Dangerous Detergent: Is My Laundry Detergent Toxic?

laundry chemicals whats in your detergent Branch Basics

Have you ever walked around your neighborhood and noticed that fresh smell of someone doing laundry? Bad news: when you breathe in that “clean” familiar scent, you’re actually getting a lung-full of toxic chemicals.

Is laundry detergent toxic?

When scented laundry detergents and fabric softeners are used, dryer vents emit more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per load, many of which are classified as hazardous air pollutants. If the dryer vent is blocked or if it doesn’t vent to the outside, then the indoor air pollution skyrockets when the dryer is in use. If the vent is not blocked to the outdoors, then the air in your neighborhood ends up getting polluted with VOCs. So, the truth is those laundry chemicals you use can impact the air quality in your home, your health, and even the outdoor air around your house.

 dangerous detergents laundry chemicals branch basics

It’s only a small amount of detergent, right?

Since the average family in the United States washes about 80 pounds of laundry each week, with ½ cup of detergent per load, an average of 4 cups of detergent per home ends up in the waterways and affecting air quality each week. Each piece of laundry you pull out of the washing machine contains toxic residues from detergents, which not only lingers in the fabric, but rubs off on your skin.

Conventional detergents are comprised of a concoction of fragrances, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and potent cancer-causing chemicals. Most detergents have signature fragrances which are designed to impregnate and stay in clothes. The unscented versions add masking chemicals, which simply cover up the fragrance with another chemical. Your laundry room may very well be the most toxic room in your home once these chemicals become airborne when washing and drying your clothes.

This is a major problem in light of the fact that scientists are directly linking the alarming rise of degenerative disease in America to exposure to chemicals in our homes and workplaces.  Consider that the American Cancer Society states that today 2018 one in three men and one in two women will have cancer in their lifetime. After accidents, cancer is now the second leading cause of death in children and exposure to chemicals in our homes is a leading factor.

Taking a look at the products we use is a first step to start reducing our exposures to these chemicals.  All laundry detergent ingredients can potentially be absorbed through the skin or breathed in through the nose, as well as passed down the drain to damage aquatic life and our waterways. Since government agencies do not regulate harmful chemicals in cleaning products, it is time to open our eyes to toxic blind spots and start making healthier choices. We have the power to remove products with harmful ingredients from our homes. So take charge, protect your family and make a commitment to only bring in health-promoting products.

Harmful ingredients: why did they end up in our laundry products?

A brief history of laundry detergent

Rinso Twins Vintage Laundry Ad Branch BasicsIMAGE SOURCE Prior to World War I, people around the world used pure soap to do their laundry. In 1916, driven by the war related shortage of fats and oils, Germany developed the first synthetic detergent to be used for laundry and dishwashing. In the United States, efforts to create detergents for household use by companies like Procter and Gamble started in the early 1930s.

Detergents did not start to displace soap in the US until the end of  World War II when, like Germany in World War I, the fats and oils used in soap making were in short supply.  These fats and oils were more useful for manufacturing explosives for the war effort. Scientists at that time discovered that they could make thousands of petrochemicals (synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum) that could be used to replace natural ingredients.

After the war, many factories were converted for civilian use and a petroleum-based chemical, tetra propylene, was used in the creation of laundry detergents. By the 1950s, detergents almost completely replaced soap as the first choice in America for doing laundry. Most detergents available today are loaded with harmful petrochemicals and are undermining our health.

Reading labels doesn’t have to be complicated

Look for the words “caution”, “warning”, or “danger” on the box or bottle. Those words (especially “warning” and “danger”) are a giveaway that there are potentially toxic chemicals in the product. It’s best to simply remove the product from your home.  Also, look out for common precautionary statements like “Eye, Skin, or Lung Irritant”. For the most part, these precautionary labels signal the presence of toxic chemicals. If in doubt, get ’em out!

Dig deeper to be in the know

We’ve pulled together a glossary of the toxic red flags that are commonly found in laundry detergents and fabric softeners. Not only are these chemicals potentially damaging to your health, they are also contaminating waterways and harming the environment. Also remember the single word “fragrance” can include one of over a thousand different ingredients.

