This comprehensive guide examines the health and environmental impacts of laundry detergents, products, and practices; and explores sustainable alternatives.
By Ellen Rubin
You spend a lot of time and money picking out clothing and bedding. If you are sustainably minded, this may mean an even greater investment because you want to do what’s right for yourself and the environment. Once you’ve made your purchases, how do you take care of them?
The obvious answer is to follow the laundry instructions. But at what price? Like many other things, just because products like laundry detergent or dryer sheets are readily available in stores doesn’t mean that they are innocuous.
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Introduction: The Impacts of Laundry Practices on Human Health and The Environment
Your laundry habits may be causing you and the environment much more physical harm than you ever imagined. There are also more options available than what you see on store shelves or in media advertisements; you just need to educate yourself on all the options available. Plus, you also need to learn how to read between the lies and lines of what’s staring you in the face. “Green,” “natural,” and even “organic” don’t always mean safe.
What you initially thought was non-hazardous could actually be harming you, your family, and the environment. You have to go beyond reading the “headline” boasts of “clean” and “fresh” to understand what the labels are, and are not, saying.
While this guide isn’t a product review, we will mention some manufacturers’ names and give some helpful hints on how to safely and responsibly achieve clean. More importantly, we’ll talk about what chemicals you definitely don’t want to see in your laundry products because they are hazardous to, well, everything.
The very shortest answer is that you want to avoid dry cleaning (we’ll discuss why), fabric softeners, dryer sheets, detergents that have phosphates, aren’t biodegradable, have brighteners or bleaches, or were tested on animals. You also want to avoid anything with dyes and fragrance.
We’ll talk about why each of these things are bad and also give you safer alternatives. We’ll explore options on how to minimize wear and tear yet still have bedding and clothing that is soft, fresh smelling, and truly clean. Much of this involves learning about chemicals and how cleaning works, but we’ll try to make this as user-friendly as possible because it’s such an important topic.
How Much Laundry Do You Do?
If you’re one of those people who thinks that you’re constantly doing laundry — you might be. Here are just a few astonishing facts that have to do with laundry:
- The average family washes 50 pounds of laundry a week or at least 8 loads. That’s 350-400 loads per year.
- This translates into spending more than 10 hours a week washing/drying, ironing, and folding clothes. You can’t forget about making trips to the dry cleaners.
- The average cost of doing a load ranges from $1.50 to $4.00 (assuming you are doing your laundry at home and not a laundromat) with the average being $2.
- A load uses between 14 and 57 gallons of water per load and 5-10% of your household energy use goes toward laundry. That’s 19 billion cubic meters (over ½ billion gallons) of water annually. Washing machines emit an estimated 62 million tons of CO2 per year.
- Laundry detergent bottles commonly contain 60-90% water. This adds up to 400 million gallons of water used just to dilute conventional laundry detergents.
Laundry isn’t without its lingering aftermath!
- Over 1 billion high density polyethylene jugs are discarded in the US annually.
- Synthetic textiles produce 35% of all the microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans as you launder them — over 2.2 million tons. The worst offenders are microfleece garments.
- Washing a single pair of jeans releases 50,000 microfibers per wash.
- Aside from ocean pollution, 6.5 metric tons, the equivalent of 32.7 billion t-shirts worth of microfibers are released into the environment every year.
The statistics continue to add up to a huge amount of water, energy, and product being manufactured, transported, and sold every year to clean your clothes. The global value of this market in 2021 was almost $100 billion and it’s growing at a fast rate so that by 2025 it’s expected to reach $205 billion. Any way you look at it, this is BIG business.
The chemicals needed to make most detergents release toxic and hazardous chemicals into the air, in groundwater, onto the land, and in the wastewater when they’re manufactured. A 2011 study found that leading detergents and dryer sheets release up to 25 VOCs including 7 hazardous air pollutants and 2 carcinogens (acetaldehyde and benzene).
This is, however, an improvement over the 2008 study that found that the top 6 sellers released a combined 100 VOCs from chemicals such as acetone, limonene, acetaldehyde, and 1,4 dioxane. (We’ll discuss the hazards of these chemicals below). Even worse, many of the effects are amplified when some of these chemicals combine.
What if this entire industry is making you sick? Many people report that they don’t feel well just walking down the laundry aisle in the grocery store. You can literally smell the chemicals. Have you thought about what those chemicals are and the fact that you are possibly wearing them next to your skin at this very moment?
