What Doesn't Come Out in the Wash

The problems with scented laundry detergent

Scented laundry detergent smells great, but is it dangerous?

You might love your freshly laundered clothes still warm from the dryer smelling like "summer rain," but chances are your favorite scent is harming your health. A study from the University of Washington found that top selling laundry detergents emit carcinogenic chemicals. Researchers identified 25 volatile air pollutants including the carcinogens acetaldehyde, benzene, and 1.4 dioxane in scented detergents. Products with "fragrance" are also loaded with hormone disrupting phthalates.

These toxic chemicals are wafting up through the vents in your dryer polluting your indoor air, filling your lungs with toxins when you inhale the sweet scent of your clean, fresh laundry. They're even making their way into your bloodstream through your skin when you wear your clothes, possibly leaving a rash in the process.

Anne Steineman, a professor at the University of Washington involved in the study, was surprised to learn that the detergents tested listed no ingredients for chemical fragrance. Instead the labels list the contents only as "a mixture of perfume oils." Manufacturers aren't legally required to list the chemicals found in fragrances, but consumers would be better off knowing what chemicals they're paying to bring into their homes. You're often paying extra for that fresh but but toxic scent.

These chemicals shouldn't be taken lightly either. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists 1.4-dioxane as a compound that with repeated exposure can cause eye and nose irritation, kidney and liver problems, lung damage, and tumors. You also can't find "fragrance" without phthalates. Phthalates cause problems to your reproductive organs, endocrine system, and infant development. If you're pregnant, trying to conceive, or have little ones running around, ditch your scented laundry detergent ASAP!

Are their toxins in your T-shirts?huffingtonpost.com

Don't toxins found in scented detergent just "wash" out?

While you might think detergent cleans your clothes and washes out, scented detergents are designed to stick to fabrics. Those Tide commercials advertising scented detergents that keep your clothes smelling fresh for longer than two weeks are especially troubling. Your clothes might still smell great, but your skin is absorbing chemicals the entire time.

As you sweat, sleep, and even dry off with a fresh smelling towel, toxins are seeping into your skin. Over time, repeated exposure to carcinogenic chemicals more often than not leads to cancer. You can check how toxic your go-to detergent is with this helpful guide or just make the switch to a safer alternative.

Safer alternatives to scented detergents

The good news is there are plenty of clean, green detergents on the market to switch to. Make sure you read the labels before buying though. Not all "clean" brands are as transparent as they claim to be.

Jessica Alba's Honest Co. brand which claims to be completely free of toxic chemicals was recently exposed by the Wall Street Journal for containing the very chemicals the company pledges to avoid. If you see the word "fragrance" listed on the back of a laundry detergent, put it back on the shelf.

Here are our favorite clean, non toxic detergents and a DIY detergent recipe if you're feeling up to concocting your own:


Signature DetergentThe Laundress

The Laundress Signature Detergent: $20.50

Liquid Laundry DetergentBranch Basics

Branch Basics Laundry Detergent: $10.00 Mini or $5.00 Cleaning Trial Kit


Unscented Laundry DetergentEco Me

Eco Me Unscented Laundry Detergent: $13.75

DIY Powdered Laundry Detergent Recipe:

  • 1 bar castile soap (grated) – like Dr. Bronner's bar soap
  • 2 cups Borax
  • 2 cups super washing soda
  • 1 cup baking soda
  • 30 drops essential oils (equal parts lemon and clove essential oils)

Mix all ingredients and put in a air-tight container. Use 1 Tablespoon per load. This recipe fully dissolves at all temperatures.