The Scary Truth About Your Laundry Room
We didn't see this coming.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:31 AM
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There’s no better feeling than taking out a warm load of laundry from the dryer and basking in the fresh scent of your just-washed wares. Enveloped by a wave of familiar aromas and spotless surfaces, for those lucky enough to have a dedicated space to scrub, tidy, and fold, the laundry room can ignite a sense of calm. But while your home and your clothing has never felt cleaner, what you’re actually smelling could be taking a serious toll on your health. Despite its squeaky-clean reputation, the laundry room is often one of the most toxic spaces in a home.
When we think about purging harmful chemicals from our daily cleaning routine, we tend to gear our attention to products we’re using in the kitchen and the bathroom. Rarely do we consider how those same ingredients could be violating our clothing, let alone the air that we breathe.
“If you’ve been using conventional laundry care products that contain toxic chemicals, it’s highly likely that the air quality in your home is being affected,” shares Marilee Nelson, one of the three co-founders of Branch Basics, a natural cleaning company known for their mineral-based concentrate products. “In some instances, the minute you walk into a laundry room, you immediately smell the lingering odor of the products used even though there’s no wash going. That’s because the porous drywall has picked up the chemicals and it’s continuously releasing into the air.”
And it’s not just surface cleaners, detergents, and fabric softeners you need to watch out for, but, more importantly, your dryer sheets. We recently caught up with Nelson and co-founders Allison Evans and Kelly Love to learn more about their recently-launched wool dryer balls and steal their tips for making the home a cleaner and safer place.
Everything You Shouldn’t Be Using
There’s a reason we all gravitate toward big-name brands when we’re walking down the cleaning aisle at the supermarket: They work really well. But the scary truth is that their effectiveness is often a factor of their chemical makeup. The tough ingredients we rely on to quickly fight grease, stains, and other messes are also the same ingredients that could be negatively impacting your health. Because deciphering the chemical breakdown on the back of a label can feel like an alien language, we asked Nelson to share the most common (and most potent) chemicals you should keep an eye out for.
- Petroleum-based and plant-based synthetic surfactants: Agents that are used to cut grease, remove stains, and clean.
- Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS): One of most common surfactants listed as ‘anionic surfactants’ on labels. During their production process, carcinogenic and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment.
- Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs): Listed as non-ionic surfactants on labels. NPEs are endocrine disruptors that adversely affect physical function and fetal development. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to these chemicals, which are known to adversely affect neurologic, immune, cardiac, kidney, and liver function as well.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS): These act as surfactants and emulsifiers, giving the detergent foaming abilities. They have been linked to irritation of the skin and eyes, organ toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, and biochemical or cellular changes, and cancer
- Petroleum distillates: (aka napthas): Solvents used to dissolve dirt, grease and grime that have been linked to mucus membrane damage, lung damage, inflammation, asthma, and cancer.
- Optical brighteners: Chemicals intentionally formulated to remain in the clothes that make clothes look brighter, with more vivid colors. Optical brighteners have the capacity to make skin become photo-reactive and more sensitive to sun exposure.
- Bleach: Sodium hypochlorite–used for whitening and brightening—can cause DNA damage, cancer, asthma, and a host of other illness.
- Isothiazolinone Family: Preservatives that are EPA registered pesticides. They have been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions, and neurotoxicity.
- Phenoxyethanol: An endocrine disruptor, and a skin and eye irritant that also affects the brain and nervous system.
- Benzalkonium chloride: A quaternary ammonium compound associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation.
Reliable Natural Replacements
Because we firmly believe that you shouldn’t have to choose between keeping a non-toxic home and having clean clothes, there are a number of organic, eco-friendly surface cleaning and fabric softening alternatives that work just as well as the potent stuff. Both Branch Basics’ Laundry Solution and their new wool dryer balls follow in line with the company’s “human-safe” ethos—a motto they prefer to “non-toxic” living.
“The ingredients used to make a product may not fully reflect the properties and safety of the final formula. With that said, we did third party end-product testing to make sure all of our ingredients didn’t interact in a way that could be irritating or harmful. This is something we hope to see the industry as a whole move towards so that consumers can make more informed choices,” notes Nelson.
All of their fragrance-free cleaners include principal ingredients like coco-glucoside (formed from coconut oil, corn and fruit), baking soda, and chamomile flower extract that are gentle enough to double as hand soap, but powerful enough to tackle stains.
Also look for other brands doing incredible things to help you ‘clean up’ your laundry room, another one of our favorites at Domino is Common Good. The plant-derived enzymes make the formulas ultra concentrated, but sensitive enough for even babies and irritated skin. And beyond being good for you, Common Good is also focused on it’s footprint in the world—another huge issue with traditional laundry brands, who rely on potentially toxic chemicals. The entire brand has refillable stations in retailers across the US, and their formula and plastic packaging is biodegradable.
Or DIY it—other safe and homemade cleaning substitutes include:
- Lemon juice
- White vinegar
- Castille soap
- Vegetable oil
- Hydrogen peroxide
See our full guide to the best natural surface cleaners on the market here.
Why You Should Ditch Your Dryer Sheets
“Of the 3-10 gallons of toxic household cleaning products in a home, the chemicals in dryer sheets and fabric softeners are considered to be among the most toxic,” explains Nelson.
Both fabric softeners and dryer sheets are comprised of hefty doses of fragrance chemicals (like Acetaldehyde, a synthetic scent blend that’s potentially carcinogenic to humans) that are designed to cling to fabric. That signature scent’s ability to hold on to that particular surface and withstand temperature, humidity, and other conditions is what Nelson refers to as “fragrance substantivity.”
“Lingering chemical residues in the clothes enter the body through the skin, which is almost like eating them!” she adds. “Many of these compounds are solvents that directly affect the nervous system and endocrine system and can contribute to the development of chronic illness.”
Try Dryer Balls
Not unlike your typical dryer sheet, Branch Basic’s wool dryer balls aim to soften fabric, reduce static, and smooth wrinkles. Sourced and made by hand in America, their green alternative is free of pesticides, dyes, and fragrance and allows hot air to circulate more effectively through the fabric, thus cutting drying time by up to 25 percent.
“They leave no chemical residue on your clothes or dryer like fabric softeners or dryer sheets, and they save your skin and lungs from direct contact as well,” explains Evans. “The wool we use is pesticide-free throughout its entire life cycle, as the lambs are pastured on an organic farm where no pesticides are ever used and wool is never treated with moth-proofing chemicals.”
While their dryer balls might cost you more than your typical store-bought sheets, they essentially last forever. “You can get 1,000 loads out of each ball,” shares Love. “But we think many people might want to replace them in a couple of years just for a “fresher” wool ball look.”
Other Ways to Create a Healthy Home
FYI: The laundry room isn’t the only space that is possibly negatively affecting the air quality in your home. Removing pesticides from the garage, toxic cleaners from your cabinets, and any other products with synthetic fragrance (air fresheners, potpourri, scented plug-ins) is a great first step. Additionally, pay attention to products with warnings related to eye, skin, and respiratory irritation, or directions that recommend using rubber gloves or masks. Below, Nelson shares a few more key buzzwords to avoid when shopping for safe products.
- The suffix “cide,” which means kill (pesticides, herbicides, biocides, fungicides, mildewcides)
- The words “sanitizers” and “disinfectants”
- “Caution” (lethal adult dose is an ounce to more than a pint),
- “Warning” (lethal adult dose is a teaspoon to a tablespoon)
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