There’s no denying that most of us would be more or less lost without laundry detergent. It makes our whites whiter and our brights brighter, and it removes the stubborn stains we get from god-knows-where. And yet, in the last decade or so, we’ve witnessed a growing concern surrounding certain household products, like detergent, due to the high concentration of harsh chemicals they contain and how they can potentially put people’s health in jeopardy. One common issue when it comes to detergent is its ability to trigger adverse skin reactions and conditions like contact dermatitis, which are caused when the skin is exposed to a foreign substance it doesn’t agree with.
So, what, exactly, is the deal with detergent and how can you determine if it’s doing more harm than good? We tapped the experts to find out more. Ahead, with the help of New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner and allergist Tania Elliott, we explore the dark side of detergent: the common allergens they contain, how they can mess with the skin, and, of course, what you can do to avoid it all.
How Can Detergent Negatively Affect Skin?
The long and short of it is that many detergents contain toxic chemicals (like 1,4-dioxane, a potential carcinogen), preservatives, and artificial fragrances and dyes, all of which can aggravate the skin, according to both experts. This rings especially true for those who have a history of eczema or skin allergies, explains Zeichner, who adds that overdoing it on detergent is another factor that can lead to an adverse reaction.
“Using too much can cause the detergent to become impregnated between fibers of the fabric and come into direct contact with the skin as you wear the clothing,” he says. “Especially if you have a high-efficiency washing machine, you really want to make sure you’re only using the amount of detergent recommended.” As for what to look out for, a reaction to detergent will typically present itself in the form of an eczema-like rash. “It tends to get really dry, red, itchy, and scaly like eczema,” says Zeichner.
How Can I Determine Detergent’s the Culprit?
There are few things as frustrating as having an allergic reaction and not being able to decipher where it stemmed from. Chances are, if you develop a random skin rash, you’re going to consider the foods you’ve been eating, the drinks you’ve been downing, and the skin-care products you’ve been slathering on your face. And this is exactly what you should do, especially if you recently deviated from your usual routine in any way — for instance, if you experimented with a new cuisine or tried a different night cream.
Once you’ve ruled the aforementioned factors out of the equation, it’s time to ask yourself even more critical questions. For starters, Elliott says you should consider the location of your rash. “If the rash is present on one side of your face and you’re a side sleeper, detergent could be the culprit,” she explains, adding that detergents are also a common cause of hand dermatitis. “You should also ask yourself whether you’ve recently switched detergents and if you only get rashes when you sleep in hotel rooms, as commercial-grade detergents are notorious for causing facial dermatitis.”
One caveat she does note, however, is that you can develop a contact allergy to an ingredient at any given time, so while it’s more likely that you’d developed a reaction to a new detergent, you shouldn’t rule out one you’ve been using for a while, either.
Finally, you should check to see if anyone else in your household has a similar rash, and if you’re still stuck, see a board-certified doctor to figure it out once and for all. You can also see an allergist, who can perform certain tests — such as a patch test — to figure out if it’s the cause of your skin irritation.
What Should I Do If I’m Allergic to Detergent?
Luckily, if it turns out you are allergic to most traditional detergents on the market, it’s not all that uncommon. Brands are now developing detergents without the aforementioned allergens, so you can safely clean your clothes and linens without having to worry about what weird toxic ingredients might be lingering.
The Laundress, an eco-friendly line of detergent and home-cleaning products, formulates without ammonia, petroleum, phthalates, phosphates, parabens, formaldehyde, artificial dyes, and chlorine bleach, as well as any other unnecessary additives. “By skipping the harsh chemicals and allergens, our solutions leave you with a clean that feels good,” say founders Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd. “We’ve had many loyal customers with allergies and sensitivities, including eczema, share their joy over finding a nontoxic detergent that is effective yet gentle on skin.”
The Honest Company is another brand that makes detergent that’s made without common irritants like synthetic fragrance and chemicals.
Elliott says she tends to recommend All Free Clear, as it was formulated specifically for those with sensitive skin and doesn’t contain fragrance or any artificial dyes.
The bottom line? If you’re prone to skin reactions or have eczema, you should steer clear of detergents that contain dyes or fragrance at all costs. That, and everyone should be careful not to overdo it on detergent.