Which chemicals are used in your laundry products are important for a couple reasons. First, there will probably be some residual chemicals left in your clothes. Don’t forget, skin is your body’s largest organ and what it comes in contact with gets absorbed into your bloodstream with contact. Drying clothing or even wearing it will heat the fabric and release more chemicals into the air you breath. Also, chemicals washed away in the rinse cycle will be released to affect our waterways. Not only does this affect all plant, animal, and aquatic life, but will ultimately end up in our drinking water.
Isn’t it worth it to make sure that you are choosing the best products that will clean your clothes, but also protect you, your family’s, and the environment’s health?
How Does Laundry Detergent Work?
Most detergents use 4 types of ingredients for effectiveness:
- Surfactants make sure that the dirt and grime can be washed out with the water.
- Alkalis help remove dirt and stains from the fabric.
- Enzymes are proteins that break down oils and stains.
- Bleaching agents to whiten clothing.
Note: Instead of just reading the bottle, look on product websites for a full list of ingredients. Even this isn’t always enough because manufacturers aren’t required to list certain items like what makes up “fragrance”. If you want help interpreting what you see, or for a more complete list, the Environmental Working Group has a guide to cleaners that discusses ingredients and hazards, even going as far as verifying the safest and assigning A-F grades to different types of cleaners.
Surfactants’ (surface active agent) job is to hold on to the dirt and grime during the wash cycle so that it will be swept away in the rinse cycle. This is accomplished by breaking the surface tension of the water, letting it soak into the clothing and then lifting the dirt away from the fibers —the water is absorbed rather than just beading on top of the surface.
These are the foaming agents in all types of soaps from laundry to shampoo. You might see chemicals names such as Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALD), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Phosphates, Polyethylene Glycol, Oleth, or PEG. (For scientific details of how surfactants work, see the American Cleaning Institute‘s explanation.)
|SLS/SLES/ALS||Benzene||Petroleum Distillate||Phosphates||EDTA||1,4 Dioxane||Quats||Formaldehyde||NPEs||Phthalates|
|Reproductive Disruptor/Birth Defects||x||x||x|
|Central Nervous System Damage||x|
|Blood pressure issues||x|
|Toxic to aquatic life||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
Generally, surfactants aren’t terribly hazardous to humans although they can irritate or inflame eyes, lungs, or skin conditions. They may be plant based, so you’ll see them in “green” detergents. SLS and SLES were originally created to be garage floor degreasers.
Surfactants greatest danger is that they are toxic to aquatic life. Moreover, they are petroleum based and often contaminated with other toxic chemicals such as linear alkyl benzene sulfonates (LAS), benzene, 1,4 Dioxane, and petroleum distillates. These are all carcinogens and have been linked to various kinds of cancers.
There are a number of chemicals that won’t necessarily be listed on the label, but will nonetheless be found in the detergent when it’s chemically analyzed. One such toxic surfactant is quatemarnary ammonium compounds (quats). These are also disinfectants. Unfortunately, skin sensitivities build up over time as exposure increases and can disrupt cellular pathways. This is what makes this chemical especially disruptive for the young. Ammonium sulfates are so toxic that it’s recommended that you don’t use them indoors.
You may also find Benzene compounds that are petroleum derivatives. They have an immediate and highly toxic effect on aquatic life that lasts for years. Of course, it also has many negative health effects on humans. The same can be said about Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). This surfactant is disruptive and has, unfortunately, been found in human breast milk.
One of the key things to look for in a detergent is that it’s phosphate free. They were banned in the EU, US, Canada, and Australia starting in the 1970’s and continuing into the 1990’s. They were originally used to break down soapy buildup and to make detergents more effective in hard water. However, environmental effects were first noticed in the Great Lakes where nutrient rich polluted wastewater caused eutrophication and harmful algal blooms.
For humans, sweaty interaction with phosphate residue changes skin chemistry. Exposure has been linked to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and even death in extreme cases. Since its banning, ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid (EDTA) has been the most popular replacement. Unfortunately, this chemical doesn’t biodegrade and has been found to be toxic in animal studies. In humans it can cause a variety of gastrointestinal issues, low blood pressure, skin problems, and cancers. While banned in many states, it hasn’t yet been banned nationwide.
Primarily a dirt and stain remover, alkalis are salts or bases that react with acids to neutralize them.
You probably know common alkalis under names like baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) which is a mild base; household ammonia, borax, and trisodium phosphate (TSP) which are moderately strong; or lye (caustic soda) or washing soda (sodium carbonate) which are strong. Today’s soaps also might list ingredients such as sodium/potassium hydroxide.
