The scent of clean laundry used to rank alongside freshly baked cookies as an unequivocal, wholesome pleasure. But as the eye of the eco movement becomes more unsparing, even the products we use to wash our yoga pants are under scrutiny. A new wave of eco-friendly laundry products is sweeping the shelves, displacing detergents that many experts claim are harmful to our health and the earth.

“Conventional products are designed to perform at a certain level for a certain price,” explains Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation, a Vermont-based company that offers a full range of fragrance-free laundry products. “Eco-friendly products are designed with environmental and health issues of paramount importance.” Wolf says that this is necessary because the chemicals in conventional laundry products are hazardous. Nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate (NPE) – a non-biodegradable surfactant that adds cleaning power-ranks among the worst offenders. “NPE is suspected of being a ‘hormone mimic’ and has been associated with reproductive disorders in fish and other animals,” says Wolf. Health Canada has restricted the use of NPE since 1999, deeming it “toxic” to the environment but not to human health.

Chemical residue on laundered clothes is also responsible for skin irritation. “Reactions are very common and can trigger atopic dermatitis,” says Dr. Jaggi Rao, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Rao says that phthalates – chemical preservatives that are added to many laundry detergents to help soften plastic bottles and keep them malleable – are one of the biggest triggers. “People can develop eczematous reactions to phthalates,” he explains. “Recent studies show that babies have very high levels of phthalates in their urine: The smaller they are, the more they can absorb. Phthalates might also be related to undescended testes – although the studies that prove this have been conducted on lab animals, not humans.” Rao recommends using detergents that are free of phthalates, fragrances and dyes. “Look for detergents that are plant-based instead of petroleum-based,” he says. “Petroleum products are cheaper, but you’re less likely to experience skin irritation if the products are plant- or soybean-based.”

Kipling Rutherford-Sameshima, assistant marketing manager for the sustainable laundry brand Ecover, has some advice for neophytes. “Think about the lifespan of your clothes if you aren’t ready to think about the environment,” he says. “Plant- and mineral-based products are gentler on your skin and clothes than chemical-based products. If the products work and are competitively priced, why wouldn’t you choose them?”Dirty laundry: Is bleach getting a bad rap?
Harold Baker, an associate research fellow in laundry care at Clorox, is a genial man with a head of gleaming white hair that makes his sobriquet (“Dr. Laundry”) a natural choice. Just don’t mention the purported toxic environmental effects of laundry bleach. “It really bothers me when I read about how nasty [bleach] is,” says Baker. “It simply isn’t true.”

Critics claim that the chlorine in bleach and the dioxins created through its manufacture leach into streams and rivers, poisoning fish and wildlife. Baker acknowledges that free chlorine (the most concentrated form of the substance) and dioxins (chemical compounds that have been linked to cancer) are “very toxic materials that cause a lot of havoc.” But, he points out, household bleach contains neither of these chemicals.

“It’s impossible to create dioxins from laundry products,” he says. “You can’t do it. When I’m making bleach, I start with salt and water and, when I’ve gone through the whole process, I end up with about 97 percent salt and water.” The remaining three percent is transformed into almost-benign chlorine ions for which, Baker says, “we have more than enough organic soil in our pipes to process.”

Most environmental groups – including Greenpeace – concur, choosing to focus their energy on protesting the dioxin-pumping pulp-and-paper industries. “Bleach is the best thing for stain and soil removal, germ control and whitening,” says Baker. “You can’t find another product that does all that.”

Laundry list
Christina Strutt, author of A Guide to Green Housekeeping, shares her tips for green washing.
• Use cold water. Your clothes will get just as clean at 5°C to 10°C.
• Avoid products with nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate (NPE), which has been linked to breast cancer and infertility.
• Use powder, not liquid, detergent – it requires fewer manufacturing processes.
• Add one tablespoon of baking soda and one teaspoon of vinegar to each load – you’ll use less detergent and double your cleaning power.
• Choose a high-efficiency washer that uses less water and energy; you’ll save on your hydro bill too.