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Detergent Ingredients Glossary

So what exactly is in your laundry detergent? This question is not so easy to answer. It can be difficult for even highly educated consumers to find out just what ingredients are in the major detergent products, and how they might impact the environment.

Take the leading brand laundry detergents for instance. You won't get a clear cut answer by looking at the ingredients label, where you typically find the following confusing message: "Ingredients include surfactants  and enzymes." This page is dedicated to helping you find out exactly what you are using by de-mystifying some of the more common ingredients found in detergents.

Ingredient Description
Alkyl benzene sulfonates or ABS (also linear alkyl benzene sulfonates or LAS, linear alkyl sodium sulfonates) A class of synthetic surfactants, usually identified as anionic surfactants. LAS are the most common surfactants in use. During the manufacturing process, carcinogens and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. LAS are synthetic. The pure compounds may cause skin irritation on prolonged contact, just like soap.
Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols (also nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate or nonyl phenol). This is a general name for a group of synthetic surfactants. They are slow to biodegrade in the environment and have been implicated in chronic health problems. Researchers in England have found that in trace amounts, they activate estrogen receptors in cells, which in turn alters the activity of certain genes. For example, in experiments, they have been found to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and feminize male fish.
Ammonia Ammonia is an irritant that affects the skin, eyes and respiratory passages. The symptoms of ammonia exposure are a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat; pain in the lungs; headache; nausea; coughing; and increased breathing rate. Ammonia also adds nitrogen to the environment.
Anti-redeposition Agents Items added to detergents to keep soil from setting back in the materials that have been washed. One example is carboxymethylcellulose and polyethylene glycol (below).
Artificial Dyes and Colors Artificial colors can be made from petroleum, though some are made from coal. Many do not degrade in the environment and also have toxic effects on both fish and mammals. They do not serve any useful purpose. Additionally, they often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.
Artificial Fragrances Artificial fragrances are made from petroleum. Many do not degrade in the environment and they may have toxic effects on both fish and mammals. Additionally, they can often cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.
Benzene(also benzol, benzole, annulene, benzeen, phenyl hydride, coal naphtha). Made from petroleum and coal, benzene is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen.
Cellulase Refers to a class of enzymes produced chiefly by fungi, bacteria, and protozoans that catalyze the hydrolysis of cellulose.
Diethanolamines (also diethanolamine, triethanolamine and monoethanolamine) A synthetic family of surfactants, this group of compounds is used to neutralize acids in products to make them non-irritating. Diathanolamines are slow to biodegrade and react with natural nitrogen oxides and sodium nitrite pollutants in the atmosphere to form nitrosamines, a family of potent carcinogens.
EDTA (ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetate) EDTA is a class of synthetic, phosphate-alternative compounds used to reduce calcium and magnesium hardness in water. EDTA is also used to prevent bleaching agents from becoming active before they're immersed in water and as a foaming stabilizer. EDTA does not readily biodegrade, and once introduced into the general environment, it can re-dissolve toxic heavy metals trapped in underwater sediments, allowing them to re-enter and re-circulate in the food chain.
Enzymes (may be referred to as 'biological' in European countries) (See Cellulase and Subtilisin)
Ethoxylated alcohol A surfactant commonly derived from coconuts. It is used widely because it is known to be less irritating to the skin than other similar products. However, lab tests have documented that ethoxylated alcohol compounds are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogenic listed by the federal government as a probable human carcinogen.
Optical brighteners (OBAs) (also called fluorescers or fluorescent whitening agents - FWAs) Optical brighteners are synthetic chemicals that when applied to clothing, convert UV light wavelengths to visible light, making laundered clothes appear "whiter." Their inclusion in any formula does not enhance or affect the product's performance in any way; they simply trick the eye. Optical brighteners do not readily biodegrade. They can cause allergic reaction when in contact with skin that is then exposed to sunlight.
Petroleum distillates (also naphthas) A broad category encompassing almost every type of chemical obtained directly from the petroleum refining process. Any ingredient listed as a "petroleum distillate" or "naphtha" should be suspect as it is a synthetic and likely to cause one or more detrimental health or environmental effects.
Polycarboxylates Similar in chemical structure to certain plastics and acrylic compounds, these are relatively new, synthetic phosphate substitutes. They are recent additions to consumer products and their effects on human and environmental health remain largely unknown. They are not biodegradable and are petroleum based.
Polyethylene Glycol (also PEG) Another type of anti-redeposition agent, PEG is a polymer made from ethylene oxide and is similar to some non-ionic detergents. Not considered toxic, it must be used in large doses to be lethal in animals. However, PEG is slow to degrade and is synthetic.
Preservatives Often used in liquid laundry detergents to prevent the growth of microorganisms. Plant derived ingredients and other raw materials are vulnerable to contamination by these microbiological pests. Initially, formeldehyde was used frequently to fulfill this role, however, science has since discovered other preservative options.
Sodium Carbonate (also known as washing soda or soda ash) Another phosphate alternative (see EDTA above) used in laundry detergents to soften water. It "locks up" the calcium and magnesium in the water to keep these minerals from forming an insoluble scum which would then stick to clothing and washer parts - yuck! Similar compounds include: sodium citrate, phosphoric acid, and sodium edta.
Sodium Hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) Whitens, brightens and helps to remove stains. Also works as a disinfectant. Generally NOT recommended for cloth diapers!
Sodium Percarbonate (oxygen bleach) May be combined with bleach activators in some products to improve performance in cold water.
Subtilisin An extracellular enzyme produced by certain strains of a soil bacterium (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens) that catalyzes the breakdown of proteins into polypeptides. It resembles trypsin in its action.
Surfactants A general term for Surface Active Agents. It is the term used to describe the active cleaning agents in a product. Conventional products use synthetic surfactants often derived from petroleum. Some names of surfactants: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) , Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) , Ammonium Laureth Sulfate (ALES), Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Cocoyl Sarcosinate, Potassium Coco Hydrolysed Collagen, TEA (Triethanolamine) Lauryl Sulfate, TEA (Triethanolamine) Laureth Sulfate, Lauryl or Cocoyl Sarcosine, Disodium Oleamide Sulfosuccinate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Disodium Dioctyl Sulfosuccinate, etc.
TEA -Triethanolamine Laureth Sulfate A synthetic emulsifier that is highly acidic. Over 40% of cosmetics containing Triethanolamine (TEA), have been found to be contaminated with nitrosamine, potent carcinogens.
Quaternium 15 An alkyl ammonium chloride used as a surfactant, disinfectant and deodorant that releases formaldehyde, a potent toxin.
Xylene sulfonate Xylene is a synthetic that when reacted with sulfuric acid, creates a surfactant. Slow to biodegrade in the environment and moderately toxic.

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