What Toxic Chemicals To Avoid In Laundry Detergent

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Tide Laundry Detergent

What toxic chemicals are in laundry detergent ingredients?


According to the research done by the University of Washington, which was published online journal, Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, air vented from laundry machines using the best-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheet contains toxic chemicals.  The air contained more than 25 volatile organic compounds including seven toxic air pollutants and two carcinogens (acetaldehyde and benzene). Top selling brands such as Tide or Gain contain many toxic chemicals that are harmful to your body.  Manufacturers are not required to disclose the fragrance ingredients used in laundry products since they are considered a ‘trade secret’. Therefore, on top of harmful ingredients you read in the ingredients list, there are other toxic chemicals that are included but we don’t even know they are included. In this post, I share with you what toxic chemicals to avoid in laundry detergent. I will also take a look at one of the top selling laundry detergent Tide’s ingredients to see if any ingredients are hazardous.



Toxic Chemicals In Laundry Detergent

Fragrance Or Parfum

I just loved the fresh scent of laundry in the past but who would have known that that fresh smell is actually toxic chemicals? Yes, fragrance is mixture of toxic, nasty chemicals. Manufacturers do not have to list ingredients in fragrance under the law, therefore, we don’t even know what is in it.  Fragrance often contains fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Diethyl Phthalate or DEP is a suspected endocrine disruptor. It is suspected to interfere with hormone function and cause reproductive and developmental damage. In addition, fragrance is rated ‘8‘ for its toxicity rating (10 being the most toxic and 1 being the least toxic) by EWG (Environmental Working Group)’s skin deep.



1,4-Dioxane is usually used as a solvent. It is classified as a possible carcinogen by Environmental Protection Agency. EWG’s Skin Deep also rates 1,4-dioxane  ‘8′ for its toxicity. (10 being the most toxic and 1 being the least toxic) 1,4-dioxane is not be listed in the ingredient list because it is not an ingredient. 1,4 Dioxane is not intentionally added by manufacturer but is formed as a byproduct in some ingredients. Polyethylene glycol (PEG), Sodium laureate sulfate (SLS), polyoxyethylene, polyethylene, chemicals that include the clauses -oxynol and -eth may be contaminated by 1,4-dioxane. Therefore, avoid any of these chemicals listed in the ingredient.



Surfactants (Cleaning Agents)

Surfactants help a laundry detergent to clean well. However, surfactant chemicals are usually hazardous.   Surfactants can be divided into three categories: Natural surfactants, naturally derived surfactants and synthetic or petroleum based surfactants.

Natural surfactants are derived from vegetable or animal fats and they are the safest. Naturally derived surfactants are made by modifying coconut oil or other fatty acid plant based ingredient.  They sound natural and safe, however, most of naturally derived surfactants are toxic and are known carcinogens. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) are examples of naturally derived surfactants.  They both have contamination concerns with possible or known carcinogens. Synthetic or petroleum based surfactants are made from chemicals.  Examples of synthetic or petroleum based surfactants are Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES) and
Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS). They also have contamination concerns. Let’s look at some of the toxic surfactants below.


Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS)/ Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) – Toxic Surfactant

Sodium Laurel Sulfate is a foaming agent. It makes laundry detergent foam well. It is also a detergent and surfactant which means it helps the laundry detergent clean more effectively. It is an inexpensive chemical and it works effectively, therefore, it can be found in many household products such as a detergent, a toothpaste, a body wash or a dish soap. It is also actually a pesticide and herbicide, thus, it kills plants and insects. Sodium laurel sulfate may get contaminated with 1, 4-dioxane, a possible human carcinogen during manufacturing process.  Also, when sodium laurel sulfate is mixed with triethanolamine (or T.E.A), nitrosamines, carcinogens can be formed and released.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) is similar to Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) but it may be worse. They are slightly different due to their different manufacturing process. In order to make sodium laureth sulfate, ethylene oxide is added. Ethylene oxide is a known human carcinogen. Its toxicity is rated at ‘10‘ at EWG’s Skin Deep. When ethylene oxide is added to other chemicals, 1, 4-dioxane is formed as a byproduct.


Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES)/ Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) – Toxic Surfactant

Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES) is an ammonium salt of ethoxylated lauryl sulfate. It contains PEG (polyethylene glycol) which may be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane which are carcinogens. PEG can also cause skin rashes and contact dermatitis.

Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) is similar to ALES. It is actually milder than SLS, therefore, less irritating to the skin. However, ALS is still sulfate so it will cause some degree of dryness and irritation. Sulfates in general removes oils including our natural oils from our skin.


Phenol – Toxic Surfactant

Phenol is a toxic chemical that is used as a surfactant. Some people are very sensitive to this chemical and can have negative side effects such as death at very low exposures. Phenol is very acidic and can cause chemical burns on skin.  Repeated or prolonged skin contact can cause dermatitis or second or third degree burns.  Phenol is rapidly absorbed by skin and it can damage our central nerve system, liver or kidneys. In addition, it generates harmful phenoxyl radicals. Nonyl phenol is banned in Europe. Studies have found that nonyl phenol causes and stimulates growth of breast cancer. In addition, alklyphenol compounds cause direct damage to DNA and to sperm structure and function in mammals. Phenol is rated ‘7‘ by EWG’s Skin Deep. (10  being the most hazardous)


Linear alkyl benzene sulfonates (LAS)– Toxic Surfactant

Linear alkyl benzene sultanates (LAS) is one of the most commonly used surfactants. During manufacturing process, benzene, a known carcinogen is used and released.

