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by author, natural beauty expert & cancer survivor Britta AragonRSS

Could the Chemicals in Laundry Products Cause Compromised Skin?

By Britta Aragon on March 28, 2011 | 8 Comments

“My mother used Tide,” writes one contributor to, “and I broke out with dermatitis, hives, and itching/irritated skin.”

“My husband bought the cheap Xtra detergent with fragrance in the purple bottle,” writes another. “Twice I have had a skin reaction to it.”

Is it possible that laundry products can irritate and compromise skin? The answer is a definite yes, and the main reason is that the ingredients used in them can leave behind a residue on the skin that can cause allergic reactions, irritations, hives, eczema, itching, dryness, acne, and more.

Let’s look at the main ingredients in detergents, bleach, and fabric softeners that can cause skin problems, and why they may do so.

Cleaning agents (surfactants): Manufacturers use these ingredients to improve the wetting and oil solubilizing qualities of the products—in other words, to help them clean better. Unfortunately, these ingredients are also known to create skin irritation by damaging the outer layer—the barrier—and disrupting the proteins in the skin. As a result, the skin is less able to hold onto moisture, so it dries out, which can lead to itching, cracking, and additional problems.

Buffering agent: These adjust the pH balance of any solution, so it remains as acidic or non-acidic as the manufacturer wants it to. In other words, it stabilizes the solution. For example, if a detergent becomes too acidic or too alkaline, it can damage the fabric. A buffering agent helps counteract the alkalinity of soap, maintaining an equilibrium in the water. These are found in detergents and in fabric softeners.

Stabilizer: These are chemicals added to detergent to keep it from separating during storage. Most are some form of polyalkylene oxide or ethylene oxide—synthetic chemicals. One of the hazards of polyalkylene oxide is that it can cause respiratory tract and eye irritations, while prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide can cause skin irritation and dermatitis.

Brightening agent: To make clothes appear brighter, these synthetic chemicals are dyes that absorb UV light in the violet region, and re-emit light in the blue region, which helps clothes appear more white and less yellow. Some examples include naphthotriazolystilbenes, benzoxazolyl, and diaminostilbene disulfonates, but there are many more. Since these chemicals are designed to remain on the clothes to adjust their appearance, they are likely to come into contact with the skin.

Fragrance: Manufacturers want you to think your clothes smell clean as well as look clean, so most include some sort of chemical fragrance that gives your shirts and pants a certain scent after laundering. Most of these fragrances are synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum, and have the potential to irritate skin.

Bleach: If you’ve ever come into direct contact with bleach, you know that it can burn and irritate your skin. Most of it is rinsed away in the laundry, but if your skin is sensitive, you could still suffer irritation from bleach.

These are just the main ingredients you’re likely to find in laundry products that can irritate and damage skin. There are others, including chemicals to reduce the hardness of water, as well as other types of surfactants. So if you’re experiencing skin irritation, your detergents, softeners, dryer sheets, and more could definitely be a part of the problem. Start with these steps:

  • Always read labels, and look for dye-free and fragrance-free options.
  • Shop at organic and whole food stores, as these are more likely to have options with fewer chemicals.
  • Make your own—use a combination of Borax, washing soda, baking soda, and a gentle bar soap. Or find more recipes on my post.

Did you experience skin irritation because of laundry products? Please share your solutions.

Photo courtesy the _asp_ via

Posted in: Eczema and Dermatitis, Psoriasis, Rosacea and Flushing, Skin, Lip and Body Care, Toxic Talk and Labels

8 Comments to “Could the Chemicals in Laundry Products Cause Compromised Skin?”

  1. Great detailed info Britta, thanks :)

  2. Marti says:

    You are so right about the negative affects laundry products can have on our skin. I know your post isn’t about asthma, but the products you are talking about can also cause great problems for asthma sufferers. I use a line of products in the laundry that are non-toxic and natural with no harmful fumes. My laundry brightener uses natural enzymes and active oxygen to re-brighten laundry, de-stain upholstery, etc; and my dryer sheets soften clothes and help prevent wrinkles without fragrance or dyes. I also use a liquid laundry product that isn’t called a detergent. It is a natural corn and coconut based cleaner. Safer products are out there – we just have to look for them. Thanks for the post!

  3. Jane says:

    I think my child has a reaction to the Borax/Washing Soda/ Fels Naptha mix I have been using! Now what should I try?

  4. Britta Aragon says:

    Did you try the process of elimination to be sure? (Stop using the borax, then try again later?) Be sure as well that your child is not coming into contact with other common causes of dermatitis (allergic reaction) like latex, nickel, gold, fragrances (in any laundry products or personal care items like shampoos and body washes), and the like. Check with your allergy doctor, but the best approach may be to do a full sweep of anything that may be causing the reaction, then gradually re-introduce them one by one to be sure it is the borax. By the way, check out this article on Mother Earth News—the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported last year that borax can cause skin and eye irritations. If this is what’s causing your child’s reactions, we found some options. EWG suggests just leaving borax out. You can also try replacing it with baking soda or lemon juice. Some more cleaning recommendations here and here. Good luck!

  5. Billie says:

    My husband started getting itchy and broke out in hives , it was driving him nutzed. I found out that Xtra laundry detergent we were using was a bad idea. I bought it on sale last week and I bought the Vanillia scent one. Cheeper is not always better and not at the price my husband paid by breaking out with Hives and itching he couldn’t even sleep right at night it bothered him so bad. So to anyone who wants to find a bargain …Use name bran with dye free & fragrance free . Don’t buy Xtra laundry detergent , it contains dyes & purfumes that will irritate your skin

  6. Britta Aragon says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Billie!

  7. Kiwi says:

    I discovered that I am allergic to a fabric softener I’ve been using for about 8 weeks. The problem is that now I have hives and can’t wash the chemicals that I used to launder my clothes, out of my clothes. I’m looking and searching for how to clear my clothes of the residue of whatever was in the fabric softener.. so far nothing has come up. I’ve tried repeated washing in hot water and detergent I know I’m not allergic to, but I wake up with the symptoms every morning still.. If you have advice please share, because I’m considering donating most of my clothes, sheets, underwear, and whatever else I contaminated in the last 2 months.

  8. Britta Aragon says:

    Oh my. I feel for you on this. Having to get rid of all your clothes! That doesn’t sound like fun. Some thoughts: 1) Start by washing your washer—run it with an empty load and your safe detergent. 2) Try washing fewer clothes at a time so they have a greater exposure to the water, especially if you have a high efficiency machine (which uses less water). 3) Try a little white vinegar (about 1/2 cup) in with your load. 4)) Hang the clothes to dry outside in the sun and the breeze. Leave them out for at least a couple hours. Good luck!

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