Harmful Ingredients to avoid in Laundry Detergent

Harmful Ingredients to avoid in Laundry Detergent

A lot of companies use scare tactics to get you to buy their products. At Rustic Strength, we try to guide the consumer in making mindful choices. 

Even if you choose not to purchase our product, you should know what chemicals to avoid and why to avoid them. 

This article will refer to ingredients found in liquid and powdered laundry detergents marketed to your family and your baby.  

Carcinogens (cancer-causing substance): Ethoxylated Alcohols, Nonylphenol ethoxylate, Ethanolamine (DEA, MEA, TEA), Optical brighteners, SLES, VOC’s and Formaldehyde

Allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions): Cocamidopropyl Betaine, SLS, Phosphates, Artificial Dyes, Preservatives, Chlorine Bleach, Parabens

Endocrine Disruptors (substances that can cause birth defects, hormone disruption, developmental issues, and cancer): Sodium Borate, Optical Brighteners, Parabens, Phthalates, VOC’s


Ethoxylated components

Ethoxylated components listed as ingredients can be of low concern, however, the process of ethoxylation may leave behind traces of two different contaminants: ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane

  • 1,4-dioxane can penetrate the skin and is listed as a possibly carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
  • Ethylene oxide is on California’s Prop 65 list along with the IARC as a known carcinogen. 

The linear alcohols used in the manufacturing of alcohol ethoxylates can be from oleochemical (derived industrially from animal or vegetable oils or fats) or petrochemical feedstocks. 

Look out for: C10-16 pareth, C12-15 alcohol ethoxylated, Laureth – 6, Laureth - 7, Pareth, Alcohol (ethoxylated), Linear alcohol ethoxylate, PEG-20 glyceryl cocoate, polyethyleneimine alkoxylated, C12-15 alcohols ethoxylated, sodium laureth sulfate, fatty alcohol ethoxylate, PPG - polypropylene glycol, PEG – polyethylene glycol, anything ending in -eth (Laureth, steareth, ceteareth), Non-food grade Polysorbate*

*A note on polysorbate in our products - Rustic Strength sources premium food-grade polysorbate 20 that has no 1,4-dioxane in it.  We have placed this on our labels for clear understanding of this ingredient.  We also have the documentation from the manufacturer that states it has been tested and contains no 1,4-dioxane.


Nonylphenol ethoxylate

According to the EPA, nonylphenol (NP) and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) are listed as chemicals of high concern because they are identified as endocrine disruptors and are persistent, toxic and bioaccumulate. NP and NPE are part of a larger group of chemicals known as alkylphenol and alkylphenol ethoxylate which are nonionic surfactants. 

Look out for: Nonoxynol-3, Nonoxynol-30, Nonoxynol-4, Nonoxynol-44, PEG-13 Nonyl phenyl ether, PEG-15 Nonyl phenyl ether, PEG-3 Nonyl phenyl ether, PEG-30 Nonyl phenyl ether, PEG-4 Nonyl phenyl ether, PEG-44 Nonyl phenyl ether, Glycols, polyethylene, monononylphenyl ether, Ethoxylated nonylphenol

This above class of components are not readily found in laundry detergent.  However, they can be and since there are so many laundry detergents out there, I included them in my research.


Ethanolamine (DEA, MEA, TEA) 

Ethanolamine (DEA, MEA, TEA) chemicals are made through a reaction of ethylene oxide and ammonia. They work as surfactants and emulsifying agents in cleaning and personal care products.  When ethanolamines are combined with nitrates/nitrites they form the compound nitrosamines, which are considered to be strong carcinogens.  Attached are several articles if you would like to deep dive into nitrosamines.  

  • Diethanolamine (DEA) – can be found in shampoos, cleaners, and detergents as an emulsifying agent.
  • Monothanolamine (MEA) – can be found in floor cleaners and laundry detergent to help remove grease, dirt, and stains.
  • Triethanolamine (TEA) – can be found in products as a pH adjuster, fragrance, and/or emulsifying agent.

Look out for: Triethanolamine, Diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, Cocamide DEA, Cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide MEA, Myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate



The -eth Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) in laureth means that this material could have 1,4 dioxane as an impurity.  SLES can be produced from palm oil or coconut oil, but it is prepared by ethoxylation of dodecyl alcohol.  SLES can also be a skin irritant to some people.  Look out for: SLES, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium lauryl ether sulfate, Sodium alklethersulfate, Sodium Pareth Sulfate

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) can also be derived from palm or coconut oil but does not go through ethoxylation like SLES.  SLS can be very irritating to some people with sensitive skin and can be very bad for babies delicate skin.  It has a small molecular size and therefore can penetrate the skin barrier easily. It is not a risk of being a carcinogen.  

Look out for: SLS, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, ALS, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate


Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers

Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers are used in liquid detergents and cosmetic products as a low-cost alternative preservative to control microbial growth. These compounds have been recognized as mutagenic, carcinogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system.  It can also cause contact dermatitis or eczema on the skin and around the eyes.

