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Laundry Powders Smackdown

Laundry Powders Smackdown - Eco vs Mainstream

I had an email from one of my lovely readers, Dina, asking me about a mainstream brand supermarket laundry powder and whether I thought this could be the cause of irritations and allergies. We thought it might be useful to other readers if I shared my reply.

In my experience, washing powders can definitely be a cause of irritation. My mother in law very kindly washed my clothes for me when I was visiting one time. Almost immediately after I put some of the newly washed clothes on, my whole body became covered in an itchy red rash (very attractive picture, I know!).

At first I thought I must have had chicken pox, but it wasn't, and gradually the rash died down and went away. The second time it happened, I realised that it must have been the washing powder, as nothing else had changed. I hadn't used any new skincare products, it wasn't a food reaction, the only thing it could have been was washing powder. It made sense to me - the rash went away as I gradually washed the clothes again in my usual washing powder, and clothes touch every part of your body. It happened to one of my children, too, when my mum washed their clothes. So empirical evidence tells me that you definitely can have reactions to washing powder. As an aside, this is why I won't let my children wear brand new clothes without washing. The chemicals used in manufacturing clothes can be very harsh, and cause contact dermatitis.

So, let's have a look at the ingredients in two eco brands, and compare them to the mainstream laundry brand that Dina asked me about, Radiance Laundry Powder Brilliant Whites Sharper Colours. So that this is a fair comparison, I've chosen scented versions of both the eco laundry powders, although I'd always recommend the unscented versions if you have allergies.

Ecostore Washing Powder Top & Front Loader, Lemon

Ecostore Top & Front Loader Laundry Powder - Lemon

Ingredients: Lauryl Glucoside, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Carboxymethyl Cellulose, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Polyaspartate, Sodium Silicoaluminate, Sodium Sulphate, Sodium Coco Sulphate, Sodium Silicate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil. Fragrance ingredients: Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil (fraction). (Components of Natural Essentials Oils: Alpha Pinene, Citral, Citronellol, Decanal, Limonene, Linalool).

The ingredients are listed on the ecostore website. Most of these ingredients score a 0 on the EWG Skindeep Database. Although laundry powder isn't a skincare product, the EWG database is an easy place to start researching ingredients. The citrus oil scored the highest, a 2, but if you're going to choose a scented product, this is far better than mystery ingredients found in fragrances. There are no dyes, no enzymes, and no optical brighteners. There's really nothing to concern you in this product, unless you have issues with citrus oils, in which case I'd choose the unscented version of this.

Abode Laundry Powder, Lavender & Mint

Abode Laundry Powder, Lavender & Mint

Ingredients: Soda ash, baking soda, sodium citrate, sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, sodium coco sulphate, sodium disilicate, alkylpolyglucosides, and pure lavender and mint essential oils.

Once again, there's really nothing of concern in this laundry powder. The sodium disilicate scores a C in the EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning database, with low concern for acute aquatic toxicity. And again, there are no dyes, no enzymes, and no optical brighteners. You could choose the unscented version of this laundry powder if you find lavender or mint oils irritating.

Radiant Laundry Powder Brilliant Whites Sharper Colours

Radiant Laundry Powder Brilliant Whites Sharper Colours

Ingredients: Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Sulphate, Sodium Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonate, Sodium Silicate, Zeolite, C12-15 Pareth-8, Sodium Diethylenetriamine Pentamethylene Phosphonate, Cellulose Gum, Water, Fragrance, Polyvinyl Pyridine, Protease, Disodium Distyrylbiphenyl Disulfonate, Cellulase, Lipase, Amylase, Silicone Emulsion, Dye.

The ingredients are not listed on the PZ Cussons website, but I needed to do a bit of digging to find them. One of the big problems with finding out what's in your laundry powders is that manufacturers aren't required to list them in the same way that they are required to list ingredients in skincare products. As I've mentioned before, I'm not a chemist, but I am a bit of a nerd (according to my children, anyway) and I love finding out how stuff works. Although discussing how laundry powder works isn't really what we're talking about here today, if you're interested, there's a website called WashWise, with heaps of information about laundry powders. It's funded by an Australian industry body called Accord, so bear that in mind while you're reading it. There's a very useful page on laundry powder ingredients and what they do. I'm going to summarise by saying that it's safe to assume that the surfactants and builders used in the Radiant washing powder aren't going to cause irritations. You can research them in the EWG Database, and you'll find that they pretty much all get a 0 toxicity rating (e.g. sodium sulphate has an EWG score of 1). More concerning are the dyes, fragrance, enzymes, phosphonates and optical brighteners.

Laundry dyes are a common culprit for contact dermatitis. I tried to find out what kind of dyes are in the Radiant laundry powder, but I couldn't. I had to shake my head, though, because on the same page of the Radiant website that the Brilliant White Sharper Colours range are on, there's the range of Radiant Sensitive laundry powders. It says, and I quote, "Radiant Sensitive is free from harmful dyes." Presumably these are the same harmful dyes they use in the Brilliant Whites Sharper Colours range?

Fragrance is well known for being an irritant, according to the European Commission Health & Consumers Scientific Committee. Because there are so many possible ingredients in fragrances, it's hard to know what's causing the irritations, and you're best to avoid them altogether.

Protease, cellulase, lipase, and amylase are enzymes. They're used to get stains out, and different enzymes get out different stains. Laundry powders with enzymes are called biological or bio detergents, as the enzymes are actually micro-organisms. There are no enzymes added to non-bio laundry detergents. Manufacturer studies, and a dermatological study (funded by Unilever) seem to show that enzymes aren't allergenic or cause eczema. They can cause asthma and respiratory problems in workers in factories, but apparently not in people using laundry powders at home.

The Radiant laundry powder also contains an optical brightener (disodium distyrylbiphenyl disulfonate). Optical brighteners don't actually get your clothes any cleaner, they work by enhancing the blue light waves and minimizing the yellow light waves to make the fabric appear brighter and whiter. While I was researching this article, I kept seeing advice that people with sensitive skin should choose products without optical brighteners, but I couldn't find any actual data on this. Early studies suggest that optical brighteners don't appear to be irritants, and it's not yet known whether they cause long lasting effects to aquatic life. However, as they don't actually do anything except give the illusion of clean clothes, I certainly choose not to use laundry powders with optical brighteners.

Silicone emulsions are used as anti-statics, which is another chemical that I would argue isn't necessary, although I didn't find anything to suggest they were irritants. The phosphonate is used as a limescale inhibitor. Phosphonates are a cause for environmental concern, because of the way they are mined, as well as being persistent in the environment. Environmental persistence means that they don't break down. The polyvinyl pyridine is also considered to be a skin irritant. It's used to stop colours running during the wash, however by washing in cool water rather than hot, you'll prevent colours from running and save on energy consumption.

So, there's definitely some problematic ingredients in the Radiant laundry powder, both irritants and environmental concerns. The Ecostore and Abode brands don't have any of the problematic ingredients. Do they work? Well, I've used Ecostore successfully for years, and I've got muddy, football playing boys! 

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