Behind the label: Fairy Liquid

The bird is now bones, the gravy glue, the roast veggies are on their way to becoming a source of winter fuel and as soon as everyone’s dinner has gone down a bit, it will be time to do the washing-up. If you are one of the 64 per cent of households in the UK that doesn’t own a dishwasher, chances are there will be a trusty bottle of Fairy Liquid by the sink to get the job of washing-up done.

15-30% Anionic surfactants, 5-15% Nonionic
surfactants, Perfume, Geraniol, Limonene


Because the dishes are a chore that has to be done, most people never think twice about what’s in a bottle of washing-up liquid. Nevertheless, a product like this can still add to the total toxic load of your body though its use and through is presence in the environment.

In the UK we spend £310 million a year on dishwashing detergents (in the US, the spend is around $1.53 billion) and Fairy Liquid is the UK’s leading brand. With 13 million-plus British households buying 150 million bottles of Fairy Liquid each year, this consumer icon boasts 57 percent of the market, making it the nation’s favourite washing-up brand. Parent company Procter & Gamble (P&G) likes it a lot too, since it is the mainstay of the company’s £7 billion Fabric and Home Care unit- one of P&Gs most successful moneyspinners.  

Fairy has maintained its place in the marketplace with clever marketing that makes use of celebrity endorsements and promises of a world of happiness in a bottle. Famous for the ‘mild green Fairy Liquid’ slogan as well as is claim to last 50 per cent longer than any other brand, Fairy boasts a seal of approval by the British Skin Foundation, though this claim is not all that it seems. The British Skin Foundation is a charity that P&G (along with many other product manufacturers) supports financially.

So what’s really in the bottle? No one outside the P&G labs really knows. The ingredients label is woefully inadequate (see above) and P&G told us to find what we were looking for on the internet. After an extensive web search we did indeed find some - but not all - information on the components that make up Fairy Liquid.

• Aqua
• Sodium laureth sulphate
• Alcohol denat
• Lauramine oxide
• C9-11 pareth-8
• Sodium chloride
• 1,3-Cyclohexanedimethanamine
• PPG (polypropylene glycols)
• Dimethyl aminoethyl methecrylate/hydroxyproply acrylate copolymer cirate
• Parfum
• Geraniol
• Limonene
• Colourant

This list corresponds well with P&Gs own ‘safety data sheet’ for its original Fairy Liquid. The first thing that jumps out about this information is how well Fairy illustrates the problem that so little data exists or is indeed required on the components of common household products, even though human exposure and environmental impact are the key issues for a product of this type.

Anionic and non-ionic detergents can cause irritation to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Some, such as the ethoxylated alcohols sodium laureth sulphate and C9-11 pareth 8, can be contaminated with the carcinogen 1,4 dioxane. Several of the detergents and perfumes are known allergens and sensitisers, likely to be made harsher by the skin-denaturing effect of sticking your bare hands into hot water. Using a dish detergent in hot water also creates another health hazard- chemical vapours. In hot water the chemicals vaporise and are inhaled as steam; and some of Fairy’s ingredients, such as 1.3-Cyclohexanedimenthanamine, can produce vapours that cause severe irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract.

Among the tonnes of cleaning products we pour down the drain each year are toxic substances that are not processed adequately by sewage treatment plants or septic systems. Although Fairy claims to be biodegradable and complies with EU guidelines in this regard, it can hardly be considered good for the environment. For a detergent to be considered biodegradable by the EU, it need only break down by 660 per cent within 28 days. During those 28 days, residues from detergents and surfactants can build up and cause significant, long-lasting damage to humans, animals and the environment.

According to Greenpeace, Fairy may also contain hormone-disrupting artificial musks, which are potential carcinogens and reproductive toxins both in people and wildlife- again, we don’t know for sure because P&G will not answer the simple question: does it or doesn’t it? In the absence of data, the precautionary principle applies- assume that it does.

In truth, there is no such thing as an ‘environmentally friendly’ detergent. Detergents are always a burden on people and the planet in one way or another. The best action is to buy from manufacturers who strive to go beyond existing regulations- for instance by using vegetable-based detergents, eschewing colours or perfumes, and by making their products biodegrade in days, not weeks.



…are still in the majority, but only just. The perceived ‘menial’ nature of household chores means that the era of the dishwasher is upon us. Brits, it seems, are still not afraid to get their hands dirty; and we lag behind many of our neighbours in Europe, where around half of all households own a dishwasher, compared to 36 per cent in thee UK.

The energy-intensive, water-wasting nature of dishwashers aside, most automatic dishwashing detergents are either irritants or corrosives- depending on their composition, concentration, and physical form. They are made with strong petroleum-based detergents and a strong alkali. Skin irritation or burns may occur following exposure to dissolved detergents. Many also contain phosphates that pollute water ways.

Some automatic dishwashing detergents also contain dry chlorine that is activated when mixed with the water in the dishwasher. This means that when you open the dishwasher, chlorine fumes are released in the steam that leaks out. These can cause eye irritation and difficulty breathing, especially for those with respiratory problems.




This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2006

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