What's in your laundry detergent
The biggest development for laundry detergent since we last covered it in 2012 is that phosphates are no longer an issue. Phosphates (and phosphonates) are water softeners, but their release into waterways can lead to algal blooms that stifle fish and other aquatic life.
In 2012, the EU limited the amount of phosphates permitted in household laundry detergent to no more than 0.5 grams per standard dose. All detergents are now, therefore, either phosphate-free or only use phosphates in negligible quantities.
Biological detergents contain enzymes that break down protein, starches and fat. Taken from micro-organisms such as algae or bacteria, these enzymes are naturally occurring and biodegradable. Under testing, enzyme-containing (‘biological’) detergents are better at removing stains and are more effective at low temperatures, compared with non-biological detergents.
Some people find that biological detergents aggravate skin conditions, such as eczema, although a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2008 found no link between biological detergents and skin allergies. The independence of this study appeared compromised by the fact that one of the authors was a former employee of Unilever, and two others had received consultancy fees from Unilever.
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: Surcare, Bio-D, Dettol, Ecozone, Ecover Zero and Greenscents.
‘Surface-active agents’ (surfactants) are the main active ingredient in detergents. They work by keeping dirt suspended in the water. There are three main types: anionic (negatively charged), non-ionic (no charge) and cationic (positively charged). 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 “ultimately biodegradable” which actually means they must break down by 60% within 28 days. However, this only applies to the detergents (which form 3% to 20% of the total product), and only under conditions where oxygen is present. Most biodegradation actually happens in conditions without oxygen present, so these detergents may be unable to break down fully, which can be a problem for waste water treatment plants.
The main surfactant used by the industry is LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate) which is derived from crude oil and is not ‘anaerobically biodegradable’ (i.e it will not biodegrade unless oxygen is present). The alternative surfactants used by companies such as Ecover and Bio-D are plant-based and are claimed to be 100% biodegradable within seven days or less. They are typically sourced from coconut or rapeseed oil, or sugar, all renewable sources. Ecover claims that this biodegradability means that detergents with plant-based surfactants need less water to neutralise their impact on the water supply.
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, they 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.
Fabric softeners are made from mild detergents and ‘cationic’ surfactants which leave a positive charge on the fabric making it feel soft. They basically work in the same way as hair conditioners.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, fabric softeners and tumble dryer sheets contain an enormous number of potentially toxic chemicals, many of which are left on your clothes. These chemicals may include irritants, can cause allergic reactions and can affect the central nervous system.
Fragrance is one way that manufacturers try to differentiate their products and the regular off-gassing of perfume chemicals from fabric softeners can be a significant trigger for asthma and other breathing problems.
War of the ecolabels
Two companies in this guide, Greenscents and Sodasan, are certified as organic. Greenscents is certified by the UK’s Soil Association and Sodasan by EcoCert, a French organic label originally applied to food products but more recently certifying the ingredients of household products.
Sonett carries the EcoGarantie label. EcoGarantie is a Belgium-based trademark for ‘sustainable commodities’. According to the Austrian consumer label comparison website, www.bewusstkaufen.at, the EcoGarantie label appears to be weaker than the EcoCert label, which covers a wider range of criteria.
Liquid or powder?
A key decision when buying laundry detergent is choosing between liquid and powder. A 2009 Defra study into the environmental impact of laundry detergents recommended using concentrated liquid detergents, avoid using too much, and washing at 30°C. The study found that:
- Concentrated powders and liquids perform better over a range of environmental indicators largely due to the use of fewer chemicals per wash.
- Liquids tend to perform better than powders across most indicators (acidification, human toxicity, climate change, ozone depletion and photochemical smog), apart from eutrophication and aquatic toxicity.
- Tablets and capsules tend to perform worse than loose versions because of packaging and because their production requires more energy. Loose versions also help you to use less detergent than the manufacturers recommend.
Bottle or box?
The downside of liquid detergents is that they are packaged in plastic bottles rather than paper or cardboard. You can reduce packaging waste by buying in bulk. Bio-D, Faith in Nature, Traidcraft and Ecover do 5 litre refills, and Ecoleaf and Sonett liquid detergents are both available in 20 litre canisters.
Ecover is packaging its products in a blend of 75% Plantplastic® and 25% post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR). Plantplastic® is a polyethylene derived from sugarcane that is certified by Bonsucro, a global multi-stakeholder non-profit organisation co-founded by Cargill Inc., a grain multinational with a poor reputation among social justice campaigners. Bonsucro claims it is dedicated to reducing the environmental and social impacts of sugar cane production.
If you’re looking to reduce the environmental impact of your laundry, some or all of the following can help:
- Wash at 30°C.
- Wash less! Air your clothes after wearing to make them last longer, and wait for a full load.
- Use soapnuts or make your own.
- Dry laundry on the line as much as possible to reduce or eliminate dryer time. A 2010 study found that 71% of electricity used in the laundry cycle was used by dryers. The UV in sunlight also has a biocidal effect on any germs remaining in your laundry, and air-drying is great for getting even your stinkiest gym clothes smelling sweet again.