Are Natural Laundry Detergents Safer?

green laundry room

Natural vs Traditional Detergents

Natural detergents are made without the usual laundry list of toxic chemical ingredients. Green brands use plant-based ingredients which are generally safer for your home and the environment. This is not to say that plant-based ingredients have no environmental impact. We'll elaborate later. We would also like to be clear that all laundry detergents use some chemicals. But, having said that, you can take comfort in knowing not all chemicals are dangerous. The average human body contains as many as 60 known chemicals, many of which are vital to our existence. What distinguishes natural from traditional detergents isn't the presence of chemicals, but rather the type of chemicals they contain. 
Natural chemicals used in green detergents are made by nature and considered far safer for both people and the environment. Traditional detergents use synthetic chemicals produced in a lab. These chemicals are known to cause certain health and environmental problems. Well discuss in detail what makes natural laundry detergents the safer, more eco-friendly alternative.

Traditional Laundry Detergent Ingredients

  • Phosphates had been commonly used as a water softener in laundry detergents for many years. It's usage is a known cause of respiratory problems and environmental issues. For this reason, both green and traditional laundry detergent are quick to tout their products as being phosphate free. Yet, these statements are a bit of a mute point since a voluntary ban has existed in the US laundry industry since 1994. *Note: phosphate usage is still allowed in dishwasher detergent.
  • Bleach: Adding bleach to laundry detergent has been a go to household cleaning method for generations. Bleach deep cleans and whitens fabrics by oxidizing soils and stains. It's also an extremely effective disinfectant and deodorizer. Yet, while no one disputes the ability of bleach to clean and sanitize, it's usage does come with some risk. Bleach is known to cause skin and eye irritation. Respiratory issues have also be reported from the inhaling of fumes. From a global stand point, release of chlorine-based compounds may pollute waters and pose a danger to aquatic life.
  • Surfactants, short for surface-active agents, have both water-repellent and a water-attracting properties. This allows water to mix with oils which helps loosen soils from fabric. Environmental damage occurs when surfactants find their way into rivers, streams and other water ways. This results in the creation of foam and froth on water surfaces which pose grave dangers for various water species. Surfactant detergents decrease the breeding ability of aquatic organisms, thus disrupting the entire eco-system. Surfactants present a danger to humans as well. Chemicals like petroleum distillate & naphtha are connected to serious respiratory conditions. These chemicals damage mucus membranes and lungs, which could lead to serious respiratory problems and a higher risk of asthma or cancer. 
  • Fragrances: Traditional laundry detergents add chemicals that mimic citrus or floral aromas. This creates the false elusion of freshness. Yet, a large number of these chemicals are believed to be dangerous carcinogens. These toxic fragrances are then allowed to escape through dryer vents spreading these dangerous compounds throughout your home and neighborhood. 
  • Optical brighteners are added to detergent to create the appearance of brighter, more esthetically pleasing colors. What many people are unaware of is that these additives don't bring forth the existing color, they add chemical pigments to the fabric surface. These chemicals are not biodegradable and are a long term detriment to waterways and a danger to aquatic life. Additionally, optical brighteners are known to cause severe irritation in those with sensitive skin.  

