After visiting a friend and her newborn, I went down a rabbit hole of laundry detergent research — starting with a popular brand marketed for babies. In this episode, I’m recommending that you toss the Tide (and others) and switch to these clean detergents instead.
Listen to the BLEACH episode here.
I remember going over to a friend’s house a few years ago to visit her brand new baby girl. The baby was sleeping in a little bassinet in the living room and my friend was folding laundry while we talked. She brought this adorable little onesies to her face, and with a big inhale said, “Isn’t Dreft just the best smell.” She was referring to the very popular and commonly used laundry detergent exclusively made for baby clothing. And that’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode, laundry.
At the time I was visiting this friend I did not know nearly as much as I do now about chemicals and toxins. Ah, those were such simpler times.
I did know, though, that anything artificially scented probably wasn’t great. But this is always the moral dilemma I have around friends — in no scenario was I going to tell this new mother, four weeks postpartum, that she needed to change her laundry detergent. And maybe I was wrong — maybe I should have just leaned into the discomfort, or shown up with a new bottle of detergent the next day, but at the time I didn’t have all of the facts so it seemed harmless enough to let the moment pass.
As you’ve probably noticed, though, this interaction occurred years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. When I became a mom I found that one of the most common issues that other moms talk about is their baby’s skin. Baby Emma has this weird rash on her back… Little Ryan is dealing with some eczema right now… the doctor says that baby Tori has some mild psoriasis. It’s all skin rashes in the first year of life.
Am I about to tell you that baby skin issues are the result of the wrong laundry detergent? No… well not entirely. Skin rashes can be caused by allergy to other things, dryness, the wrong kind of baby wipe, a whole slew of other explanations. But when I went to research more about Dreft Liquid Laundry Detergent for babies, the first thing I did was look up its rating on the Environmental Working Group’s website.
I’m not usually phased nowadays when it comes to doing this kind of research. I’ve done this long enough to know that I’m almost always going to be disappointed by a brand or company. I was fully expecting Dreft to have a C rating by the EWG, definitely not great but not the worst.
And then I watched as my computer screen pulled up the search results. Seven different Dreft products came up — with a picture of the detergent, the pink cap on the bottle, the little sleeping baby on the label — and next to six out of the seven products was a big, fat red F rating.
The one product that wasn’t rated an F was rated a D instead and is discontinued.
As I said, these discoveries don’t usually phase me but in that moment I felt so much rage. I was mad at myself for not just sucking it up and bringing my friend a bottle of non-toxic laundry detergent after the fact. But most of all, I was infuriated at Proctor & Gamble, the company that owns Dreft, for allowing this product to be marketed to pregnant mothers and used for newborn babies.
So, let’s look closer at the problematic issues with Dreft. The ingredient with the most cause for concern is Sodium Borate. You may know it as Borax. It is a white, powdery toxic mineral used to clean toilet bowls, remove mold and mildew around the house and even kill insects, such as ants.
The EWG gives Sodium Borate an F rating in itself and the irony is that Borax is often marketed as an all-natural, safe ingredient. The problem is, something can be “all-natural” and still not be safe. The lava flowing from a volcano could be labeled as “all-natural” — that doesn’t mean you should touch it.
And in case I need to go on, if an ingredient is toxic enough to kill insects or remove mildew is that an ingredient you want on your newborn baby’s skin?
So yes, despite what you may see marketed, Sodium Borate or Borax is, in fact, toxic and can cause health issues such as:
- Fertility damage
- Organ system toxicity
- Endocrine and hormone disruption
- Skin allergy and skin rash
- Eye irritation
- Damage to male reproductive system
- Respiratory irritation
Canada has restricted the use of Sodium Borate in cosmetics and yet, here we are in the U.S. using it to clean baby clothes.
Some of the other ingredients of concern, not only in Dreft but other conventional laundry detergents, are artificial fragrance which I talk more about in the episode on Fragrance, as well as fabric brighteners and an ingredient called Dimethicone which is linked to cancer, digestive system effects, respiratory effects and of course, skin irritation and allergy.
There is a whole slew of other concerning ingredients but I think you get the picture.
That’s all to say, you’re not in the clear if you’re not cleaning your clothes with Dreft. Some of these other common laundry detergents get a similar rating: Every single Tide product gets a D or F rating (even their Tide “Purclean” detergent gets a D) and yes, even the detergents that have bleach alternatives. Arm & Hammer laundry detergent products range in ratings from C to F. All Cheer laundry detergent products get a D or F rating. Even Mrs. Meyer’s laundry detergent is rated a C through F, depending on the scent, and ironically it’s the one labeled “scent free” that gets the F rating.
You can go to the EWG’s website and search your own laundry detergent if I haven’t mentioned it yet.
And while we’re on the subject, and if it’s not obvious by now, we need to stop using dryer sheets. These things are coated with a cocktail of chemicals and fragrance and their single-use is just an environmental nightmare, not to mention the potent toxins that are being released into the air from our dryer vents.
You don’t need fabric softener either. Some of the most harmful ingredients in both dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.
As always, my source list is linked on the show notes page at cleanlivingpodcast.com/laundry
I’ll close out this episode with a “This for That” segment suggesting some healthier, cleaner laundry detergent alternatives. There are quite a few options, but I’m going to focus on the ones readily available in grocery stores like Whole Foods and Target.
The first is Seventh Generation, specifically the Zero Plastic Laundry Detergent Tablets that are fragrance free. Most of the Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent Packs get an A rating but you start to get into C territory with the liquid detergents from a bottle. And then the other is Whole Foods Organic Laundry Detergent (I hate to refer an Amazon brand but I know it’s what’s most accessible to many of us.)
For a more extensive list of small batch options from independent brands, go to the show notes at cleanlivingpodcast.com/laundry
You may have also noticed that I didn’t talk about bleach or bleach alternatives in this episode. I did a whole separate episode on bleach that you can listen to — it’s at cleanlivingpodcast.com/bleach
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of The Clean Living Podcast — I’m your host Shannon Lohr. If there’s a topic that I haven’t covered on the podcast that you want to know more about, I have a survey page where you can offer suggestions for upcoming episodes. You can find that at cleanlivingpodcast.com/hello. Here’s to creating a cleaner, more sustainable world for all of us.