Thursday, September 30, 2010

Eco Friendly Laundry part 2: Bleaching and Boosters

This is the second in my series on Eco Friendly Laundry. You can find my first post here:

Eco Friendly Laundry part 1: Washing

As I mentioned last time, I've been making my own non toxic cleaners or buying earth friendly versions for years, but I've never managed to convert many others even though I've touted the benefits of how much better my products work than those old toxic standbys. So last time I started using  scare tactics.
Not my usual style, but, hey, I'm not making this stuff up! This week we continue on that frightening journey by talking about bleaches and laundry boosters.

So let's start with a few basic facts (which aren't necessarily all related, but you'll get the idea):

According to a 15 year study given at the Toronto Indoor Air Conference in 1990, women who work in the home have a 54% higher death rate from cancer than those who work outside the home.

Indoor air quality is usually 25-100% worse than outdoor air quality. 

Many of the chemicals in your indoor air can build up in your body over time.

Nearly a quarter of all calls to poison control centers are about chlorine bleach.

Chlorine bleach has been linked to reproductive and immune disorders.

Chlorine bleach fumes make respiratory conditions such as asthma worse (no surprise there to anyone who's ever smelled bleach).

Chlorine bleach is corrosive. That's no surprise either, but it's not much good for your washer, your plumbing or the elastic in your undies. And it's definitely not a good idea for skin. I used to clean the educational building at our church which housed a day care center. The counters where they changed the babies' diapers by law had to be sprayed with bleach solution after every use. They were Formica and the surface was pitted and worn from the bleach and very hard to clean. Constant bleach use will make many surfaces more porous (so why do they put it in surface cleaners?).

Chlorine bleach is not a chemical that is normally found in nature. It is an unstable substance that mixes readily with other substances to form some pretty nasty chemical by products. 

We all know that chlorine bleach mixed with ammonia produces a highly toxic gas, but not many of us know that chlorine bleach mixed with anything acidic (vinegar, wine, etc) also produces toxic gas. If you've been bleaching the puddle the dog left on the tile to disinfect, it's really not a good thing.

Chlorine bleach mixed with some substances can form highly toxic dioxin, a carcinogenic chemical, which takes years to break down in the environment. From my research, it is unclear if this can happen in a household environment, but it can happen in the paper bleaching industry--a good reason to buy unbleached paper products.

Chlorine bleach mixed with certain organic materials can produce chloroform. Also, seems like this one can happen in the manufacturing of bleached paper and yet there are conflicting reports as to whether it can happen in the home.

Chlorine is used to make mustard gas. Some reports say that mixing it with dish detergent in the home can make a form of mustard gas.

and finally, the one that the bleach industry really doesn't want you to know about . . . .

Chlorine bleach causes many fabrics to turn yellow

Yeah, I'm not making that up.  Google it.


So how are we supposed to keep our whites white and our colors bright? Well, die-hard environmentalists will tell you to hang your whites on a clothes line and let the sun bleach it while keeping your brights in the shade, but I know not everyone will do that, let's explore some alternatives.

Let's ignore the whole bleach issue at first and talk about just plain getting your clothes really clean. And therein lies the problem. Why not just use a really good laundry soap that gets your clothes clean and fresh instead of having to first treat for stains, then wash and bleach and soften and "perfume"? Good point, right? Well, in a perfect world that would work. In a perfect world your water will be nice and soft, you'd have the best washer on the market, your kids wouldn't play in the grass on their knees and no one in your family would spill or sweat, and all of your clothes would have the same fiber content and dyes would be stable, and . . . .  you get the picture. Laundry product makers just can't make any one product that works for all those variables. They really try, which is why the big commercial brands have crazy things like optical brighteners in them which fool the eye into thinking that your t-shirt is brighter and whiter than it really is. I'd personally rather have a t-shirt that is actually clean than one that just looks like it is. I'd rather have a t-shirt that smells nice simply because it lacks bad odors rather than one that smells nice because it has synthetic fragrance on it.

To get something really clean you first must consider the type of water you have. Is it soft or hard water? Most people have hard water. If you have hard water (and really even if you don't) you want to use a laundry booster. Laundry boosters condition your water so that your laundry soap just works so much better. Even if you have soft water laundry boosters are helpful in lifting stains and getting out smells.

Baking soda aka bicarbonate of soda can be found naturally although most of the stuff we buy is man made. Find it in the baking aisle of the grocery store. We all know it's great at removing odors and safe since you can even use it to brush your teeth. This is the mildest of the laundry boosters you can buy. It's alkaline, but mild enough to handle without gloves.

Borax is a naturally occurring mineral compound which has been mined and used by people for thousands of years. My family recently toured the ruins of borax mines in Death Valley California where they would haul the borax out with wagons hitched to a team of 20 mules--thus the brand name of "20 Mule Team Borax." Borax is more alkaline than baking soda and care should be taken to keep it off your skin and away from children. Because it's stronger it is also really good at killing germs, softening your water and removing stains. I use it in some of my stronger homemade cleaning solutions. Use according to package directions. Borax makes a great toilet bowl cleaner by the way.

Washing soda aka soda ash (not to be confused with washing powder) is also a naturally occurring mineral compound or it can be man made. It is a very alkaline compound which is so strong that it can also be used to strip wax off of floors and is great at getting out petroleum based stains. If you have a grease monkey in your family this might be the perfect booster for you. Once again, avoid getting it on your skin and keep it away from children. It can be found in the laundry aisle at most grocery stores and used according to package directions.

Before you rush out to buy a laundry booster, keep reading.

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But what about bleach? Well, we already know that chlorine bleach is not the answer so let's talk about oxygen bleach. I know, it sounds just plain silly to think that oxygen could clean anything. But some oxygen bleach is really using hydrogen peroxide to whiten. You know-it's the stuff they use to lighten hair and whiten teeth. OK, now it's making sense right? That's really very much a simplification of the explanation. You wouldn't want to pour liquid hydrogen peroxide on your colored clothing for instance. I'm no chemist (though I am married to one), so let's avoid the chemistry lesson and suffice it to say that most oxygen bleaches have been formulated to be color safe (check the label).

There are different types and brands of oxygen bleaches in both liquid and powder form. I like to keep things simple so I use a product that mixes a laundry booster like those mentioned above with hydrogen peroxide to make a great combination product. The one I use is Oxiclean. It's readily available and I can buy a 15 lb box of it at Costco which lasts me a good long time. You can also go to their website and print off coupons. Once again, it's a alkaline product and should be kept away from children.

How well does it work? Well, some of you know that I take TaeKwonDo. Our uniforms are white and made of a fabric that is very hard to get stains out of once it gets dirty. TaeKwonDo is not exactly a clean sport. We do wrestling and grappling moves on a not too clean floor, we do outdoor demonstrations and we sweat a lot. When the TaeKwonDo Master hands out uniforms he lets everyone know to not use chlorine bleach on them because bleach will cause them to disintegrate rapidly. The result of that is that most of the students run around in dingy grey uniforms. I use Oxiclean on mine and on my son's and ours stay nice and white. The difference is very noticeable.

So, now you have options. You can use a booster and a oxygen bleach or a combination product depending on your needs.

Please note that certain delicate fabrics such as some silks and wools should be washed with only the mildest of laundry soaps and these stronger additives should not be used on them.

Next time we'll delve into the wild and wacky work of stain removal.



  1. Sue - this is amazing information - thank you so much and I will be passing this on.