The Danger And Ineffectiveness Of Antibacterial Laundry Detergents And A List of Eco-Friendly Non-Toxic Alternatives

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There’s an advert on television in the UK at the moment for a laundry sanitiser that actually makes me angry every time I see it.

Did you know that germs lurk on your clothes? Your CLOTHES my friend! Like, RIGHT NEXT TO YOUR BODY! Or worse, RIGHT NEXT TO THE BODY OF THE CHILD YOU SAY YOU LOVE!!!! Oh me oh my. Please, use this chemically created product with a long list of ingredients that are unpronounceable and probably have effects on the environment and quite possibly on the skin too*. After all, you do love your family and want the best for them, don’t you?

*Read on.

Apologies for the sarcasm. It’s how I deal with things that make me angry enough to shout at no one in particular.

So if you’re a real believer in business, you’re thinking ‘they wouldn’t sell it if it was bad for you’. Yip. You’re right. Just like nicotine and saturated fats. Oh wait.

So here’s the thing: This particular brand of unnamed Laundry Sanitiser (I’m just a mama. I don’t need no trouble. You can find out who they are on your own.) lists as its ingredients:

5% Non-Ionic Surfactants, Disinfectant, Parfum,Contains Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Citronellol and Hexyl Cinnamal ,Per 100g Liquid contains 2.40 g Dialkyl (C8-10) Dimethylammonium Chloride / Benzyl-C 12-18-Alkyldimethyl Chloride

I’m no scientist or chemist, so let’s break it down with a little help from our friend Doctor Google.

5% Non-Ionic Surfactants: To my untrained eye, at least, they don’t specify which chemical group of non-ionic surfactants are used, so here’s a general summary of the environmental effects of non-ionic surfactants from the European Textile Service Association Eco Forum Website: 

Formerly this group was widely used for cleaning and laundering. Now it has been replaced to a great extent due to the negative environmental effects.

During the biological degradation, alkyl phenol ethoxylates bare transformed to alkyl phenols, e.g. nonyl phenol ethoxylate (NPEO) degrades to nonyl phenol (NP), which is known to be toxic and have hormone like effects.

P.S. “The impacts of nonylphenol in the environment include feminization of aquatic organisms, decrease in male fertility and the survival of juveniles at concentrations as low as 8.2 microg/l. Due to the harmful effects of the degradation products of nonylphenol ethoxylates in the environment, the use and production of such compounds have been banned in EU countries and strictly monitored in many other countries such as Canada and Japan”.1

Great stuff.

Disinfectant: not sure what they’re using here. The fact that they don’t tell us what it is worries me. The main one used in the US has been Triclosan for many years, but many studies are showing areas of concern.

Parfum: This is a tricky one. There doesn’t seem to be a specific description of what this is. Parfum is, apparently, industry code for as many as 3,000 chemicals used to make products smell “nice”.2

Butylphenyl Methylpropional:

The safety of Butylphenyl Methylpropional has been evaluated by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials Expert Panel (REXPAN). Based on this evaluation, an International Fragrance Association (IFRA) Standard has been established. The IFRA Standard restricts the use of Butylphenyl Methylpropional in fragrances because of potential sensitization.3

What does sensitization mean?

Sensitization to chemicals can be defined as changes in the organism, usually the immunochemical system, by exposure to a chemical such that further chemical exposure leads to recognition by the organism. Such recognition will lead to a response that is marked by a greater reaction at lower doses than what would be observed in non-sensitized individuals. This is usually called hypersensitivity (Turner-Warwick, 1978).

Inhulation of the antigen/allergen in an individual previously sensitized leads to an allergic reaction, such as rhinitis or conjunctivitis. If the skin is sensitized, as in allergic contact dermatitis, then contact will cause an oedematous response and/or a rash. Pulmonary (airway) sensitization manifests itself through bronchial constriction or obstruction (Davies and Blainey, 1983; Hetzel and Clark, 1983; Ramsdale et al., 1985). Some chemicals can produce different types of “allergy’. There are various known and hypothesized mechanism for sensitization. There are also host susceptibility factors, including genetic predisposition, which will play a role in sensitization and in disease manifestation (Turner-Warwick, 1978; Gregg, 1983).4

Citronellol: naturally occuring scent ingredient derived from plants such as rose, used to mask other scents. Not considered to be toxic, bioaccumulative or toxic or harmful. Often used in beauty products. Interestingly, it still has a score of 5/10 on the EWG hazard chart.5

Hexyl Cinnamal: naturally occurring and synthetic ingredient, it is associated with allergic reactions. While not believed to be toxic, bioaccululative or harmful, it is a possible human immune system toxicant or allergen and is banned or restricted in the EU.6

2.40 g Dialkyl (C8-10) Dimethylammonium Chloride:

