Ask Eartha: Examining the benefits of eco-friendly detergents |

Ask Eartha: Examining the benefits of eco-friendly detergents

Woman choosing laundry detergent in grocery store.
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Dear Eartha,

I have a new baby and am doing my best to not expose her to harmful chemicals and toxins. What are the benefits of using an eco-friendly or organic detergent for laundry or dishes, and why does it seem that conventional detergents clean better than the eco-friendly varieties?

— Holly, Breckenridge

Holly, I understand how you can think that the conventional varieties clean better. These products are the ones we grew up with, so the smells and labels bring back a feeling of nostalgia. I cannot stress enough the hidden danger found in the chemicals that are in these detergents. Despite the awareness that people are now giving to the chemicals and additives in food, detergents and cleaners seem to take a back seat on the issue. However, there are serious health and environmental effects associated with using these conventional, petroleum-based products — effects that cannot be eliminated in the rinse cycle.

Chemicals in conventional laundry detergents leave a residue on clothes and linens and can get absorbed into skin, according to Bamboo Magazine. With a new baby, you need to be even more careful, as baby’s skin can be even more susceptible to these harmful chemicals. These can cause a whole host of health problems including allergies, headaches, nausea and contact dermatitis. Surfactants, the petroleum-based chemical that is a “wetting agent” can release benzene, a cancer-causing agent that has also been linked to reproductive disorders. Chlorine, the active ingredient in bleach and many dish detergents is a very corrosive chemical and has been linked to respiratory illness, nausea and, in severe cases, organ failure.

Believe it or not, conventional dishwashing detergent is a major source of air pollution in the home. Again, chlorine bleach is the main ingredient in many common dishwashing detergents. When chlorine fumes are released into the air during the drying cycle, it can cause respiratory problems and eye and lung irritation. Phthalates are common ingredients in the fragrances in the detergents and have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, neuro-developmental issues, behavioral issues, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues, according to The Guardian. Additionally, sulfuric acid is regularly added to detergents and is corrosive and linked to asthma.

In addition to the health effects, these detergents also have a number of detrimental environmental effects. Phosphates are popular in many detergents because they break down dirt particles and remove stains by softening the water and allowing suds to form. They also are extremely hard to remove from wastewater and often end up in rivers and lakes, where they increase algae growth. The algae can choke off waterways and suffocate aquatic life by releasing a toxin that reduces the amount of oxygen in the water. Surfactants are harmful because they form a film in the water that gets in the gills of fish, making it more difficult for the fish to get oxygen from the water.

Now, the argument for conventional detergents that rages on: “I can’t get my dishes/laundry as clean with the natural stuff!” Well, that is not necessarily the case. Many conventional laundry detergents feature aesthetic enhancers that do not necessarily get your clothes clean but merely give the appearance and smell of being clean. Dishwashing detergent’s ability to give the appearance of clean dishes is based off of the type of water that a home has. A home with hard water will have what appears to be a film left on the dishes; soft water will usually appear to come out of the dishwasher looking clean when utilizing an organic detergent. Whatever the case, rest assured that your dishes are in fact getting clean, and, if you have hard water, remove the “film” with a quick polish or pre-rinse.

There are a number of eco-friendly and organic detergents on the market that you can purchase to ensure the safety of your family and the environment. The best detergents to use are ones that are free of petroleum-based products and the chemicals listed above. Some examples of laundry detergents include: Seventh Generation, Method, Sun & Earth and Soap Nuts (an all-natural “nut-like” fruit from the soapberry tree). Dishwashing detergents that have been tested and proved effective include: Ecover (tablet and powder), Seventh Generation powder and Citrasolv detergent. The most effective method of ensuring that your detergents are safe is to make your own. I know, I know. This is not practical for most busy homes, but there are many benefits to doing so — it is cheaper, safer and you can make enough that you rarely ever run out. In the Steward household, we make one five-gallon bucket of laundry detergent, and it will last us close to three months for a family of two (three if you include our puppy). If you would like more information on a recipe, contact the High Country Conservation Center, and they will be happy to provide it to you.

Good luck with your new baby, Holly, and happy hunting on finding safe, healthy detergent alternatives.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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