Clothing fresh out of the dryer may look great, smell great, and feel great against your skin, but health-wise, you might be better off leaving the pizza stains on your pants. While most health-conscious folks already know that commercial laundry products typically contain skin irritants and environmental pollutants, a study from the University of Washington has found yet another strike against substances that launder your clothing. It turns out that using the most popular brands of scented laundry detergent leads to dangerous emissions that come out the vent when running clothing through the dryer.1 Ouch! And you probably paid extra for that "April Fresh" scent.
The researchers ran multiple loads of laundry in home dryers after washing. The first set of laundry used no products at all. Another used the leading brand of scented detergent, but no dryer products. The third batch got washed with the scented detergent and then run through the dryer with a popular brand of scented dryer sheet. The scientists monitored the emissions coming from the dryers during each laundry load. After analysis, it turned out that the dryer vents emitted 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the cycles. VOCs are chemical compounds that can cause long-term health effects. The EPA classifies seven of the VOCs as hazardous air pollutants, and two -- acetaldehyde and benzene -- as carcinogens with no safe exposure level.2 In other words, even a small whiff of dryer fumes once in a blue moon can cause health problems.
The vents gave off some VOCs even when no products were used in the wash, but the addition of laundry detergent made it much worse, adding 10 new VOCs. When both dryer sheets and the scented laundry were used, the emissions contained 17 more VOCs, including acetaldehyde, acetone, benzaldehyde, butanal, dodecane, hexanal, limonene, nonanal, octanal, tetramethylpropylidene cyclopropane, 1-(1,1-dimethylethyl)-4-ethylbenzene, 1-propanal, 2-butanone, and 2,7-dimethyl-2,7-octanediol. The VOCs in the highest concentrations were acetaldehyde, acetone, and ethanol.
According to study director Anne Steinemann, "These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies [we would be talking about the rinse water here]." While dryer vents normally empty out into the outside air, when those vents are located in a garage or basement that people use as a laundry room, the emissions can cause a lot more trouble. Also, when the vents aren't cleaned regularly, toxic build-up can occur.
The problem is made worse by several factors. First, as Dr. Steinemann points out, "This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored. If they're coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they're regulated, but if they're coming out of a dryer vent, they're not." The experts estimate that dryer emissions equal about six percent of the cancerous acetaldehyde emissions coming from automobiles. That may seem to be a small percentage, but again, remember that if the dryer vent in your home is spewing fumes, you're getting direct exposure.
The kicker here is that most of the VOCs can't be traced to any particular ingredient in the detergent or the dryer pads. In other words, if you study the ingredient label, you aren't going to find acetaldehyde or butanal (another VOC coming out the dryer vent) on the list. That's because detergent manufacturers are not required by law to list all their ingredients on the box. The study authors point out that "fragrance," typically listed as a single ingredient, can actually contain up to 200 chemicals. Ingredients listed with a single term such as "biodegradable surfactants" can include any number of unnamed chemicals. Then, there's the possibility that some of the VOCs get formed when ingredients in the detergents got exposed to the heat from the dryer cycle or to air. And that makes it impossible to avoid products that contain dangerous ingredients, because you can't know for sure just what ingredients reside in any product you buy.
Keep in mind, as already mentioned, that fumes from the dryer comprise only one problem caused by laundry products. Earlier studies have confirmed that most laundry detergents and dryer sheets contain poisons that leave residue on the clothing you wear, the bedding you sleep in, and everything else you put through the wash. A 2008 study conducted by the same Dr. Steinemann examined six top-selling laundry products and found that all of them contained at least one highly toxic substance.3 The toxins identified in the products included acetone, which is the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; as well as bleach, which is a major source of accidental home poisoning; phenols, which can damage the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver; brighteners, which have been known to cause cellular mutations; and fragrances, which as already mentioned, contain all manner of chemicals. None of the toxins were listed on the labels, and all can cause health problems ranging from rashes to cancer through skin exposure and inhaling the scent.
Dr. Steinemann's group has also investigated the VOCs in other fragranced cleaning and personal care products. A 2009 study looked at 25 products, including air fresheners, detergents, cleaning supplies, and personal care soaps. The investigation yielded 421 occurrences of VOCs among the 25 products, with all products having at least six toxic VOCs. The study also looked at 11 "green" products. Surprise! Surprise! All of those, unfortunately, also contained VOCs, in amounts the authors say make them statistically no different from the commercial products. But the authors' assessment doesn't necessarily match the data. Some of the green products emitted only two toxic VOCs, which, while two too many, is nevertheless only a third of the number contained in the best of the non-green products. On the other hand, four of the green products also contained carcinogenic ingredients, which goes to show that just because it says it's healthy doesn't mean it actually is.
The bottom line for you, the consumer, is that if you see the word "fragrance" on the ingredient list, put it back on the shelf. Look for the words "fragrance free" and "hypoallergenic." In fact, if you see any word in the ingredient list that doesn't sound familiar or virtuous, put it back. Short, simple ingredient lists mean fewer hidden ingredients in the container. It's a good idea to buy a natural brand, but don't assume you're safe just because it comes from the health-food store. Read the label and know, to the extent possible, what it means or at least implies.
On the other hand, if you can't stand not knowing what's really getting the grime off your clothes, you can always move near a river, buy an old-fashioned washboard, and start banging your clothes clean. You'll get plenty of aerobic exercise plus vitamin D from being out in the sun, and you'll end up with clothes free from toxins layered on by the substances that are supposed to make them wearable -- unless, of course, the toxins are in the river.
1 Steinemann, Anne et al. "Chemical Emissions from Residential Dryer Vents During Use of Fragranced Laundry Products." Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health. 25 August 2011. < http://depts.washington.edu/exposure/Steinemann%20et%20al.%202011.pdf>
2 Hickey, Hannah. "Scented laundry products emit hazardous chemicals through dryer vents." 24 August 2011. Eurekalert. 25 August 2011. <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-08/uow-slp082311.php>
3 Toxic Chemicals Found In Common Scented Laundry Products, Air Fresheners. 24 July 2008. Science Daily. 25 August 2011. < http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080723134438.htm>