Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Washing Day


Like me, my mum’s been using commercial washing detergent and fabric softener for donkey’s years. It does the job so why not? Well, for one, it’s far more expensive than the alternative and secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s harmful to the environment.

As a consumer, and I’ll admit, one that for too long didn’t give enough thought to the impact my spending habits were having on the environment, I used to buy commercial washing powders. Anything that was on special offer would do. The same applied to fabric softener. Then I started thinking about the effect this was having on the waterways, and with water being a precious commodity, I decided it was time to think differently about the way I do our laundry.

The main problem is that we’re not properly informed about the ingredients of these products and what harm they might do and even when you try to find out, it’s actually quite difficult. What, for example, does “Ingredients include surfactants (anionic and nonionic) and enzymes.” Mean? What’s more, the companies that produce detergents aren’t even required by law to list their ingredients! Why? Because they’re a secret! They don’t want other manufacturers copying their formulations!

What is clear is that most washing powders contain “Alkyl benzene sulfonates”. These are what are generally described as “anionic surfacants”. They do biodegrade albeit slowly BUT, in order to produce them, carginogens and reproductive toxins (benzene is an example) are released and find their way into the environment. Another compound used in detergents is “Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols”, otherwise known as synthetic surfacants. These are real little buggers! They biodegrade slowly and research here in England has found that even trace elements can activate estrogen receptors which can alter the activity of certain genes. They’ve been shown to stimulate the growth of breast cancer and to feminise male fish! Nasty! In fact, these chemicals are actually used in spermicides, and that says a lot!

Then there’s that whiter than white wash. For this, you’ll need a detergent that contains optical brighteners. These don’t improve the quality of the wash in any way, they simply trick the eye by converting UV light wavelengths to visible light. Your whites aren’t actually whiter at all, but for them to look that way, the fish in our waterways are suffering and bacterial mutations are developing. Oh dear. Things really aren’t looking too good, are they?

When it comes to fabric softener, the artificial fragrances used are generally made from petroleum, many of which simply do not degrade but hang around in the environment, affecting both fish and mammals. If you have a family member with a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, you’ll probably already know how much of a problem they can be.

So what’s the answer? Should we all walk around in dirty clothes, sleep in dirty bed linen and dry ourselves on dirty towels? No, of course not. What we have to do is look for alternatives, something that isn’t harmful – or at least not as harmful – to the environment.

My solution has been to use a combination of 50% soda crystals/50% soap flakes instead of washing detergent and white vinegar instead of fabric softener. And no, you won’t end up smelling like a fish and chip shop (my mum’s first reaction)! Neither soap flakes or soda crystals contain enzymes, phosphates, bleaches or other harmful ingredients and were the only products used at the turn of the last century, long before the manufacture of synthetic surfactants and what-have-ya were developed. And believe me, they do the job just as well, if not even better than, commercial detergents. As for white vinegar, it won’t leave your clothes smelling of ylang-ylang, lavender or passion flower, but your clothes will smell fresh and clean. And that’s the main aim, isn’t is? And no, your towels won’t be left feeling like an emery board either. Just give them a good shake before you hang them up to dry, shake them again before you fold them and they’ll be far more absorbent than if you use fabric conditioner and soft enough for comfort. And if you do want your laundry to smell pretty, you can always add a few drops of essential oil to the vinegar (makes sure it's essential oil though, and not a synthetic fragrance oil as these will leave marks on your clothes).

What's more, this combination is much cheaper than using washing powder and conditioner.

Anyway, mum called today to tell me she’d done her first wash using this formula and was more than pleased with the results. Dad is incontinent so his underwear is usually quite a state when they’re put in the machine, as are many of the bed sheets and towels, but they’d all come out looking much better than they had before. That's one more lady doing keeping her laundry looking clean and smelling fresh, saving money at the same time and doing her bit to save our planet from the impact of the commercial nasties :-)

Remember, caring about the environment is ultimately caring about yourself and your family.

Sharon xx

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Debi said...

Clever you! I use Ecover and wash at 30 degrees with no fabric softener.

Sad to say, this means we always look a bit grubby and the kids complain their socks have 'crunchy toes'. Towels could double as sandpaper.

I'll try your recipe next time and report back.

Sharon J said...

Ecover's good. I used that for a while before I switched to soda crystals. You could always carry on using that and just add a drop of white vinegar to the rinse (about the same amount as you'd use if it were fabric softener) and the boys won't be complaining about crunchy toes anymore :)

Richard said...

Try this site:


Richard said...

Or this one:

Soap Flakes

Sharon J said...

I've been to both Richard. Soda Crystals and Soap Flakes can be used for a plethora of cleaning projects and I really only use those, bicarb and Stardrops these days. Gone are the hoards of cleaning fluids that used to clutter up the under-sink cupboard. Times are a-changing :)

Thanks for adding the links, though. Others may well find them useful.

Anonymous said...

I had to laugh at this as I could just imagine OH's face if I told him I was going to rinse his clothes in vinegar! Mind you, that might be a way of getting him to do his own washing. LOL.

Sharon J said...

LOL. Why not give it a try? At least half the washing will get done without chemicals and you'll halve the amount you have to do :-)

I think a lot of people are put off by the thought of using vinegar but once they've tried it they realise that it does work and they don't end up smelling like a bag of chips.