Our skin is our largest organ – it protects our body, warms us up or cools us down, and allows us to have a sense of touch. Clothing is in constant contact with our skin. Regularly used laundry products, such as detergents and fabric softeners, contain many different chemicals that can affect health and the environment. Toxins may be absorbed through the skin when moisture from the body attaches to chemicals and is absorbed through the bloodstream. Some of the toxins in these chemicals can cause nervous system disorders, cancer, liver toxicity and harm the environment. It is vital to have an awareness of the ingredients in your cleaning products. The information online is overwhelming. We are going to break it down one ingredient at a time.
For this post, we will tackle surfactants. So, what are surfactants and why can they be bad?
Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid. Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants. These are what make our clothes clean when we wash them. Surfactants can be natural or synthetic. Natural surfactants are generally safe for people and the water supply, but chemical surfactants are not.
How do you know if your favorite laundry detergent or fabric softener contains synthetic surfactants? Surfactants are rarely listed on product labels. A statement might be printed on the box, such as “ingredients include surfactants and enzymes,” but ingredients are not required by law to be listed. An ingredient list might read exactly like this: cleaning agents (anionic and nonionic surfactants); buffering agent; stabilizer, brightening agent and fragrance. Say what? What the ingredients are in reality include linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS), synthetic surfactants, or cleaning agents, which release carcinogenic and reproductive toxins; petroleum distillates (napthas), which have been linked to cancer and lung damage; and alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which mimic the hormone estrogen and cause endocrine disruption and other reproductive system problems. During the manufacturing of synthetic surfactants carcinogens (cancer causing) and reproductive toxins, such as benzene, are released into the environment.
What can you do to avoid these chemicals? Look for plant-based laundry detergents, such as Vaska. Plant-based detergents rely on ingredients that come from nature and biodegrade. Ignore marketing claims saying “all-natural” and check the ingredients for yourself! Look for surfactants derived from plants, like sugar cane, coconut, palm, soy or corn. Check your labels – avoid detergents that don’t show an ingredients list.