The strongest alkalis can cause surface burns and if swallowed, internal injuries. Otherwise, the most likely reactions for mild alkalis are skin, eye, or respiratory irritation. Alkalis are especially good at removing grease because they attach themselves to particles suspended in the wash water so they can be rinsed away rather than reattaching to fabric.
If you live in an area with hard water, adding a mild alkali, like baking soda, to the rinse cycle will help your clothes feel softer and prevent detergent build-up. Baking soda also acts as a deodorizer and detergent booster. Luckily, it doesn’t harm the environment.
Enzymes are proteins that break soil down into smaller molecules so they can be rinsed away. When enzymes are present, lower temperature water and less detergent can be used to get the same results. Their introduction meant the end of boiling clothing with lye-based soaps to get them clean. Because specific soils require different enzymes, look for a detergent that will meet your specific needs:
- Protein-based soils – Protease
- Carbohydrate or starch-based – Amylase
- Cotton fibers will release soils best with Cellulase
- Fat-based – Lipase
- Food stains – Mannanase
- Fruit stains – Pectinase
Inexpensive detergents may not include any enzymes.
- Bleaching Agents/Brighteners/Whiteners
If your goal is whiter whites, there are two types of bleach, chlorine or oxygen based, plus some bleach alternatives.
Chlorine bleach, while a traditional solution to whitening clothes, has a number of serious hazards, especially to your lungs and skin. It can severely burn anything it touches so you should wear protective gear on exposed skin and your eyes. Breathing in fumes can cause pulmonary edema (fluid in your lungs that restricts breathing), and in extreme cases respiratory failure. Even if you take every precaution, using it in your laundry releases toxic VOC’s. Chlorine bleach will have the same effect on your clothes as it does on your skin — full strength or repeated use will weaken and burn fibers.
Chlorine-free bleaches rely on oxygen-based products like hydrogen peroxide. These can be an effective treatment for certain stains and are less hazardous.
Many detergents rely on optical brighteners. These don’t actually get your clothes any cleaner or whiter, but are chemicals coating your clothes that absorb UV and violet light then reemits them in the blue spectrum. Yes, this does trick your eyes by hiding stains and making your clothes appear brighter, but it comes at a steep cost to your health and the environment.
The chemicals used (napphthotrazolystilbenes, benzoxazolyl, and diaminostibene disulfonate) remain on the clothes through the rinse cycle. They can cause skin, eye, and lung irritation, and developmental and reproductive issues. They don’t break down easily so they accumulate in the environment and are toxic to aquatic life. These are also chemicals that can spontaneously combust so keep them away from static electricity (like in your dryer).
Some products rely on a blue tint or dye to make clothes look cleaner. Again, the tint remains in your clothes after washing and can cause unexplained allergies or rashes. Some chemicals used are proven carcinogens and almost all are endocrine disruptors.
Paradoxically, adding extra detergent to your wash won’t make your clothes cleaner, but may actually be making them dingy because dirt clings to the excess detergent. Adjusting your usage to the proper amount is the easiest fix to making clothes whiter.
Non-Essential Additives to Detergents
Speaking of tricks that manufacturers use to make you think your clothes are clean and fresh, (but merely mask the dirt) fragrance is the most frequent, and worst, offender. Believe it or not, there are no regulations the require manufacturers to list what chemicals are used to create a scent — they can merely use the word “fragrance” or “parfum.”
Even if you buy a product labelled “free and clear” there may be some chemicals used to mask the scent of other cleaning chemicals. Read the label carefully to be sure. You’ll often find fragrance listed on unscented products. For instance, Downy Rinse & Refresh says that it is “free of heavy perfumes” yet fragrance is listed as an ingredient.
Some of the common adverse reactions to fragrance chemicals are rashes and contact dermatitis, asthma and respiratory issues, migraines, seizures, and neurological issues, and sinus problems. These chemicals are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. The scents constantly assaulting wearers and those near them with harmful, unnecessary fumes. When clothing is in the dryer the heat exacerbates the release of the scent and chemicals.
There are over 5,000 ingredients that are used to create cleaning fragrance, but only 1,300 have ever been tested for safety. Many of these ingredients are derived from petroleum and coal tar. Some have psychoactive properties, even at very low levels, and others are known to be neurotoxic.
One chemical that is often found in fragrance is formaldehyde. Aside from being included in the fragrance, but may be produced when other chemicals react with ozone. Another non-named chemical used to prolong fresh scents are phthalates.
