Health conscious people have a tendency to overlook the hazards in their cleaning materials, and manufacturers are not required to accurately list the ingredients of such products. Manufacturers simply do not mention ingredients that they think customers would disapprove of. In other cases, they use vague terms like "brightener", instead of listing the standard chemical names.
Laundry detergents usually contain chemicals that are dangerous to the health and irritating to the skin. A residue of these chemicals remains on clothing after it is washed. Clear evidence of this can be found in scented products, because chemical fragrances would be useless if they were simply washed out. Chemical fragrances are especially bad, and are known for aggravating asthma.
Nonylphenol is a byproduct of a chemical that is used in laundry detergents. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it has been detected in human breast milk, blood, and urine. It has been shown in animal studies to cause adverse reproductive and developmental effects. It is so prevalent that it is now being detected in municipal water supplies.
Sodium lauryl sulphate is an industrial degreaser that is found in a wide variety of cleaning products. It is even in most toothpastes. It is known for being a skin irritant. When it breaks down, it releases another chemical, 1,4-dioxane. The National Institutes of Health have warned that 1,4-dioxane is "reasonably expected to be a human carcinogen", because it has been repeatedly shown to cause cancers in animal studies. It is also known for causing kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. Preliminary research is showing that it accumulates in the body over time. It likewise accumulates in the environment, in a manner similar to the infamous DDT pesticide.
Laundry manufacturers sometimes add formaldehyde to their formulas. Formaldehyde is carcinogenic, a skin irritant, and a respiratory poison. The massive list of formaldehyde side effects can be found in our article about vaccine ingredients. Formaldehyde was the main ingredient in hair straightening products that prompted O.S.H.A. to issue a hazard alert about the health risks. Some of the products have been reformulated to remove formaldehyde, because the California Attorney General sued the companies responsible.
Most cleaning products contain phthalates, which are chemicals that are normally used to make plastics softer and malleable. They are often present in laundry products as manufacturing byproducts. Phthalates cause massive hormone disruptions, which makes them particularly damaging to women's health. They also cause cancer, birth defects, and fertility problems. Phthalates are still being studied, but the findings are arriving too late. The Centers for Disease Control reported that phthalates can be found in the blood of most Americans, and the greatest quantities are in women. Women have more contact with cleaning products, which is the main reason for their increased exposure. The breadth of the danger is not yet fully understood, but phthalates are being studied by several government agencies, including the F.D.A., the N.I.E.H.S., and the National Toxicology Program's Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.
Many people who are searching for alternatives will be tempted to use borax as a natural alternative to detergents. However, borax is neither natural nor is it safe. It is a chemical skin irritant, and its residue on clothing is damaging to the skin. Some claim that it is natural because it contains the mineral boron, but it is a completely different substance, and even boron has been shown to present risks. It is acceptable to use borax on occasion to kill fleas, bed bugs, or other insects, and for bleaching; but laundry should be thoroughly rinsed through a second wash to ensure that none remains. This is especially important for those with sensitive or damaged skin.
In 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a document revealing that potent carcinogens are present in fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Inside these chemical cocktails is benzyl acetate, which has been linked to pancreatic cancer. Limonene, a known lung irritant, was also prominent. Fabric softeners and dryer sheets are specifically designed to impart chemicals onto clothing, instead of being rinsed away. They lubricate clothing to make it seem softer.
The effects of inhaling these chemicals have not been well studied, but there are people who breathe these chemicals for hours every day, when laundering. People living in apartment blocks are especially vulnerable, because exposure can be persistent when other inhabitants wash their clothes on a rotating schedule. In recent years, there have been increases in work-related lawsuits because of forced exposure to perfumes, which are known to yield asthma attacks, and difficulty breathing. The same chemicals in perfume and cologne products are also used in laundry detergents and softeners.
Safe laundry products may be found on the Internet or in health food stores. Natural laundry soaps typically contain soap nut extract or extracts from citrus fruits. Surprisingly, they are usually as effective as the harsh detergents. Natural soaps can be less effective in areas with "hard" (mineral rich) water. In such cases, the effects of the minerals can be neutralized with the addition of distilled vinegar. A ball of aluminum foil can remove static from clothing in the dryer.
Risk Management for Nonylphenol and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates, Environmental Protection Agency
Dioxane, National Toxicology Program
Phthalates Factsheet, Centers for Disease Control
Identification of Polar Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Microenvironments, Environmental Protection Agency