How green is your washing powder?

How green is your washing powder?
From phosphates to enzymes, the contents of your detergent can be difficult to decipher. Here’s what to look out for and what to avoid

A trip to your local Sainsbury or Tesco can be overwhelming, thanks to shelves stocked with row upon row of options. As a result, working out what to choose can be tough and washing powder is no exception. From bio to non-bio to fragrance free, which is the best for you? Washing powder can be eco-friendly and effective. It's just a matter of knowing what to look out for.

Surfactants are essential for clean clothes. They help break up dirt and stains, thereby saving your favourite sweater from the rubbish bin. But these helpful molecules don’t always come naturally. ‘The main ingredient used in the industry is called LAS, which is Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate,’ says Alastair Lidstone, New Product Development Manager for Ecover. ‘The problem with that ingredient is it’s not anaerobically biodegradable. After use it washes down the drain into a sewage place or a river, and if oxygen is not present, it does not biodegrade.’ Earth friendly brands like Ecover use plant-based - as opposed to petrochemical-based - surfactants such as ‘Fatty Acids Methyl Esters Ethoxylates’ (FAMEE), which are derived from rapeseed oil. Despite the intimidating name, it is 100 per cent natural.

Phosphates are another red-flag ingredient, and probably the one that most of us have heard of. In a December statement, the EU made a commitment to reducing the amount of phosphorus in washing powder to no more than 0.5 grams per standard dose by June 2013. ‘Phosphorus, in the form of phosphates or phosphonates, helps wash clothes and dishes, especially in hard water, but its release into waterways can lead to algal blooms that stifle fish and other aquatic life,’ it says. Since the 1980s the use of phosphates has halved; going from 250,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes, according to an April 2010 impact assessment summary by the European Commission. But there is still a long way to go. Phosphonates are often used in place of phosphates, but are listed by the EU as a persistent chemical on its Detergents Ingredients Database. To make matters worse, strip mining for phosphates has devastated swathes of African countryside, particularly in countries such as Morocco and Togo, where the substance forms one of its main exports.

Big name brands, such as Unilever’s Persil, still use phosphonates. ‘Clearly with our laundry detergent it is important that the product washes effectively - otherwise the environmental impact is increased if clothes have to be rewashed - and that it works well at low temperatures,’ says Helen Fenwick, Unilever Sustainable Living Plan Manager. Fenwick says Unilever is committed to safety, as well as reducing the GHG impact from washing clothes. ‘Our formulation specialists use only internationally permitted ingredients and our long experience enables us to apply rigorous safety standards, which are sometimes higher than those set by the regulators,’ she says.

Just to make things even more confusing, there is the bio versus non-bio debate. Bio powders often contain ingredients such as enzymes that are regulated by the EU. Though these ingredients are natural, they are known to cause allergic reactions, which has resulted in non-bio powder being seen as safer. Enzymes are naturally-occurring proteins called proteases and amylases. They help break down stains caused by blood, eggs and sweat, to name a few. But unlike the rest of Europe, the UK has a long history of shunning these super scrubbers. ‘The UK’s kind of a strange market because in the whole of Europe, every washing powder contains enzymes,’ Lidstone says. ‘The UK is the one exception in that we have this split between bio and non-bio products.’

And you’re going to have to dig even deeper if you want eco-friendly and allergen-free. ‘Ingredients within cleaning products may be harmful to some people but not others,’ says Muriel Simmons, Allergy UK’s Executive Chairman. ‘The answer isn’t necessarily purchasing natural products as different people react to different ingredients, some of which are derived from natural sources.’ The best indication that a product is not for you is allergic dermatitis, which ‘appears as itchy, sore, red bumpy skin, which becomes flaky and dry,’ Millen says. ‘Sufferers can react to a product they’ve used many times before as the allergic reaction only occurs when the skin is repeatedly exposed to the allergen.’

So what can you do? You should read labels and look for common chemical additives. But even labels can be deceptive. ‘It’s quite difficult because by law you’re not obliged to mention a lot on the packaging,’ Lidstone says. ‘At Ecover we mention every ingredient that’s in our products.’ It’s a tricky situation indeed, but by being a conscious consumer you’re more likely to locate your ideal product. And with a little research and a lot of awareness, you can find a washing powder that leaves those whites stain free, your skin spot free and your conscious guilt free.

Detergents that make a difference


For allergy sufferers: The Ecoegg, £19.99
‘The Ecoegg holds the Allergy Friendly Product Award after being assessed by Allergy UK’s panel of advisors as suitable for people with sensitive skin conditions,’ says Muriel Simmons. The nifty plastic yellow egg contains ‘scientifically tested, hypoallergenic cleaning pellets’ that activate in the water to remove dirt without the need for nasty chemicals, and is good for 720 washes.

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For everyone: Ecover Fragrance Free Non-Bio Washing Powder, £3.89
Ecover Fragrance Free Non-Bio Washing Powder is the first of Ecover’s fragrance free products to hit the UK stores. It is both eco-friendly and dermatologically tested for sensitive skin. With packaging that is 100 per cent recyclable, this powder is an ultra green, affordable choice that works well at 30 degrees.

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For vegans: Bio-D Washing Powder, £3.75 (per kg)
Bio-D Washing Powder is made by a family-owned company ‘dedicated to promoting the use of hypoallergenic, environmentally responsible detergents that have a minimum impact on the ecosystem.’ Their products are vegan, phosphate-free and their packaging is 100 per cent recyclable.

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For children: Simply Sensitive Non-Bio Washing Powder, £2.89
Simply Sensitive Non-Bio Washing Powder carries the EU’s Ecolabel, and is also 100 per cent vegan and biodegradable. Perfect for delicate skin, Simpy Sensitive contains no allergens and can tackle even the heaviest loads with just one tab. Better still, it smells wonderful too.

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