The problems with fragrance are the same whether you are talking about detergent, dryer sheets, fabric softener, or dryer beads. Every time you take a breath, you are inhaling things like formaldehyde and benzene. Overall, fragrance is bad.
Avoid it for you, your family, your community, and the environment whenever you can. 30% of Americans report that they have sensitivities to scented products in general, and 10.9% report irritation from scented laundry products that have been vented to the outside. The scent isn’t cleaning anything, just overpowering and masking any dirty, moldy, or bacteria smells that remain on fabrics. That “clean” towel or those “fresh air” sheets you’re sleeping on may be anything but clean.
Sustainable Alternatives to Harsh Detergent Chemicals
There are a number of detergents that are more sustainable than what you generally find in the grocery stores. This isn’t a product review, so investigate these for yourself to see if they meet your standards. Truly Free, My Green Fills, Dr. Bronner’s products of Sal Soap or Castile Soap, Washing Soda, Borax, Tru Earth, Eco Roots, Earth Breeze (see Unsustainable’s product review), EnviroKlenz, Biokleen, Blueland, Puracy, Seventh Generation, Dropps, Aspen, Attitude, Blueland, Defenky, Healthy Baby, 9 Elements, or PUR. You can get an evaluation of these products at EWG.
Aside from formulated detergents, there are some non-toxic ingredients that you probably already have around your house that can be used as cleaning boosters.
- Vinegar added to the rinse cycle will reduce smells, can act as a pretreatment for stains, softens water, and helps prevent soapy residue if you have hard water. It will also help maintain and restore bright colors, reduce yellowing of whites, and eliminate mildew in fabrics. It also helps reduce lint buildup and keeps pet hair from sticking to fabrics.
- Adding baking soda to the wash, with or without your detergent, acts as a mild cleaner and softens the water, as well as working as a deodorizer.
- Drying your clothes outside helps to whiten them.
- Equal parts lemon juice and vinegar can be used as a pre-treatment option for most stains.
- Diluted hydrogen peroxide can be used as a spot treatment; but to prevent fabric damage don’t expose it to sunlight.
The Truth About Fabric Softeners
If you listen to hype, you might use a fabric softener to make your laundry smell great and feel soft. Fabric softeners aren’t cleaning agents but conditioners. Keep in mind that softeners were specifically designed to stay in your clothing for long periods of time and the chemicals are slowly released, to be inhaled, in the dryer and as you wear them. We’ve already talked about the hazards of using perfumed products so are there any benefits to using an unscented fabric softener?
Your laundry will feel softer if you use one, but this is achieved by the introduction of fatty acids that coat and lubricate your clothing to reduce wrinkles and static. Yes, they will feel softer in the short term, but what it’s actually doing is trapping soil and odor-causing bacteria in the fibers. Bad smells will reappear as soon as clothing gets damp and eventually softeners will make your clothing look dingy.
The fatty acids used don’t completely rinse out of your laundry so continued use will affect the texture and absorbency over time. Don’t believe that commercial where they compare the height of towels with and without fabric softener. Eventually, your towels will be less fluffy. Softeners will also lessen the effectiveness of the moisture-wicking properties of fabrics (like towels and sportswear). The fabric will be less able to pull moisture away from your skin so you’ll stay sweatier and warmer.
Not only that, but fabric softeners commonly include ingredients such as alpha-terpineol, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, ethanol, limonene, camphor, chloroform, linalool, pentane, phthalates, and fragrances. Aside from the expected headache, respiratory tract irritation, dizziness and central nervous system disorders associated with these chemicals, you find depression, loss of muscle control, pancreatic cancer, anemia, liver and kidney damage, carcinogens, and many more health issues that may occur.
Many of these chemicals are easily absorbed through the skin and some are even narcotics listed on the EPA Hazardous Waste List. For instance, linalool is a narcotic that causes central nervous system disorders, a loss of motor coordination, and depression. It also attracts bees. And all that isn’t even taking into account all the hazards from the fragrance chemicals that aren’t listed on the packaging.
Safer & More Sustainable Alternatives to Fabric Softeners
If you want the benefits of fabric softeners, but also want to be safe and without losing your clothing’s absorbency, you have a couple of options.
