I used to love the smell of detergent wafting through the house on laundry days. But as I’ve learned more about what makes detergent smell so good, I’ve become more careful about which ones I use. Detergents, like many other scented products, tend to include lots of chemicals that may affect our health.
It didn’t surprise me that scents with names like “alpine meadows,” “mountain breezes,” “fresh rain,” “sea breeze,” and “spring magic” were concocted from chemicals. But even some detergent scents that sound safe, such as “free and clear,” “lemon,” or “lavender” can pose potential health risks, too.
What makes laundry detergent smell so fresh?
Fragrance or scents influence how many of us choose a detergent. But just how manufacturers create these signature scents is a bit of a mystery. Specific fragrance components don’t have to be included in the ingredient list. This is why you often see only “fragrance” listed as an ingredient. Even laundry products that don’t include the word “fragrance” in the ingredients list may contain added fragrance chemicals.
We do know that a single fragrance can be made up of several dozen or even several hundred different natural and man-made chemicals. Conventional grocery store detergents tend to contain higher concentrations of these fragrance compounds than alternative detergent brands labeled as using fewer nontoxic chemicals. But even detergents labeled “unscented” or “fragrance-free” may contain fragrances to cover up the way the product smells.
Products advertised as being “green,” “natural,” or “organic” aren’t necessarily nontoxic or free of fragrances, either. There is no official definition for these terms so they don’t really mean anything. One study of laundry detergent and other fragranced consumer products found “green” products contained nearly as many toxic or hazardous chemicals as more conventional products.
Why the concern about fragrance?
If you’ve ever been stuck on an elevator next to someone who smells like a bottle of perfume, you know that strong fragrances can make you feel uncomfortable or even a little bit ill. If you’re going through or recovering from chemotherapy, you may be very sensitive to smells, and any fragrance or perfume can make you nauseated. Some people have allergic reactions to fragrances, including rashes, asthma, and headaches.
There’s little research on other ways that fragrances in detergents could affect our health. Researchers do know that many detergents contain risky man-made chemicals that aren’t listed in the ingredients because they’re fragrances. These include:
- Phthalates and synthetic musks: Both types of chemicals are endocrine disruptors, which mean they affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the body by blocking them or acting like them. They can throw off the body’s hormonal balance. Because extra estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women choose to limit their exposure to these chemicals that can act like estrogen.
- Benzene, dioxane, and toluene: These petroleum byproducts have been linked to cancer in animal studies, and researchers suspect there is a potential link to cancer in humans as well. Most researchers don’t think that breathing detergent fumes when washing and drying clothes or wearing clothes washed in detergent that contains these chemicals is dangerous, but environmental health advocates and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend avoiding these chemicals as much as possible.
While man-made fragrance chemicals are the main concern, even naturally occurring fragrance chemicals can pose problems if they mix with other substances in the air. For example, terpenes, which are found in pine, lemon, and orange oils that are used in detergents, can react with ozone in the air. The reaction creates small pollution-like particles that, over time, could potentially damage the lungs or cause cancer.
Choosing safer laundry detergents
The health risks posed by laundry detergent fragrances aren’t clear, and it’s hard to know how much to worry about them. Because research remains limited and so many chemicals of concern are involved, your best bet is to avoid added fragrance as much as possible. The hazards of chemical exposures depend on a lot of things including amount of exposure (dose), frequency of exposure, duration of exposure, and age when exposed. In this and other Think Pink, Live Green expert columns, we look at things in your life that go in, on, and around you. Whenever there’s a significant concern coming out of the lab or from human studies, we want to help you make the best choices. If something may pose a hazard, in the absence of solid research in people, we lean on the Precautionary Principle. Basically it means that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our goal is to help you make the best choices for you and your family.
If you want to limit your exposure to unwanted chemicals in laundry detergent and be kinder to the environment, here are some tips:
- Choose laundry products with “A” or “B” ratings in the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning. An “A” indicates very low toxicity to health and the environment and extensive ingredient disclosure. An “F” means the product is highly toxic or makes little to no ingredient disclosure. A “C” indicates an average cleaner that poses no clear hazards and provides some disclosure of ingredients. About 40% of the 678 products in the EWG’s “Laundry” category have an F rating, and only about 5% have an “A.” Although 5% may not seem like many products, you can easily find many of them at your local grocery stores, including Ecover, Seventh Generation, and Green Shield brand detergents.
- Look for the Design for the Environment (DfE) logo. The DfE program, which is sponsored by the EPA, helps identify products that are safer for the environment and may pose less of a health risk. To receive certification, manufacturers must fully disclose the specific fragrance formulation used for individual products. The program screens product ingredients, including fragrances, for chemicals that may present health effects and only certifies products considered safe.
- Don’t be fooled by “green” advertising. Just because a detergent sounds nontoxic doesn’t mean that it is. Terms such as “green,” “naturally derived,” and “free and clear” are all used to advertise laundry products that received an “F” rating from EWG. (You can find more information on choosing safer cleaning products in my Think Pink, Live Green column on green cleaning.)
- If you want a little bit of smell, look for a detergent that’s scented only with essential plant oils. Not all natural-sounding fragrances are necessarily safe. Manufacturers may combine naturally occurring fragrances with man-made fragrances to create “lavender” or “citrus” scents. Also, some so-called “natural” fragrance chemicals are made artificially, which may cause them to have questionable health effects. When in doubt, check the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning database.
- Use alternative methods to soften fabric and reduce static. Fabric softeners and fragranced dryer sheets have particularly high concentrations of chemicals that are endocrine disruptors and can trigger asthma. Non-toxic options for fabric softening, stain removal, and static reduction include:
- adding ½ cup of white distilled vinegar to the rinse cycle
- using wool dryer balls to reduce static and wrinkles; the balls bounce around in the dryer pulling moisture out of your clothes, as well as softening, separating and fluffing them so more hot air circulates through all the clothes — the more dryer balls you have in a load, the shorter the drying time will be
- hanging your clothes out to dry when the weather cooperates – you’ll save energy, avoid static, and get warm clothes
It’s also a good idea to make sure the laundry area is well ventilated. Even if it’s in the basement, open a window if possible or turn on a fan. Make sure your dryer exhaust is properly vented.
In general, I try to avoid using products with added fragrances. Or at least I avoid products that mention fragrance on the label. To some extent, I can trust my own nose. I have a great sense of smell — for better and for worse (good for roses, bad for smelling tobacco and sewer smells). I always give everything a quick whiff before buying. I’ve tried a few of the EWG’s “A” rated detergents and have been just as happy with them as I was with the more traditional detergents I once used.
What’s your favorite laundry detergent? How did you decide which one to use? Have you found any favorites on the EWG’s “A” or “B”-rated list that you can recommend?