Laundry detergents are important when it comes to washing our clothes. Without them, it would be difficult to get rid of all of the dirt and oils that go onto our shirts and pants throughout the day. As it is, they’re easy to use too—all we have to do is add it to some water and we’re good to go!
Have you ever wondered, though, what exactly are in detergents? This might sound obvious but they’re all a cocktail of chemicals. After all, just water by itself wouldn’t do any good in washing your clothes. When it comes to the actual cleaning, certain compounds are needed. For instance, surfactants act to lift and remove dirt from fabric. Similarly, enzymes help to physically break down the oils.
What Chemicals are in Laundry Detergents?
Aside from surfactants, detergents also contain alkalies, a type of soluble salt that forms emulsions with oily particles (this allows you to wash them away with water). On top of that, many contain fragrances and perfumes. If anything, many people choose their detergents based on how they smell. After all, they want something that will leave their clothes smelling fresh and clean. In some cases, dyes are also added to the liquid for aesthetic appeal.
While it’s true that they make the product “nicer”, they do have their disadvantages. For instance, many people are sensitive to the fragrances added to detergents. In some cases, it can even trigger allergies. For this reason, many people choose to use fragrance-free detergents.
Laundry Detergents Causing Skin Reactions
Unfortunately, that’s not the only issue that can arise with laundry detergents. As it is, these chemicals can also lead to various skin reactions. Generally speaking, the more detergent you use, the greater the chance of a reaction. Why? When you add more detergent than necessary, the chemicals become embedded in the clothing fibers; this makes it much more difficult to rinse out.
Alas, it’s not always obvious when there is chemical residue (i.e. detergent) left on your clothing. As you can imagine, wearing detergent-laden clothes is not good for the skin—this is especially true if you have sensitivities. Close-fitting items such as sports bras or undergarments only make the situation worse (they are in constant contact with the skin throughout the day).
Common Skin Irritants in Laundry Detergent
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to determine the exact cause of a skin reaction. However, there are a few substances that are notorious for irritating the skin.
1. Artificial Fragrances
As mentioned earlier, fragrances are often added to laundry detergents to increase aesthetic appeal. However, they can cause a myriad of problems—including skin reactions. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know whether or not you will have a reaction to a certain scent ahead of time. As it is, companies tend to use propriety blends of perfumes, which makes it nearly impossible for consumers to know their exact ingredients.
Dyes are similar to fragrances in that they are used for aesthetic appeal—that’s their only purpose. Despite not being involved in the cleaning process, however, they tend to trigger the majority of reactions. As with fragrances, it can be difficult to know the exact type of dye that is used in a product.
3. Synthetic Surfactants
Surfactants play an important role when it comes to washing the clothes; they are the ones responsible for separating the dirt from the fabric. Unfortunately, however, many of them also provoke skin reactions. To make things worse, many companies do not list the specific kinds of surfactants used in a product—this ultimately makes it harder for us to avoid reactions.
4. Methylisothiazolinone (MI)
Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative that is used in many cleaning products including laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, stain removers, and air fresheners. According to the EPA, it is a highly corrosive substance that is toxic when applied to the skin. Despite this, there are no special warnings for homeowners who use products that contain MI.
Luckily, methylisothiazolinone is typically washed away during the wash cycle (only a small amount is present in some detergents). Problems only arise if the detergent is not properly rinsed out.
Parabens are a class of preservatives that are commonly used in laundry detergent to extend shelf life. Aside from cleaning agents, they can be found in cosmetics, food, and pharmaceutical products. As far as we can tell, these chemicals do not accumulate in the body. Nonetheless, there are still concerns about its safety.
Chlorine is the main ingredient in bleach; it is also present in many several types of laundry detergent (usually the ones that are advertised to “whiten” your clothes). Not only does it irritate the skin, but it is also a strong irritant for your eyes and lungs. In fact, it has even been linked to cases of cancer!
Diethanolamine is a colorless chemical that is commonly found in laundry detergents. According to the National Institute of Health, it can irritate the skin, nose, and throat. Despite the possible effects, it is regularly used as one of the ingredients in cleaning agents.
8. Optical Brighteners
Optical brighteners are a type of chemical that is added to laundry detergents to make clothing appear whiter and cleaner. How do they work? They enhance blue light, which makes your clothes look brighter. Ultimately, they are more likely to cause skin irritation than other substances due to the fact that they stick to fabric, even after washing.