First, don’t use a fabric softener every time you wash — only occasionally. When you do, choose one without dyes or fragrance. If you want to use a commercial product, there are some that are less toxic. Look for plant-based products that use soy like Soganics, Molly’s Suds, Dropps, or Public Goods. Of course, the easiest solution is to use a ¼ cup of baking soda in your wash cycle and ¼ – ½ cup of distilled white vinegar in your rinse cycle. This will soften fabric and eliminate static cling.
|Alpha-Terpineol||Benzyl Acetate or Alcohol||Butane||Ethyl Acetate||Limonene||Camphor||Chloroform||Linalool||Pentane||Quats|
|Loss of muscle control||x|
|Respiratory tract issues/lung disease||x||x||x||x||x|
|Central Nervous System disorder||x||x||x||x|
|EPA Hazardous Waste List||x||x|
Dryer sheets are meant to eliminate static cling, make sure your clothing feels soft and smells nice. These are the same reasons why you add fabric softeners… so why were dryer sheets invented? Before manufacturers created separate compartments for fabric softeners, you had to time your trips to the machine to add the softener during the rinse cycle.
It was inconvenient. A Proctor & Gamble engineer decided to solve this problem for his wife and the company patented a dryer sheet in 1969 that would do these same things. It was launched nationally in 1975 with the original purpose of reducing lint, wrinkles, and static cling.
A quick look at social media will show you any number of additional uses for dryer sheets. The question becomes: “should you ever use dryer sheets for anything” and “how can I get the benefits of dryer sheets without using them”?
First, just realizing what a dryer sheet is may help you make up your mind. They are non-woven polyester (plastic) sheets that are covered with softening agents (chemicals). You are merely adding water resistant chains of fatty acids and fragrances that will melt off the polyester and onto the surface of your clothes when they are exposed to heat. If this doesn’t sound like a good thing to you, it’s because it isn’t. Even “greener” dryer sheets have been found to be just as toxic as conventional dryer sheets.
To make things worse, the softening effects and fragrance of dryer sheets are engineered to last a long time. That means that you will continue to inhale these chemicals, especially as they warm from your body heat. You’ll also absorb them through your skin. The Journal of Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health in 2011 found that dryer vents emit more than 25 VOCs. These are not only harmful to the wearer, but since they are vented to the outside, you are endangering others. Of course, most dryer sheets feature a fragrance so you get all those additional toxic chemicals as well.
The fatty acids on the dryer sheets are transferred to the dryer drum and your clothing at the same time. The build-up on your clothes means that you pick up more dirt, and it and odors become trapped in the fabric. Furthermore, the built-up fatty acids in your dryer drum and lint screen make your machine less efficient and more susceptible to fire.
|Benzyl Acetate or Alcohol||Ethanol||Ethyl Acetate||Limonene||Camphor||Chloroform||Linalool||Pentane||Benzene|
|Loss of muscle control|
|Respiratory tract issues/lung disease||x||x||x|
|Central Nervous System disorder||x||x||x||x|
|EPA Hazardous Waste List||x||x||x|
Safer & More Sustainable Alternatives to Dryer Sheets
If you feel strongly about using a dryer sheet, look for products that have plant-based fragrances and are free if triclosan, parabens, or any of the harmful chemicals listed above.
There are a few dryer sheets that don’t rely on a polyester foundation and use plant-based ingredients. Some of the companies to look at are Babyganics, Molly’s Suds, or Grab Green. Public Goods uses rayon (plant based) sheets rather than polyester. They also work to use less harmful fatty acids and softening agents. Many of the more natural products use essential oils for fragrance and are compostable. You still need to consider that you are coating your clothing and dryer with fatty acids which will eventually allow grime and body odor to collect in your clothes and make them less absorbent.
You can always rely on vinegar and baking soda in the wash to soften your clothes and reduce static and wrinkles. If you want something that will work in the dryer, the best alternative is the increasingly popular dryer balls. These can be made of plastic but they aren’t terribly long-lived and may release chemicals when heated.
The more sustainable choice is wool dryer balls. Using 4+ of these in your dryer will fluff your clothes by separating them in the dryer. This decreases wrinkles and has the added bonus of reducing drying time by as much as 25-40%. I’ve been using my wool dryer balls for a couple years and they are still going strong.
Overall, this is a more sustainable and economical choice. If you are allergic to wool, you can also find Alpaca dryer balls (Alpacas of Montana, Faire, Golden Touch Naturals). If you are concerned about white fuzz on a load of dark clothes, (although this isn’t a big problem) look for dark wool or alpaca balls for those instances.
Before I found wool dryer balls, I would crumple up some aluminum foil and place some balls in the dryer. They do compact over time but it worked pretty well.
