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Many detergents contain unwanted chemicals

Foto: Getty Images · 20. januar 2023

A new study from the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals finds unwanted chemicals in many laundry and cleaning products. The unwanted substances can be problematic for your health or the environment.

According to a new study, one in three laundry and cleaning products contain chemicals, which can be problematic for humans or the environment. The study by the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals includes all the different kinds of detergents that we have tested and rated since November 2020.

The study comprises of eight tests of e.g. dishwashing detergents, all-purpose cleaners and stain removers. Of the 196 different products examined, 47 products received the C-rating, which is the lowest chemical rating given in the tests.

These washing and cleaning detergents contain problematic substances that can be e.g. allergenic, suspected endocrine disrupters (EDCs) or problematic to the environment.

“It is unfortunate that so many laundry and cleaning products contain problematic chemicals that are not even essential in the products,” says project manager at the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals, Stine Müller, who has taken part in many of the tests.

Consequences of the unwanted chemicals for health and environment

  • Suspected EDCs can affect the endocrine system of humans – a system that controls our development from fetus to adult among other things. Fetuses are particularly sensitive to EDCs, and unwanted exposure to these chemicals can have negative effects on their development throughout their lives.
  • Allergenic preservatives are substances that typically trigger contact allergies, which can cause life-long inconveniences when the substances get in contact with your skin. The allergic reaction typically appears as a rash. Research shows that the higher the frequency of exposure to allergenic preservatives is, the higher the risk of developing allergies is as well.
  • The substances that promote cancer or damage fertility are typically classified in the EU as suspected carcinogens, mutagens or reprotoxic chemicals (CMRs). Many of these substances are also on the Candidate list of problematic substances (SVHCs) because they are particularly problematic for our health.
  • Substances that are harmful to the environment are a big group of different chemicals. For example, they degrade poorly in nature and therefore they accumulate in the environment over time, or they can be harmful to e.g. aquatic animals and plants.

Perfume is unnecessary

Many of the tested laundry and cleaning detergents contain perfume. This worries the organization Asthma-Allergy Denmark.

The manufacturers should live up to their responsibilities and stop using perfume since it is a completely unnecessary exposure for the consumers. Rikke Bille Head of The Blue Label, Asthma-Allergy Nordics certification for allergy-friendly products

”Perfuming substances can cause allergy and if you become allergic to a substance you can get eczema, which can become quite serious and turn chronic, thereby affecting your quality of life,” says Rikke Bille, head of The Blue Label, Asthma-Allergy Nordics  certification for allergy-friendly products.

“Furthermore, we know that these fragrances are not at all necessary for proper cleaning. However, since many people associate cleaning with a good smell, the manufacturers add perfume to the cleaning products. But the manufacturers should live up to their responsibilities and stop using perfume since it is a completely unnecessary exposure for the consumers,” she says.

According to Stine Müller, the use of the problematic substances in detergents is mostly legal. She also points out that the products that receive the C-rating are not in themselves harmful to use – if you follow the instructions for use.

“Using these products, you expose yourself and the environment to unwanted chemicals, which contributes to our overall exposure to chemicals – the so-called cocktail effect. This can potentially pose a risk to your health and the environment in the end. Therefore, we recommend products that receive the A-rating in our tests,” says Stine Müller.

Harmful to the environment

The study from the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals shows that a third of the tested washing and cleaning detergents contain substances that are harmful to the environment.

Substances that are harmful to the environment can be toxic to aquatic organisms and not all of them are easily degradable and thus, they remain in the water environment. Heidi Belinda Bugge Danish Criteria Manager at Ecolabelling Denmark

According to Heidi Belinda Bugge, Danish Criteria Manager at Ecolabelling Denmark, this is a very high number.

”When we are done using the laundry and cleaning detergents, they end up in our drain when we empty our sinks or when the washing machine discharges water. In Denmark, our sewage treatment clean the wastewater for nutrients and organic matter but not for all environmentally harmful substances. Therefore, we need to take into account that some of these environmentally harmful substances end up in the water environment, and thus in nature, where they can do harm. Substances that are harmful to the environment can be toxic to aquatic organisms and not all of them are easily degradable and thus, they remain in the water environment.”

Last year, a group of scientists published an article wherein they argued that humans have produced so many hundreds of thousands of chemicals and in such large quantities that the earth can no longer transform and neutralize them. The environmentally harmful substances in laundry and cleaning detergents contribute to the growing chemical strain on the environment.

The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals found optical brighteners and the group of substances called LAS (Linear alkylbenzene sulfonates) in several of the tested laundry detergents for white clothes. Both can be problematic for the environment as they are not easily degradable in nature and can be harmful to fish and other aquatic organisms.

