You made the effort. You chose the organic cotton T-shirt, you bought the hemp pants, and you outfitted your bed in the softest bamboo sheets. But now you’re about to wash your eco-friendly fabrics with an eco-unfriendly detergent. Seems counterproductive, doesn’t it?
Though it would make things much easier, the soap that cleans our clothes does not magically disappear when the spin cycle is complete. When you use conventional detergent, you’re not only exposing your pesticide- and herbicide-free garments to a slew of harsh chemicals; you’re also dumping toxins into the earth and water systems.
The primary culprit in the average bottle of detergent is nonylphenol ethoxylate or NPE, a common surfactant, or wetting agent, that has been found to be an endocrine disruptor and estrogen mimic, though there are several more to avoid (phthalates and bleach are among those to skip). Unfortunately, manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients of their household cleaning products.
This means that consumers (that’s you!) need to take matters into their own hands. The best place to start is to check the labels — you’ll want to think twice about using a product that announces “caution” or “warning.”
Green but still clean
Luckily, we’re living in an eco-era that makes it easier than ever to purchase detergents that don’t challenge our determination to live a chemical-free existence. There are many options available, but finding one that is environmentally friendly as well as highly efficient at doing what it’s supposed to do — that would be cleaning clothes — takes a bit of digging.
As the mother of an infant (pooping, drooling, spitting up) and the wife of a husband (sweating, staining), the ultimate detergent testing ground is in my own laundry room. Here’s what I’ve found:
If it’s a nostril-clogging cloud of synthetic fragrance that you’re looking for (i.e., “summer breeze,” “spring rain,” “misty morning”) eco-conscious detergents are not for you. But remember that any scent that is not derived from nature is usually concocted from an array of toxins, including phthalates (plasticizers used to help fragrances last longer that have been linked to reproductive disorders).
While many planet-protecting detergents offer a dye-free, scent-free option (the best bet for those prone to skin irritation), I enjoy a little zing in my laundering experience. Seventh Generation’s (seventhgeneration.com) White Flower & Bergamot Citrus Liquid Laundry Detergent is scented with nothing but essential oils and botanical extracts, giving me just enough of an olfactory kick.
And it works. Garments that I had all but given up on were restored to their original condition with just one wash. Even baby poop was defeated by this gently scented soap. Seventh Generation wins extra points from me by disclosing the ingredients of all of its products (check the Web site). While my detergent of choice may contain some questionable ingredients (e.g., sodium laureth sulfate), I appreciate the opportunity to research each one on my own.
Biodegradable detergentSafe laundering on the go can be had with Dropps (dropps.com), my other laundry go-to. The small, clear pouches of biodegradable detergent dissolve when dropped into a front- or top-loading washing machine (they’re also compatible with high-efficiency machines). Dropps are sold in small pouches — no need for bulky plastic bottles — and are concentrated, so no water is wasted for dilution.
As for bleach, Ecover Non-Chlorine Bleach (ecover.com) gets my vote. It’s biodegradable, color-safe, and zaps most stains. Conventional bleach can cause skin irritation and redness, may irritate eyes, nose and airways, and can be fatal if swallowed (thousands of kids are poisoned by bleach each year). Ecover contains just two ingredients — water and good old hydrogen peroxide.
For those of you who are unprepared to give up your fabric softener, I’ll bet that you are ready to give up the neurotoxins toluene and trimethylbenzene and styrene, a suspected carcinogen. They’re found in most conventional softeners. Safer softening can be had with Seventh Generation and Ecover’s earth- and human-friendly options.
Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.