Does your freshly washed laundry smell like a “spring meadow?” Surprise — that scent that fills your home and sticks around on your clothes is actually composed of any number of toxic chemicals.
Researchers have found that the laundry room might actually be one of the more polluted areas of the home. Scented dryer sheets and detergents can give off as many as 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including seven which have been named as “hazardous air pollutants.” Due to the everyday use of these types of substances, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the air inside of homes is often five times more polluted or contaminated than the air directly outside.
This is a pretty good reason to think again when you are considering buying that detergent with the fresh scent that “lasts for 24 hours.”
Chemicals end up on our skin
We consider scent to be pretty innocuous. But, in fact, a lingering perfume indicates molecules are sticking around in the water and on our clothes. The chemicals and softeners are designed to degrade as slowly as possible so that the scent and the soft feeling remains for a longer time. However, these chemicals end up polluting aquatic environments and staying on our skin.
As the desire for daily convenience has increased, marketers have responded to this demand by creating ever-easier ways to complete a load of laundry. However, the average person is completely unaware that the contents of their convenient laundry washing detergent are highly toxic to children.
Manufacturers are not required to divulge all of the ingredients in products such as laundry detergent. And even if they do, a single word like “fragrance” can be a catch-all for hundreds of unregulated substances.
Companies use chemicals first, test them later
Government regulatory agencies require only a fraction of the chemicals used in consumer products to be tested. They are generally allowed into the market until harmful effects are discovered through widespread use. In the U.S., the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, which is eons ago in the world of chemistry and manufacturing.
Many of these chemicals, such as ethyl acetate, petroleum distillates and nonylphenol ethoxylate have been connected with devastating and dangerous effects to both human health and the natural environment. A 2008 study found that of all the top selling laundry detergent brands tested, each contained at least one ingredient considered hazardous under federal law. None of these ingredients was listed on the label. Additionally, the study didn’t disclose which brands were tested.
The risks of ‘natural’ detergent
One of the most worrisome offenders is 1,4-dioxane. It was found in higher concentrations in a version of a popular detergent marketed as “natural” and safer for newborns and babies rather than in the regular version. Major health and environmental campaigns continue to urge manufacturers to change their formulations.
The potential health risks include reproductive and developmental effects, hormone and immune disruption, organ damage and increased likelihood of cancers and tumors.
We come into direct contact with these chemicals via our skin when we are doing laundry and wearing the clothes that have been soaked in these substances. We also inhale them into our lungs during the washing process and afterward. The water that washes down the drain affects waterways, with reports pointing out that even a tiny concentration of laundry chemicals can cause fish to absorb more chemicals into their flesh (which we end up eating!). These products are directly affecting our food supply and the health of our planet.
Homemade detergent is better for you and the planet
The good news is, it’s easy to avoid all of these risky substances with simple at-home solutions. You will probably end up saving some money, too, which never hurts! Most store-bought soaps will cost about 20 to 25 cents per load of laundry. On the other hand, homemade solutions can cost as little as three cents per load.
Using simple natural ingredients, such as soap nuts, may be all you need for getting your clothes clean. However, if you’re more comfortable using a powdered or liquid form of laundry soap, we have collected some easy recipes to make your own at home.
Homemade Powdered Laundry Detergent
- 1bar of grated bar soap (homemade or natural store-bought)
- 1cup of washing soda
- 1cup of borax
- 20drops of lemon or lime essential oils
- Grate the soap using a hand grater or food processor. Grate into fine particles so it dissolves easily.
- Carefully mix with the washing soda and borax (use gloves or a spoon as these can be drying to the skin).
- Add essential oils and stir.
- Store in an airtight glass jar.
- Use 1–2 tablespoons per load.
Simple Washing Powder Without Borax
- 16cups baking soda
- 12cups washing soda
- 8cups grated Castile soap
- 3tbsp lavender, lemon or grapefruit essential oil (optional)
- Combine baking soda, washing soda and soap flakes.
- If using, add essential oil and mix with a wire whisk.
- Use 1/8 cup per load.
Homemade Washing Soda
- baking soda
- Fill a wide baking dish with baking soda.
