Product Profile: Laundry Detergents

Product Profile Laundry Detergents MADE SAFE Blog

Toxic Chemicals in Laundry Detergents

Laundry detergent, like many other cleaning products we use in our homes, can carry toxicity concerns. It also plays an intimate role in our lives - we use it to wash the clothes we wear, the bedding we sleep in, and the towels we use in our bathrooms and kitchen. When you consider the amount of contact time all of these textiles have with our skin (our body’s largest organ), it’s important to take a closer look at what we’re using in our washing machines.

Beyond that, laundry detergent chemicals go directly down the drain. This means they will have contact with our water sources immediately after use. While this water may be directed to a “processing” facility, such facilities weren’t designed to filter out chemicals of harm, but rather to stop pathogens. Thus, harmful and harsh chemicals can enter “clean” water areas and contribute to ongoing pollution.

Ingredients of Concern

To help you navigate any chemical confusion, we’re identifying a few of the top ingredient offenders in laundry detergent:

Ethoxylated Ingredients – This includes a variety of substances that have undergone the process of ethoxylation, a process in which ethylene oxide is added to other ingredients to make them less “harsh.” The process can form 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct. This can be tricky to avoid because neither ethylene oxide nor 1,4-dioxane are intentionally added ingredients, meaning they would not be listed on ingredient labels. Avoiding products that contain ingredients ending in “-eth” or other ingredients such as PEG or polysorbate can help you steer clear of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. Ethylene oxide has been associated with cancer, [1] and 1,4-dioxane is considered a known carcinogen. [2]

Harmful Surfactants – Lathering agents are added to products to create foam and bubbles, and to wash away dirt and oil. Common examples of problematic conventional surfactants include sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate. These foaming ingredients have been found to cause contact irritation [3] in users and are also harmful to aquatic life. [4] They should be avoided in direct down-the-drain products.

Undisclosed Ingredients – These describe any product inputs that may not be directly listed on the package. Due to ‘trade secret’ laws, the identities of certain ingredients do not need to be disclosed, making it impossible to know what you might be exposed to. Additionally, ambiguous terms on product labels like “surfactants,” “enzymes,” “fragrance,” or “preservatives” are all examples of blanket terms that could represent many different ingredients. While not all undisclosed ingredients are harmful, some are. For example, phthalates are notorious for slipping by under the word “fragrance” on packaging labels, and have been linked to developmental toxicity [5] and, in some cases, cancer. [6]

By shopping smarter, you can reduce your exposure to these substances in laundry detergents and do your skin and your health a favor. Plus, you’ll be reducing the number of harmful chemicals that wash down the drain and into our environment with each load.

Product Profile Laundry Detergents Infographic MADE SAFE Blog

Tips for Choosing a Better Laundry Detergent

  • Shop laundry detergents with the MADE SAFE seal to ensure the product has been fully vetted for substances known or suspected to cause human and ecosystem harm.
  • Avoid ingredients ending in “-eth” to avoid ethoxylated ingredients. A specific example of ethoxylated ingredients would be polyethylene glycol compounds, which are produced through ethoxylation. Avoid products with PEG listed in the ingredients to reduce this exposure.
  • Be wary of blanket terms such as “enzymes,” “preservatives,” and “fragrance,” as these are an indication of undisclosed ingredients within a product.
  • Choose fragrance-free laundry detergent options to avoid “fragrance.” Be aware that some unscented products may still contain fragrance ingredients, which are used to mask scented ingredients in the final product. So, “fragrance-free” is a better bet for avoiding these exposures.
  • Detergents scented using 100% essential oils, and nothing else, is a better option if you prefer scented laundry. (Note that for some people certain essential oils can trigger sensitivity). As a DIY, you can always add your own MADE SAFE® Certified essential oils to some MADE SAFE® Certified dryer balls to obtain fresh-smelling laundry.
  • Beware of greenwashing. Many laundry detergents advertise phrases such as “sensitive” or “gentle.” Because such terms are not standardized, companies selling products labeled this way may indicate a variety of things. In some cases, companies will use the same standard formulation as their regular detergent, only with fragrance-masking ingredients to make them seem less harsh. While not all products marketed in this way are harmful, you should always rely more heavily on the product’s list of ingredients or certifications on the back of the bottle rather than the marketing claims on the front.


[1] International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2012). Ethylene Oxide. In Chemical Agents and Related Occupations (Vol. 100 F, Ser. A Review of Human Carcinogens, pp. 379–396). Essay.

[2] California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Prop 65. (n.d.). 1,4 Dioxane.

[3] U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Sodium Laureth Sulfate. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database.

[4] Bondi, C. A., Marks, J. L., Wroblewski, L. B., Raatikainen, H. S., Lenox, S. R., & Gebhardt, K. E. (2015). Human and environmental toxicity of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): Evidence for safe use in household cleaning products. Environmental Health Insights, 9.

[5] California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Prop 65. (n.d.-b). Di-n-butyl Phthalate (DBP).

[6] California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Prop 65. (n.d.-b). Diisononyl Phthalate (DINP).

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