The problem with laundry detergents - How they impact our health and the environment

Charlie Webb


31 Days, 31 Ways to an eco-friendly New Year


Day 16 - Use eco-friendly laundry detergent

In the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics, we wash nearly 7 billion loads of laundry a year. 7 billion! I just want you to hold that figure in your head while I talk about how non-eco laundry detergents can impact your health and the health of the environment.

If you currently use a non-eco laundry product, take a look at the ingredients. It’s a long list, right? I could write a book on all those chemicals, exactly what they are and what effects they can have. It would make for scary reading. The Environmental Working Group's website here offers information on popular products and known concerns about their ingredients.  

For now, let’s just talk about the main problem with non-eco laundry detergent.


The sad (and slightly horrifying) story of  laundry detergent

So, 7 billion times a year, we chuck a load of dirty washing in the drum, pour in a measure of laundry powder or liquid, switch on our machine, wait for a bit, and ta-da, lovely soft, clean clothes. But wait, that isn’t the end of the story. That detergent doesn’t just disappear - it’s being washed away into the depths of the water system where it’s just starting its adventure.

It won’t completely biodegrade. It’ll hang around contaminating our water supplies, rivers and oceans with toxic, heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic. Phosphates, an ingredient cleaning manufacturers love to use in their products, builds up and leads to eutrophication - huge algal blooms that starve fish and other plant life of oxygen.

Surfactants, which companies use in their detergents to “lift off” dirt, reduce the surface tension of oil and water. But they are also highly toxic to marine life - they’ll spend their time breaking down the mucus layer that coats fish and protects them from parasites and bacteria.

By reducing the surface tension of water, surfactants will also make it easier for waterways to absorb pollutants and pesticides. But they’re not done yet. They then break down into even more toxic byproducts which will happily hang around for years causing long-term damage to the environment.

These chemicals are the reason that people experience skin irritation and allergic reactions to laundry detergents. And, you can’t send potentially dangerous ingredients to market without a vast amount of animal testing. Plus, the majority of commercial laundry detergents come in plastic, 55% of which will end up in landfill or polluting our oceans for the next 500 years.


There is a happy ending...

So, there you have it. The rather depressing and slightly horrifying tale of non-bio laundry detergents. However, there is a happy ending. You can still have lovely, soft clean clothes using one of the plenty of green laundry products on the market. I’ve personally tried and tested lots for Vera-Bee - with two boys who love mud and wrestling, preferably at the same time, that’s no mean feat!

For a truly eco-friendly wash, look for one which is zero waste, hasn’t been tested on animals and is free from parabens, phosphates and chlorine bleach. The products we stock at Vera-Bee - Planet Detox’s Laundry Wash (in Lavender or Rose Geranium) and Tru-Earth’s Laundry Strips (in Fresh Linen, Fragrance Free and Baby) are by far the best I have found in terms of their green and cleaning credentials. For tough stains, I use a bit of Percarbonate of Soda, one of the ingredients in Vanish products but without the toxins (you can see my post about this amazing product and all its uses here). Or rub with a bit of Marseille Soap - another wonder product which is my secret weapon for lots of household jobs. 

Rewrite your laundry story. The planet will thank you for it.



Tags: blog, laundry


  • Posted by Susan Saint on

    Hi I would like some advice as you have done so much research into wash powder My husband has very sensitive eyes and for a long time we couldn’t understand what caused this until he stayed for 2 weeks with his son and they cleared up!!! It had been my eco friendly wash powder!!! It contains something in the ingredients he is alergyic to!! So I changed to Surf which his son uses and he has no problems now but I would dearly love to use eco friendly again but just don’t want to go to the expense of trial and error and put him through the pain again. Has all your eco wash powder have the same ingredients as Ecover?Hope you can help enlighten me. Thank you.

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