Toxic Laundry?

by Catherine Haug, December 26, 2011

Could your laundry detergent could be toxic?

At our January 2011 event Making Soap at Home with Kathy Mansfield, and subsequently with my post Soaps vs Detergents, we discussed the difference between detergents and soaps. One of the main differences is that many detergents are toxic, while soaps are not. Telling the difference gets tricky, though, because many so-called commercial ‘soaps’ are really detergents.

So, what’s toxic about laundry detergent and other household cleaning products? Are there alternatives? 

Toxic ingredients

For more detail about the ingredients in this list, see Mercola: On toxic detergents (1). See also my earlier post on Soaps vs Detergents. Refer also to the Safe Laundry Guide (2), or the Environmental Working Group website on cosmetic ingredients: (3). Also see the References section of this post.

Phosphates: Several decades ago, we learned to look for phosphate-free cleaning products to protect our rivers and lakes. However, they aren’t just in laundry detergent, but also in many other household cleaners, and are not required to be listed on the labels.  Phosphates are mostly not removed after wastewater treatment, so they buildup in our waterways. This buildup increases algae growth, ultimately depriving fish and other aquatic life of vital oxygen. (1)

SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) and SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate): SLS and SLES  (and other members of this family such as ALS – Ammonium Laurel Sulfate) are more immediately dangerous for your family’s health than phosphates. While they may be made from coconut oil (which contains lauric acid), they are more typically made from petroleum.

No matter what the source, the process by which they are made produces 1,4-dioxane, a known highly toxic substance that is not removed from the mix before packaging the detergent. Because dioxane is not an ingredient but a byproduct, it is not shown in the ‘list of ingredients.’ (1)  See also Safe Laundry Guide (2) or 1,4-Dioxane Product Safety Watch (4).

Apart from dioxane production, SLS and SLES are toxic on their own. They can cause endocrine (hormone) disruption, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, mutations and cancer. Plus they can irritate your skin and eyes. (1) See also Health-Report (UK): Sodium Lauryl Sulphate – Sorting Fact From Fiction (5)

Many so-called ‘natural’ cleaning products say “derived from coconut oil,” but this doesn’t mean they are safe. There are very many dangerous or toxic compounds made from natural sources. Sodium laurel sulfate made from coconut oil is no less toxic than sodium laurel sulfate made from petroleum.

An example of this is Seventh Generation © Dishwashing Liquid. The label says “safe and effective” and “dye and fragrance free,” but when you peel back the label to read the detailed ingredients, it includes the following detergents and other questionable surfactants that are derived from plants (synthesized from plant-based oils):  sodium lauryl sulfate (from lauric acid), caprlyl/myristyl glucoside (from caprylic/myristic acids), and lauramine oxide (from lauric acid) ; and also the following chemicals not from plants: methylisothiazolinene and benzisothiazolinene. I doubt that any of these are safe from negative health impacts….

NPE (nonylphenol ethoxylate): This is a common surfactant in laundry detergent, but it is also known as an endocrine disruptor. NPE exposure is known to cause kidney and liver damage, decreased testicular growth and sperm count, disrupted growth and metabolism, and increased mortality in animals, and will likely do the same to humans. (1)

For more on NPE, see

The big problem with NPs is that wastewater treatment plants are totally ineffective against NPE, so it builds up and gets into our groundwater as well as our waterways. (1,6,7,8,9)


  • Look for products that list what they do NOT contain (phosphates, SLS, SLES, NPE, etc.)
  • Use SOAP rather than Detergents, but be aware that many detergents say “soap’ on the container. For example, commercial liquid hand ‘soap’ is actually detergent.
  • Buy personal soaps (hand soap, etc.) from local soapmakers who make the products in their own home. It is impossible to make detergents at home – they require an industrial setting that can produce extremely high heat and pressure. However, some personal products sold at craft markets are actually made from bulk-purchased detergents, so be sure to read labels.
  • Make your own laundry soap and other cleaning supplies. Kathy Lapcevic teaches a class at FVCC on just this topic, and ESP hopes to host a presentation by Kathy on this topic in 2012.

Homemade laundry soap

The following is from PlanetGreen (10):

Liquid Laundry Soap

– 1 quart water (boiling)
– 2 cups homemade bar soap (grated)
– 2 cups borax
– 2 cups washing soda (not the same as baking soda)

  1. Add finely grated bar soap to the boiling water. Reduce heat to low and stir until soap is dissolved.
  2. Pour the soap water into a large, clean pail and add the borax and washing soda. Stir well until all is dissolved.
  3. Add 2 gallons of water, stir until well mixed.
  4. Cover pail and use 1/4 cup for each load of laundry. Once it’s cool, add 5 – 7 drops of your favorite essential oil per gallon. Stir the soap each time you use it (it will gel).

Powdered Laundry Soap

– 2 cups finely grated soap
– 1 cup washing soda
– 1 cup borax

  1. Mix well and store in an airtight plastic container.
  2. Use 2 tablespoons per full load.


  1. Mercola: On toxic detergents (
  2. Safe Laundry Guide (
  3. Environmental Working Group website on cosmetic
  4. 1,4-Dioxane Product Safety Watch (
  5. Health-Report (UK): Sodium Lauryl Sulphate – Sorting Fact From Fiction (
  6. Sierra Club: The Truth about Toxic Cleaning Agents (
  7. Wold Wildlife Fund (WWF): A Briefing on Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPE) (
  8. USDA Forest Service: Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Nonylphenol Polyethoxylate-based (NPE) Surfactants in Forest Service Herbicide Applications (
  9. EPA: Emerging Pollutants Workshop: NP & NPE Aquatic Toxicity, Estrogenicity and Treatability in Wastewater Effluent (; uploaded to ESP as pdf file)
  10. PlanetGreen: Make your own laundry soap (

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