Clean Up Your Laundry Habits

Fresh Laundry hanging on a clothes line with birch trees in the background.

Question: How can you get your clothes “clean” if the laundry soap you use is “dirty,” full of extraneous stuff—fragrances, chemicals, and fabric softeners, ad nauseum?

Answer: You can’t.

Health Hazards of Typical Detergents

Commercial claims of “clean, fresh scents” are usually produced by toxic quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”), chemicals thought to cause asthma in otherwise healthy people and to be prone to producing antibiotic-resistant superbugs, says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group.

Making Healthy Detergent Choices

A few common sense tips can help you clean up your laundry habits—and safeguard your health.

  • Stay Away from Surfactants

    Avoid laundry cleaning agents that list “surfactants” as part of their ingredients. Surfactants aren’t a specific ingredient; rather, they’re a chemical wetting agent that helps water penetrate fabric. Unfortunately, surfactants tend to release benzene (a toxin thought to be associated with cancer and reproductive disorders) into the environment.

  • Buy Phosphate-Free

    Buy organic laundry soaps, which are naturally free of phosphates. Phosphates, a known water pollutant, kill plants and fish and throw the ecosystem off-kilter.

  • Avoid Petrochemicals

    If it contains petrochemicals, chlorine, sulfates, or parabens—pass. These are all things you don’t want coming in contact with skin or leaching into the environment during the rinse cycle.

  • Choose Concentrated Cleaners

    Look for concentrated cleaners. Typically, concentrates require less product and come in smaller packaging; that means a smaller impact on landfills or recycling facilities.

  • Use a Natural Softener

    Instead of chemical-filled fabric softeners, add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to each load during the rinse cycle; it’s a natural softener.

  • Air-Dry Your Clothing

    You want your clothes to smell fresh and clean? When the weather permits, skip the dryer and hang the wash on the line outside.

  • Go Fragance-Free

    Fragrances are among the top five allergens. A study conducted by the University of Washington found scented laundry products can contain up to 20 chemicals—including acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, which are thought to cause cancer.

Click to See Our Sources

Environmental Working Group,


Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer and editor with a yen for adventure that fuels his work and his life.