Types of Skin Reactions Caused by Laundry Detergents
In general, laundry detergents can cause two different kinds of skin reactions—simple irritation and contact dermatitis. Let’s take a look at how they differ.
It’s not uncommon for some laundry detergents to cause skin irritation. Typically, the symptoms will appear right after you come into contact with the piece of clothing (e.g. putting on a sweater that was recently washed with detergent). For the most parts, the area will be red and itchy; swelling might also be present in severe cases.
Fortunately, these symptoms tend to go away as soon as you remove the irritant. If you’ve used the same detergent before with no issues you might want to wash the garment again as there might be leftover detergent on the fabric, which is causing the reaction.
If this happens the first time you’re using a new detergent, you might be sensitive to one or more of its ingredients. In this case, it’s recommended that you switch to a different product.
Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis occurs after your body comes into direct contact of an allergen (in this case, detergent). Typically, the condition will manifest itself as an itchy, red rash. Given that it’s a true allergy, it can take up to one week for the symptoms to resolve.
Unfortunately, it’s not always new products that cause contact dermatitis. As a matter of fact, many people develop responses after being exposed to the substance multiple times. In the case of laundry detergents, this typically happens because the chemicals break down the skin’s protective layer (in doing so, it exposes dry, itchy skin).
Stop using your detergent if you have a rash. To soothe the skin, you can apply an anti-itch lotion. Antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can also help with the itchiness.
Choosing the Best Laundry Detergent for Sensitive Skin
It’s important to pick a proper laundry detergent if you have sensitive skin. After all, no one wants to deal with redness and itchiness. As a general rule, you want to choose something without fragrances or dyes. Luckily, there are many products out there that are fragrance and dye free. How can you tell? Just look at the bottle—these detergents generally have “fragrance-free” or “dye-free” written on the front label.
Though not as common, you can also find detergents that are “paraben-free.” Other chemicals, however, such as diethanolamine and MI may be hard to avoid as they tend not to be listed in the ingredients.
Is ACTIVE Detergent Suitable for Sensitive Skin?
The answer is yes. Despite not being dermatologist-tested, the formula is gentle enough as to not irritate the skin. Unlike many of the other laundry detergents out there, it does not contain any harsh chemicals or dyes; it is also fragrance and filler-free. Even the enzymes themselves are plant-based.
Having said that, there’s always a possibility that a detergent will cause allergic reactions. To prevent this, you should never exceed the recommended amount when using it to wash your clothes (i.e. it can be difficult to rinse out if you use too much detergent).
How to Avoid Skin Irritation from Detergent
Aside from picking the right laundry detergent, there are a few things that you can do to prevent skin reactions. For instance, you might want to take advantage of your washer’s “second rinse” function, if it has one. What does it do? It will rinse your clothes a second time with water, which will hopefully get rid of all of the detergent.
Pre-soaking Your Clothes
In some cases, it may help to pre-soak your clothes in a soapy mixture. Not only will this make them easier to clean, but you might be able to get away with using less detergent later. Remember, using less detergent means that there is a lesser chance of getting a skin reaction.
Do Not Overload Your Washing Machine
Don’t try to save time by putting more clothes than necessary into the washing machine. As you can imagine, the washer will not be able to function as efficiently when it is overloaded—that is, there is a high chance that it will not be able to rinse the detergent off properly, which can lead to skin irritation.
Try Using Vinegar of Baking Soda
Worried that there might still be detergent on your clothes? If so, you can try adding a bit of white vinegar or baking soda to the final rinse. This might help to get rid of the excess detergent that is on the fabric.
Avoid Using Fabric Softeners and Dryer Sheets
As explained earlier, chemicals are the main culprits behind skin reactions. Considering this, it’s best if you avoid using fabric softeners and dryer sheets as those too, contain various chemicals. At the end of the day, you want to limit the use of chemicals as much as possible! If you want to soften your clothes, there are safer alternatives that you can try such as vinegar, baking soda, or wool balls.
Consider Making Your Own Laundry Detergent
Having trouble with multiple brands of laundry detergent? If so, you might want to consider making your own—that way, you’ll know exactly what is in the ingredient list.