Green Chemistry Detergents

The green chemistry movement started with the ban of phosphates from detergents. Then consumers demanded that detergents perform in cold water. Consumers are also purchasing washing machines that use less water. Unfortunately, consumers soon discovered that while phosphate free detergents saved aquatic systems from excessive oxygen depleting algae blooms and plant growth, they left clothing grey and dingy. Manufacturers researched surfactant and enzyme additives to make clothes whiter and brighter.

What is Green Chemistry? Green chemistry is about producing products that are not harmful to humans, their children, their pets, or the environment. It is about producing products using biodegradable or plant based ingredients that don’t hang around forever.

Manufacturers first provided the consumer with more concentrated detergents and fabric softeners. This required less detergent per laundry load. Concentrated detergents save the environment in two ways: less packaging waste goes to the landfill and transportation costs are lower to deliver smaller containers. Manufacturers also provided small capsules of concentrate that needed to be diluted with water so that a large container could be refilled instead of disposing of the first container and purchasing a second one.

Then they looked for additives and synthetic surfactants to improve cleaning performance. Synthetic surfactants are composed of alkyl benzene sodium sulfonate, sodium cocosulfate (alkyl sulfate from coconut oil), petroleum distillates such as napthas, diethanolamine, triethanolamine, phenols, bleach, or ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid. Alkyl benzene sodium sulfonate has been linked to liver damage. Chlorine bleach causes severe irritation to the eyes and skin; the vapor can aggravate asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis conditions. Phenols are a suspected carcinogens. Beginning in January 2010 Soap and Detergent Association members will voluntarily post ingredients on containers or on company websites so that consumers can know what is in the detergents and cleaners they purchase.

If a name brand laundry detergent gives you or other family members a rash, it may contain sodium or calcium hypocrite, alkyl benzene sodium sulfonate, or sodium tripolyphosphate. Sodium tripolyphosphate can be absorbed through clothes and can cause vomiting. Fragrances in detergents are stabilized with phthlates. Phthates have been linked to low sperm counts, testicular atrophy, and a higher incidence of undescended testicles.

Now consumers are demanding that other harmful substances and fragrances be removed from detergents. An Internet database of CleanGredients, environmentally friendly surfactants, is available. Some detergent manufacturers have replaced chlorine bleach with sodium percarbonate plus an activator. Stainzyme, Polarsyme, and Liquanase are detergent enzyme additives that have been formulated to clean in cold water.


Sloan Barnett, 2008, Green Goes With Everything, Atria Books.

Michael McCoy, 2009, Makers of Cleaning Products and Detergents Seek the Sweet Spot Between Products That Are Green and Products That Clean, C&EN, Vol. 87, No. 4, pp. 13-19.