What are all these ingredients in my laundry liquid?
Biological detergents contain enzymes that break down protein, starches and fat. Taken from microorganisms such as algae or bacteria, these enzymes are naturally occurring and biodegradable. Under testing, enzymecontaining (‘biological’) detergents are better at removing stains and are more effective at low temperatures, compared with non-biological detergents.
Those with sensitive skin who are concerned about enzymes can look for the Allergy UK ‘Seal of Approval’, which indicates products efficient at reducing or removing allergens, or with a significantly reduced allergen or chemical content. The Allergy UK-approved laundry products in this guide are: Bio-D, Ecover Zero, Ecozone, Fill Refill and Surcare.
Perfume and fragrances
Synthetic fragrances are used in most mainstream detergents. The word ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Parfum’ on a label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients, potentially including hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic musks, and ethylene oxide. Fragrance mixes have also been associated with allergies, dermatitis and respiratory problems. Alternative products are commonly either fragrance-free or they use essential oils.
Optical brighteners make clothes look cleaner than they are by using chemicals called stilbenes which reflect light. However, these chemicals do not biodegrade. They pass through the sewage treatment works and are easily detected in our rivers and seas.
Stilbenes are also suspected hormone disruptors, are toxic to fish, and may cause allergic reactions when in contact with the skin. Eco detergents don’t tend to use optical brighteners which is why they don’t perform well in Which? tests where ‘whiteness’ is a ratings category.
Surfactants and biodegradability
‘Surface-active agents’ (surfactants) are the main active ingredient in detergents. They work by keeping dirt suspended in the water. Surfactants can be made from plant oils such as coconut oil, or sugar, or can be synthesised from waste materials from the petroleum industry. EU law requires that surfactants used in domestic detergents must be aerobically biodegradable (it will biodegrade if oxygen is present) and break down by 60% within 28 days.
The main surfactant used by the detergent industry is LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate) which is derived from crude oil and is ‘ultimately biodegradable’ but not ‘anaerobically biodegradable’ (i.e., it will not biodegrade unless oxygen is present). The alternative surfactants used by companies such as Bio-D are plant-based and ‘readily’ biodegradable.
Polymers and plastics in detergent
As well as potential microplastics, there may be liquid polymers in your cleaners. Liquid polymers are not plastics, but they are also poorly biodegradable and remain for years in our ecosystem with unknown consequences.
Dr. Ruta Almedom at CodeCheck told us: “In the EU and UK, surfactants used in cleaning products have to be biodegradable. Interestingly all other substances (such as liquid polymers and microplastic) which are not biodegradable, which are even persistent, do not fall under this rule. And there is no intention yet to implement a rule for those. [Polymers’] job is often to merely make a detergent look more opaque or milky, or even just as a‘filling’ or bulking agent which makes the product look more than it really is.”
Our rating for microplastics and liquid polymers found the following:
- Liquid polymers found in ingredients: Ecozone, SC Johnson (owner of Ecover and Method), Smol.
- No clear statement found about microplastics and liquid polymers: Astonish, McBride, (Surcare), Prism (Eco-Max), Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Bold, Daz, Fairy), Reckitt Benckiser (Woolite), Unilever (Persil, Surf).
- No statement found: ATTITUDE, Easy, Splosh.
- Companies that got a best rating for microplastics and liquid polymers were: Bio-D, ecoleaf, Fill Refill, Friendly Soap, Faith in Nature, Greenscents, Miniml, Planet Detox, SESI, Sodasan, Sonett.
Which companies use palm oil in washing powder?
Some of the brands we reviewed are completely palm oil free across all products. They were: Greenscents and Planet Detox, with Greenscents certified as palm oil free by the International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark POFCAP.
Several others (Bio-D, Faith in Nature, Fill Refill, Miniml, SESI, Sodasan, Smol and Splosh) scored our best rating for stating that all of their palm ingredients, including derivatives, were certified by the RSPO.
Several small or medium companies scored a worst rating if they had no information on palm-based ingredients, or if they only seemed to use certified palm in one brand but not another, or if they talked about palm oil but not
derivatives: Astonish, ATTITUDE, Easy, Ecozone, and Prism (Eco-Max).