- Heat in the oven at 400°F until all the baking soda becomes washing soda. Occasionally mix it so that this process happens faster and more uniformly.
- Use as needed!
You will know the baking soda has become washing soda by the texture.
- Washing soda is grainy; baking soda is powdery.
- Washing soda is dull and opaque, baking soda is crystallized like salt and reflects light.
- Washing soda has separate grains, baking soda clumps together.
Homemade liquid laundry soap
If you are more comfortable using liquid laundry soap, use the following recipe instead. It is a little bit more labor intensive than making powdered soap, but about 20 minutes of work will allow you to make five gallons worth. This should be enough to last a few months for even large families.
Homemade Liquid Laundry Soap
- 1cup Borax (sodium borate) found in the laundry aisle of most grocery stores.
- 1cup washing soda (sodium carbonate or soda ash) is available on the laundry aisle of most grocery stores, or make your own with the recipe above.
- Abar of natural and organic bar soap, or homemade soap
- Ask your local bakery, Sam’s Club/Costco or grocery store for any leftover five-gallon buckets with lids. They will give these to you for free.
- Grate the bar soap with a cheese grater or food processor.
- Put 4–4.5 gallons of warm or hot water into the five-gallon bucket.
- In a medium sized saucepan, heat 2 quarts of water until simmering.
- Pour grated soap in and stir slowly until dissolved.
- Pour hot soap mixture into the five-gallon bucket and stir well.
- Add optional ingredients if you plan to and stir well.
- Put lid on tightly and keep in corner overnight.
- The next day, remove the lid and stir again.
- Pour into empty gallon jars or bottles and store by the washer.
- Use 1/2 to 1 cup per load, depending on how dirty the clothes are.
Optionally, you may add the following extra ingredients:
- Liquid Castile soap, for extra cleaning power and scent
- Essential oils for scent
You can even go the next step in convenience and make your own all-in-one laundry pods. These pods should wash, remove stains, reduce static and soften clothing all at once.
Homemade All-In-One Laundry Pods
- 1 1/2cup washing soda
- 1/2cup Fels-Naptha, or another natural bar soap
- 2tbsp Epsom salts
- 3tbsp hydrogen peroxide
- 1/4cup vinegar
- 15-20drops essential oil
- Small mixing bowl
- Sheet pan
- Parchment paper
- Measuring spoons
- Grate the bar of soap into the mixing bowl and add the washing soda and Epsom salts.
- Now add the hydrogen peroxide and give things a stir. Hydrogen peroxide naturally whitens clothes and keeps your colors fresh. Stir in the vinegar, which helps remove stains while leaving clothes soft. Then scent with several drops of your favorite essential oil.
- Once everything is incorporated, the mixture should resemble wet sand and clump together when pressed. Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper and then use a rounded 1 tablespoon measuring spoon to scoop up the mixture, press against the side of bowl, then tap out onto the pan. This will make about 28 pods. Finish with a quick spritz of equal parts vinegar and water. Let set for eight hours before using.
- Use one pod for small loads, or two pods for large or soiled loads.
Here are some other smart alternatives for low-toxin clothing care:
- Eliminate the use of fabric softeners by using 1/2 cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle instead.
- For tough loads of soiled laundry, baking soda naturally removes stains and brightens colors. You can even pre-treat stains with a combination of washing soda, water and baking soda.
- Stop using dryer sheets. For fragrance, add a few drops of essential oil to a damp rag and throw it in the dryer with your laundry. Use dryer balls, such as those made of recycled wool, to reduce drying time, wrinkles and static.
DIY dryer sheets
You can even make your own dryer sheets!
DIY Natural Dryer Sheets
- Old t-shirts or tea towels (cotton)
- Essential oils of your choice
- Cut cotton cloth into small squares.
- Add 3–5 drops of essential oil to your cloth and throw it in the dryer with your next load. These cotton dryer sheets can be used for 2 or 3 loads, each time adding 3 more drops of your favorite essential oil.
- Wash the cloth after a few uses and experiment with a new fragrance the next time! Some favorites are lavender, lemon, or grapefruit.
Next time you are folding the laundry, you can inhale that fresh scent knowing it’s all-natural and safe for not just the entire family, but the planet as well.