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 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.