How Green is Your Laundry?

Over the past several years, the idea of “Green Cleaning” has become an important concept in our marketplace.  “Green Cleaning” refers to the use of cleaning products and services that reduce the overall health and environmental impact compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose.  A green approach to cleaning has not only changed the specific products we use, but it has changed the very way we clean.  The Green Movement has even changed the way we design, build, and maintain our office buildings and homes.    

Nearly all facets of our industry have been touched by the Green Cleaning Movement.  Even though it has experienced exponential growth and success while touching many areas and markets, there are still a few areas that have been overlooked.  Take a look at the products in your laundry room.  The labels on many of these chemicals often have hazardous and potentially toxic chemicals listed as active ingredients.

In our current market environment, does it make sense to clean everything under the roof with green chemicals and techniques except in the laundry room?  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, NO!  We can look to environmentally preferred laundry standards, but there is not agreement between these standards of what exactly green means in laundry.  For now, we can rely on our experience with other green cleaning products to decide for ourselves how to make our laundries green.

To identify laundry chemicals that fit into the idea of a green or environmentally preferable program, you only need to apply the criteria that are currently established for other green cleaning applications.  By applying many of the universal green criteria, such as low to no VOCs, no phosphates, no toxic or persistent components and byproducts, readily biodegradable, no ozone depleting chemicals, etc.,  you will begin to see which laundry products fit in as green and which ones do not.  The following sections outline specific laundry products, their uses in laundry, and chemicals to avoid in these products, as well as a few suggested environmentally friendly alternatives to help guide you in selecting the proper chemicals for your laundry room.


A builder is used in laundry to change the quality and properties of water, specifically water hardness and pH.  By controlling the water quality, a builder allows surfactants to work more efficiently thus ensuring optimal detergent performance.  Builders can be stand-alone products, often referred to as a break or builder-type product, or they can be added to laundry detergent formulations, which are referred to as built detergents.  Builders that are environmentally preferable will biodegrade to less toxic and persistent chemicals that pose no human health risks.

Phosphates, chemicals containing PO4-, are used as builders in many different cleaning formulations, especially laundry, to both soften water and buffer pH.  Seasoned green cleaning professionals should already know that products containing phosphates are not green or environmentally friendly due to their role in the eutrofication of waterways.  Eutrofication of a waterway occurs when too much phosphate is present in the water, causing algae and weeds to first grow rapidly and then to die quickly.  This sudden abundance of decomposing organic matter depletes the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, which in turn will cause fish and other aquatic life to suffocate.1

Two very effective chelants or water softeners that are commonly found in laundry builder formulations, Diaminoethanetetraacetic acid (EDTA) and Nitrilotriacetate (NTA), should also be avoided.  In nature, EDTA biodegrades slowly, so there is trepidation about EDTA accumulating in nature.  There are also concerns about EDTA and the role it could play in the remobilization of heavy metals back into the water supply.2  On the other hand, NTA is readily biodegradable but poses other dangers.  NTA is listed on several chemical inventories as being a known cause of cancer and could possibly pose severe human health risks.3  To select builders that have a positive environmental profile, look for products that contain sodium citrate, ethylenediaminedisuccinic acid (EDDS), or tetrasodium iminodisuccinate.  These chemicals are all readily biodegradable and pose fewer health and environmental concerns compared to phosphates, EDTA, or NTA.

Surfactants and Detergents 

Surface active agents, or surfactants, are the active cleaning agents in most laundry detergent formulations.  Surfactants work by changing the chemical and physical relationship between water and the fabric that is to be cleaned.  Surfactants work to loosen, emulsify, and suspend soil as well as to enhance the wetting ability of water.  Environmentally preferable surfactants will readily biodegrade to less toxic and less persistent or bioaccumulative chemicals.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates are common nonionic surfactants frequently used in laundry detergent formulations.  Due to their persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic nature, alkylphenol ethoxylate based laundry detergents should be avoided when selecting an environmentally friendly laundry detergent.   Research has shown that while the ethoxylate part of the alkylphenol ethoxylate biodegrades, or in other words, breaks down quickly, the parent alkylphenol biodegrades more slowly.4  In separate studies alkylphenol has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor in both laboratory animals and fish.5,6

Instead of using a laundry detergent containing alkylphenol ethoxylates, look for laundry detergents that contains linear alcohol ethoxylates (LAEs).  In contrast to alkylphenol ethoxylates, LAEs will biodegrade quickly into compounds, linear alcohols and carboxylic acids that typically have much lower environmental concerns.7 LAE based detergents are also readily cold water dispersible.  The growing trend of relying on cold water during the wash cycle, to maximize energy efficiency, makes LAE based detergents much more preferable.