Further, several of the fragrances and some of the preservatives, such as the isothiazolinones commonly used in laundry and cleaning detergents are classified in the EU as harmful to the environment.

”We use cleaning products to clean but at the same time we need to find a balance where the product works and are without unnecessary chemicals such as optical brighteners that do not affect the efficiency of the washing detergent. We also need to replace the environmentally harmful substances with alternatives. For example, there are alternative to LAS that are not as harmful,” says Heidi Belinda Bugge.

Difficult to find out what the products contain

It is not always easy to see from the packaging which chemicals your laundry and cleaning products contain. For example, it does not have to be declared on the packaging if a laundry product contains borates even though the substances are on the EU Candidate list of substances of very high concern (suspected of damaging fetuses and fertility). The Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals calls for obligatory labelling requirements of all ingredients.

Consumers should be able to get the full ingredient list by just checking the packaging. Stine Müller Project manager at the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals

"Consumers should be able to get the full ingredient list by just checking the packaging,” says Stine Müller. Furthermore, she points out that the full list of ingredients, which must be available online for all laundry and cleaning products, is often difficult to find on the manufacturers’ websites.

The EU is currently revising the regulations on chemicals in laundry and cleaning products. This includes the rules for declarations.

In Denmark: Use the app Kemiluppen to avoid problematic chemicals in detergents

Fortunately, there are several ways to avoid unwanted chemicals. Danish consumers can use the free app Kemiluppen (only available in Denmark) to check if the laundry and cleaning products contain unwanted chemicals.

Stine Müller recommends using Kemiluppen to check not only the laundry and cleaning products that you want to buy but also the ones you already have at home.

“But if you find products with the C-rating at home, you do not need to panic or dispose of them. Use them and then buy products with the A-rating when you need new laundry and cleaning products,” she says.

About Kemiluppen

  • Kemiluppen contains ratings of around 15.000 different cosmetics, personal care products and detergents.
  • The ratings in Kemiluppen are so-called declaration tests. This means that the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals checks the list of ingredients for unwanted chemicals.

When we test and assess cosmetics, personal care products or laundry and cleaning detergents, many products receive the B- or C-rating. The good news is that there are also always products that receive the best chemical rating, the A-rating.

"There are always good alternatives to choose if you wish to avoid problematic substances,” says Stine Müller.

She points out that it is always important to follow the instructions for use no matter the products’ chemical rating in Kemiluppen. For example, many laundry and cleaning products contain chemicals or have pH levels that can irritate, or even harm, your skin and eyes and should be kept out of reach of children. This is also the case for A-rated products since these short-term effects are not part of the Kemiluppen rating.

9 tips for choosing laundry and cleaning detergents

1. Buy laundry detergents with the Nordic Ecolabel ‘The Swan’, the EU Ecolabel, the Blue Label of Asthma-Allergy organisation and/or the AllergyCertified label.

2. Choose a laundry or cleaning detergent without perfume. Perfume is added to create a “clean” smell but fragrance does not affect the cleanliness of the clothes or your home.

3. Avoid chlorine and optical brighteners, which can be problematic for the environment. Choose washing powder with bleach for white clothes instead.

4. Be aware of allergenic preservatives. Check the list of ingredients for substances that end in ’-thiazolinone’, for example methylisothiazolinone or benzisothiazolinone.

5. Check the list of ingredients on the company’s website if you wish to know what is in your laundry or cleaning detergent. A full list of ingredients must always be available online for these types of products.

6. Scan your laundry and cleaning products with Kemiluppen and choose products with the A-rating.

7. Remember to always use cleaning detergents with care and consider which ones are necessary.

8. Always follow instructions for use and check for any warning labels on the packaging.

9. Avoid overdosing your products.

About the study

  • The study is based on a survey of 8 of our declaration tests from 2020 to 2022 of:

    • Laundry stain removers
    • Cleaning wipes
    • All-purpose cleaners
    • Laundry detergents – both liquid and powder
    • Dishwashing detergents
    • Floor cleaners

    Out of 196 products:

    • 77 or 39% of the laundry and cleaning products receive the A-rating.
    • 72 or 37% of the laundry and cleaning products receive the B-rating.
    • 47 or 24% of the laundry and cleaning products receive the C-rating.
    • 108 products contain allergenic preservatives in the form of perfume or other allergenic substances (55%).
    • 99 products contain perfume (51%).
    • 33 products contain other allergenic preservatives than perfume (17%).
    • 67 products contain substances that are harmful to the environment (34%).
    • 19 products contain suspected endocrine disrupters (10%).
    • Six products contain substances that are suspected of damaging reproduction (3%).
    • Three products contain substances that are suspected of being carcinogenic (2%).