Look out for: Formalin, Formic Aldehyde, Methanal, Methyl Aldehyde, Methylene Glycol, Methylene Oxide, Benzylhemiformal, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, Diazolidinyl urea, 1,3-dimethylol-5,5 dimethylhydantoin (or DMDM hydantoin), Imidazolidinyl urea, Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, Quaternium-15


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

According to the American Lung Association, “VOCs are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes.” Why is this a problem? Because some of these gases can cause cancer. Other gases combine to form compounds that can cause air pollution and other dangerous chemicals for the environment or our health.  

Look out for: Benzene, Ethylene glycol, Formaldehyde, Terpenes, Limonene, Alpha-pinene, Beta-pinene, aldehydes, Methylene chloride, Tetrachloroethylene, Toluene, Xylene, 1,3 butadiene

Common Sources of VOC's: Paints, Varnishes, Caulks, Adhesives, Carpet, Vinyl, Flooring, Composite Wood Products Upholstery & Foam, Smoking, Dry Cleaning, Photocopiers, Air Fresheners, Cleaning Products, Cosmetics, Fuel Oil, Gasoline, Cooking, Burning Wood.

Wait, how does this pertain to laundry detergent? 

The most common VOCs in laundry detergent are fragrances and formaldehyde.  Since we already talked about formaldehyde, let’s talk about fragrance oils, which can also contain phthalates.  (Phthalates are a group of chemicals that have been known to cause endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer.) Fragrance oils can be naturally or synthetically derived. Some compounds in fragrance oils have been determined to contain toxic or hazardous chemicals defined under federal law.  There is so much to understand on how fragrance oils can affect your health and the environment.  I put a deep dive section for you to continue reading.

Look out for:
Fragrance, Perfume, Parfum, Fragrance Oil, Essential Oil Blend, Aroma, DEP, Diethyl phthalate 

Rustic Strength only uses phthalate-free fragrance oils that have been certified as Prop 65 compliant by the manufacturer.  This means that the fragrance oil does not contain any of the 624 carcinogens or 323 reproductive/developmental toxicants listed under the Prop 65 act. 



Parabens are chemicals, parahydroxybenzoates or esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid that are commonly used as preservatives in personal care items. Parabens are thought to be endocrine-disruptive chemicals (EDC’s), contributing to the development of breast cancer. Parabens are easy to spot on the label because they will have the word “paraben” at the end.  However, they can be added into raw materials to preserve them before they ever reach a formulator.  They are mainly found in personal care items but can sometimes be found in laundry detergent.  

Look out for: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Buylparaben



Phosphates is a common element in our environment and is present naturally in food, water and our bodies. In laundry it is used as a chelating agent to grab ahold of calcium and magnesium ions.  The reason they are not widely used any more is because they make their way to natural bodies of water and increase algae bloom.  

Look out for: STPP, Sodium Tripolyphosphate, TCP, Tricalcium Phosphate, PSTP, Pentasodum Triphospahate 


Chlorine Bleach

Chlorine Bleach is also known as liquid sodium hypochlorite and is found in most household bleaches at a rate of 6%.  It helps to remove coloring from fabric, remove stains, disinfect, and sterilize. The issue with household bleach is it can be a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant.  

Sprayed: Can worsen/cause asthma, accidentally be inhaled, irritate skin and eyes, increase risk of cancer, or pets can inhale.

Wiped: Can transfer to pets, babies, or your mouth through hands and feet.  

If combined with certain chemicals, it can give off extremely hazardous gases. DO NOT combine chlorine bleach with ammonia (quaternary ammonium compounds that can be found in disinfectants, vinegar, or other acids).

When reviewing labels look for ingredients like

Look out for: Sodium hypochlorite, Calcium hypochlorite, Sodium dichloroisocyanurate 


Artificial Dyes and Colorants & Optical Brighteners 

Artificial Dyes and Colorants & Optical Brighteners are used to change the color of the detergent to make it more aesthetically pleasing and to help with optical brighteners.

Dyes and colorants are synthetically derived and can contain up to 10% impurities.  These containments can range from allergens to cancer causing agents. Brighteners can be boosted by polyethylene glycol or polyvinyl alcohol (which we discussed earlier as being a no-no).

Look out for: Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6

Florescent whiteners and brighteners are added to minimize the yellowing of fabrics.  These types of additives work by absorbing ultraviolet light and emitting back visible blue light.  This masks the yellow hue that makes clothes look dingy or faded.

Look out for: Stilbenes, 4,4′-diamino-2,2′-stilbenedisulfonic acid
Umbelliferone,  di- and tetra-sulfonated triazole-stilbenes, di-sulfonated stilbene-biphenyl, anionic diamino stilbene, DAS, Distyryl biphenyl, DSBP 


Cocamidopropyl Betaine

Cocamidopropyl Betaine is a surfactant that is a mixture of compounds derived from coconut oil and dimethylaminopropylamine.  It is used in a wide variety of products like laundry detergent, hand soap, dish soap, shampoo, and baby products.  It was named “Allergen of the Year” in 2004 because of the two impurities it contains: aminoamide (AA) and 3-dimethylaminopropylamine (DMAPA).

