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You are here: EPA Home » DfE » Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients

Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients

EPA-744-F-99-008
May 1999

Surfactants

Builders

Bleaches

Colorants

Optical Brighteners

Solvents

Wash Water

Resource Efficiency

Packaging

Surfactants

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Biodegrade readily to compounds with low toxicity. Example: Straight carbon chain compounds like linear alcohol ethoxylates or betaine esters.

Key Characteristics of Concern: Toxicity to aquatic organisms, like fish (vertebrates), daphnids (invertebrates) and algae; persistence in the environment; toxicity of biodegradation byproducts.

Example: Alkylphenol ethoxylates--biodegrade under anaerobic conditions to alkylphenols, which persist in the environment, have high toxicity to aquatic organisms, and may be endocrine disruptors (compounds that adversely affect the endocrine system that controls metabolism, reproduction, and growth).

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Builders

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Low toxicity, low impact on the environment. Example: Zeolites, also known as aluminosilicates.

Key Characteristic of Concern: Potential to cause eutrophication in fresh water (eutrophication is the process by which a body of water becomes rich in dissolved nutrients, diminishing oxygen levels and a water body's ability to support various forms of aquatic life).

Example: Inorganic phosphates.

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Bleaches

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Low toxicity, no toxic byproducts. Example: Hydrogen peroxide or ozone.

Key Characteristics of Concern: Inherent toxicity and toxic byproducts.

Examples:
Sodium hypochlorite, which can form hazardous gases and chlorinated organic byproducts; may also damage fibers in clothing and fabrics, which can lead to the generation of excess lint, a potential fire hazard during drying; Sodium perborate, which can present both human health and ecological concerns; and Dichloro-isocyanurate may form toxic gas, nitrogen-trichloride, a threat to human health.

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Colorants

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Low toxicity to humans and aquatic organisms. Minimize colorant use whenever possible.

Key Characteristic of Concern: Toxicity. Studies indicate that certain colorants may cause cancer or other adverse health effects in humans (e..g., Rhodamine B). Metalized dyes present health and environmental concerns.

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Optical Brighteners

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Low toxicity to humans and the environment. Example: Coumarin derivative, perhaps.

Key Characteristic of Concern: Potential toxicity to humans.

Examples: Aminotriazine- or stilbene-based whiteners. Toxicity data indicate that these compounds may cause developmental and reproductive effects, but additional testing is needed to confirm these concerns.

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Solvents

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Low toxicity to humans and the environment. Example: Propylene glycol ethers.

Key Characteristic of Concern: Toxicity to humans and aquatic organisms.

Examples: For human health concerns, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether; for environmental concerns, d-limonene.

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Wash Water

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Neutral pH. Example: Enzyme-based detergents.

Key characteristics of concern: Highly caustic or acidic wash environments; may cause severe irritation or burns to living tissue in humans or aquatic organisms.

Example: High alkaline breaks, low pH sours. Highly alkaline ingredients can lead to alkaline hydrolysis on polyester fibers, shortening linen life. Extreme pH effluents may also damage pipes and sewer lines.

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Resource Efficiency

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Low temperature and reduced cycle formulations.

Key Characteristics of Concern: Overuse of water and energy. Formulations that require high temperatures and multiple rinse cycles deplete increasingly scarce natural resources.

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Packaging

Positive Environmental Characteristic: Minimize solid waste generation.

Key Characteristic of Concern: Non-reusable or non-recyclable containers.

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