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Scented Laundry Detergent, Dryer Sheets Emit Carcinogens


The air vented from your clothes dryer may contain carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals that originate from the scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets you use to clean your clothes. That’s the finding from a University of Washington researcher who has been studying fragranced consumer products.

Scented laundry products may be hazardous

The ingredients in your laundry products are largely a mystery, because manufacturers are not required to list them. Scented laundry products are even a bigger unknown, because the presence of a fragrance alone can mean several hundred chemicals are part of the product.

Some of the more than 2,600 chemicals documented as ingredients in fragrances have been classified as hazardous or toxic under federal laws. This suggests that while scented laundry products may make your clothes smell good, the health impact may not be so positive.

According to lead author Anne Steinemann, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs, her latest study showed more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including two classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as carcinogens, were emitted by clothes dryers that handled laundry washed with a top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and dried along with scented dryer sheets.

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The testing process involved washing and drying new, pre-rinsed organic cotton towels in the washers and dryers of volunteer homeowners. All the machines were meticulously cleaned before testing began. During the drying process, a canister placed inside the dryer vent opening captured the exhaust, which was then analyzed.

Among the compounds found in the exhaust were seven VOCs classified as hazardous air pollutants by the EPA: acetaldehyde, benzene, ethylbenzene, methanol, m/pxylene, o-xylene, and toluene. The first two compounds are carcinogenic, and no safe exposure level has been determined by the EPA.

Despite the presence of these compounds, none were listed on the product label. The product labels used terms such as “biodegradable surfactants,” “perfume,” and “softeners,” which is what consumers can expect to find on other laundry products as well.

Steinemann pointed out that “these products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies.” Her recommendation is to avoid using scented laundry products.

Steinemann AC. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 2009; 29(1): 32-38
Steinemann AC et al. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 2011; 31(3): 328-33
University of Washington