Look out for: Cocamidopropyl betaine



Preservatives are an essential part of household and personal care products.  They help to ensure the product doesn’t grow mold, fungus, bacteria, or yeast.  There are several problems that manufacturers face when picking a good preservative, one being that almost 90% cannot be used by the detergent industry.

Here is a quick list of some preservatives that detergents can use and the issue with them-

Allergens: Isothiazolinones (MIT/BIT/CMIT/CIT/MCI/MI), Phenoxyethanol, Benzoic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Benzyl Alcohol, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate,  Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers, Triclosan

Endocrine Disruptors:  Parabens, Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers

Carcinogens: Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers

With picking a preservative for Rustic Strength laundry detergents, we have to take into consideration:

  • The pH of the product
  • The end use (how many times it is exposed to air which increase microbial activity)
  • The surfactants used (because we use plant-based surfactants this increases the sugar molecules therefore increasing the risk of yeast contamination) 
  • How much water is in the product
  • Cross contamination by the end user
  • We also weighed the options of "What would I rather expose myself and others to? cancer, endocrine-disruptive chemicals or possible allergens?". 

The least harmful choice was possible allergens. So, we went with the family of isothiazolines, using less than .001% in our laundry detergent knowing it would then be greatly diluted even further. This is still highly effective at preventing dangerous pathogens from growing in your product at this small of concentration. 

When the laundry machine goes through the wash cycle this decreases the concentration even more and decreases the risk of contact allergens.  If the laundry machine is doing its job efficiently, the preservative will leave in the wash water and not be left on the clothes.

Isothiazolines are NOT to be used in leave-on products like lotions, creams, and makeups because of they can cause contact dermatitis in certain individuals.  Rustic Strength will also never use them in items that would come in direct contact with the skin (hand, dish, shampoo, etc).  

Keep in mind that not everyone is allergic to the components marked as allergenic. We always encourage consumers to do their research.  Look at scientific journals and documents.  Read blogs but most of them use scare tactics vs real facts.  Make sure the blog article sites their work.  Be an informed consumer, regarding what you put in and on your body.


What makes Rustic Strength safe to use?

Rustic Strength Laundry Detergent is made with high-purity and concentrated active plant-based ingredients that are less likely to irritate even the most sensitive skin. This makes it safe for pregnant or breastfeeding mamas as well as babies, when no scents are added. 

Our ingredients:

Charcoal Filtered Deionized Water • High-purity water.
Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine • Naturally derived from coconut, palm-free, it is an environmentally friendly and biodegradable surfactant with high foaming and mild chemistry.
Sodium C14-C16 Olefin Sulfonate • Derived from coconuts, palm-free, this mild-surfactant helps to lift dirt and debris from surfaces, so the water can whisk them away. Biodegradable. 
Decyl Glucoside • A plant-derived, biodegradable surfactant. It is mild and safe for sensitive skin.
Vegetable Glycerin • Derived from vegetables. It is biodegradable and helps the plant surfactants do their job. Food-grade & kosher.
Dimethyl 9-Decenamide • A plant-based, biodegradable nonionic surfactant that helps clean and removes grease and other substances. 
Capryl Caprylyl Glucoside • A biodegradable plant-based surfactant with mild chemistry and sensitive skin compatibility.
Pentasodium Pentetate • Salt of Pentetic Acid. Pentasodium Pentetate is a cleaning power booster. Biodegradable.
Polysorbate 20 • Plant-based performance stabilizer. Helps in the spreadability of liquids and stabilizes the formula when adding essential oils and phthalate-free fragrances. Biodegradable. Kosher. Food-Grade. Dioxane-free. 
Methylisothiazolinone & Benzisothiazolinone • These preservatives are used in the lowest concentrated form to help decrease the chance of bacteria, fungi, and mold. Increases shelf life of the product. Antibacterial. Biodegradable. 

Learn more about these ingredients on our blog.


Our ingredients are all on the EPA safer choice list. They are all approved for safe-use in the US, Canada and the EU. The EWG rates all of them 1-2 for all ingredients that they have correctly listed.  Presently, they only rate Methylisothiazolinone & Benzisothiazolinone for cases where it is concentrated, left on the skin. Ours is diluted, then washed off in the laundry detergent’s water. They also do not have a food-grade Polysorbate 20 listed, like the one we use. Ours is free of impurities, like 1,4 Dioxane.

Research By
Rustic Strength Vice-President 
& Lead Product Developer, 
Alicia Adamson


 If you have any questions regarding this, feel free to reach out to customercare@rusticstrength.com  We would be more than happy to answer your questions. 


We invite you to do your own research! 
Scientific journals and articles are the foundation of evidence-based decisions at Rustic Strength. Blogs can provide helpful information. However, if it can not cite scientific articles, its claims stand on little. 

linear alcohols
Nonylphenol ethoxylate 
Ethanolamine (DEA, MEA, TEA) 
deep dive into nitrosamines
Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Common VOC’s
Prop 65 act
Deep dive into VOC’s:
Endocrine-disruptive chemicals 
Chlorine Bleach:
Artificial Dyes and Colorants & Optical Brighteners:
Cocamidopropyl Betaine:
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