Manufacturers combine a number of chemicals to produce a fragrance—so you’ll believe your clothes are clean because they smell clean—and they don’t have to list those chemicals on the label because of trade protection. Some of those chemicals can be very toxic.
Cleaning agents are included in the formula to help the product clean better. Examples include chemicals like quaternium-15 (known to release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen), diethanolamine (linked with skin and eye irritation and possibly liver problems), nonlphenol ethoxylate or NPE (toxic to nerves, irritating to skin, potential hormone disruptor, toxic to aquatic life), linear alkyl benzene sulfonates or LAS (irritating to skin and eyes and toxic to aquatic life; benzene on its own is a carcinogen), and petroleum distillates (linked to cancer and lung damage).
Stabilizers are chemicals that help to stabilize the formula, so that it lasts longer on the shelf. Examples include polyalkylene oxide or ethylene oxide, which are linked with eye and lung irritation, and even dermatitis.
Bleach may be used separately or may be included in the detergent itself. It’s known to irritate skin, eyes, and lungs, and when it mixes with wastewater, it can form toxic organic compounds that have been linked with respiratory issues, liver, and kidney damage.
1,4-dioxane: This is a chemical by-product of detergent manufacturing. In independent tests, Women’s Voices for the Earth found 89 parts per million (ppm) in Tide Free & Gentle and 63 ppm in regular Tide. They helped increase awareness, and Proctor & Gamble agreed to reformulate to reduce levels to below 25 ppm. Future tests should show whether they made good on that promise.
You’ll find brighteners in detergents advertising their “brightening” powers. Brighter whites! Brighter colours! What’s creating all this brightness? Chemicals that actually remain on the clothes to absorb UV light and help clothes “appear” brighter. We’re talking things like naphthotriazolystilbenes (linked with developmental and reproductive effects), benzoxazolyl, diaminostilbene disulfonate, and more. Since these remain on the clothes, they are likely to come into contact with skin.
Manufacturers use these to make detergents more effective in hard water, and to help prevent dirt from settling back on clothes when they’re washing. These chemicals have long been associated with environmental damage, particularly in our streams and waterways. They cause algae blooms that damage ecosystems. Many detergents have eliminated these, but they’re often using ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA) in its place, which does not readily biodegrade, and has been found to be toxic in animal studies.