If you are missing scented laundry, you can put a couple drops of essential oil on a dryer ball or even on a scrap of fabric and toss it into your dryer. This will work to scent your laundry without chemicals.
Resetting Your Laundry
If you’ve been relying on common laundry products that contain some chemicals you would like to get rid of, or your laundry has become dingy or yellowed, non-absorbent, flattened or sticky, or is retaining body odor, perhaps you need to give it a deep clean reset. This is commonly referred to as laundry stripping. It will remove built-up detergent, fabric softener residue, and hard water minerals. This isn’t a process you want to do weekly, but a couple times a year is safe for most clothing.
You need 2 ingredients in addition to laundry detergent: Borax (sodium borate sold under the “20 Mule Team” name) and Washing Soda (sodium carbonate or soda ash). You can find both in many groceries or superstores like Walmart. The Washing Soda has a high pH of 11 which will break down acids and oils. This is helpful if you are trying to remove stains like coffee, blood, or grease.
It also counteracts hard water issues by “softening” the water by binding itself to minerals while the detergents lift the dirt from the fabric. The borax is a chlorine bleach alternative which has a pH of 9.1. It’s recommended for acidic stains like tomato or mustard. Since both powders have high pH’s, wear gloves when you are using them. Both can also be used as a pretreating solution. Check the box for directions.
To strip your clothing of buildup, you’ll use the borax and washing soda, along with your detergent in the ratio of 1:1:2. For instance, use ¼ cup borax, ¼ cup washing soda and ½ cup detergent. (Some sources recommend slightly different proportions.) Either using a large container, your bath tub, or your washing machine’s drum and boiling or very hot water, occasionally stir or agitate your clothes with a stick as the water cools. This can take 4-6 hours. Then press excess water out of your clothes and run them through a water only cycle in your washing machine.
The only cautions for this process are that the hot water can shrink fabrics or make dyes bleed and that the alkaline nature of the agents can be irritating to your skin (hence, protective gloves). The only chemical cautions are that borax may have developmental, endocrine, and reproductive effects or may cause respiratory or asthma issues. If this makes you uncomfortable, know that the only concern with washing soda is as an eye irritant. Overall, with some care, you can safely use the products and help negate some of more serious health issues while improving the look and functionality of your clothes, towels, and bedding by washing away built-up chemicals.
Microplastics & Microfibers
There’s one last laundry hazard that needs to be addressed — microplastics and microfibers. Microplastics are all the bits of plastic that are floating in our oceans, drifting down our streets, and just overtaking every part of our environment. Textile products are responsible for 35% of the microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans and are the largest known source of marine microplastic pollution.
Microfibers are microplastics that are broken down even further into small strings of plastics less than 20 micrometers. These can infiltrate your organs. Those smaller than 10 micrometers (bacteria sized) can enter the placenta, liver, muscles, and your brain. When inhaled, they can impair our lungs’ ability to heal itself. As if the fibers themselves weren’t dangerous enough, detergent chemicals will adhere to them. 1/3 of all household dust is microplastic that originates from our clothing, carpets, and bedding.
Microfibers are created when you wash, dry, or even wear your clothing. This is the lint you find in your dryer vent. Much of this is plastic based from synthetics like polyester fabrics. Even if you don’t wear synthetics, the average dryer sheet will add petroleum-based microfibers. You can learn more about microfiber pollution from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Unfortunately, fibers created from the agitation in the washing machine are then rinsed away into our water systems along with detergent chemicals. It’s bad enough when the fibers are natural fibers like wool or cotton, but they become particularly dangerous when they are petroleum/plastic based. We consume approximately 5 grams of microfibers every week that comes from our food, water, or just breathing. This is the weight of a credit card.
These microfibers are another reason why you should be conscious of what your clothing is made from, as well as what chemicals are used to clean them. Chemicals that make clothes softer often contain phthalates, certain dyes, and flame-retardants that are harmful. Bisphenol A (BPA) is particularly concerning because it may affect the brains of fetuses, infants, and children.
Sustainable Practices around Microfibers
You may not be able to eliminate all the microfiber you produce when doing laundry, but you can take steps to mitigate its creation. First, make sure you monitor load sizes. Loads that are too large produce more lint. The increased friction also wears out your clothes faster. Conversely, washing loads that are super small wastes water, energy, and detergent.
