least once a week and I still am using the bottle of Biokleen (c/a $15.25) that I bought over a year ago. By the looks of it, it will last me at least a couple more tries.
On that note, always look for smaller bottles that are marked as “concentrated.” As long as you are conservative with the amounts you use, especially with a high-efficiency machine, it will last you a long time. If you can, look for bottles that are made of recycled or recyclable materials. It will either state it directly on the bottle or it will be marked with the recycle numbers. For more information on recycling numbers check out: green living tips.
… and I don’t know which one to buy!
Walk into your local health or natural supermarket and you will be bombarded with eco-friendly products. It is normal to feel confused as there are different price ranges and brands. It can be hard to pay for a detergent with which you are not familiar. According to AssociatedContent.com, the ones that have gotten the best ratings for sensitive skins are Charlie’s Soaps, Planet, ECOS, Seventh Generation, Caldrea, Greenworks, Method, Mountain Green and BioKleen. Soap nuts, which are little nuts from Soap Trees (no lies here, folks) have also become very popular and are reportedly rather effective. If you are interested you should check out Maggie’s Soap Nuts. I also know people who swear by Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Cleaner. It is an excellent soap that works for washing dishes as well as for cleaning floors, clothes, counters, even toilets. It is very good if you are concerned with saving money and want an all-in-one product.
Is there anything else I should keep in mind when doing my laundry that can help me cut costs and still be eco-friendly?
Actually, there are a lot of things that you can consider doing. First of all – don’t use hot water. It only takes 10% of the energy your machine uses to actually run the machine but 90% of it to heat the water (“Laundry Room Interactive”). Hot water can make cotton shrink, bleed colors, etc. which is not fun when you really love your clothes. Sometimes, hot water can be useful to take berry and wine stains out. However in terms of washing, it is best to stick to cold water as it works just as well without the added energy use.
Also, line drying is the ideal form of drying. Driers wear down your cotton clothes and are not good for most other materials. Most of us that live in an apartment don’t have too many options to line dry, but you can pick up a drying rack from the Container Store or Bed Bath and Beyond. You could also make your own or hang up a few laundry lines in your bathroom.
What about bleach alternatives? And fabric softeners?
Here is where I find that things get a bit tricky. As I mentioned before bleach, optical brighteners and fragrances are all damaging to you and the environment. However, there are a multitude of homemade and store bought alternatives that are available. Some work, and some don’t. Unfortunately, this Bright Young Thing has yet to try them all.
If you can’t live without fragrance, or if simply you live in an area where line-drying is a dream but not a reality, most of the major eco-friendly laundry brands have fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Just make sure to read the ingredients and check to see if they really are as “green” as advertised.
In terms of whitening, I used to use hydrogen peroxide, which is great for treating stains on carpets and some clothes, but can be rather harsh. I have recently started using Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing Solution. It is very concentrated and requires just a few drops per white load. The results are wonderful!!
What about Dry Cleaning?
Oh boy, that’s a doozy! Dry Cleaning is extremely hazardous to the environment and to us. That’s why when you get a shirt back from your neighborhood cleaner it smells so … chemical. The issue is very complicated, and I think an anecdote from Organic Clothing really put things to light:
“The dry cleaning process originated in France in 1825 and was discovered by accident when a worker in a cleaning factory spilled lamp oil, which is a petroleum-based solvent, on a soiled tablecloth. When the table cloth dried, Viola! the stains were gone and a new industry emerged. The new cleaning method was called dry because it used turpentine and kerosene and not “wet” water. Within a few years, they started using benzene and gasoline, which were more refined and had fewer industrial petroleum impurities. These great advances in cleaning had the slight drawback of the solvents being highly flammable. More than one early dry cleaning shop burst into flame or was blown out of the neighborhood. Oh, yes … the clothes also stank like a gas tank after being cleaned.” (“Green Dry Cleaning”)
Eventually, drycleaners started to use perchloroethylene (C2CL4 or PERC), which is a chemical that can also be found in shoe polish. It is both a heavy air polluter and a carcinogen, which can enter your body and accrue in your breast milk and fatty tissue.
Luckily, there are dry cleaning alternatives available to us now. Send an item to a dry cleaner if it specifies “Dry Clean Only” on the label (better yet, avoid buying items that state “Dry Clean Only”). If not there are other options such as CO2 Cleaning, Wet Cleaning and Silicon Based Cleaning. To find a place that has these alternatives you should check out nodryclean.com or findco2.com. You can also try your hand at creating your own “home dry cleaning” solution.
Okay, lovelies, that is it for now! I’ll be back soon with tips on how to clean that little black dress in an eco-clean and effective way!!
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