Charlie's Corner

February 6, 2019

Common Chemicals in Laundry Detergent that May Be Toxic

You’ve been watching what you eat these days; cutting down on meat, eating more veggies, and maybe even trying one of those oh-so-popular detox diets.

When you talk about toxins, maybe you’ve heard from a friend about chemicals in laundry soap and other products you use regularly, but you’re not worried because you don’t eat those products. Sometimes we avoid those conversations because they can easily get overheated. But you wonder, wouldn’t there be a skull and crossbones on the label of the detergent if it wasn’t safe to use? I mean, it’s been a family favorite since your grandmother started using it way back when.

However, now that you have a family of your own – you like to keep up with what’s good and bad for your family. Exactly what common chemicals can be avoided in laundry soap? What can clean just as well without substances the microbiology majors are now telling us are potentially hazardous to your health?

Let’s begin with a short list of the bad stuff:  


  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • 1,4-dioxane
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylate
  • Synthetic fragrances
  • Anionic surfactants
  • Petroleum distillates
  • Phenols
  • Optical brighteners
  • Sodium hypochlorite bleach
  • Ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate


Scientists have examined these chemicals for a long time. One such study at the University of Washington in 2008 analyzed some of the best-selling laundry products. This study found that “Five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level,” according to Anne Steinemann, the study author.

Now it’s worth noting that not every brand contains every item in the above list. Nor does every brand list its ingredients on the packaging (there’s no law requiring manufacturers to do so). But do a little research, and you may find that many of the leading laundry detergents that you see in your local grocery stores contain chemicals that can harm you.

What Chemicals in Laundry Detergent Pose the Biggest Risk?

The most common chemicals in laundry detergent that can do the most harm include:

  • 1,4 dioxane in the short term can cause eye and nose irritation; long-term, it can even affect liver and kidneys. The state of California has declared it can cause cancer and has been found to be potentially toxic to your brain and central nervous system, kidneys, liver and respiratory system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


  • Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) has been found to mimic estrogen and disrupt endocrine functions. That is, when exposed, your system may not be able to know the difference between nonylphenol ethoxylate and estrogen. Yikes! We’re a long way up the food chain from rainbow trout, but the Sierra Club found when the fish were exposed to nonylphenol ethoxylate, they became part female and part male.


  • Sodium lauryl sulfate has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption.

What to do about toxic substances in laundry detergent

Start by reading the labels. You want to see “biodegradable” because those detergents usually don’t contain the fearsome foursome above. Better yet, find products that say they use plant-based ingredients. Some products may even go so far as to say “Does not contain …” or “NPE free,” “no bleach,” “SLE free,” etc.

Additionally, a quick internet research will dig up natural alternatives to the big-name laundry soap you might be using. Learn more about why we’re happy to say that Charlie’s Soap is mom-approved!

Did that scare your socks off?

If all of the above information isn’t scary enough, ask yourself, how dangerous can the exposure to the small amounts of these chemicals over time really be? It will probably come as no surprise that those who are most at risk (children, elderly, those with weakened immune systems) are the more vulnerable – but that everyone can feel the effects of repeated exposure. If you want to know the science of exposure – OSHA has some examples and answers to major questions.

At Charlie’s Soap, we keep things simple. All of our laundry soaps are made with natural ingredients that are safe for humans and the environment. Don’t leave your health and safety to chance for a chemical-laced, unnaturally-colored, floral-scented laundry detergent.