Toxic Laundry chemicals glossary Branch Basics

A few laundry chemicals you should know

Toxic Laundry Chemicals Dangerous Detergent glossary Branch Basics

  • Synthetic fragrances –  Fragrance is mentioned first because hundreds of synthetic chemicals are hidden in “trade secret” fragrance recipes that do not have to be disclosed or tested. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) fragrances are considered to be among the top five allergens and can trigger asthma attacks.  Testing by EWG also revealed that 75% of the fragrances contain phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”). Phthalates have been linked to diabetes, obesity and hormone disruption which affects both development and fertility. Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center has linked exposure to synthetic fragrance in first and third trimester prenatal exposure to ADHD and autism.
  • Natural fragrances – “Natural” fragrance doesn’t necessarily mean safe. In a study analyzing 25 top selling products, those with so-called “organic” and “natural” fragrance emitted just as many hazardous chemicals as conventional products with fragrance. Most natural fragrance/essential oils in detergents are processed with solvents because it is less expensive than distillation. The VOCs from the solvents were present in every product tested in this study. In addition, limonene and other terpenes such as pine and citrus oils (found in essential oils) react with ozone in the surrounding air to create secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, and ultra-fine particles. This can particularly be an issue on high ozone alert days.
  • Unscented detergents –  Be aware that unscented versions of products are typically the same as the fragranced version; these don’t have a scent, thanks to the addition of a masking chemical.

Toxic Laundry Dangerous Detergent glossary Branch Basics

  • Optical brighteners – Most laundry detergents contain optical brighteners, which are formulated to intentionally remain in the clothes.  They leave a residue on the clothes that reflect light and make clothes look brighter, with more vivid colors. These toxic chemicals are constantly in contact with the skin and are  breathed in through the lungs. Optical brighteners have the capacity to make skin become photo-reactive and more sensitive to sun exposure. Many people develop skin irritation and rashes from exposure to optical brighteners.  Not to mention that they are toxic to fish and cause bacterial mutations!
  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) – This group of inexpensive, nonionic surfactant petrochemicals has already been banned in Canada and the European Union, but it still found in American detergents. NPEs are endocrine disruptors that adversely affect physical function and fetal development. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to these chemicals, which are known to adversely affect neurologic, immune, cardiac, kidney, and liver function as well. The Sierra Club has a nickname for NPEs: the “Gender Bender” chemical! NPEs are frequently considered to be biodegradable, but the truth is, they slowly biodegrade into even more toxic compounds, profoundly interfering with the hormones of fish and shellfish. Even Wal-Mart has listed NPEs as one of three chemicals they’re asking suppliers to phase out.
  • Bleach, aka sodium hypochlorite Bleach is involved in more household poisonings than any other chemical. Sodium hypochlorite and other cleaning chemicals such as fragrances and surfactants react to generate chlorinated VOCs, which are very toxic and are considered human carcinogens. Chlorinated compounds are emitted during use; as it flows down the drain, bleach can produce organochlorines (OC), which are endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic, and carcinogenic. Bleach is not only harmful to health but also degrades both synthetic and natural fibers, reducing their longevity.

Toxic Laundry Dangerous Detergent glossary Branch Basics

  • Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS) –  These synthetic petrochemicals are normally listed as ‘anionic surfactants’ on labels, and are one of the most common surfactants in use. During their production process, carcinogenic and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. They also biodegrade slowly, making them a hazard in the environment. The amount of LAS used in detergents may vary to as high as 30% of the weight of the total product!
  • Phosphates – Phosphates are the main cleaning ingredient in many detergents and household cleaners because they break down dirt particles and remove stains by softening the water and allowing suds to form, which enhances the cleaning power of the detergent. However, there are human health problems as well as major environmental hazards associated with phosphates. Phosphate residues on items that have been cleaned with phosphate-containing detergents have been known to cause nausea, diarrhea, and skin irritation. Phosphates are persistent, too. They remain active even after wastewater treatment processes and end up in rivers and lakes, where they act as a “toxic fertilizer”.  In the water system, they increase algae growth and suffocate salmon and other aquatic life, literally starving them of oxygen. As the algae die, they release poisons that further deplete the waterways of oxygen.
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate (ALS) are commonly used in many detergents and act as surfactants and emulsifiers, giving the detergent foaming abilities. Over 16,000 research studies on SLS have shown links to irritation of the skin and eyes, organ toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, and biochemical or cellular changes, and even cancer.
  • 1,4-Dioxane, also called Dioxane or Diethylene Oxide – Dioxane is a byproduct of ethoxylation, an inexpensive shortcut process companies use to produce softer, sudsier detergents.  It’s not even added  intentionally, but it is an extremely common ingredient in detergents, appearing in about 2/3 of laundry products studied. Since it is a byproduct rather than ingredient, it doesn’t have to be listed on product labels. Yet it is considered by the State of California to cause cancer and can be toxic to your brain and central nervous system, kidneys, liver and respiratory system.  The U.S. federal regulation systems consider dioxane’s potency to be equivalent to or greater than many pesticides considered dangerous to humans. Detergents contaminated with 1,4-dioxane may also have traces of other contaminants, including formaldehyde, nitrosamines, and phthalates. The National Institute of Health (NIH) considers even trace amounts to be cause for concern and the EPA has classified dioxane as a Class B possible carcinogen.  When you use a laundry detergent contaminated with dioxane, it goes everywhere. It never breaks down.  Water filters can’t remove it—and it isn’t biodegradable. To avoid 1,4 dioxane, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recommends avoiding products with indications of ethoxylation. Look for the following suffixes in the ingredient list:
    • Myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, and any other “eth”
    • PEG
    • Polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, or polyoxyethylene
    • Oxynol
    • Sodium laureth/laurel sulfate

