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The spin on chemical versus natural laundry

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
The spin on chemical versus natural laundry

Dirt is bad. Clean is good.

To understand the power this message has over so many American women, watch a few hours of daytime television paying close attention to the commercials.

A group of young, attractive mothers chatter excitedly about the latest brand of laundry detergent. A woman is so overcome with joy by the new active ingredient in her stain remover that she breaks into song. Another woman waltzes across her gleaming kitchen floor, passionately embracing her beloved bottle of fabric softener.

The not-so-subtle message: If your family's clothes are spotlessly clean, sweet smelling and oh-so-soft, you will be a good and happy person.

Conventional laundry product manufacturers spend millions of dollars to deliver this message and millions more to make sure their products back up their claims. They've developed petroleum-based cleansers, light-reflecting chemicals and toxic solvents to replace the simple tallow soap and boiling water generations of women once used to clean their clothes.

It's no surprise that a growing number of people concerned about the effects of these new, synthetic ingredients are increasingly buying natural laundry detergents, bleaches, stain removers and fabric softeners. Manufacturers of natural laundry products report steadily growing sales over the last 10 years.

"I think people have an increased awareness of the undesirable aspects of traditional cleaning products, just as they do with traditional farming," says Martin Wolf, director of product quality and technology for Seventh Generation, the Burlington, Vt.-based manufacturer of a variety of natural laundry products.

Laundry 101
Laundry products have a few basic ingredients that impact the environment and human health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, key characteristics of laundry detergents include:

Surfactants. These ingredients loosen soil from clothes, help water penetrate fabric and produce suds. According to the EPA, synthetic surfactants like alkylphenol ethoxylates can persist in the environment after they're rinsed out of a washing machine, creating high toxicity for aquatic organisms. They can also disrupt endocrine systems, affecting metabolism, reproduction and growth.

Many natural laundry detergents use vegetable-based surfactants such as coconut or corn. "They're natural emulsifiers; they hold soil in suspension so it doesn't attack clothes," says Jim Rimer, president of Vancouver, Wash.-based Bi-O-Kleen Industries.

Glycerin is another natural cleaning agent that can be used in place of petroleum-based surfactants.

Builders. These ingredients enhance or "build" the cleaning efficiency of the surfactant by removing hard-water minerals and providing a desirable level of alkalinity.

The EPA notes that a commonly used builder, inorganic phosphates, can cause eutrophication in fresh water—a process in which water becomes full of dissolved nutrients, diminishing oxygen levels and the ability to support aquatic life.

Borax or zeolites, also know as aluminosilicates, are a natural alternative to synthetic builders.

Bleaches. The EPA warns against the following bleach ingredients: sodium hypochlorite and dichloroisocyanurate, which can form hazardous gases, and sodium perborate, which can cause health problems. According to Seventh Generation, chlorine can also produce toxic gases that are difficult to break down and can be corrosive to the lungs and mucous membranes.

Natural cleaning products whiten and kill germs by using oxidizers like hydrogen peroxide. Seventh Generation notes on its Web site: "Because hydrogen peroxide is a highly reactive ingredient, when it encounters bacteria a process called oxidation occurs. Oxidation is the process in which the oxygen molecule separates from the water molecule and attaches to the bacteria, essentially 'burning it up.'"

Earth Friendly Products' Oxo Brite Non-Chlorine Bleach uses sodium carbonate and sodium percarbonate (sodium carbonate plus hydrogen peroxide), two oxidizers that company President John Vlahakis says literally attach themselves to dirt and lift it off the fabric. Bi-O-Kleen's Rimer notes that grapefruit seed extract is a natural disinfectant.

Optical brighteners. These colorless, fluorescent chemicals absorb ultraviolet light and emit it as visible blue light. The blue light masks yellowing in fabrics and makes clothes seem brighter and whiter than they really are. "They're the stuff that makes your shirt look white under the lights at discos," says Wolf. The EPA says that aminotriazine- or stilbene-based whiteners may cause developmental and reproductive problems in humans, but additional testing is needed. Most natural laundry products don't use optical brighteners.

Solvents. These ingredients help stabilize the other ingredients in a laundry detergent, assuring that the liquid doesn't separate in the container and is equally dispersed in the washing machine. The EPA has concerns about two solvents: ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which is toxic to humans, and d-limonene, which is toxic to aquatic organisms, according to EPA documents.

The EPA notes that propylene glycol ethers, which are used in many natural laundry products, have low toxicity to humans and the environment. Soy is also a natural solvent.

Enzymes. These bacteria-based ingredients break down and "eat" human, animal or plant byproducts such as blood, urine, dirt and grass stains.

Fabric softeners. Rimer of Bi-O-Kleen says conventional fabric softeners use quaternary ammonia, a hospital disinfectant, to give clothes a soft and fluffy appearance by encouraging individual fibers to separate rather than stick together. "But then you have to use more fragrance to mask the ammonia," he adds.

Cationic surfactants are another popular softening option, says Wolf. These surfactants are deposited on fabric to produce softness, and their positive-charge ions reduce static. But cationic surfactants can be animal tallow-based, Wolf says, whereas soy can do the same job and is vegetable-based.

Ontario, Canada-based Static Eliminator offers another option to soften clothes and remove static. The company makes a cloth woven with fibers designed to conduct static electricity throughout a laundry load in a dryer and then dissipate it. One Static Eliminator sheet lasts through 250 loads of laundry, so "there's less waste and no chemical residue left in your dryer or on your clothes," says company President Liana Maddocks.

Fragrances and colorants. These are traditionally synthetic, and strong, to hide the chemicals used in conventional laundry products. The EPA notes that certain colorants can cause cancer in humans and recommends manufacturers "minimize colorant use whenever possible."

Most natural laundry products avoid colorants. Some don't use fragrance; others rely solely on essential oils.

But do they work?
Natural laundry products users may not dance with their detergents or chortle with glee over their stain removers, but they still want their clothes to be just as clean as those in the commercials for conventional laundry products.

But companies that use only natural cleaning ingredients have a disadvantage, Wolf says. "With synthetic surfactants, you can adjust their properties so they do a better job at removing stains." While Seventh Generation laundry products are equal to or better than lower-tier or mid-tier conventional cleaners, they're only 85 percent as effective as the premium-tier cleaners, Tide and Wisk, Wolf says. "Tide is tough to compete with. They spend a lot of money on researching synthetic ingredients."

Nevertheless, companies like Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products and Bi-O-Kleen have their own chemists and researchers who can figure out the best ways to combine natural cleaning ingredients. Rimer, who is also a chemist, says his company has developed a combination of five strains of live bacteria that produce enzymes that work synergistically to attack different soils and stains. "It's a very effective stain and odor eliminator," he says.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 92

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

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