Everyone wants sweet-smelling, spotlessly clean laundry but even if you are changing up your laundry habits (see previous blog post), the detergent you use could be having a negative impact on the environment. Laundry detergent can contain harmful chemicals and studies have shown that the top-selling laundry products in the UK typically contain at least one chemical that is flagged as “toxic” or “hazardous” under law – chemicals that have not always been clearly listed on the label.
For example, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a “denaturant, surfactant cleansing agent, emulsifier and foamer” according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Cosmetics Database. It’s also classified as a “moderate hazard.” While the chemical originates from coconuts, SLS is mixed with sulphur trioxide or chlorosulfonic acid and neutralized with lye. According to a comparison study, its corrosiveness strips skin of protective oils and moisture, which can cause skin and eye irritation, organ toxicity, and biochemical and cellular changes in large enough doses.
Another popular chemical found in some laundry detergents is 1,4-Dioxane. Two-thirds of all laundry detergents contain dioxane, an unintentional by-product of ethoxylation that is added to manufacture softer detergents that produce more suds. It has been claimed in several studies that dioxane can cause “cancer and has been found to be potentially toxic to your brain and central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and respiratory system.”
And what of the environmental impact? Many detergents contain Nonylphenol Ethoxylate, which has been shown to increase mortality in fish. Other polluting ingredients include the optical brighteners; these are added enhance the appearance of colour in garments, but they are very difficult to eliminate from waterways as they are not biodegradable, often accumulating to worrying concentrations and posing a threat to aquatic life. Many of the fragrances added to detergents can also bioaccumulate and are suspected of affecting fish reproduction cycles; a real problem if you consider that producers and consumers consider it essential that laundry smells good.
With all this in mind, it might be worthwhile swapping your laundry detergent to a more natural, environmentally friendly solution. There are a number or potential options out there and I encourage you to research this! I can only report on what I use: soapnuts, ecoball, and Smol laundry tabs.
SOAPNUTS: These have been used for thousands of years as a natural washing detergent. They are also known as soap berries and literally grow on trees! They are a source of saponin, a natural soap which cleans and freshens clothes. They are great at low temperatures and also have the advantage of being hypoallergenic. Being naturally antibacterial and antifungal, they can also help to prevent skin conditions. I’ve found them to be so gentle; they help keep my colours bright and maintain fabric structure – perfect for organic cotton clothes with azo-free dyes. The added advantage is that they can be used for cleaning anything, from clothes to dishes, nappies, and as a general household cleaner – simply by boiling up and using the liquid. For laundry purposes, I simply pop about 8 nuts in a small bag (or a sock will do – just tie the end up) and then swap them out for fresh nuts after a few washes.
ECOBALL: This uses two type of pellets made from mineral and plant-based cleaning agents. These are also hypoallergenic and environmentally sound. One ecoball can last up to 1,000 washes before it needs replacing, meaning it costs less than 3p a wash. As there is no endless rinsing needed to be done to clear any excess detergent (a particular issue that can arise with re-usable nappies), the rinse cycle can be avoided which means it’s quicker too.
SMOL LAUNDRY TABS: I sometimes use these if I think the laundry is particularly stained and dirtier than usual. According to Smol’s website, Persil contains around 16.9g of chemical dry matter per wash, whilst Ariel contains around 18.5g. In comparison, Smol tabs contain 10.1g – so although this is considerably less, their laundry tabs still contain bleaching ingredients, phosphonates and polycarboxylates – all of which enter the environment. The packaging, however, is awesome; made entirely from recycled and sustainable materials and is also 100% recyclable once you are done with the box. It is also very slimline so can be stored easily and has a child tamper-proof ‘lock’. Personally, I think these are a good entry point into the world of environmentally friendly laundry detergent.
The one thing I miss about using non-eco-friendly laundry products is the perfumed smell afterwards – but if you consider that the fragrance is artificially induced, it seems a small price to pay for the sake of the environment. Also, the washing smells lovely if it has been hung up outside anyway! When I fancy it, I occasionally spray the clothes with an essential oil for a sweet-smelling boost.
Remember: small changes will help the planet, especially if we all make just a few. It can also make you feel a bit more optimistic and in control – at the very least, you would be doing something positive and practical rather than just worrying about the current state of global affairs!