Petroleum distillates (napthas) – Toxic Surfactant                 

Petroleum distillates (napthas) is derived from crude oil. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Inhaling Petroleum Distillates can irritate throat, lungs, or nose. Direct contact can irritate or burn eyes or skin. It can also affect the nervous system causing vomiting, confusion, blurred vision, etc. At higher levels, it may cause coma and death. Also, petroleum distillate, Naptha may contain Benzene, a known human carcinogen.


Bleach (Sodium Hypochlorite)

Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) may be used separately or it may be added to the laundry detergent ingredients. It is a skin, lung, eyes and mouth irritant and it can burn human tissue, internally or externally. When bleach is mixed with ammonia, toxic gas chloramines are formed. Chloramines can cause immune system, respiratory, skin, digestive, gastric, kidney and blood problems. Also, when chlorine bleach is mixed with an acid, chlorine gas is released. Exposure to chlorine gas can cause coughing, breathing problems, wheezing, chest pain, pneumonia, chest tightness, runny nose, etc.


Optical Brighteners (4,4′-Diamino-2,2′-stilbenedisulfonic acid)

Optical brightener chemicals are added to the laundry detergent to make clothing appear whiter and brighter. They absorb ultra violet light and re-emit blue light so that yellowing of white clothes are hidden. These chemicals are embedded on clothes to provide brightness, therefore, these toxic chemicals are constantly in contact with the skin and are  breathed in through the lungs. Optical brighteners can cause allergic skin reactions or eye irritation in some people. Most common fluorescent chemical is 4,4′-Diamino-2,2′-stilbenedisulfonic acid. 4 4′-bis(benzoxazolyl)-cis-stilbene and 2 5-bis(benzoxazol-2-yl)thiophene are also used as optical brighteners.

Ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA)

Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is used in laundry detergent to reduce mineral hardness in water and also as a foaming stabilizer.  Direct contact to  Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) can cause vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, fever, etc. It can also irritate the eyes or skin. Inhaling can also irritate the nose and throat. When it goes into our water system, it damages animal DNA and can lead to death of fish.



Quaternium-15 is used as a preservative in laundry detergent. It releases formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. It is also an allergen and can cause contact dermatitis. It is rated ‘8‘ by EWG’s Skin Deep for its toxicity. (10 being the most hazardous)


Examples Of Ingredients In Laundry Detergent

Now, let’s take a look at examples of laundry detergent ingredients. I picked Tide brand since Tide is one of the most well-known, top-selling laundry detergent brand.


Most Common Ingredients In Tide Laundry Detergent

Tide has many different types of laundry detergents available. Each product has a different ingredient list. Following is the list of the most common ingredients in Tide laundry detergents listed by Tide.

Common ingredients:

Alcohol Ethoxylate (AE), Alkyl Ethoxy Sulfate (AES) and Alkyl Sulfate (AS), Amine Oxide, Citric Acid, Cyclodextrin, Enzymes, Ethanol, Hydrogen Peroxide, Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate (LAS), Percarbonate, Perfumes, Polyethylene Glycols (PEG), Polyethylene Oxide (PEO) or Polyoxyethylene (POE), Polymers, Polyvinyl Alcohol


Toxic Ingredients: Out of all the ingredients above, the following are toxic.

  • Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate (LAS) – Toxic surfactant
  • Perfumes – Toxic fragrance, unknown toxic chemicals in the ingredients
  • Polyethylene Glycols (PEG) – Contamination of a known carcinogen, ethylene oxide and a possible carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane concerns


Toxic Ingredients: Out of all the ingredients above, the following are toxic.

  • Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonates (LAS) – Toxic Surfactant
  • Propylene Glycol – Skin conditioning agent, irritant and allergic contact dermatitis, contact urticaria concerns at propylene glycol concentrations as low as 2%
  • Perfume – toxic fragrance, unknown toxic ingredients in the perfume formula
  • PEG-136  – Contamination of a known carcinogen, ethylene oxide and a possible carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane concerns
  • Polyvinyl Acetate – Contamination concerns of known carcinogens, arsenic and heavy metals
  • SubtilisinIrritation concerns (skin, eyes, or lungs)
  • ColorantColor pigments such as FD&C color pigments or some dyes are toxic. Almost all FD & C  color pigments are carcinogenic. We don’t know which colorant is used for this laundry detergent.
  • BenzisothiazolinoneIrritation concerns (skin, eyes, or lungs),



Final Thoughts

All toxic chemicals I have listed in this post are dangerous. Residue of these chemicals can remain on clothes after a wash cycle. When your skin is direct contact with chemical residues especially when the fabric is wet (when you sweat for example), chemicals can penetrate your skin. Your body can absorb the residue of detergents from the fabric. Therefore, please read ingredients when you buy a laundry detergent to avoid these toxic chemicals. In my next post, I will be writing what non toxic, natural laundry detergents are available.


Check out what non toxic, natural laundry detergents are available in my next post, ‘Which Natural Laundry Detergent Brand Is Safe?






  • go_new_mommy

    Isabelle has been an entrepreneur for last 16 years in retail and educational industry. She is also a mom. She is a mom entrepreneur who is always trying to find a better, easier way to run her business. She also tries to provide organic and non-toxic living environment for her child. She likes to research for the most non-toxic products or safe alternatives and share them with parents. In addition, she is against animal testing and supports cruelty-free products.


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