Is There Such Thing as a Healthier Laundry Detergent?
Is There Such Thing as a Healthier Laundry Detergent?
Female hand scoping out washing powder

Our skin is the largest organ of our body, and since it’s porous, it can absorb whatever you put on it. So, what you put on your body matters just as much as what you put in it. While you may immediately think of lotions, creams, serums and soaps, did you know that laundry detergent can be important, too? But how much impact can it make and what should you be on the lookout for in a laundry detergent?

Understanding the Language

There are many laundry detergents on the market that promote themselves as being “healthy” or “natural,” and it may have you wondering what exactly that means and how much it matters.

Yes, there are laundry detergents that can be considered "healthier" or more environmentally friendly compared to traditional detergents. Many traditional laundry detergents contain chemicals that can be harmful to both the environment and human health. Some of the most common harmful chemicals found in laundry detergents include:

  • Phosphates: These are often used in laundry detergents to help soften hard water and improve cleaning performance. However, when they enter waterways, they can cause algae blooms and other environmental problems.
  • Surfactants: These are the ingredients in laundry detergents that help to remove dirt and stains from clothes. However, some surfactants, such as nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), have been found to be harmful to aquatic life and may also be endocrine disruptors.
  • Optical brighteners: These are chemicals that are added to laundry detergents to make clothes appear brighter and whiter. However, they can also cause skin irritation and may be toxic to aquatic life.
  • Fragrances: Many laundry detergents contain fragrances to make clothes smell fresh and clean. However, these fragrances may contain chemicals that can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Bleach: Chlorine bleach is a common ingredient in laundry detergents, and it can be harmful if ingested or inhaled. It can also cause skin and eye irritation.

On the other hand, "healthier" laundry detergents use plant-based or natural ingredients and avoid using harmful chemicals. These types of detergents are often marketed as "eco-friendly," "natural," or "green" detergents. They may contain ingredients such as enzymes, vinegar or citric acid, or baking soda, which can effectively clean clothes without causing harm to the environment or human health.

Some common cleaning ingredients found in natural laundry detergents:

  • Enzymes: These are natural proteins that help break down and remove stains and odors from clothes.
  • Plant-based surfactants: These are natural cleaning agents derived from plants, such as coconut or corn. They help to remove dirt and stains from clothes without harming the environment.
  • Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda): This natural ingredient helps to remove odors and stains from clothes, and can also act as a natural fabric softener.
  • Citric acid: This natural ingredient is often used as a water softener and can help to remove mineral buildup on clothes.
  • Essential oils: These are natural oils extracted from plants, and they can be used to add a natural fragrance to laundry detergents.

In addition to being better for the environment and human health, these types of detergents can also be a good option for people with sensitive skin or allergies. By avoiding harsh chemicals and fragrances, these products can help reduce the risk of skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Is Natural Detergent Really Better for You?

So, we’ve covered some not-so-good-for-you chemicals that are found in traditional laundry detergents and more natural alternatives, but how much impact do they really have when it comes to affecting your health?

As we touched on earlier, our skin is the largest organ in our body and very porous. These pores work hard to flush out waste, regulate our body temperature, and act as a barrier.

Dermal absorption happens when a chemical goes through the skin and travels into the body. How fast the skin absorbs chemicals depends largely on the outer layer of the skin called the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum provides a barrier by keeping molecules from passing into and out of the skin. This barrier protects the lower layers of skin.

Dermal absorption typically happens through direct contact with the substance, and while you may initially think of that as direct contact with the detergent itself straight out of the packaging, detergent and the chemicals used can be left behind on our clothing after washing.

“We've been brainwashed and trained to use too much detergent by big companies,” notes Dallas-based sustainable product company usefull co on their website. “Those cups they include are far too big for one load of laundry. Soap particles left on clothing can deteriorate clothing and cause skin irritations.”

Skin irritation is another potential side effect of using traditional laundry detergents. Irritant contact dermatitis involves a chemical directly damaging and inflaming skin. The damage often occurs only to the place where the skin absorbs the chemical. Mild irritants that cause damage over time (such as water, detergents, or weak cleaning agents) can lead to irritant contact dermatitis.

Additionally, allergic contact dermatitis happens when a chemical that the skin absorbs causes the body’s immune system to produce an allergic reaction. For this to happen, you must be sensitive or allergic to the allergen. When the skin absorbs the chemical allergen again, the chemical may cause an immune reaction that inflames the skin. The reaction can go beyond the place where the skin absorbed the chemical.

Common symptoms of dermatitis include the following:

  • Itching
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Small blisters or wheals (itchy, red circles with a white center) on the skin
  • Dry, flaking, scaly skin that may crack

Some chemicals from laundry detergent can be absorbed through the skin via clothing. This is because clothing is in direct contact with the skin for extended periods of time and can transfer chemicals from the detergent onto the skin.

For example, fragrances, preservatives, and certain surfactants, which are commonly found in laundry detergents, can be absorbed through the skin and cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.

However, it's important to note that the amount of chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin via clothing is generally considered to be low, and the risks associated with exposure to these chemicals depend on various factors, such as the type and amount of chemicals present, the duration and frequency of exposure, and individual sensitivity to the chemicals.

If you suspect your laundry detergent may be causing skin irritation or other adverse effects, it may be beneficial to avoid wearing clothing that has been recently laundered with traditional laundry detergents, especially if you have sensitive skin or are prone to allergic reactions.

What to Keep in Mind

To minimize exposure to potentially harmful chemicals from laundry detergents, you may feel more comfortable purchasing and using natural or eco-friendly laundry detergents that are free from harsh chemicals and irritants.

It's important to note that not all "eco-friendly" or "natural" laundry detergents are created equal, and some may still contain ingredients that can be harmful to the environment or human health.

Additionally, it's important to keep in mind that the term "healthy" can be subjective and doesn't necessarily have a specific definition when it comes to laundry detergent. Some people may consider a detergent to be healthy if it's free from certain chemicals or fragrances, while others may prioritize eco-friendliness or biodegradability. Ultimately, the best way to determine if a laundry detergent is right for you is to research the ingredients and read reviews from other consumers before making a decision.

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