While doing laundry is meant to get your clothes clean, the truth is that conventional laundry detergents can include chemicals that are harmful to you and the environment.
The sneaky part is that, unlike personal care products, cleaners manufacturers don’t have to share what goes into their products.
If you take a look at the label on conventional laundry detergents, you won’t find a clear list of ingredients. Instead, you’ll see generic terms like “surfactant” and “fragrance”. To find out what those mean, you have to dig deeper.
Some information is on manufacturer websites, some you have to request specifically from the manufacturer, and the rest you often have to go all the way to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).
What's The Problem With Laundry Detergent?
Environmental Working Group’s (EWG), Guide to Healthy Cleaning, is like a Report Card for household cleaning products. It is American, so don’t be surprised if your locally-made Canadian detergent isn’t on it.
But if you’re a lover of bigger name brands, you can look up the ingredient list to see how they fare and get more details than what’s on the product label.
Like any system that tries to compare a broad range of variables, EWG’s rating systems aren’t perfect. But despite its faults, it provides a better overview of what’s in cleaners than anything else I’ve seen.
Many laundry detergents advertise that they are phosphate-free – this is an example of “greenwashing”. Canada banned phosphates in the 70s (and in dishwasher soap in 2010). It makes a product sound responsible, but hiding amongst the non-disclosed ingredients may be carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, allergens, and chemicals that contribute to asthma symptoms.
The single “fragrance” or “parfum” ingredient may contain any number of harmful chemicals such as allergens, carcinogens, and hormone disruptors. The EWG Guide also indicates common ingredients that are not biodegradable and are toxic to aquatic life.
So what’s a health- and environmentally-conscious mama to do, when labels don’t tell you everything you need to know about a product?
Limit purchases to products that have full ingredient disclosure, or certified by a third party (like Green Seal or EcoLogo). Green cleaners are better for you and the planet but come at a cost premium.
A Homemade Laundry Soap Recipe
A more cost effective option is to make your laundry detergent; I use the recipe in the video for everything from delicates to cloth diapers, and I’m not usually a DIY person.
I also recommend that you avoid conventional dryer sheets and fabric softeners. Instead, try reusable dryer sheets, wool or plastic static-eliminating balls, or vinegar instead of fabric softener in your washer.
Watch the video to see how I make my own natural laundry detergent:
Here's the laundry soap recipe if you'd rather not watch the video:
- Castile Soap in a bar (I like Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild or unscented)
1 cup Borax (See Below)instead use 1 cup Baking Soda
- 1 cup Washing Soda
- Grate the soap using a hard cheese grater.
- Dump all three ingredients into a mason jar.
- Shake up the ingredients.
- If the castile soap you are using doesn't come in fragrance and you want some, add a few drops of your favourite essential oil.
Add 1-2 two tablespoons in your laundry load. Shake every so often as the ingredients can settle in the jar. Make sure you label all your jars so no accidents occur. Just because it's a green cleaner, doesn't mean it can be ingested!
Let's address the issue of Borax
Recently, Health Canada identified the possibility that Borax could be harmful for health, particularly fertility and development. Here's my take on why you may want to take the precaution and remove Borax from your homemade cleaners.
Eco Friendly Laundry Detergents
If you’re not into DIY laundry soap, or if you like to have a store-bought alternative on hand, here are some packaged green detergents that work for me:
EcoMax: A Canadian company (and therefore not on EWG’s Guide), the products are made in Canada and are EcoLogo certified. They use outer cardboard packaging and a recyclable inner soft bag and a concentrated formula to reduce the amount of packaging and transportation emissions. It works on cloth diapers too (with help from odour-fighting vinegar in the pre-wash cycle).
EcoNuts Soap Berries: Soap berries are actual berries, harvested from wild trees in the Himalayas. The berry shells contain natural soap called saponin that lifts dirt and softens clothes at the same time. I don’t love that the soap berries are from so far away, but the packaging is minimal (a simple cardboard box), and one package lasts up to 100 loads.
Do your family and the environment a favour and detox your laundry routine.
By choosing eco-friendly laundry products, you’re reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals and not contributing to poor water quality in our lakes and rivers. And by buying better, you’re telling manufacturers that you care about what goes into your products and that you’re putting preference on products that fully disclose ingredients.
What are your favourite green laundry tips and tricks? Plus, find out how cleaners can impact your home's indoor air quality.
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