Wash. dry Fold. Your routine is simple. But is it safe for your health and the environment?
It’s saturday morning. The dirty laundry is spilling out of the hamper. Time to grab the Clorox, Tide, and Downy and head to the basement. But wait. Are your old standby laundry products safe to use? While they’re probably not going to kill you, many green-cleaning experts believe laundry products, like detergent and chlorine bleach, may pose threats to your health. For the most part, they just aggravate allergies or cause rashes. But, they may also have links to cancer.
Take, for example, chlorine bleach. Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition explains, “It’s dangerous to mix chlorine bleach with other chemicals. In your wash, it forms small amounts of several cancer-causing substances that leak from the washing machine into the air.”
Natural health looked at the most common laundry products in use today and evaluated their toxicity and cleaning power. Based upon these evaluations, the following are our six recommendations for making your laundry healthy-for you, your family, and your environment.
- Cut the Chlorine
PROBLEM: Each time you use chlorine bleach, you increase the environmental level of organochlorines-a broad class of compounds that has been linked to cancer, reproductive disorders, and developmental problems in children. Plus, chlorine bleach leaves behind an irritating chemical smell.
SOLUTION: Three percent hydrogen peroxide, found in any drugstore, uses oxygen as the bleaching agent; it has virtually no odor and is much safer to use than chlorine bleach. Hydrogen peroxide bleaches break down into water and oxygen in the environment. Another alternative, sodium hexametaphosphate, is not a bleach, but a water softener and surfactant that dissolves the mineral deposits and soap scum that make clothes look dingy. Sodium hexametaphosphate is available in bulk from chemical supply companies.
Lemon juice, vinegar, borax, and even sunlight all have bleaching properties as well. These are more gentle than chlorine bleach and are best used as “maintenance bleaches” rather than the “return to white” type. To reduce your need for bleach, buy unbleached or colored clothing and linens, which will not show stains or mineral deposits as quickly
- Dump Detergents
Pure soap was the cleanser of choice up through the nineteenth century. Soap is made by blending a fat with an alkaline base (such as sodium hydroxide). But fat shortages during World War I-along with the appearance of synthetic fibers that require different cleaning power-gave rise to today’s petrochemical-based detergents. Although there’s plenty of fat today for making soap, the detergent habit has stuck.
PROBLEM: The key compounds in detergents are surfactants, which help the water penetrate the fabric and remove dirt. While Dickey doesn’t believe petro-chemical detergents are particularly harmful, others like Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Horne, believe they leave chemical residues on clothing that can cause “mysterious” skin rashes. And powdered detergent dust can produce asthma-like symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
Finally, many cleaning products” card-board or plastic packaging is wasteful and ultimately harmful to the environment.
SOLUTION: Look for old-fashioned bar soap (which can be grated into the wash) or vegetable oil-based “laundry liquid” from environmentally friendly manufacturers. According to Dadd, some such companies may label their products “detergent,” but if you check the label and see vegetable-based, chances are it’s safe.
Use the least amount of cleanser that will do the trick. If you use too much, the rinse cycle will not be effective, leaving irritating residues on your clothes and bed sheets. Dickey recommends choosing cleansers that do not contain fragrances or colors. Fragrances and colors serve no cleaning purpose and only increase your risk of allergic reaction.
Also, look for a concentrated product that reduces packaging. Or better yet, bring your own container and buy in bulk at the health foods store. Just be sure to properly label storage containers.
A recent invention, no-soap laundry disks do the job of surfactants electronically instead of chemically The disks’ electronically active ceramic beads disassociate the atoms in the water so that they can go inside the clothes to lift out dirt particles. Disks are sold in sets of three and cost about $50. You toss in all three with each load-and they will last through approximately five hundred loads.
- Stop Spots Naturally
PROBLEM: According to Dadd, spray and roll-on spot removers can be highly toxic-and are unnecessary. Because there are no labeling requirements for household cleaning products, it’s not easy to determine what you’re exposing yourself to while using them.
SOLUTION: First, the earlier you apply a natural stain remover, the better your chance of getting out the stain. You can apply liquid soap directly to the stain before putting it in the wash. Or, mix one-quarter cup of borax with two cups of cold water and apply directly to the stain. Undiluted lemon juice and vinegar also make good spot removers when applied directly to the stain, but since they also have bleaching properties, test a corner of the fabric first.
- Don’t Cling to Softeners
PROBLEM: Fabric softeners combat static cling in synthetic fibers by counteracting the negative charge on the surface of the fabric. Dryer sheets leave a waxy layer on the clothes to combat static cling. Like detergents, they leave a residue that can cause rashes, and their pungent synthetic fragrances can produce sinus congestion and eye irritation.
SOLUTION: No fabric softener is needed on natural fibers because they do not produce static electricity. For synthetics, we found no natural way to reduce static electricity.
- Soften Your Water
PROBLEM: The majority of homes in the United States have hard water flowing from the faucets. Hard water contains minerals that interfere with dirt removal and can turn clothes a grayish hue.
SOLUTION: To determine if you have hard water, wash your hands with distilled water-wet them, soap them, and rinse them. Then wash your hands with tap water. If the soap rinses off your hands more easily with tap water, you have hard water. To help your soap clean better in hard water, add one-quarter cup of borax.
- Don’t Use Overkill
PROBLEM: Contrary to what you learn from television advertising campaigns, unless you are doing laundry for the NFL, you probably don’t need maximum cleaning power for each and every load. Using heavy-duty cleaners shortens the life of your clothes and increases the chance of lingering chemical residues.
SOLUTION: Most loads of laundry are done to remove surface dirt and odors. For these loads you only need water, a little surfactant such as soap, and maybe a maintenance bleach like lemon juice. To remove greasy stains or ground-in dirt, try a soap or vegetable oil-based “laundry liquid” and borax. Bottom line: Save the big guns for when you really need them.