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A detergent is a cleansing agent that can remove oil and dirt from a surface. It is different from a soap. In addition to having properties of soap, detergents have builders that make it effective in hard water.

The first detergents were used chiefly for hand dishwashing and fine fabric laundering. This was followed by the development of all-purpose laundry detergents in the U.S. in 1946.


Why should I be aware of this?

Though the chemicals used in common laundry detergents are effective are in cleaning, few of us are aware of the impact these chemicals have on our bodies. Moreover, most clean laundry carries with it traces of the detergent which was used to launder it. This left over detergent comes in contact with our bodies. What is the long term effect of this contact?

How well do our waste water treatment facilities actually break down and eliminate spent laundry detergent molecules? What is the long term environmental impact that trace amounts (or worse) of detergent ingredients which are entering the ecosystems down stream of our laundry machines?

How does this affect me?

Detergents play an important and a positive role in our health an hygiene. However, they also have harmful effect on our health and the health of the environment.

Conventional detergents leave chemical residues on the clothes. These residues enter our bodies either through the skin or through the lungs. They cause many common health problems including allergies, skin infections and in rare cases, cancer. The fragrances used in laundry detergents can prove allergic and be highly irritating to lungs, causing serious health effects to people with asthma or chronic heart problems.

The usual result of a continuous and excessive exposure of the skin to detergents is drying, fissuring and dotting of the keratin layer leading to increased permeability that causes sensitization, which may develop into dermatitis. Elderly people are more susceptible to infections that may lead to developing eczema.

All about detergents

All detergents have these two basic ingredients.

  • Surfactants --The primary ingredient in any cleanser or detergent is the surfactant – the chemical that separates the dirt from the object being cleaned. The main ingredients used in the manufacture of surfactants are fatty alcohols. These can be derived from vegetable, animal, and petroleum sources.
  • Builders -- Builders include water softeners – chemicals that remove minerals that are naturally found in water supplies – and fabric softeners. The removal of hard water minerals such as calcium and magnesium enables the cleansing process to use less surfactant. Builders also include anti-redeposition agents – chemicals that help prevent the re-entry of dirt into the materials being cleaned. Polyacrylate polymers are used at low levels and are designed to improve performance and properties of detergent formulations. Builders also include citric acid, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonates and sodium silicates. These chemicals help maintain the proper PH level of the detergent and also help immobilize soils that have been removed from the materials and are now in the water, from re-entering the fabrics

Soap vs. detergent

The difference between a soap and a detergent is that a soap (such as bar soap) is composed of a single surfactant (specific saponified fatty acid) and nothing else, while, a detergent is composed of a whole mixture of substances often including more than just one type of surfactant, along with a mix of other ingredients.

The surfactant that ordinary soap is composed of is not as strong a surfactant as most of its synthetic counter parts are. The mixture of synthetic surfactants that we find in the usual laundry detergent are able to provide excellent cleaning properties when we use them in our washing machines.

Ingredients to avoid in laundry detergents

  • Phosphates
  • Bleach
  • NPE

Detergents and environment

Most laundry detergents in developing countries like India are phosphate based. Phosphates are a major source of water pollution, which incidentally is the direct cause of 42 per cent of human and animal diseases. Phosphate-based detergents promote eutrophication of aquatic environments.

In Canada, and in many states of USA, public pressure has led to the regulation of phosphates in detergents since early 1970s. Canada successfully implemented the appropriate regulation to control phosphates emission into water systems by limiting the amount of phosphates in laundry detergents to 0.5%.

What can I do?

  • The toxicity of detergents decreases by non-addition of additives like perfumes, colour and brightening agents.
  • Minimal packaging can also reduce environmental harm substantially.
  • Synthetic surfactants may be replaced by non-petrochemical surfactants or vegetable oil soaps.
  • Builders like phosphates can be replaced by sodium citrate and sodium bicarbonate.
  • Dyes and fragrances can be eliminated or minimized.

When you buy your detergents keep these factors in mind.

Use ordinary soap

If you want to be sure that you are using a truly safe and natural laundry detergent use ordinary soap where you can. Soap is a plant derived surfactant which was made by reacting lye (potassium) with oil from plant sources to create soap molecules. Using washing soda along with your soap or soap flakes will prevent water hardness from putting your soap molecules out of comission

Go for cold water wash

Laundry detergents can improve their environmental impact in two ways: by promoting the use of cold water during washing and by using non-toxic ingredients.


  • A study done to understand the Indian consumers knowledge of harmful effects of detergents on health and environment, showed that 77.6 percent of respondents had experienced some kinds of skin irritation due to detergents


  • It's a Wash; A review of six green laundry detergents
  • Primary Ingredients in Detergents
  • Detergents under scrutiny
  • Green Laundry Detergents: First Understand What is in Laundry Detergents