Detergent – What’s In It?

There is a lot of concern from parents about chemicals and ingredients we expose our children to, especially when we talk about the items that they come into contact with the most, their clothes.

This stems from the thought that detergent chemicals are:

  1. Harmful to their children in any type of expose.

  2. They embed themselves into our laundry.

We are here to help you understand why the two things listed above do not happen when using a real detergent. While eating/swallowing or inhaling laundry products is toxic (please always keep any cleaning product WAY out of reach of your children and pets), washing fabric with a detergent is how it is designed to be used.


Detergents Are Made Up Of:
  • Molecules that are made up of a head that is hydrophilic (water loving) and a tail that is hydrophobic (loves grease and dirt). In the wash, the soil (fecal matter, urine, blood, food, etc.) attach to the hydrophobic section of the surfactant and are lifted away with the water by the hydrophilic section. Once they are lifted away with the water, they wash away because they have no receptors left to attach back to fabric.
  • To learn more about surfactants, see our page “Surfactants – Detergent vs. Soap.”


  • The amount of builders varies depending on your detergent. A builder is much like a booster (Oxiclean, Borax, Calgon) as its job is to soften the water and remove minerals, like calcium, from binding to the clothes. They allow the surfactants to bind to soil instead of to the minerals. They are safe for both your clothing, yourselves, and your children.


  • There are many different kinds of bleaches, including sodium hypochlorite (NaClO) or liquid bleach, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), peracids, and bleach activators. A bleach activator, such as the popular Tetraacetylethylenediamine (TAED), is needed for hydrogen peroxide to work at temperatures below 104ºF or 40ºC. These are safe for your clothing, yourselves, and your children.


  • These are considered safe in detergent. What is left in the water is treated in a water treatment plant and outside high concentrations is considered safe for aquatic life.


Optical Brighteners
  • These are used to make fabrics look whiter by reflecting back more blue light, thus reducing the yellow appearance. While for users with very sensitive skin optical brighteners can be an irritant, for most, there is no concern during use.
  • While they are helpful for improving the appearance of whites, they can make dark colored fabrics look dull.


Additional Ingredients
  • Not necessary for detergent, but greatly improves the performance. Enzymes are specifically chosen to attach and lift off protein stains. In the case of children’s clothes, the enzyme helps to break down any fecal matter, urine, blood, dirt, food, or other soil left in the clothes by your children in their daily activities. Since they occur naturally in our environments, they are eco-friendly and will not hurt babies, children, plants, or other animals.


  • This varies between brands. Those with extremely sensitive skin should avoid fragrances. Some mainstream companies such as P&G use only biodegradable perfumes/fragrances.




By Darcy Osheim and adapted by Amanda Perez