Crisply folded stacks of linens, spotless baby layettes and dry-cleaned suits hanging in the closet are traditional hallmarks of a well-kept home. Generations of homemakers have prided themselves on laundry that looks and smells perfectly clean, often with a distinctive scent from detergent or dryer sheets. Could our quest for the perfect stack of clean laundry be putting our health at risk?

The latest science indicates we’re paying for more than just “clean” when we buy popular laundry products these days. Many advertise they’re inspired by nature, but there’s nothing natural about them. Product labels don’t have to list all of the ingredients involved. Yet, some laundry product ingredients bring suspected links to health problems into our laundry rooms and around our loved ones.

Harmful chemicals in laundry products

Allergens and hormone-disruptors: Familiar laundry smells from something vaguely labeled “fragrance” on the product mean we’re potentially exposing ourselves to hormone disrupting phthalates or triggering allergies with synthetic fragrance chemicals. Women’s Voices for the Earth reported in Secret Scents that one in ten of us has a fragrance allergy, with more women developing this allergy than men.

Carcinogens: University of Washington researchers found that our dryer vents can spew not only scents from our laundry products, but volatile organic compounds including benzene and acetaldehyde, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as carcinogens.

Pesky contaminants: If your detergent contains sodium laureth sulfate to create suds, it can include 1,4 dioxane as a contaminant. 1,4 dioxane has a suspected link to cancer, per the EPA and environmental scientists.

Dry cleaning woes: The EPA has long been studying the most common solvent used to dry clean your suit, noting that perchloroethylene, or perc is considered a probable human carcinogen.

Ditch the bleach: You may already be looking for alternatives to the strong smell of chlorine bleach products for whitening your laundry. But the Natural Resources Defense Council says it’s the combination of chlorine, even from municipal water, with some other household chemicals that could unknowingly cause dangerous by-products called trihalomethanes.

Are you as frustrated as I am that you can’t simply pick any laundry product off the shelf and trust its safety? There is something you can do about this. We can all join with the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition in calling for a reform of outdated toxic chemical laws. Ideally, the chemicals of highest concern could be phased out of our laundry products, if only public policy responded to the latest science.

You can join us by asking Congress to protect our families from toxic chemicals.

A dozen ideas for a less toxic approach to clean laundry:
  1. Make your own laundry detergent with simple ingredients like washing soda. Here’s one recipe from our friends at WVE.
  2. Need extra whitening power without bleach? Try this DIY recipe from Safer Chemicals blogger Ecokaren.
  3. Musty towels? Put a cup of vinegar in your rinse cycle to freshen, kill mold and bacteria, remove residue and act as a natural fabric softener.
  4. Add high-quality essential oils to laundry for their natural disinfecting power and scents.
  5. Try essential oils in wool dryer balls as a natural replacement for dryer sheets.
  6. Hang laundry outdoors when possible to dry in fresh air and sunlight!
  7. Look for safer trusted brands that phase out harmful chemicals, disclose all ingredients and use non-toxic stain fighters like plant enzymes.
  8. Find a dry cleaner that offers alternatives to perc for cleaning, including “wet cleaning”.
  9. Save money by limiting purchases of “dry clean only” clothes and the expensive dry cleaning bills that come with them.
  10. Invest in a whole house water filtration system to filter out contaminants that may be present in household water.
  11. Talk with your family about why you’re ditching toxic, scented fabric softener and dryer sheets and perhaps even changing your detergent.
  12. For safety, store all laundry products out of reach of small children, whether conventional or greener products.

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