We all love clean clothes, but most of us also love a clean planet. Do the two things go together? Look at the ingredients label on a typical bottle of detergent and you’ll see a chemical cocktail. What are all these things and what do they do? More to the point, do they have any harmful effect on our health or the planet on which we all depend? There’s very good reason to think so. That’s why some detergent brands deliberately position themselves as eco-friendly, not by comparing themselves to soap and water (the basic dynamic-duo of the detergent world) but by drawing attention to the potentially harmful chemicals used by their rivals.
What harm do detergent chemicals do?
Photo: “The last thing a loved up butterfly needs….” The label on this Ecover washing detergent bottle tells us one of the potential hazards of using chemicals in detergents—and what Ecover does instead to reduce the problem.
You might think this is a matter of opinion; mostly it’s a matter of science: the effects of detergent chemicals are well documented. What’s less well understood is that all chemicals are added to detergents for a specific purpose (watch the BBC video in the links below to learn more), and some of the additives actually reduce the harmful impacts that detergents would otherwise have.
As we’ve already seen, these play a crucial part in helping water to attack and remove dirt. But once they flush away down the drain, surfactants don’t stop working: they start to play similar tricks on aquatic life, for example, attacking the natural oils in the mucus membranes of fish, stopping their gills from working properly, and increasing their risk of attack from other chemicals in the water. Some surfactant ingredients (including one called nonylphenol ethoxylate or NPE) produce what are calledendocrine-disruptors, which can affect the hormonal balance of animals (including humans), causing a variety of health problems and sometimes changing their sex characteristics. Although surfactants can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life (some are even listed as persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—ones that remain in the environment for many years without breaking down), most surfactants biodegrade relatively quickly in sewage treatment plants before they can do much harm to the natural world.
When the phosphates in detergents enter freshwater, they can act like fertilizers, promoting the growth of tiny plants and animals. The biggest problem they can cause is a huge growth of algae, known as an algal bloom, which kills fish life by reducing oxygen. Although phosphates enter water in many different ways, detergents contribute significantly to the problem.
Enzymes are catalysts, which means they’re chemicals that help to make chemical reactions happen more quickly or easily. Generally, they’re added to detergents to make them more effective at tackling tricky forms of dirt that ordinary detergents struggle with. They also help to lower the environmental impact of detergents by reducing the need for surfactants. Although it’s widely believed that enzymes can cause skin problems, a recent scientific review by David Basketter et al in the British Journal of Dermatology suggested that’s a myth: “the irritating and allergenic hazards of enzyme raw materials do not translate into a risk of skin reactions.”
Fragrances in detergent serve no purpose other than to make your clothes smell nice. But the oils from which they’re made can cause rashes and skin allergies. (The New Zealand Dermatological Society has a good page about fragrance allergies.)
Find out more
- Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients: A good brief summary of laundry chemicals and their environmental effects from the US Environmental Protection Agency. (Archived Web page via the Wayback Machine.)
- US EPA: Laundry Products that meet the Safer Choice Standards: Instantly search the EPA’s database of cleaner and safer products.
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