Is Your Laundry Detergent Irritating Your Skin?

Skincare is often to blame when it comes to unwanted skin irritations, but in fact, your laundry detergent is just as likely to be at fault. Here’s how to ensure your detergent isn’t causing your skin more harm than good.

By Georgia Gould
Jul 23, 2020
Is Your Laundry Detergent Irritating Your Skin?

If your skin is itching, burning or showing signs of redness, something is clearly not right. Whether it’s your cleaning products, diet, skincare, stress, genes, heck even your hormones, all sensitivities are a response to something your skin isn’t happy with. 

“The problem when determining skin sensitivities is that it can be tricky to differentiate between a reaction to a skincare product, laundry product or something in your diet,” explains skin expert James A. Yiannias, M.D.,Mayo Clinic.

“Foods usually cause more of a rapid onset of a hive-like rash, whereas detergents are more likely to cause eczema (aka dermatitis) underneath your clothing. Towels or pillow cases laundered in an allergy-causing detergent can also affect the skin on your face,” he adds. 

So, how can you tell whether it’s your laundry detergent giving your skin grief or some other unwanted stimulant? While self-diagnosing sensitive skin through product elimination can sometimes prove successful, the best way to pinpoint its specific causes is through a consultation and various patch and/or reactivity tests with a board-certified physician. Then, when all relevant tests are complete and any allergens are discovered, these can be entered into our SkinSAFE app or website, which compiles an automatic shopping list to help patients find safe products for their skin type. Clever, right?

Common allergens to look out for in laundry detergents include fragrance (never wise in any cleaning or beauty product), essential oils, surfactants and preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone (MIT), methylchloroisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone. 

“Liquid detergents tend to contain a lot of water, however, which makes it almost impossible for them to avoid using certain preservatives that are known allergens and irritants,” says David A. Mays.

“Research has shown, however, that MIT, a common preservative used in detergents does not get left behind on the surface of fibers following a wash cycle1,” he adds.

Knowing what’s lurking in your laundry detergent and avoiding the nasties is not always easy. Not only do you first need to identify the specific irritants that affect you, but if you don’t use SkinSAFE, you’re going to need extra-sensory sleuth skills to find out which products contain such irritants. How so? Well, the worrying fact is that laundry detergents, like most cleaning products, don’t have to disclose a full list of ingredients on their label. What the… whaaat?

“Cleaning products, unlike foods, beverages, cosmetics, and other personal care products are not required by federal law to carry a list of ingredients,” confirms the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

“This means manufacturers have no reason to avoid risky chemicals that happen to clean well – even if they may trigger asthma attacks, skin rashes or are linked to cancer.”

Now, we don’t know about you, but we find all this information extremely worrying – sensitive skin or not. 

But there is some good news. Over the last few years, two legislations passed in California: the Cleaning Products Right To Know Act of 2017 (SB-258) and the Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right To Know Act of 2019 (SB-574). The latter was passed to ensure manufacturers disclose any hazardous ingredients in fragrances and flavors used in both cosmetics and personal care products.2  And the former was the first law in the nation to enforce full disclosure of ingredients used in institutional and household cleaning products.3 These disclosures were enforced on companies’ websites at the start of 2020 and will be required on product labels by 2021. 

“With manufacturers now having to comply with the Cleaning Products Right to Know Act, shoppers and consumers are now able to review ingredients found in products on package labels and company websites,” explains David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA.

Yes, these bills are state-specific, but this online information is open to all and with California being a large and powerful US market, hopefully, such requirements will soon be put into practice across the entire country.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if something in your detergent is causing your skin to flare-up and there’s seemingly no information available online, you have every right to check the full list of ingredients with the relevant manufacturer via their customer support. 

For further peace of mind, we also recommend you only ever buy detergents that have been awarded the SkinSAFE Top Allergen Free stamp of approval. Every laundry product we recommend has been strictly tested for the most common allergens and irritants based on clinical data from the Mayo Clinic. This gives you complete confidence that you’re avoiding the top ingredients known to cause skin concerns.

Here’s a further checklist for ensuring your laundry day is as smooth and skin safe as possible.

1. Wash all new clothes, linens, towels, and even napkins five times before using or wearing them for the first time. This helps remove any chemicals that may have been left behind during the manufacturing, packaging, and transportation processes.

2. A great tip, according to the National Eczema Association, is to stick with liquid products rather than powder detergents. Powders leave more residue on fabrics than liquids because they contain sodium sulfate which takes longer to dissolve – especially in cold water.

3. Never use more detergent than is recommended on the label.

“Most liquid laundry products come with a dosing cup with fill lines depending on the size of your load. You may have grown up with a whole cup for each load, but remember, detergents are way more concentrated nowadays, so double-check the label before use,” recommends David A. Mays.

4. Double rinse all clothing and fabrics after washing to help remove soap residue.

5. You could also try adding a little white wine vinegar to your final rinse cycle. Not only will this brighten your whites and revive your colors, but it further removes residue.

6. While tempting, never use fabric softener.

“Your dermatologist or skin expert will always recommend avoidance of any product that could potentially cause issues. This includes fabric softener or any additive you may want to drop into your laundry,” advises David A. Mays.

7. Hard water can damage the skin’s natural protective barrier which increases the sensitivity of your skin and exacerbates conditions such as eczema. In-house water softeners are fine for helping counteract the damaging effects of hard water, but avoid washing machine softeners such as Calgon because they contain fragrance. And you know how much we, and more importantly your skin, hates that. 

8. Finally, for gentle, safe laundry drying, you have two options. First, you can use dryer balls, but always check what they’re made of as some natural fibers can cause concerns to sensitive skin types. Second, try using one of our recommended TopFree dryer sheets such as Bounce Free & Gentle Fabric Softener Sheets.These are free of fragrance, gluten, coconut, nickel, soy and various other common irritants.



(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5755462/ 

(2)  https://www.bcpp.org/resource/california-bill-seeks-to-end-toxic-fragrance-and-flavor-secrets-in-beauty-and-personal-care-products/

(3) https://www.womensvoices.org/2017/10/16/victory-cleaning-product-ingredient-disclosure-becomes-law-california/


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