There are a couple options to help you remove microplastics from you washer. The easiest solution is to add a Cora Ball . This is a specially designed plastic ball that you toss in the washer. The ball was inspired by the way coral filters water. Using them prevents 31% of the microfiber pollution from entering water systems, not only because you collect the microfiber fuzz and dispose of it, but also because the design of the ball is supposed to reduce the total amount of microfibers produced.
Another option is the GuppyFriend®. Not only will these washing bags prevent microfibers from entering water systems, but they will also help reduce pilling and protect the contained clothes. Once the wash is finished, simply remove the fibers that were captured in the hem of the bag and throw them away.
Assuming that microfibers will be produced in the laundry, ultimately, the best way to prevent them from escaping into the environment is to have a filter attached to the washing machine. While there are some global appliance manufacturers that are developing new systems, there are a few external filters available now that can be added to most existing machines.
PlanetCare microfiber filters will trap 90% of the 1.5 million fibers per load that are produced. They claim easy installation and will refurbish and recycle used filters so the product becomes part of a closed loop system instead of constant production and disposal. Filtrol produces a filter that captures 87% of the fibers that would otherwise enter our waste water streams and can be fitted to almost any washing machine.
Girlfriend Collective is a women’s sportswear brand that relies on microfiber producing synthetic fabrics. Knowing this, they also sell a Microfiber Filter that can attach to your washing machine. Reviews on the site are mixed, but at least they are providing an alternative to knowingly increasing microfiber pollution as part of their commitment to the environment.
Hopefully, in the near future manufacturers will start selling machines with an integrated microfiber filter. Until that time, at least there are some options to help mitigate the problem.
So far, we’ve only talked about washing your clothes. But what happens if you buy something that isn’t machine washable? What are your alternatives?
Yes, we’re talking about dry cleaning. This is a process that substitutes water for solvents that lifts stains from delicate fabrics. Using water to clean wools often leads to excessive shrinkage and to water spots on silks. Water causes the fibers to swell and stretch during laundering; however, dry cleaning solvents are nonpolar so they can interact with stains without affecting textile fibers.
This useful property of lifting stains without water was discovered in the early 1820’s. Thomas Jennings, a New York tailor (and the first African American to hold a patent in the US), used a process of “dry scouring” to clean clothes. Jean-Baptist Jolly, a French dye worker discovered that when kerosene was spilled on paint-stained linen the stain disappeared after the kerosene evaporated. While effective, petroleum-based chemicals like kerosene, gasoline, and mineral spirits had the unfortunate drawback of being incredibly flammable.
After a number of very unfortunate fires and explosions, non-petroleum-based cleaning solvents were formulated. Michael Faraday created perchloroethylene solvent (perc). This is still the most widely used solvent in dry cleaning. It’s much more stable than its predecessors. It’s added to specially designed machines similar to washing machine. The machines provide agitation and friction that lift the stains away from the fabric. At the end of the cycle, the machine removes as much of the solvent as possible; however, remnants remain. This is the smell you detect when you get your dry cleaning back.
Studies have found high residual levels of perc on most fabrics that have been dry cleaned. The exception seems to be silk, which doesn’t retain perc. The residual perc vaporizes so don’t leave fresh dry cleaning in a locked car. When you get home, remove your clothes from their plastic bags as soon as possible and air them out, preferably outside your home. One half of residual perc will dissipate after a week.
While more stable than early dry cleaning solvents, perc is not perfect. It’s a volatile organic compound that is carcinogenic and very harmful to the environment. Even minor spills highly contaminate the soil and groundwater. Necessary ventilation from the shop and machines causes air pollution that affects the surrounding community. It is therefore highly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and needs to be handled as hazardous waste.
Because perc has known health hazards such as increased cancer risks, respiratory and eye irritation, and causes headaches, dizziness, and vision problems, research has continued into safer, yet still effective, solvents.
Chlorine-based chemicals such as tetrachloroethylene (TCE) or perchloroethylene (PCE), have been explored. Yes, they are stable, non-flammable, cost-effective, easy to recycle, and work well on oily stains, but they can cause colors to bleed or bleach. TCE has been used in other products such as processing decaffeinated coffee and typewriter correction fluid, but it was found to be a significant cause of Parkinson’s disease as early as 1969 and been associated with an increased risk of cancer and miscarriage.
This is just another sign that a product that was first produced to degrease garage floors probably shouldn’t be something that we ingest or put next to our skin to be absorbed. Unfortunately, it’s still used globally, especially in China.