Natural Laundry Detergent Ingredients

  • Plant-based surfactants are a natural, alternative to petroleum-based surfactants. Ingredients such as coconut, palm, corn, and soybean oils offer a more biodegradable, eco-friendly option. When doing a side by side product comparison, these natural ingredients are clearly more environmentally friendly. Yet, there are growing concerns over the sustainability of one commonly used natural natural ingredient. The high demand for palm oil has resulted in large scale rainforest deforestation to accommodate palm tree farming. This has had a negative impact on area wildlife and biodiversity. Plant-based surfactants still offer a cleaner, safer option than petroleum. But, the need for further research and development of a more sustainable, natural solution is quite obvious. 
  • Biosurfactants are a potential future alternative to both petroleum and plant-based surfactants. Biosurfactants are manufactured from a variety of bacteria, yeast, and fungi microbes. Production requires no petroleum usage and has little to no negative environmental impact. High operational costs thus far have limited usage of biosurfactants primarily to personal care and pharmaceutical industries. But, future applications of its usage as a greener laundry detergent surfactant should be right around the corner. 
  • Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda) increases pH levels by removing minerals from hard water. This reduces the amount of detergent needed to deep clean clothing. Backing soda also helps whiten and brighten fabrics. When it comes to really tough stains, baking soda alone is not the most effective spot remover. But, as a part of a complete cleaning solution, it can add to a detergents overall performance.
  • Enzymes are essential proteins present in living organisms, including both plant and animal species. In the human body, enzymes help perform many essential functions. Some of these same enzymes are also used in the production of biological laundry detergents. Enzymes such as lipase and protease do an excellent job of breaking down tough stains stains caused by oils, & proteins. What is really impressive is that they do so with no negative impact on the environment. Naysayers are quick to point out certain enzymes are known to cause allergic reactions if inhaled or come in contact with the skin. For this reason, you will find much written online about how detergents using enzymes should be avoided. Yet, the science thus far disputes this assertion. An extensive study done at Michigan State University found the particular enzymes used in modern laundry detergents did not trigger allergic reactions from either inhalation or skin contact. The university suggested certain fragrances were a more likely cause of any allergic reactions. In conclusion, the study determined use of enzymes in laundry detergent to be both safe and effective.
  • Essential oils offer a great alternative to toxic chemical fragrances. Peppermint, lavender, lemongrass, and other natural oils leave clothing smelling fresh and clean. While these oils are eco-friendly and safe for the environment, there are some safety concerns you should be aware of. Essential oils can be flammable and should never be added to the dryer. But, they are generally considered safe to add during the wash cycle as long as recommended amounts are used. 
  • Citric acid softens clothing by neutralizing the alkalinity detergents cause. Many traditional fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain known cancer causing carcinogens. Conversely, citric acid is regarded as a a safe, natural and effective alternative to most chemical products. 
woman choosing laundry detergent

Finding Natural Laundry Detergents

Even once you know what you want (or don't want), finding a truly natural laundry detergent can be a challenge. Manufacturers are not required by law to disclose the ingredients of their products. What's worse is they all tend to use packaging and names that suggest they are safe and natural, even when most use dangerous toxins. This marketing ploy is referred to as greenwashing and has become a common modern marketing practice. It plays on consumer's growing desire for safer, eco-friendly products and the lack of industry regulations. That is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Safer Choice Program. Certified products that carry the Safer Choice label must show all ingredients on their labels. Having full disclosure provides a safe haven for shoppers seeking  eco-friendly, sustainable products. Look for the Safer Choice Label! 

Shop Natural Laundry Detergents

Affiliate Disclosure: may receive a small commission on sales of some of the featured products throughout this site. That said, we pride ourselves on honest content and product evaluations.

Seventh Generation 

Laundry Detergent Packs
seventh generation laundry packs
EPA Safer Choice and USDA Certified. Made with 96 percent plant-based ingredients .
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Seventh Generation

Concentrated Laundry Detergent
seventh generation concentrated laundry detergent
EPA Safer Choice and USDA Certified. Made with 96 percent plant-based ingredients .
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Naturaly clean Delicate laundry
ecos laundry detergent
EPA Safer Choice and USDA Certified. 100% Vegan, biodegradable and ph-balanced.
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Grab Green

Natural 3 in 1 Laundry
grab green 3 in 1 laundry detergent
EPA Safer Choice and USDA Certified. Eco friendly stain remover, and brightener, all in one! 
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Grab Green

Stoneworks Laundry Pods
stoneworks laundry detergent pods
EPA Safer Choice and USDA Certified. Powerful cleaning without harmful toxins or additives. 
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Grab Green

Naturaly clean Delicate laundry
grab green delicate detergent pods
EPA Safer Choice and USDA Certified. Gently clean delicate fabrics like satins or knits without fading, shrinking
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