Chemicals. What does the word mean for consumers? Is your laundry powder sold using greenwashing claims? Should you be worried? Using laundry detergent as a case study, Eleanor Robertson puts chemicals under the microscope.
The word ‘chemical’ is powerful. Say it, and we tend to picture 44-gallon drums full of mysterious green sludge, perhaps labelled with skull and crossbones. These images and associations are echoed in advertising for many products, which use the terms ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ to imply that they’re healthy, green, and non-toxic.
Is this accurate? Well, not really. So what’s the story?
What is a chemical?
In order to determine what substances we should care about when we’re buying things, it’s essential to understand what the terms on product labels mean. Many products advertise themselves as chemical-free or ‘natural’, but these terms don’t have an agreed-upon meaning. Plus, items like laundry powder aren’t required to list their ingredients on the package, so it can be hard to figure out what’s actually in them.
In the strictest sense of the word, everything is made of chemicals. A chemical is just a compound, or an arrangement of molecules, that science has named. Everything can be described in chemical terms — including things we think of as natural like air, food and water — so calling something ‘chemical-free’ is meaningless and misleading.
All the chemicals in that banana were formed by natural processes, but if you isolated any single one and compared it to the same chemical produced by humans in a lab, they’d look exactly the same. This is why the term ‘no synthetic chemicals’ doesn’t tell you much either.
What really matters
Usually when we buy products that make claims of ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’, we’re looking for something else: we want to know that what we’re purchasing isn’t going to make us sick, or harm the environment. What we’re really after is products that are non-toxic.
Buying products that are less harmful to people and the planet is obviously very important, which is why it pays to be a little skeptical of products that make environmental claims. Defining something as non-toxic is hard, because toxicity is related to quantity – which means that in large amounts almost everything is toxic to humans. That includes water. In terms of environmental impact, even Earth-friendly cleaning favourite Bicarb soda has issues: the Solvay process, an industrial procedure used to synthesise Bicarb, is not environmentally neutral.
It’s simply impossible to rely on eco-claims made on the product packaging, unless it’s been independently certified by a credible third party. Good Environmental Choice Australia, or GECA, certifies some laundry products — most are commercial rather than domestic, but if you like to buy in bulk it may be worth checking out.
What’s in my washing powder?
To dig a little deeper into what we use to wash our clothes, I checked out the ingredients in three supermarket laundry powders: one brand name that made no eco-claims, one brand name that did make eco-claims, and one supermarket own brand. While this isn’t a representative sample or a scientific test, it did turn up some interesting points. The ingredients for these laundry powders came from their Materials Safety Data Sheets, not the packaging. Not all laundry powders have MSDS available — try Googling the product and brand name along with ‘MSDS’ if you’re interested. I also investigated one recipe for ‘chemical-free laundry detergent’ from a popular eco lifestyle blog.
To determine how safe each ingredient is, I used the Environmental Working Group’s substances database. EWG gives substances an A-F ranking according to five criteria: Asthma/Respiratory, Skin Allergies and Irritation, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, Cancer, and Environment.
Regular brand (no eco claims)
|Sodium tridecyl benzene sulphonate|
|Sodium carbonate peroxide|
|Sodium lauryl sulphate|
Supermarket own brand
Chemical-free detergent recipe
|Castile soap (olive oil-based vegetable soap)|
|Borax (Sodium borate)|
|Washing soda (Sodium bicarbonate)|
The best-performing detergent in our non-representative sample was the supermarket own brand, with none of its ingredients ranking below B. The regular brand had ingredients ranked A-F, but more of its ingredients were ranked A than the eco brand, whose ingredients ranked A-C. Surprisingly, the borax used in the ‘chemical-free’ recipe rated F. Since 2010, the European Union has required products containing borax be labelled ‘May damage fertility’ and ‘May damage the unborn child’.
SPOTTED: Ridiculous eco-claims
No Sodium Chloride
Product contained three other types of sodium.
Sodium lauryl sulphate-free
Product contained Sodium coco sulphate, which is basically the same thing.
Product contained one plant-based essential oil. All other ingredients were minerals.
Free of harsh detergents
Contained Sodium coco sulphate.
No negative environmental effects
Ingredients were listed vaguely with words like ‘degreasers’ and ‘surfactants’, making this claim impossible to assess.
Just like Granny used to wash
I doubt Granny used potent biocide and possible cytotoxin Methylisothiazolinone to wash her clothes.
- Chemicals make up everything we come into contact with. ‘Chemical-free’ is a buzzword, and stops us from rationally assessing which chemicals are better and which are worse.
- Be skeptical of claims made on packaging unless they are backed up by a credible eco-label. It is very easy for products to create the impression that they’re safe for people or the environment when they are not.
- In our example, the detergent that made eco claims was better than the one that didn’t, but even it contained a few nasty surprises.
- The Home branded detergent had the fewest nasty substances, showing that products without eco-claims can sometimes be better than those with. However, which detergent is most effective is another question altogether!
- If you’d prefer to make your own detergent, try a laundry liquid recipe with low health and environmental impacts.
- Another good option is to try out soapnuts. These are the dried husks of the Sapindus fruit, which are compostable and contain safe, natural surfactants.
Test tubes: Horia Varlan (cc)
Banana ingredients: courtesy of James Kennedy
Washing line:bies (cc)