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What’s The Impact Of Detergents On The Environment?

There’s a lot of talks about the negative impact of detergents on the environment. And as a result, you see a lot more eco friendly detergents on the shelves lately.

But, is the impact of detergents on the environment really that bad?

Should we all stop using detergents immediately?
What can we use instead?

I did my best to look into what are the real impacts of detergents on the environment, and what is simply a myth. I based my conclusions on scientific articles that were done over the past few years.

What is a detergent?

Just like soaps, shampoos and hair softeners detergent belongs to a big group of chemicals called surfactants. Among most people, a detergent will refer to laundry detergents and dishwashing detergents.

Why detergent is used for cleaning?

Detergents make good cleaners.

We use them to clean our clothes, our hands, our dishes, our hair and much more.

They are good cleaners because they have the ability to connect oil and water together.

When oily molecules get attaches to our clothes or dishes, water will not be enough to wash them off (water and oil will not connect)

And this is where the detergent comes in handy by connecting the dirty oil with the clean water and forcing it to wash off with the stream, leaving our clothes/dishes fresh and clean.

Read Next: 11 Best Natural Eco-Friendly laundry Basket

Impact of detergents on the environment

impact of detergents on the environment

I went through quite a few scientific articles online. Almost all of them referred to the dangers of Phosphate in detergents have on the environment.


This material is a type of salt, used a lot in the fertilizing industry as it has an important roll in the development of plants.

And this is also what makes phosphate an environmental issue. Because when phosphate reaches the lakes and rivers (through our sewage systems) it violates the natural bio-balance by causing excessive growth of algae.
The algae become dominant and take over all the resources in the area, like sun and oxygen, leaving all the other marine life like fishes, bacteria, etc. to die.

! Phosphate has been known to do that for quite some time now and is illegal to use in laundry detergents in the US or EU.
However, Phosphate can still found it in some dishwashing detergents.


Surfactants are the materials with the ability to grab onto the dirt and wash it off in water as explained above. The problem is surfactants cause harm to fishes skin by pilling of a protective layer that protects them from bacteria and diseases. Moreover, it gets into the fish gills and prevents them from getting oxygen.

However, this article claims that the effect of Surfactants on the environment, in the current concentration used by a human, is close to zero and can be ignored.

So, should we avoid detregents?

You should not avoid detergents all together but pay attention to the ingredients.

Definitely try to avoid detergents that have phosphate as it’s harmful qualities are long known.

Other than that, according to this article, it is also recommended to use detergents that are derived from natural sources like oil and soybeans over the synthetic type. As the ones from natural sources degraded faster and easier.

Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents – Pros & Cons

What kind of detergent should you avoid?

According to this interview conducted by the NY Times with an EPA engineer you should avoid the following:

  1. Detergents that include phosphate
  2. Detergents that include Nonylphenol ethoxylate surfactants.

    *It’s not easy to know which ones don’t include it because it’s not always labeled.

    But you can use at this list I maid of 7 eco friendly laundry detergents (for great results)


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