Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Eco-Friendly Detergents - Surfactant "Lights"

Eco-Friendly Detergents Not So Eco-Friendly

Over the past 20 years numerous laundry detergent brands claiming to be "environmentally friendly" have sprung up.   Thanks to a list provided by a site called "Pinstripes and Polkadots", we can do a quick check of reported ingredients in these brands.   Every eco-friendly brand contains surfactants, a couple lists "soap" but remember, soap is a surfactant.   Therefore, these are not safe for your health or for the health of the environment.   Here's a quick check of brands and surfactants listed:

Company/Product Name                         Surfactant Listed
    Allen's Naturally                          cleaning agents that are naturally derived
    Bi-O-Kleen                                 Surfactants from coconuts
                                                        Linear ethoxilates from coconuts
    Earth Friendly (Baby)                  Vegetable & Coconut based soap
    Ecos                                            Plant Based surfactants
    Ecover                                         non-ionic, anionic surfactants
    Method                                       blend of naturally derived and biodegradable surfactants
    Mountain Green                           vegetable-based cleaning agents
    Mrs Meyer's                                anionic surfactants derived from plant sources
    Nature Clean                               polyglycoside (from corn starch and palm kernel oil)
    Oxy Prime                                   "mild" surfactant
    Planet                                           Coconut oil based cleaner,
                                                        ethoxylated alcohol amine oxide (surfactant?)
    Seventh Generation                       A combination of naturally derived cleaning agents
    Shaklee                                        Anionic and/or nonionic cleaning agents
    Trader Joe's Cleanliness....            vegetable and coconut derived surfactants

I've attempted to list all the brands that are marketed as being environmentally friendly or better for us in terms of safety when compared to national brands.   I know I missed a few, not intentionally, just hurrying to get this done.  Whatever brand I may have missed, I will assure you it contains a surfactant. 

Let's examine their claims about giving you a better, more environmentally better product.  In terms of using renewable resources and getting rid of fragrances and other artificial chemical additives, they are probably right.
In terms of running their operations and business in a ecologically responsible way, they may be right.
In terms of reduction of wasteful practices, perhaps.
So what these companies claim, is not wrong, they just aren't giving us the whole story.  The fact is the majority of people who work for these companies truly believe they are acting very responsibly and bringing a product to market that is better than what the big makers are offering in terms of the health of their consumers and health of the environment.   I do not include the chemistry experts or the top executives in this category however.

The Truth about "Milder", "Biodegradable" Plant-Based Surfactants

Why am I being so harsh?  The chemist who make up the formulas and the executives who gives the go ahead all know about the damaging effects of surfactants and I also believe the majority of them know they can make a safer product.   However, just like the major brands, these brands are putting profit ahead of what's good for you, what's good for the water and life in the water.
"But they are using "milder", natural surfactants derived from renewable palm, coconut and other plant based oils, this surely must be better?"   It is better only in the sense that these are renewable resources.   You can grow another palm tree, you can't wait for the next oil field to form.  Remember though, to have enough palm oil to meet the world demand, you need to clear natural wilderness areas to raise the crop.   This is not good for either us or the wilderness and the animals that make their home in that wilderness.
Another question we all must ask ourselves, can't there be better usage for the palm oil derivative being used to make detergents, say like for food purposes?  I don't know the answer to this.  It may be the same as propylene, the derivative of crude oil that goes into the making of much of the laundry surfactants employed today.  Propylene was basically a throw away derivative of refined crude - worthless, until the German's during WWII, through the magic of chemistry, turned this waste product into a cheap detergent that could take the place of the animal fats they were running short of.    Its easy to see how detergent makers turned to this new surfactant and easy to see how surfactants came to be the only cleaning agent used in cleaning products immediately after WWII.  Initially, raw material costs must have been next to nothing.  Imagine you could pick up the stuff for free and turn it into a product that you could sell.   How do you calculate gross profit margins on that?   So,which derivative of palm or coconut oil is actually used for renewable and biodegradable laundry surfactants, I can't say.    Perhaps that derivative can only be used for producing surfactants and nothing else.  We need to ask the surfactant maker.
Another reason to question the safety of plant based surfactants can be found on P&G's homepage. P&G claims plant-based and crude-oil based surfactant are both the same in terms of effectiveness and safety.  Are they saying this because crude-based surfactants are cheaper or because when you run the two different oils through all the processes at the manufacturing plant, the end result is the same, I don't know. 
As for claims of "easily biodegrades", this really has to be checked carefully.   When they say it biodegrades quickly, what does this mean?   Hours, days, weeks or months?   Also in what weather conditions...some surfactants will biodegrade quickly in water during the summer when it's hot, but will not biodegrade at all in cold winter water.   Are they talking about initial biodegradation or ultimate biodegradation?  Also while most surfactants do biodegrade in the presence of air and oxygen (aerobic conditions), does it biodegrade when air is unavailable like in the sludge of waste water treatment plants (anaerobic conditions)?   You may be interested to know that this phenomenon is just beginning to be studied in Europe, don't know what's happening in the US.  It could be surfactants that were considered readily biodegradable before, may not have the same rating under stricter standards. 
Perhaps a few  makers of "eco-friendly" detergents are using surfactants that are genuinely biodegradable - a surfactant that when it is released into the environment immediate begins to break down into carbon dioxide and other natural chemicals and has little negative impact.  But I don't know who that may be.  If such a product existed, I would think they would rush that data to the consumer, something I don't see happening.   Instead, they use words like "mild", or "quick to biodegrade", or some other phrase that implies their surfactants are safe when in actuality it isn't.  How do you check for yourself if this is true?  If you happen to be using a eco-friendly detergent now, call or e-mail the maker and ask if its OK to put their recommended dosage for washing  (in the same ratio to the water)  into your goldfish bowl? Would your goldfish live or die?    Here's a bet, call and ask....betcha you won't find any one of these ecologically minded companies who will tell you its OK, your goldfish is perfectly safe.   If it's not safe for your goldfish, its not safe for the fish in your local pond or river.  It's not safe for the tadpole, water bugs, and worms in the ground around that pond.  It's not safe for you and your family.  