What to do?

Don’t let this “laundry list” of chemicals leaves you feeling overwhelmed and concerned for your health and the health of your family.  There are easy steps you can take to immediately improve your air quality.  We recommend starting with three simple changes to protect your family’s health and the environment.

The Branch Basics 3 R’s of clean:

Always review  your labels, ditch any products with harmful ingredients, and replace what you need with Branch Basics Concentrate and Oxygen Boost  See our Laundry Instructions to learn how easy it is to replace your toxic detergents with a human safe alternative.

Further reading:

Official Branch Basics Stainmaster Guide: How to Treat Any Stain Quickly and EasilyHere’s how to use Branch Basics for Laundry (instead of conventional detergents) and how to ditch your dryer sheets. To learn our best tricks for stain removing, check out our Stainmaster Guide. You’ll be a stainmaster in no time!

Break the fragrance habit and try these Nontoxic DIY Air Fresheners instead of the synthetic variety to remove odors.

Going on a family trip? Check out our Healthy Travel Guide for our favorite travel snacks and tips for preventing sunburn, jetlag, and more!

Have you tried the Official Branch Basics Deep Cleaning Method? If you want to try, we recommend looking into options for a sealed system HEPA vacuum.

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  1. How much Branch Basics do you use to wash a load of wash. Are you anything like Basic H? Is this a concentrate? How about cleaning an oven, how much do you use to mix with water?

  2. It drives me crazy when we are out walking or bike riding and I can smell the chemicals coming from people’s houses from either the laundry detergent or fabric softener. Gross. We use a phosphate free, natural detergent and it has been so great for our family!

    1. Suzanne, we agree! It’s awful to walk outside and know that you’re breathing in polluted air. You’re doing your family a huge favor for their health!

      1. It’s better than your clothes still smelling like body odor. The natural cleaners stink. Find me something that smells fresh and not like body odor and I am in!!

    2. Me too! Wish people would realize what they are doing to the environment. All those chemicals! Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out- yet, toxic choices are still on the market.

    1. I can always smell what is either the laundry soap or softener coming from the outdoor dryer vent of our neighbors.


    3. “Nuts?” Or more like “A Normal Sense Of Smell?”Even the animals and insects won’t go near that toxic stench; they must be “nuts” too, eh? Nope! It’s just poison that doesn’t belong in our lives.
      I’m proud to say I have been blessed with a terrific sense of smell which can be utilized for self-defense and protection so I steer clear of anyone using those harmful chemicals, especially next door and their intentionally annoying drifts!
      We need to get a ban on these chemicals which too many people have fallen helpless addicts to and to the point of being “out of touch with reality”! It’s harmful, get rid of it.

    4. I was EXTREMELY ill during pregnancy and could not go in our moderately large backyard when the neighbors on either side were doing laundry… the smell of Downy or scented Tide would make me nauseous and cause vomiting if I stayed outside for more than 30 seconds.

      As a young woman I was ALL about Tide, Downy, Clorox, Scrubbing Bubbles, and chemically-scented candles until my body became so sick that I could not even handle the “smell” of Tide unscented.