Didecyldimethylammonium chloride is an antiseptic/disinfectant, which is used in many biocidal applications. They cause disruption of intermolecular interactions and dissociation of lipid bilayers. They are Broad spectrum Bactericidal and Fungicidal. They can be used as Disinfectant Cleaner for Linen recommended for use in hospitals, hotels and industries . It is also used in Gynaecology, Surgery, Ophthalmology, Pediatrics, OT, for the sterilization of surgical instruments, endoscopes and surface disinfection. 7

Benzyl-C 12-18-Alkyldimethyl Chloride:

ADBAC is highly toxic to fish , very highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates , moderately toxic to birds and slightly toxic to mammals. Concentrated solutions (10% or more) are toxic to humans, causing corrosivity/irritation to the skin and mucosa under prolonged contact times, and death if taken internally in sufficient volumes

Several studies claim to have identified allergic reactions to benzalkonium chloride, although a clear distinction has not been drawn between irritation and a genuine allergic response involving immune system. Studies have been based on individuals rather than statistically significant groups. It is still widely used in eyewashesnasal sprays, hand and face washes, mouthwashesspermicidal creams, and in various other cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants.8

Unless we’re talking about a child with a terrible immune related disease, where there may be justification for over-sanitising, you do not need to fill the waterways and environment with toxins. And even if you do, do some research before hand to be sure that the ingredients in this product aren’t going to make matters worse.

But let’s say none of the ingredients in this product put you off, because, let’s say that they’re all in ‘suspected safe’ quantities and concentrations. Let’s say you really like the idea of a product that can help kill germs and protect against flu or feaces on your child’s clothing.


One study concluded that washing at 60°C (140°F) for 10 minutes is sufficient to decontaminate hospital uniforms and reduce the bacterial load and that items left in the pockets are decontaminated to the same extent and that uniforms become recontaminated with low numbers of principally gram-negative bacteria after laundry but that these are effectively removed by ironing. (MRSA is only removed with added antibacterial liquid though).9

Another study came out with some really interesting information, I’m paraphrasing, but you can read it all for yourself 10

Two groups of families with at least 1 pre-school aged child were given identical cleaning materials, one with antibacterial properties, and one without. They were followed for 48 weeks and checked for a variety of conditions. No significant differences between the 2 groups were found in reports of symptoms, which included rhinorrhea (26.8%), cough (23.2%), fever (11%), sore throat (10.2%), vomiting (2.6%), and diarrhea (2.5%). Fewer than 1% of the households reported any skin symptoms. Within most subgroups, such as young children, children attending day care, and persons working outside the home, no differences were found between the 2 groups. Interestingly, persons with chronic disease or poor health in the antibacterial product group were more likely to have fever, rhinorrhea, and cough. 

I’m sorry… can I just repeat that last sentence again?

Persons with chronic disease or poor health given antibacterial cleaners were more likely to have fever, rhinorrhea and cough.

Maybe their lowered immunity wasn’t able to protect them against all the chemicals and toxins in the products?

Still not convinced?

Here’s an excerpt from the CDC Website – That’s the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

“An essential part of preventing the spread of infection in the community and at home is proper hygiene. This includes hand-washing and cleaning shared items and surfaces. Antibacterial-containing products have not been proven to prevent the spread of infection better than products that do not contain antibacterial chemicals. Although a link between antibacterial chemicals used in personal cleaning products and bacterial resistance has been shown in vitro studies (in a controlled environment), no human health consequence has been demonstrated. More studies examining resistance issues related to these products are needed.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee voted unanimously on October 20, 2005 that there was a lack of evidence supporting the benefit of consumer products including handwashes, bodywashes, etc., containing antibacterial additives over similar products not containing antibacterial additives.”

Which leads nicely to another concern that has been raised with excessive use of antibacterial cleaners: the creation of superbugs.

The UK Cleaning Products Industry Association unsurprisingly says no, antibacterial products aren’t to blame – antibiotics are.

“No.  Although this possibility is often discussed, the scientific evidence does not suggest this is actually happening, despite many decades of use, nor that’s it’s likely to happen.”11

A variety of different studies have been done on the link between antibacterial cleaners and the creation of super bugs, most of them by Dr. Stuart Levy, a microbiologist at Tufts University, but in reality it is inconclusive. What we do know for sure though, is that antibacterial cleaners clean the good bacteria along with the bad, causing weakness in the immune system.  More research is required to find out for sure – but you can imagine no one’s rushing to fund that research.

Another thing we know for sure is that these products are showing up in waterways, in food and in the umbilical cords of newborn babies, absorbed through the mother.  And then we wonder why asthma and allergies among other things are on the rise?

So to sum up:

1) Antibacterial products have not been shown to have any positive effect on consumer health

2) Antibacterial products contain a host of chemicals, many of which have detrimental side effects to health, and more specifically, can cause extra illness in people with an already low immune system.

