Sierra Club logo

Sierra Magazine

Printer-friendly format

The Hidden Life Of...


By Chris Borris

Ah, clean! Fresh-smelling towels, chubby-cheeked cherubs snuggling into soft blankets that have been lovingly bathed in chlorine, benzene, formaldehyde . . . what?! That’s not part of the image, but it is the reality for the 99.8 percent of Americans who use common commercial detergents, fabric softeners, bleaches, and stain removers. Plus doing our laundry burns through hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil and sends millions of pounds of chlorine into our air and water each year.

But we don’t have to put our health—or the environment—at risk to get our clothes brighter and whiter. Recipes for homemade greener cleaners abound, and nontoxic, eco-friendly laundry products are no longer rare. Looking for the best of the conventional brands, on the other hand, isn’t always easy. Cleaning-product ingredients are considered "trade secrets," so manufacturers aren’t required to list all of them on the label.

(Environmentally friendly brands often do list ingredients, since they have nothing to hide.) Philip Dickey, staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition, advises consumers to look for products with specific, rather than general, claims: "90 percent biodegraded in three days," not just "biodegradable"; "contains no phosphates," not simply "environmentally safe."

Detergents and Bleaches: Thanks to activist efforts, many major makers of laundry products have reduced their use of phosphates, minerals that promote rapid (and ecologically dangerous) algae growth in lakes and streams. But the active ingredients in most detergents (called "surfactants") are still derived from petroleum, so the environmental damage starts with drilling, spilling, and refining oil—and can end with toxic residues contaminating our water and soil. Artificial fragrances, bleaches, and other additives in these "spring fresh" brews can cause rashes and aggravate asthma. Avoid these dangers by cleaning the old-fashioned way: with plant-based, fragrance-free soaps (and non-chlorine bleaches).

Dry Cleaning: Ever notice a harsh chemical smell clinging to your dry-cleaned clothes? That’s perchloroethylene, or "perc," a solvent that can cause dizziness, fatigue, confusion, nausea, and skin irritation in high doses, and—for those exposed to it repeatedly—liver damage and increased risk of miscarriage. Our air, soil, and water fare little better than our bodies: According to Greenpeace, 10 percent of drinking-water wells in California are contaminated with perc. And incinerating the chemical along with other hazardous waste generates dioxins and other pollutants. The Federal Trade Commission is proposing changing "dry-clean only" labels to recognize alternative methods, including "wet cleaning," a nontoxic, nonpolluting process that uses water and biodegradable soap. To find a wet cleaner near you, consult the Professional Wetcleaning Network (

Stain Removers and Fabric Softeners: They may make your clothes look and feel clean, but these products can leave your garments tainted by formaldehyde and irritating synthetic fragrances. Spot removers also contain the pernicious perchloroethylene. A healthier alternative is probably as close as your kitchen cupboard: Some swear by egg yolk and lukewarm water for coffee stains, or sour milk or lemon juice followed by a salt rub and sun-drying for rust. Home Safe Home author Debra Lynn Dadd favors an all-purpose mixture of borax dissolved in cold water to treat blood, chocolate, coffee, and mildew stains. Clothes can be softened by adding baking soda during the rinse cycle. Look for a fabric softener with a natural base (such as soy) rather than one made from chemicals.

Washing: Why waste 40 gallons of water to do an average load of laundry? Front-loading washers use one-third to one-half the water and less soap than conventional top-loaders—and they’re gentler on clothes and wring them drier in the spin cycle, cutting dryer time and energy use. Although they may cost twice as much as conventional washers, Consumers Union estimates that you can earn the money back in as little as six years of savings on water and energy bills. (The EPA’s Energy Star program provides buying tips at Use even less energy by choosing the cold-water cycle, reserving warm water for your grimiest duds. Since 86 percent of the energy consumed by a washing machine goes to heating the water, one household can eliminate 1,600 pounds of annual carbon dioxide emissions by washing in cold.

Drying: The saints among us line-dry every load. The rest of us can make sure dryers are efficient, vented, cleaned, and kept in a heated space. Use the cooler permanent-press cycle, which takes advantage of residual heat. And try line-drying, at least in the summer: Not only will you prevent hundreds of pounds of CO2 from warming our planet, but your clothes will smell great, too.

Chris Borris is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.

Up to Top

Sierra Magazine home | Contact Us Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions of Use
Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"®are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © Sierra Club 2019.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.