8 Hazardous Chemicals in your Laundry Stain Remover

8 Hazardous Chemicals in your Laundry Stain Remover

January 7, 2023

By Samara Geller, Database Analyst and Megan Boyle, Editorial Director

Parents know a thing or two about dirty laundry. From spit-up and bathroom waste to grass stains and who-knows-what, kids’ clothing picks up stains of all shapes and sizes – and they all need to get cleaned up.

The trouble is, most store-bought fabric stain removers are loaded with chemicals that can harm our health. And they have plenty of chances to do it: We rub stain-removing liquid into fabric with our fingers, we breathe in tiny droplets from sprays and we wear clothing with chemical residues that can linger even after washing. Children who accidentally ingest these laundry products run the risk of being poisoned.

Whether you use a liquid, spray, powder, pod, pack, stick or pen, fabric stain removers often contain a few notable chemicals that may put your health and the environment in danger. Before treating your next load of laundry, check your stain remover’s ingredients and avoid these common bad guys:

What’s so bad about them? Most of these chemicals can irritate your skin, eyes and respiratory system. That’s particularly troublesome for a product that comes in such close contact with the body. Others, like MIT, are potent allergens. In some people, especially sensitive individuals, sodium hypochlorite and Quaternium-15 can trigger asthma. Quaternium-15 also releases low levels of formaldehyde, an extremely allergenic chemical that has been linked to cancer.  

In animal testing, many stain-removing chemicals in the glycol ether family – such as 2-butoxyethanol – have been linked to anemia or impaired fertility and reproductive and developmental toxicity. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should be extra cautious, since these chemicals can reach the developing fetus and get into breast milk.

When clothes are washed, potentially toxic stain remover chemicals can also pollute bodies of water. Linear alkylbenzyl sulfonates (C10-16) are especially hazardous, and disodium distyrylbiphenyl disulfonate does not readily biodegrade.

 Whenever you use a new stain remover, look for a list of its specific ingredients on the product label or online – but be aware that you may not find one. Virtually no federal or state laws require manufacturers to disclose cleaning product ingredients.

Some manufacturers also use vague terms to mask the specific chemicals in their products. Steer clear of products that use these terms on the label:

  • Anionic or nonionic surfactants
  • Alcohol ethoxylate(s)
  • Fabric-brightening agent
  • Fragrance
  • Dye

Here’s the good news: you can find stain removers that are less risky. Look for these ingredients instead:

  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Washing soda
  • Sodium percarbonate
  • Simple mixtures of sodium carbonate (washing soda) and sodium percarbonate
  • Acetic acid
  • Citric acid

You can also visit EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for a highly-rated product like these:

We also recommend products that are third-party certified by Ecologo or Greenseal.

For an even better option, click here to learn how to make a healthy DIY stain remover.