      That is where my non-toxic journey began, and I absolutely get it if you have never been made ill from synthetic scents, it would seem a bit nuts 🙂

    1. Hi! If you click on the the yellow phrase “25 volatile organic compounds” in the first paragraph of this page, it will take you to the study.

  3. More and more people turn to the natural cleaning alternatives as the awareness of the harsh chemicals, that the commercial cleaners and laundry detergents consists, grows within the communities. It is really important to educate ourselves about the danger these chemicals are for us and our families. Excellent post! My personal opinion is that Branch Basics cleaning products are really nice!

  4. Thank you for all the information about different laundry detergents. I really want to start using better detergents that aren’t harmful, but I don’t know what chemicals are harmful. That is good to know that bleach is very toxic and is harmful to the health and fibers of clothes.

  5. What are your thoughts on laundromats? We’re currently traveling full-time as a family (a long time dream of ours), but this means using public washing machines and dryers. I’ve heard conventional soaps leave behind residues. Is there anything we can do to limit our exposure?

    Thanks, love your blog, I’ve been reading through all the articles today! ♡

    1. Hi Kate! You can run a hot water cycle with a cup of vinegar and a box of baking soda to help clear out the washing machine if it smells.

      Dip a clean cloth in distilled white vinegar. Run the cloth around the inside of the dryer, including under the rubber gasket that seals the door. The vinegar deodorizes the dryer’s interior. Leave the door of the machine open until the vinegar smell dissipates. They can also run a couple of wet towels – add a cup of vinegar to the water on the towels – in the dryer for a cycle

      Hope this is helpful!

  6. Great article. Very Nice post!!Very helpful and to the point.Just wanted to say thank you so much for such a fabulous idea today! I know you always do a great job but today you uploading all good benefits blogs.Thanks for sharing your concerns with us.

    chemical solvents

  7. Our new neighbor is using a really nasty smelling laundry detergent/fabric softener. We can smell it in our house since it is hot and we have the windows open. I am trying to decide the best way to let them know how nasty it is.

    1. I’m wondering also how to educate neighbors. Maybe we all need to start a movement and pass a bill too. I’m going to leaflet and be kind but ask they switch

  8. Getting “Perfumagated” by someone off gassing laundry detergent fumes gives me a Migraine asap and it burns my eyes, turns my skin and face red. I just can not understand why anyone would want to smell like Vomit?

    1. Hi Sandy. Yes, you can share our blog post on Facebook. Thanks for checking with us! Have a great day!


  9. Hi. I read you article because I have severe anxiety and ocd. I do a compulsion where sometimes I might was my clothes 3 to 5 times in a row. I’ve had this happen 2 times so far with the bulk of my clothes…favorite clothes, undies, shirts etc. So now I am afraid to wear the clothes because I don’t want to get cancer from having the toxic soap residue stuck in my clothes. What are your thoughts on this. I’m so worried.

    1. Hello Jade. Thank you for reaching out to us. We are so sorry to hear about your anxiety and OCD. That must be very difficult! Our educational purpose is to promote confidence and alleviate fear. The residues from former laundry products should come out with a few washes especially if you are able to put them out in the sun. Do not worry, your clothes can only get better and better as time goes on!

  10. I am allergic to Cl+Me-Isothiazolinone. Also Kathon;2- Chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one.
    My doctors believe it may be in my laundry detergent ( plus many other products )” ALL free Clear”
    I have spent the day talking to them and googling and cannot find the listing of ingredients and if
    this is in them.
    Can you please help?

    1. Hi Chris. Here are the ingredients in our concentrate:

      Purified Water, Coco Glucoside (Sugar-Based Cleanser), Organic Chamomilla Recutita (Chamomile) Flower Extract, Decyl Glucoside (Sugar-Based Cleanser), Sodium Citrate (Food-Grade Emulsifier), Lauryl Glucoside (Sugar-Based Cleanser), Sodium Bicarbonate (Food-Grade Baking Soda), Sodium Phytate (Plant-Based Antioxidant)

      If you have any other questions, please let us know. Email us at info@branchbasics.com. Thanks!

  11. What detergents are Safe to use ?
    My pregnant niece uses Gain, the othe niece disregards warnings
    They are both workinh full-time, each with a 3yr old as well
    NO, they will not make their detergents .
    Please ADVISE –
    concerned auntie Michele


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