The skin is our largest organ and extremely absorbent. The chemicals that we use when laundering our clothing may easily be absorbed into our bodies through our skin. However, while this may seem obvious, what many don’t know is that we may be inhaling chemicals as well. How we care for our clothing may genuinely be affecting our health.
The average family washes about 80 pounds of laundry a week – or 35 billion loads of laundry per year. This equates to 17.5 billion cups of laundry detergent being used each year. A University of Washington (UW) study of top-selling laundry products found that they gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, but none of the chemicals were listed on the label. The reason being that some chemicals are actually a byproduct rather than an ingredient and so don’t have to be listed.
For instance, 1,4-dioxane, a solvent, which the Environmental Protection Agency considers to be a probable carcinogen, is toxic to the brain, central nervous system, kidneys, liver and respiratory system. Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, said that people were telling her that the scent from laundry products vented outdoors was making them sick, so she wanted to know what in the product could be causing this effect. “I was surprised by both the number and potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found,” she said.
The greater issue seems to be that companies are touting “hypoallergenic” or “for sensitive skin” when, truthfully, there isn’t much to be promoting. For instance, a 2011 study showed that the chemical 1,4-dioxane was found in higher levels in Tide’s Free and Gentle hypoallergenic products than in regular Tide. Since then, in 2013, as a result of the efforts of Women’s Voices for the Earth, the makers of Tide have agreed to greatly reduce this chemical in its laundry products. This is just one example, granted a serious one, but 1,4-dioxane is not the only chemical found in the average laundry detergent.
Some other chemicals include: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), guaternium-15 (also known as formaldehyde), diethanolamine, linear alkyl benzene sulfonates (LAS), phosphates and ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA). These have all been found to be toxic. Some causing skin and eye irritation or liver problems; others toxic to nerves or potential hormone disruptors; still others causing respiratory issues and more.