Inside the Box: The Laundry Detergent Low Down

Guest Post by: Tamara Sparacino

It's pretty common now to look at the ingredients of products before putting items in your grocery cart.  Sometimes we're looking for the "good" ingredients, sometimes we're checking for the latest "bad" ingredients.  There's no question that knowing what we're really buying makes us better and smarter consumers.  It also sometimes extends the time we take to shop.  But why shouldn't it? Consider laundry detergent.  The Environmental Protection Agency reports American's spend more than $3 billion on detergents each year!

I extended my own shopping experience recently by examining the list of ingredients for a liquid laundry detergent.  But here's the funny thing -- the ingredient list was vague.  This is what one product stated:  "Cleaning agents (anionic and nonionic surfactants, enzymes), water softener (sodium citrate), stabilizer, buffering agent, perfume, polymer, brightening agent, and colorants".

So call me cynical, but I wondered if the components are listed that way in order to appear more "green" to consumers.   So I dug a little more into the company's information and found the detailed ingredient listing.  Isn't it funny how common household products are sometimes made up of anything but common materials?  Here's what my test detergent really consists of:

Ethoxylated Lauryl Alcohol
C12-15 PARETH-7
Sodium Cocoate
Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate
Sodium Citrate
Tetrasodium Iminodisuccinate
Sodium Methacrylate/Styrene Copolymer
Disodium Distrylbiphenyl Disulfonate
Sodium Chloride
Dye (CI 61585)

Smack in the middle of this list is triethanolamine, which, along with diethanolamines are common laundry agents that remove dirt effectively. What makes them problematic in our ecosystems is that these types of substances take a long time to decompose or biodegrade, and some of them can even become carcinogenic when released into the atmosphere.

Many conventional detergents also include "optical brighteners".  Optical brighteners improve whiteness by converting UV light wavelengths to visible light. A common example is aminoriazine. And while your clothes will surely come out whiter, it's at a cost: aminoriazine is non-biodegradable and causes bacterial mutations in aquatic environments.

There are also "builders" in conventional detergents. Builders are inorganic phosphates that can change water properties (such as pH and hardness) and therefore reduce the concentration of surfactants that are needed for cleaning and sudsing. Problems arise because phosphates (sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate) can deplete oxygen when released into water, affecting its ability to support a variety of aquatic species.

Some of the chemicals in conventional detergents are known to cause irritations or other allergic reactions when absorbed into skin cells. However, there are many good organic alternatives made from plant sources and natural oils that are much less harsh.

And though the average mortal doesn't know what even half of the above ingredients are, conventional laundry detergents and their makers aren't an evil empire. During much of the 20th century the American public demanded brighter, crisper, easier-to-clean everything.  And the manufacturing world responded.  But eventually we started looking more closely at the effects of some of these "miracle" products on our environment and realized many of us wanted to clean our clothes without dirtying our environments.

Manufacturers are clearly responding to the current need and there are now scads of green detergents out there.  They're milder, made with non-toxic ingredients, biodegrade more rapidly, and are growing in popularity. 

The advantages of going with a green detergent are numerous. First of all, they are made without phosphates, which is the ingredient most harmful to waterways, causing clogging and other problems. The green detergents are engineered to be environmentally safe overall -- safe for the air, safe for the water supply, and safe for ground absorption.  In addition, you'll cause less wear and tear on your clothing with green detergents because you'll be cleaning them in a milder solution.  If you and your family are prone to skin reactions due to the conventional guys, you'll experience a reduction or elimination of those symptoms.

Organic detergents frequently utilize surfactants that are coconut, palm kernel, or corn-based, as well as stabilizers, conditioners, and enzymes that are all natural.

A listing of a green detergent I sometimes use looks like this:

Water, sodium lauryl sulfate (plant-derived cleaning agent), laureth-6 (plant-based cleaning agent), sodium citrate (plant-derived water softener), glycerin (plant-derived enzyme stabilizer), oleic acid (plant-derived anti-foaming agent), sodium hydroxide (mineral-derived pH adjuster), boric acid (mineral-derived enzyme stabilizer), calcium chloride (mineral enzyme stabilizer), protease, amylase and mannanase (plant-derived enzyme soil removers),  methylisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone (synthetic preservatives). 

I don't recognize all these ingredients but the majority of them are natural.  That's reassuring.

Because we're still at the beginning of this century, we've got the time to create our own miracles in the marketplace.  The better informed we are about the shape of that future, and our impact on it, from the smallest to the biggest concerns, the better we are as a society.  And that's regardless of how sparkly white our clothes may be.

Tamara Sparacino works with her brother at, a website that helps people who are searching for a washing machine find information about every machine available by allowing them to compare costs, efficiency ratings and check out reviews so they can find the best washing machine for their home.


This is such a great post. There are so many chemical laden detergents and fabric softeners out there that we really should always check all of the ingredients on these products.

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