What’s on the Label of Your Washing Detergent?

If you’re like me and care about the world and our contribution to the environment, you might wonder about what’s really in the items we buy everyday.

I’ve often had to do a double take when looking at labels in the supermarket… Have you ever looked at the back of your washing detergent and wondered why something that is harmful to aquatic life goes down the drain?

Causes serious eye damage
Causes skin damage
Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects

Washing up detergent label

Many of us are guilty of pumping this into our water system on a daily basis as we wash our clothes and dishes. It seems mad to think that this won’t create problems in the future. I’ve even seen some hotels (not that anyone has seen a hotel room in a while with Covid) with signs about the detergent used for washing towels being harmful and to leave the towels off the floor to help reduce this.

Bio vs Non-Bio

Until recently I had no idea what this meant but I now know and I felt it’s worth sharing. Biological washing powder and liquids contain enzymes. Although they are brilliant for breaking down fat, grease and proteins to get clothes clean, these enzymes can damage wool, silk and other materials. The other major issue with them is that many people also find that they aggravate sensitive skin conditions. 

Non-bio detergents don’t contain enzymes so are generally a better option for sensitive skin. But typically are not as good at cleaning. 

Is Non-Bio Better for the Environment?

So here is the rub… Many of the non-bio detergents contain components that are really bad for the environment. Detergents, like paints, fall under the EU’s CLP Regulation as they contain chemical mixtures (this came up in my whiteboard paint reviews).

This means they should include precautions based on the worst case scenarios the chemical constituents could pose if there were to be catastrophic exposure. In regards to being harmful to aquatic life this scenario is not tested; instead they use current data to extrapolate the likelihood of its effect.

So the warning of the product being harmful to aquatic life is supposedly based on unlikely scenarios. The product safety statements for this category will state that the detergents are diluted in the washing machine, by wastewater and then by sewage. Finally this water is treated in a water treatment plant. It then goes back into fresh or sea water. 

According to Procter and Gamble (which owns home-care brands including Ariel, Bold 2 in 1, Fairy, Fairy Non Bio, Febreze and Lenor):

“The use of concentrated formulas means that we are required, by EU legislation, to include the warning related to aquatic life on these bottles to inform how to handle should a large quantity enter water as a result of an accident for example.”

The first problem is that we don’t know how much doesn’t get to a treatment plant. In the UK 2,954 Million litres of water are leaked each day. That’s equivalent to 1,182 olympic sized swimming pools. We also can’t trust that waste water will be properly treated. Last year water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers on more than 200,000 occasions!

What occurs if detergents show up in freshwaters?

The following is from Lenntech, a design and manufacturing company of water treatment solutions, on detergents occuring in freshwater:

“Detergents can have poisonous effects in all types of aquatic life if they are present in sufficient quantities, and this includes the biodegradable detergents. All detergents destroy the external mucus layers that protect the fish from bacteria and parasites; plus they can cause severe damage to the gills. Most fish will die when detergent concentrations approach 15 parts per million. Detergent concentrations as low as 5 ppm will kill fish eggs. Surfactant detergents are implicated in decreasing the breeding ability of aquatic organisms.

Detergents also add another problem for aquatic life by lowering the surface tension of the water. Organic chemicals such as pesticides and phenols are then much more easily absorbed by the fish. A detergent concentration of only 2 ppm can cause fish to absorb double the amount of chemicals they would normally absorb, although that concentration itself is not high enough to affect fish directly.

Phosphates in detergents can lead to freshwater algal blooms that releases toxins and deplete oxygen in waterways. When the algae decompose, they use up the oxygen available for aquatic life.

The main contributors to the toxicity of detergents were the sodium silicate solution and the surfactants-with the remainder of the components contributing very little to detergent toxicity. The potential for acute aquatic toxic effects due to the release of secondary or tertiary sewage effluents containing the breakdown products of laundry detergents may frequently be low. However, untreated or primary treated effluents containing detergents may pose a problem. Chronic and/or other sublethal effects that were not examined in this study may also pose a problem.” 

What We Don’t Know

There are no studies over an extended period of time that I could find on this subject which would give a good indication of the real effect. There are some studies that have been carried out in developing countries, but they don’t appear to be a fair comparison. Many of them seem to have far higher concentrations than we would expect.

Companies that produce detergents will have no issue testing the products on animals… (which I think is terrible.) However, I think it’s interesting that no study has been done on the long term effects on fish life. As these chemicals are hazardous in their concentrated form they have to be tested on animals to ensure they are not harmful when it comes to the consumer. (I’ve a solution to avoid buying animal tested products at the end!) However, there are no studies on long term environmental impact of these products; current data apparently suffices for an extrapolation of the potential effects here. 

It’s difficult to find the safety sheets for these products! I could literally only find the P&G safety sheet.

The conclusion here is that no one really knows if there is a long term effect from millions of households draining this stuff into our water waste. 

What’s the Alternative?

I’d prefer to just use products that don’t carry any risk, no matter how small that risk may be.

I’ve been using the big refillable Sonnett 10L liquid for the last couple of months. I honestly can’t recommend them highly enough. All my clothes exit the wash fresh and well cleaned.

If you’re looking to make one easy switch for the better, and to reduce the amount of toxic crap that goes down our drains, this might be the easiest change you make! Its non toxic and they don’t need to carry out any animal testing.

Here’s a great review of eco powders and washing liquids if you want more info on what to choose: https://mybest-gb.uk/3749

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