3) The antibacterial products you wash down the drain end up in the waterways, in our food, and in our environment, killing good bacteria along with the bad, and potentially causing a rise in bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Those you rub on your skin pass through into your unborn baby – you know, the one you’re staying away from cheese, coffee and sushi for.


Considering that there’s no difference in the health benefit of using antibacterial products over just washing with water and non-antibacterial soap, you may as well use something that’s not detrimental to you or the environment – like tea tree oil. EEK! You say. THAT HIPPY STUFF DOESN’T WORK?!

Well, actually:

“Tea tree oil in a topical formulation might eliminate organisms from carriage sites such as the hairline, axilla, nares, groin and perineum, and incorporation of tea tree oil in hand-washing formulations may reduce the transmission of many multi-resistant organisms associated with nosocomial infections.”12

You can find similar information for Lavender too.

If you’d like to swap to more natural, chemical free cleaners, see these posts below for wonderful products you can use at home:

Of course, many of these recipes still include chemicals, but these are no where near as toxic to us, our children or our environment as the anti-bacterial options we’re being led to believe we really need, for the sole purpose of someone else’s financial gain.


  1. Nonylphenol in the environment: a critical review on occurrence, fate, toxicity and treatment in wastewaters Environ Int. 2008 Oct;34(7):1033-49. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2008.01.004. Epub 2008 Feb 20.
  2. David Suzuki Foundation A very interesting blog post on the topic
  3.  Cosmetics Info – The Science And Safety Behind Your Favourite Products
  4. Key Concepts: Chemical Sensitization Michael D. Lebowitz
  5.  <a href=”“>Citronellol</a> – Environmental Working Group
  6. <a href=”“>Hexyl Cinnamal</a> – Environmental Working Group
  7.>Dimethylommonium Chloride - Wikipedia
  8. <a href=”“> Benzalkonium_chloride </a> Wikipedia lists a host of reference articles related to the above.
  9. Effectiveness of Low-Temperature Domestic Laundry on the Decontamination of Healthcare Workers’ Uniforms, N. Lakdawala, MSc; J. Pham, MRes; M. Shah, MSc; J. Holton, PhD, FRCPath Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, Vol. 32, No. 11 (November 2011), pp. 1103-1108
  10. Beyond Semmelweis: Moving Infection Control into the Community J. Todd Weber, MD; and James M. Hughes, MD
  11.  Do anti-bacterial and disinfectant products promote the spread of superbugs?
  12. <> Time–kill studies of tea tree oils on clinical isolates</a>
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10 thoughts on “The Danger And Ineffectiveness Of Antibacterial Laundry Detergents And A List of Eco-Friendly Non-Toxic Alternatives

  1. Rob

    These points are so valid and true!

    I always tell people they ought to make the jump from nasty toxic chemicals and instead opt for an alternative choice like eco friendly cleaning products but nobody takes it very seriously. However, you’ve presented proven and scientific facts which may be more convincing to people.

    I’ll be sure to point others in the post of your blog post if anybody doubts me in the future!

    Thanks for this great post and spending time on it for us
    Rob’s last blog post ..Should you try professional furniture cleaning? Yes!


    Luschka Reply:

    Pleasure! Glad you found it useful!


  2. Lyndsey

    Just stumbled on your blog looking for homemade laundry detergent. And found your article really interesting.

    I know exactly which brand you are on about and personally if something is going to kill 99.9% of bacteria that means that it’s not just going to kill the bad bacteria but all the good bacteria with it. I’m a firm believer in kids need a certain amount of dirt to build their immune systems.

    Let’s face it! If there is no good bacteria in our homes or on our laundry or anywhere else what immunity can we build up to simple illnesses?
    I have two kids and feel sorry for new mothers with all the information bombarded their way about protecting their little ones from everything to the point that the poor child can’t go outside without a full hazmat suit on! Bit extreme I know but it’s how I personally feel.


    Luschka Reply:

    Same here Lyndsey. I don’t like preying on the fears of mothers to sell products, but so many do it!


  3. timeresisting

    I am interested in something that kills the bacteria from my teenagers shirt armpits. I seem to never be able to get rid of that BO smell. They smell fine at first but when they are ironed they start to smell again. Even when they shower everyday their shirts still tend to smell.
    Thank you in advance. :)


  4. CJ

    Thank you for taking the time to write this entry. As a mother of 2 and conscious survivor in times of wasteland crud , I try to keep as many chemicals out of my family’s daily routines. Maybe it’s this ungodly hour that I find myself awake at ;) or this incredibly detailed and perspective putting post that made me think about the chemicals that we encounter AWAY from home. I think I will make it a big priority to put some gentle soap in my bag for trips and outings!


  5. You have really got me thinking here! Ekkk maybe I should re-evaluate what we use as a family x
    Cake Chops’s last blog post ..Half term already


    Luschka Reply:

    That’s the idea ;) Thanks for commenting!


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