Safer & More Sustainable Alternatives to Dry Cleaning
Today, there are some safer dry cleaning alternatives, but they require specialized machines, aren’t quite as effective, and are more expensive the traditional perc-based dry cleaning. Some of these solvent options include:
- Hydrocarbons – This synthetic petroleum is a byproduct of gasoline. While it’s marketed as more environmentally friendly than perc, it’s still a neurotoxin that is heavily regulated by the EPA. It’s also very flammable and less effective than perc. Some names to know are EcoSolv, Satec.
- Siloxane – This is a colorless, odorless liquid silicone solvent. When it degrades it becomes its components of sand, water, and carbon dioxide. This is a good option to use for soft fabrics. It’s almost twice the price of traditional dry cleaning but more environmentally friendly. Possible health consequences include liver toxicity and carcinogenic qualities, but more research is needed. General Electric Silicones are marketed under the name Green Earth. There are also versions from Dow Corning and Shin Etsu. The basic ingredient in liquid silicone processes is decamethylcyclopentasiloxane or D5.
- Liquid Carbon Dioxide – Carbon dioxide solvents don’t produce additional environmental carbon dioxide but is a recycled byproduct of other industrial processes. It’s non-flammable, non-toxic, can be reused for multiple cleaning cycles, inexpensive, plentiful, and good at removing soot, fire odors, and other toxic residues. The only reasons it isn’t the go-to solvent are that the specialized equipment is expensive and it isn’t quite as effective as the toxic alternatives.
- There are two other solvents that may be used: dipropylene glycol tertiary butyl ether (DGTB) which has a higher flashpoint and level of solvency the perc, and glycol ethers which are as effective as perc, yet safer and more environmentally friendly.
- Finally, there are machines that use wet cleaning (water instead of chemical cleaning solvents), but the machines are more customized so that specific temperatures and spinning modes can be programmed. While these aren’t safe for every garment, and pretreating oily stains may be necessary, these systems will safely clean almost all “dry clean only” garments. Neckties seem to be the primary exception, but check with your shop to be sure.
What to do Between Dry Cleaning or Laundering
Inevitably there’s some clothing, like suits or delicates, that have to be dry cleaned. What do you do if there aren’t any safer dry cleaners near you? Or perhaps you’d like to reduce the frequency of laundering your clothes. After all, even when you are using all safe cleaning products, washing and drying clothing takes its toll on the fabric.
There is an increasingly popular option… a steam closet, also called a Styler, Airdresser, closet manager. This is a stand-alone unit that uses steam and gentle agitation (really waving your garments) to remove odors and wrinkles between cleanings. They were first introduced in Korea about a decade ago and can now be purchased in most countries. Popular brands include Samsung, GE, and LG, and have a range of price points.
In addition to eliminating odors and wrinkles, they disinfect clothing by killing odor-producing bacteria, microorganisms, dust mites and other allergens. Clothing emerges sanitized (with 99.99% effectiveness) and fresh-smelling. The cycle time is as little as 20 minutes and clothes will be refreshed and dry when it’s done. Some models also come with a built-in press to sharpen pants’ creases.
Steam closets are a great option for large items like duvets, pillows, bedding, and even children’s toys. They can generally be used with silks, leathers, and furs. Depending on model, there’s enough space for approximately 3 garments. There are no chemicals involved in the entire process. If you want, there are ways to add fragrance to the clothing by including some essential oils on a cotton ball or scrap of fabric.
These units won’t replace your washing machine or trips to the dry cleaner because it doesn’t remove dirt and stains, but it will work well on things like perspiration and cigarette smoke smells. The units can be added to your laundry room, or even a walk-in closet, to help keep you looking, and smelling, fresh without subjecting your clothing, or your skin, to harsh chemicals. There is a built-in water reservoir so all you need is an electrical outlet.
When most people thing about their laundry they just assume that the product they choose will get their clothes clean. They don’t think about the health and environmental hazards.
Choosing a detergent might be based on commercials, packaging, price, or value. It takes a concerted effort to see what ingredients are in a detergent/dryer sheet/fabric softener, but it’s worth it. Much of what’s included in these products are toxic to you, your family, and the environment. Using things like dryer sheets and fabric softeners are actually counter-productive in the long run to having clean, soft clothing.
The easiest steps to take are to skip fragranced products, look for things that are plant-based, and even look around your house for easy boosters like baking soda and vinegar.
Take the time, read labels, and choose the least toxic products that will still do a good job. There are safe alternatives out there — even to dry cleaning. Your health, the environment, and your clothes will thank you.