To further enhance a laundry detergent’s biodegradability and overall environmental profile, also look for products containing either linear alcohol ester ethoxylates or alkyl polyglucosides (APGs).  The ester linkages in linear alcohol ester ethoxylates allow for even faster biodegradation rates compared to regular linear alcohol ethoxylates.  APGs are biobased, naturally derived from corn and coconut oil, surfactants that are readily biodegradable and used in many green cleaning products currently on the market.


Bleaches enhance laundry detergent performance by breaking down the molecular bonds of many tough stains which allows for more rapid and aggressive stain removal.  Laundry bleaching chemicals are safer for laundry room workers and the environment when they do not produce toxic or persistent byproducts.  The most commonly used bleach, chlorine bleach, poses the potential to form hazardous chlorinated gases and organic byproducts.8  A more environmentally safe bleaching chemical would be an oxygen bleach containing hydrogen peroxide.  Hydrogen peroxide degrades into two very environmentally friendly compounds:  water (H20) and oxygen (O2).

Fabric Softeners

When used properly, fabric softeners will reduce fabric rigidity, control static, and work to leave the fabric feeling soft and fluffy.  The active ingredient in fabric softeners are cationic, or positively charged surfactants.  Cationic surfactants that have ester, amide, or peroxide linkages tend to biodegrade much more quickly than many other cationics.  Naturally derived cationic surfactants also show faster biodegradation rates relative to traditional ones.  These increases in biodegradability allows for less bioaccumulation and a more positive environmental profile.

Laundry Sours

Laundry sours are used to neutralize residual levels of alkalinity leaving the final fabric pH at a safe and comfortable level.  Laundry sours are also used to remove iron and rust from the rinse water and fabric.  Mineral acid based sours, those containing hydrochloric (HCl), sulfuric (H2SO4), or phosphoric (H3PO4) acid, should be avoided due to their potential to form hazardous gases and byproducts that can be harmful to both workers and the environment.  Laundry sours that utilize organic acids, such as citric (C6H8O7) and lactic (C3H6O3) acid, are environmentally preferable because they are not as harsh and tend to not form hazardous byproducts.  Citric and lactic acids also have the added benefit of being naturally derived.

How Green is Your Laundry?

Take a minute to consider what kind of impact the chemicals you use in your laundry room can have on the health of the environment and your workforce.  These things should be of vital importance to all of us in the cleaning industry.  Selecting the proper laundry chemicals is not a difficult task especially when you consider that environmental and worker health is at stake.

We are all taking steps to go green.  Why does it have to stop at the laundry room door?  The next time you go to buy that laundry detergent or bleach you have purchased for so long, look at the label closely and see what you are actually buying.  Take a long look and ask yourself, “How Green is My Laundry?”

About the Author:
Nate Gaubert is the Manager of Research & New Product Development with a prior role as Spartan’s laundry/warewash chemist. 


1. G.E. Hutchinson. “Eutrophication, Past and Present: Causes, Consequences, Correctives.” National Academy of Science (1969): 17-26.
2. J.C. Friedly, D.B. Kent, J.A. Davis. “Simulation of the Mobility of Metal-EDTA Complexes in Groundwater: The Influence of Contaminant Metals.” Environmental Science Technology 36 (2002): 355-363.
3. Nitrilotriacetic Acid and its Salts (IARC Summary & Evaluation, Volume 48, 1990)
4. M. Ahel, W. Giger, M. Koch. “Behavior of alkylphenol polyethoxylate surfactants in the awuatic environment.” Water Research 28 (1994): 1131-1152.
5. R.E. Chapin, J. Dulaney, Y. Wang, L. Lanning, B. Davis, B. Collins, N. Mintz, G. Wolfe. “The effects of 4-nonylphenol in rats: A multigeneration reproduction study.” Toxicological Science 52 (1999): 80-91.
6. S. Gimeno, H. Komen, P.W.M. Venderbosch, T. Bowmer. “Disruption of sexual differentiation in genetic male carp (Cyprinus Carpio) exposed to an alkyphenol during different life stages.” Environmental Science Technology 31 (1997): 2884-2890.
7. J. Steber, P. Wierich. “The anaerobic degradation of detergent range fatty alcohol ethoxylates. Studies with 14C0labelled model surfactants.” Water Research 21 (1987): 661-667.
8. K.M. Vetrano. “Molecular Chlorine: Health and Environmental Effects.” Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 170 (2001): 75 – 140.

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