When choosing a laundry detergent it is important to know if it actually cleans your washing and if it harms the environment in any way. Checking the ingredients will give you an idea what goes into your wash, but you may like to know what all those chemicals do.
The most important ingredients in a laundry detergent are the surface active agents, known as surfactants. These break down the surface tension of the laundry material, allowing water to soak into the fabric while acting as a bridge to attach the water molecules to the grease and grime. As the machine tumbles and agitates the wash, the grime on your fabric is released and the molecular mix will fall away. During the rinse cycle this happy mixture of water, muck and soap is flushed away as disposable grey water. For effective cleaning the dream team of basic soap and water need to work together.
Nowadays, detergents are different than traditional soaps which were originally made from completely natural ingredients like ash derived lye and vegetable based oils. Modern surfactants are chemically synthesized but they may not necessarily be harmful . Most surfactants will break down organically when flushed into watercourses but there are some that are known to remain active and liable to cause problems with marine life. Coconut, soapnuts or vegetable oils will act as naturally derived surfacants wth zero environmental impact and are increasingly being incorporated into effective laundry products.
Detergents use a range of additives combined with the basic soap surfactant to produce an easily administered compound with enhanced capabilities. It is still possible to source natural soaps without chemical additives that will perform the basic requirement of cleaning clothes without damaging your health or the environment.
Bleaches are often added to the detergent to enhance the colour and brightness of the fabric usually using peroxide based chemicals. The phosphates used on this process can cause considerable harm to waterways, upsetting the ecological balance and acting as a fertilizer for algae which starve plant and wildlife of valuable oxygen. Phosphates have recently been banned for use in detergents throughout the EU and have been replaced by mineral based zeolites which pose no significant threat.
Fragrances and colouring are added to the washing liquid merely to give it personality and to spread the range of options within a brand. The natural smells of woodland pine and citrus are infused to produce distinctive fresh smelling laundry. The chemical oils and fragrances used to perfume the detergent often cause rashes on people with sensitive skin or allergies. Most eco-friendly cosmetics and detergents use natural oils as a fragrance or simply do without. Like any additive natural oils and fragrances should be tested for any allergic reactions.
Enzymes are often added to break down food and protein stains in much the same way as our digestive system works. These are biological substances that will disperse naturally leaving no harmful residue. The use of natural enzymes in biological detergents limits the amount of surfactants needed and is not known to cause any allergic reactions.
With a careful reading and understanding of the contents of your laundry detergent it is possible to determine if it is eco-friendly. Many ecologically minded manufacturers continue to produce quality cleaning products that will clean your wash without damaging sensitive skin or our fragile environment.