One last word concerning biodegradability.   If you are putting the same substance into the same pond day after day and if it hasn't completely gone away in 24 hours, does biodegradability really make that much difference to the ultimate sustainability of a species?    Doing laundry is nearly a daily chore, meaning we are pouring the same substances down the sink every day, the same amount of surfactants reaching the pond on a daily basis.   The creatures living in that pond are exposed to the same amount of toxins.  It seems to me it's just a matter of time - they die quickly if a toxin is less biodegradable, they die less slow if the toxin biodegrades more quickly, in the end however, that species will ultimately disappear.   I suppose biodegradability may give certain species a chance to adapt.   But really, is anyone out there so in love with today's detergents that would say to the fish, "Hey, you fish, adapt or die!"
 I don't think there is a surfactant produced today that can biodegrade completely in 24 hours or less, at least not ones that can be used economically for laundry detergent.  One study I saw, I think it was for LAS, was labeled by one EPA study as "quickly biodegradable".   It turns out under the best of conditions, it started biodegrading in about 3 days and took anywhere from 10 days to a month to get down to undetectable levels.   In cold winter months, however, researchers couldn't find any signs of biodegradation at all.   So when you see "Biodegradable" on a label, don't assume you are buying a product that is safer for the ecology or yourself.   After all you will be wearing it soon since it is in your recently laundered clothes. 

Remember when cigarette makers began marketing brands like Marlboro "Lights", cigarettes that they claimed to be safer?   It turns out "Light" cigarettes did more harm and caused more deadly lung cancers than regular cigarettes.    (go to u-tube, search Prof. Channing Robertson's Lec. 23 for a fascinating personal history of the cigarette lawsuits)  When "Lights" came out, doctors began seeing "deep lung" cancers, something they never saw before.   Why?  Smokers took deeper drags in an attempt to get the same nicotine hit they got from their old brands.   Well, I'm wondering if marketing campaigns run by the eco-friendly detergent makers are not so dissimilar - getting people to believe they are using a product that is better for themselves and the ecology when in reality, they are not.
Who's worse, the national brands who make little or no claim to the safety of their detergents (except for  product lines they label mild, gentle or for babies) or eco-friendly makers who say they are safer?

Until these companies eliminate the use of surfactant-class chemicals in their formulations, the argument of whether they produce a safer product or not centers only on trivialities and not worth the effort.


  1. What laundry detergent do you use / make?

  2. I think the soil just might slowly fix itself from the use of surfactants! I'm trying look after our oceans, and surfactants are deadly to our waterways. I want to start washing our commercial boats with a safe product! Anyone?