Enzymes in Laundry Detergent: What You Need to Know

By Marilee Nelson |

Enzymes have become popular ingredients in eco-friendly, non-toxic, and conventional laundry detergents, but what are they, exactly, and are they safe?

In this article, we’ll explore the role of enzymes in laundry detergent, including: 

  • What they are (and if they are safe)
  • How and from where they are sourced
  • Common enzymes found in laundry products
  • How they work
  • Trends driving enzyme use in cleaning laundry products
  • And enzyme and laundry FAQs

If you’ve ever wondered about the efficacy and safety of enzymes, read on to learn more.

What Are Enzymes? 

Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts to promote chemical reactions within the body and other biological systems and components. 

For example, our bodies produce digestive enzymes, such as protease, lipase, and amylase, to break down various food components so they can be absorbed and utilized for growth, repair, detoxification, etc.

The same principle applies to their use in laundry detergent and other cleaners, where enzymes are used to break down various stains and maintain fabric integrity.

Enzymes used in laundry detergents are generally recognized as safe and have earned a B+ from the Environmental Working Group. Note: If you are extremely sensitive, be sure to avoid inhaling or touching any powdered detergents (enzymes or no enzymes). Double rinse in the washing cycle and test wearing a few garments to be sure that no skin irritation occurs. 

Enzymes Found in Laundry Detergents 

Laundry detergents may contain one, two, or several types of enzymes that target different types of stains and soil.

The most widely used enzymes in laundry detergents include:

Regular strength enzyme-based detergents may contain one or two enzymes, while more heavy duty and/or made for cold water detergents or stain removers contain several.

How Do Enzymes Work in Laundry Detergent? 

We touched on how enzymes work in laundry detergent in previous sections. Here, we get into more detail.

Enzymes work in laundry detergents in several ways:

  1. They target specific types of stains and help remove them.
  2. They boost the cleaning power of laundry detergents.
  3. They help detergents work better in cold water, making them a popular choice among eco-friendly and cold-water-wash detergents.
  4. They help maintain the integrity of certain types of fabrics, such as cotton, and remove residues helping clothing look newer for longer.

There are other benefits to using enzymes in natural and commercial detergents, which we’ll discuss next.

Trends Driving Enzyme Usage in Cleaning Products

There are various reasons enzymes have become popular in non-toxic and conventional laundry and cleaning products, including:

  • They allow laundry detergents to work well in cold water using less water: This reduces energy costs and water expenditure while allowing companies to claim their products are more eco-friendly (which doesn’t always mean human friendly).
  • Enzymes are readily biodegradable: This results in minimal environmental impact. However, the eco-friendliness of a laundry detergent depends heavily on what other ingredients are used, such as bleach, synthetic surfactants, fragrance, etc., so read labels carefully.
  • The demand for more bleach-free laundry detergents: Enzymes can act as effective bleach alternatives, which is healthier for humans and the environment. Learn more about the dangers of bleach in: Is Sodium Hypochlorite (Bleach) Toxic?
  • Demands for more concentrated detergents: People want to wash more clothing with less detergent, and enzymes, which take up very little space, help formulators achieve this.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Enzymes are cheaper than other detergent ingredients, such as surfactants.

Plus, enzymes are very effective without the risks of other synthetic-based chemical stain removers.

Enzyme & Laundry FAQs

New to using enzymes in laundry detergent?

Let’s answer some FAQs.

What are the cons of enzymes in laundry detergent? 

Just because a product “contains natural enzymes” or is “enzyme-based” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, natural, or non-toxic. So, always read labels carefully before making any assumptions.We would recommend using products that EWG has evaluated for the safety of the enzymes. Sensitive people should still test for compatibility..

Also, some enzymes are too harsh for delicate fabrics, such as silk or wool, so use with care.

Are enzymes in laundry detergent safe? 

As previously noted, enzymes in laundry detergents are generally very safe, receiving a B+ from the Environmental Working Group and GRAS status from the FDA.

We recommend using the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning database and app to vet any enzyme-based laundry detergent or cleaning product. 

Why?

Products with specific enzymes, like protease, for example, are allowed for use in EWG VERIFIED products but must meet use restrictions and warnings based on EWG review of company data. 

The reason is some enzymes may be considered immune and respiratory toxicants or allergens. Evaluation of a product with enzymes considers the product’s intended use, the concentration of enzymes, and their source. 

Is it used on the skin directly, or is it used in such a way that it may be inhaled or come into contact with skin, etc?

Bottom line: Yes, enzymes are generally very safe for use in laundry detergents when used as directed. However, they may not be appropriate for everyone depending on sensitivities, concentration, uses, etc.

What ingredients should I avoid in laundry detergents?

We discuss which ingredients to avoid in laundry detergents in-depth in: How to Toss Your Toxic Laundry Detergent.

Unfortunately, laundry and cleaning companies are not required to list all their ingredients on labels, which is why wehighly recommend using products with MADE SAFE certification or using product vetting services like EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning database. 

Here, you can search specific ingredients or brands to assess their safety profile.

Some of the worst ingredients to avoid in laundry products include:

  • Bleach
  • Synthetic fragrance
  • Fragrance-masking chemicals found in fragrance-free detergents
  • Optical brighteners
  • Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)
  • Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS) 
  • Phosphates
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS or SLES)
  • 1,4-Dioxane, also called Dioxane or Diethylene Oxide
  • Petroleum distillates (aka naphthas)
  • Phenols 

Sadly, most commercial laundry detergents contain several of these toxic ingredients, which is why we recommend tossing your toxic laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets in favor of non-toxic alternatives.

Toss the Toxins With Branch Basics

If you’re looking for a non-toxic laundry detergent that removes stains, softens your clothes, and protects your fabrics, Branch Basics Laundry is an excellent option.

Our gentle formula starts with Branch Basics Concentrate, an all-natural, multi-purpose soap-based cleaner and laundry product made with all-natural and non-toxic ingredients.

Branch Basics Concentrate is diluted with water, per instruction on the reusable bottle, to create Branch Basics Laundry, which can be used on all types of fabrics and washing machines.

For extra brightening, whitening, and stain-removing power, we also offer Oxygen Boost. A two-ingredient, non-toxic laundry booster, soaking agent, stain remover, deodorizer, and bleach alternative with dozens of uses in the laundry room and around your home.

You can find both in the Branch Basics Laundry Kit.

Want to dig deeper into the nuances of non-toxic laundering? Check out the following articles:

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.