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Making "scents" of laundry products and their fragrances

An image of man in a blue shirt holding a washing machine open while a toddler helps load laundry into the machine in an apartment.

It’s almost spring cleaning time, and the dust bunnies and cobwebs in the corner are already afraid. That’s right! It’s time to deep clean rooms, clear stale air, and remove the debris of last year. The refresh of spring cleaning also regularly leads to washing things such as bedding, blankets, holiday tablecloths and napkins, and winter gear. 

When we wash these items, we often use highly fragranced detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets. It’s hard not to. Scents like “clean linens” and ”soft sheets” bring up images of clothes coming right out the dryer. 

With images of piles of fresh clothes on our minds, we might not realize that laundry products – especially scented and perfumed products – may contain hazardous ingredients.

Read on for some tips to help you tackle your laundry needs without exposing yourself to hazardous materials. 

What’s that smell? The problems with fragrances and scented or perfumed products

From a technical perspective, laundry products themselves are not classified as hazardous waste. 

However, fragrances commonly found in laundry products like laundry detergents, air fresheners, and dryer sheets sometimes contain hazardous chemicals. Hazardous Waste Management Program staff note that laundry products often contain ingredients like acetaldehyde, limonene, chloromethane, and acetone. These chemicals and others can especially impact people with asthma or people who have chemical sensitivities, as well. 

There is no requirement for companies or manufacturers to list all ingredients on labels. As a result, we’re not often aware of the chemicals in the products. Due to the mystery surrounding chemicals used in laundry product’ fragrances, we recommend caution with scented products. Instead, we suggest choosing safer alternatives without fragrances or perfumes for your laundry needs.

Read labels and do your research. 
As always, do your research when purchasing laundry products at any time of the year. While you might want to simply look at the ingredient list on the back of a product’s packaging or container, don’t stop there. Here’s what we suggest looking for:
  • Signal words and symbols
    • Look for the words CAUTION, WARNING, DANGER, or POISON on a product label which signal that the product is hazardous. You should choose the least hazardous option. Your very best bet is to buy a product with no signal words on it at all.
    • Look for products that have the EPA Safer Choice label and say they are “non-toxic” or contain “no hazardous materials.” The EPA tests and approves all EPA Safer Choice products before certifying them. 
  • Fragrance-free, not unscented: Unfortunately, “unscented" means the fragrance is covered up with other chemicals.  If you want to buy the safest product option, look for EPA Safer Choice Products that are labeled “fragrance-free.”  
Use home laundry remedies and eco-friendly options. 

When you’re doing laundry, try to avoid using products with any fragrance or perfume. Our partners at King County Solid Waste Division offer up a list of common safer cleaning alternatives with helpful visuals. If you want to get your DIY on, here are some effective recipes we enjoy mixing up.

  • Air freshener alternative: Use a few open boxes of baking soda throughout your home.
  • Fabric softener alternative: Add ½ cup of baking soda or ¼ cup white vinegar to the wash cycle.

With the sun shining, you may also consider using a clothesline or drying rack, which reduces energy consumption and avoids dryer sheets that may contain hazardous ingredients. It may take a little longer for items to dry, but you’ll save money and reduce your risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals.

If you do use fragrances, choose safer alternatives.

If you’re still wanting to use fragrances or scented products for cultural or personal reasons, the Haz Waste Program offers more tips for reading product labels that can reduce your risk of contact with hazardous chemicals that might be lingering in the fragrances of everyday scented products like laundry detergent. 

We define a “safer alternative” as one that’s healthier for humans and the environment than the current chemical in use. These safer alternatives are cost-effective and work just as well as products that include unsafe chemicals. 

If you like fragrances and want to buy products that have had every chemical, including fragrances, reviewed, and found to be safer for people, pets and the environment, look for products with the EPA Safer Choice logo. The next time you’re shopping for laundry products – whether it’s time for spring cleaning or just another weekly load of laundry to tackle, be sure to look for these safer alternatives. 

As you get ready to air out your home and linens this spring, use these tips and resources to avoid harmful chemicals in your products and use laundry products without fragrances. Our website offers additional information on how to identify eco-friendly products that are safer for you and your family, your home, and the environment, as well. 

Once you’ve got these tips at the top of your mind, keep the cycle going every time you do your laundry.

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