Is Laundry Detergent Harmful to the Environment?
Laundry soap — it gets your clothes clean and fresh. Without it, you feel gross and your friends stop inviting you places. It comes in all kinds of scents and textures, but here’s a little fact for you: detergent doesn’t work without water. Why? Because water actually cleans clothes while soap makes the water slippery enough to rinse away dirt and oil. Surfactants as they're called can also emulsify oils, but for the most part water is the real hygiene hero.
But there's a problem. Soap may not be as clean as you think. Most detergents rely on petroleum- or vegetable-based surfactants to send dirt and grime down the drain. While they leave your clothes sparkly clean, the residue they leave behind is highly polluting and often releases toxic byproducts as it decomposes.
Finding Better Cleaning Products
There is a better way. Biosurfactants work the same way as normal surfactants, only they rely on living cells like yeast, bacteria and fungi. They are 100% biodegradable, and that means less skin irritation for many people. Sure it can seem like a chore to find a new detergent, but the good news is that lots of companies already offer high-quality, sustainable products.
Here are a few brands people we like:
- Dropps is a plastic-free option that sells detergent pods made with natural surfactants and fragrances listed under the EPA's Safer Chemical Ingredients list. They're a favorite around Waste-Ed.
- Sheets Laundry Club is a subscription-based service that keeps you stocked up with everything you need for sustainable, eco-friendly laundry routine. All their packaging is free of plastic.
- Seventh Generation is one brand a lot of people really like. Started in 1988 as an eco-friendly cleaning supply company, they’ve centered their whole approach around making sustainable products that keep a low impact on marine life and other ecosystems. They also package their soaps in either cardboard or recycled plastic, which we think is a pretty great start.
- Sun and Earth is a brand that’s been around for a little while, and in that time has established itself as a reliably sustainable vendor of eco-friendly cleaning products. All their soaps are plant-based and non-toxic.
- Field Day offers a lot of eco-friendly cleaning products, plus they sell a bunch of different organic foods.
- Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day is probably the most popular of the lot. Wherever there’s a roundup of sustainable soaps and detergents, you’ll find Mrs. Meyer’s near the top of the list. Their products are easy to find too, so if you’re unsure where to find the brands listed above, count on this one.
Detergents You Don’t Want
One of the biggest problems with traditional laundry detergent is fragrance additives. In many cases, these scents are phthalates that act as endocrine disruptors (meaning they mess up your DNA). Try to also avoid foaming agents like sodium lauryl sulfate, as they can irritate your skin and cause damage once they reach the ocean.
Finally, just read the label! Some products will tell you if they’re harmful to aquatic life or toxic if ingested. Those should be signs enough that you may want to look elsewhere. And if you really want to get creative, try making your own!