Doing the laundry can be an unnoteworthy, mundane fact of life, but our choices on laundry day can have serious consequences: Many conventional laundry products put us in direct contact with harmful chemicals that can affect our family’s health. Over time, these toxins can contribute to skin sensitivities, allergies and contact dermatitis. Research continues to grow on the effects of toxins found in commercial laundry detergents and fabric softeners. For example, a 2009 study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine detected an increased risk of respiratory allergies, as well as greater symptoms of sneezing, itchy nose and wheezing in workers handling and producing laundry detergent. Fortunately, there are simple solutions to avoid these chemicals: Homemade natural laundry products are both inexpensive and easy to make at home, and several companies offer safer commercial options sans the chemical soup. Do yourself and your family a favor and make your laundry room healthy and green.
Why Go Natural?
Switching over to natural laundry products is a simple and effective way to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. About two-thirds of laundry detergents contain the chemical byproduct 1,4-dioxane, according to David Steinman, an environmental health advocate with the Green Patriot Working Group. Classified by the EPA as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” by all routes of exposure, this chemical has been detected in a number of brand-name liquid laundry detergents (such as Tide, Purex and Gain—see entire list at the Organic Consumers Association), and often does not rinse out of clothes, sheets or towels. The EPA also warns that contact may cause eye and skin irritation, burns, coughing or shortness of breath. Add that to the cocktail of other chemicals found in conventional laundry detergents and fabric softeners (including sulfates, chlorine, parabens, fragrances and phenols, as well as petroleum distillates linked to cancer and lung disease), and you may never look at your laundry detergent the same way again.
You can avoid these chemicals by opting for organic or natural detergents (see our "Natural Laundry Products Recommendations," later in this article). However, these products tend to cost more than conventional brands, which typically run from $9 to $15 per 64 loads. At that rate, washing those seemingly never-ending piles of laundry can quickly take a toll on our budgets. In comparison, homemade laundry detergents cost about $4 per 80 loads, and are simple to make. Most recipes are composed of three or four ingredients, so they’re easy to make even if you’re short on time.
Clean and Green
Homemade laundry products work for both high-efficiency washer/dryers and older models. As long as we’re improving the health and bottom line of our laundry practices, we may as well consider the energy use that goes into our laundry routine. Energy Star clothes washers use about 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than conventional machines. If your machine is more than 10 years old, you will recoup the cost of replacement quickly in energy- and water-bill savings. The science-driven consumer information hub GoodGuide recommends looking for energy-efficient washers with a high Modified Energy Factor (MEF) and a low Water Factor (WF). For dryers, opt for gas-powered with an automatic shut-off feature. Visit Energy Star to research qualified machines.
We can also save energy and money in the laundry room by line-drying clothing whenever possible (check out The New Clothesline Company). When you do need to use the dryer, maximize its efficiency by making sure the lint filter is clean and by using dryer balls to reduce your drying time, as well as static buildup. Wool dryer balls are felted balls of yarn that can be added to any dryer load (see "Make Your Own Dryer Balls" later in this article). As they tumble, the balls bounce and separate the load in the dryer, which allows more hot air to circulate around sheets, towels and clean clothes. In addition, they pull moisture out of your laundry, which reduces drying time. The more you use, the more energy you save.
Make Your Own Dryer Balls
Making dryer balls is easy and fun. All you need is some wool yarn, a sock, and your washer and dryer. To see a video demonstration showing how to make your own dryer balls, visit How to Make Wool Dryer Balls (Video).
• Skein of 100 percent wool yarn
• Essential oil, optional
1. Wrap wool yarn around two fingers 10 to 15 times.
2. Pinch the bundle in the middle and pull off your fingers.
3. Wrap yarn around the center of the bundle 10 to 15 times in the other direction.
4. Continue to wrap, alternating directions, making a ball.
5. Once your ball is about the size of a tennis ball, cut the end of the yarn and tuck the cut end under several layers of yarn.
6. Repeat steps 1 through 5 for as many dryer balls as you want.
7. Put each dryer ball in the end of a sock or an old pair of pantyhose. Add them to a load of laundry that will run through the hot wash cycle.
8. Wash then dry on the hottest setting. Remove and check for felting; you will know your ball has felted when you can no longer separate the individual strings of yarn. If necessary, put the balls through an additional wash and dry cycle.
9. To use, toss dryer balls into the dryer with your wet laundry. If desired, add a few drops of essential oil to freshen your clothes. When clothes are dry, you can store the balls in the dryer, or place in a basket until your next load.