Fabric softeners were designed to free your clothes of both wrinkles and static cling, and give them a fresh fragrance. Therefore when people use fabric softeners and dryer sheets, they are coating their cloths with a thin film of artificial chemical perfumes and plasticizers that will be easily transferred to their skin the next time they put on those cloths, especially when one begins to perspire. Nearly every chemical that touches the skin finds its way into the body and into the bloodstream. The wetter your body becomes, the more easily the chemicals can move from clothing into your skin. And since many of these chemical compounds are by themselves solvents, they are rather good at moving through cellular membranes and entering tissues of the body, including nervous system tissues. In addition, just like other perfumes, a person’s sensitivity to these perfumes decreases over time to the point where they don’t even notice how potent these artificial fragrance chemicals are. Furthermore, when consumers use dryer sheets, those chemicals are heated and then shot into the air for you to breathe into your lungs.
What amalgamation of ingredients have the teams of scientists concocted in laboratories to bring you these indulgences? And how toxic are they?
Volatile Indoor Pollutants
Though these products are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fabric softeners may top the list as one of the worst "indoor pollutants". In a controlled study of washing and drying laundry, researchers sampled emissions from residential dryer vents during the use of no products, fragranced detergent, and fragranced detergent plus fragranced dryer sheet. The researchers found more than 25 volatile organic compounds (VOC) emitted from dryer vents, with the highest concentrations of acetaldehyde, acetone, and ethanol. Seven of these VOCs are classified as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and two as carcinogenic HAPs (acetaldehyde and benzene) with no safe exposure level, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (Steinemann et al., 2011).
Cationic Fabric Softener: Known Asthmagen
Cationic fabric softeners are considered to be asthmagens. In laboratory testing in which mice breathed the dilute volatile emissions of air fresheners, fabric softeners, colognes, and mattresses for 1 h, we measured various combinations of sensory irritation, pulmonary irritation, airflow limitation (analogous to asthma attacks), and neurotoxicity. The same effects were observed after mice were subjected to inhale air samples taken from sites associated with repeated human complaints of poor air quality (Anderson & Anderson, 1999). Not everyone may suffer an allergic reaction by being exposed to cationic fabric softeners. But it should be noted that long-term effects have not been adequately studied for them to be deemed as safe and effective.
Fragrance: Any Number of Synthetic Chemicals
Although all other ingredients in your personal care products must be disclosed on the label by specific name, the so-called “fragrance loophole” in federal labeling law means that ingredients added to provide a pleasant scent, or to mask a bad one, need only be listed under the generic term “fragrance.” The International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group, publishes an online “Transparency List” of nearly 4,000 ingredients that manufacturers say they use in formulas for consumer products under the ingredient "fragrance". Some common culprits include:
It has been established that many of the fragrance ingredients, especially fragrance mixtures, have been identified as allergens. Thus, a person exposed to a certain fragrance material will elicit an allergic response when exposed to this fragrance from any product whether cosmetic or detergents under similar exposure conditions (Europa.eu, 2002).
Phthalates: Endocrine Disruptors and Lowers IQ
Phthalates ("Thal-ates") are mainly used as a plasticizer - which is an additive that increases the plasticity or viscosity of a material. Phthalates are weak endocrine disruptors and androgen blocking chemicals. In other words, these chemicals, when absorbed into the body, can either mimic or block female hormones, or in males, suppress the hormones involved in male sexual development. In lab animals, phthalate exposure has been found to be associated with numerous reproductive health and developmental problems such as:
There is no easy way to tell if a product has added phthalates. Phthalates can be identified on labels by a three or four letter acronym that defines their chemical structures. Labels rarely state “contains phthalates”. Phthalates are used in a wide range of common (especially plastic) products, including but not limited to:
People are exposed to phthalates by touching, eating, and/or drinking products that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates. To a lesser extent, exposure can occur from breathing in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles.
Due to the ubiquity of plastics (and therefore plasticizers) in modern life, the vast majority of people are exposed to phthalates, and most Americans tested by the have metabolites of multiple phthalates in their urine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2009).
Researchers have observed that children who experienced prenatal exposure to elevated levels of phthalates had lower IQ scores than children exposed to lower levels. The new research adds to a body of evidence regarding the association between prenatal exposure to phthalates and problems with cognitive function and behavior. During the third trimester of pregnancy, the researchers measured urinary metabolites of four phthalates: di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, and diethyl phthalate. At age 7, the children of the mothers with the highest concentrations of DnBP and DiBP metabolites had IQs 6.6 and 7.6 points lower, respectively, than children of mothers exposed to the lowest concentrations. Other research has shown that a six- or seven-point decline in IQ can substantially affect academic achievement and occupational potential (Factor-Litvak, 2014).
A separate study examined cognitive function in relation to pre-and postnatal phthalate exposure in children 2–12 years old. After recruiting 430 pregnant women in their third trimester in Taichung, Taiwan from 2001–2002. A total of 110, 79, 76, and 73 children were followed up at ages 2, 5, 8, and 11, respectively. The children’s cognitive function was evaluated at four different time points using different tests for assessing neurocognitive functions and intelligence (IQ). Urine samples were collected from mothers during pregnancy and from children at each follow-up visit. They were analyzed for seven metabolite concentrations of widely used phthalate esters. The researchers found significant inverse associations between the children’s levels of urinary phthalate levels and their IQ scores, after controlling for maternal phthalate levels and potential confounding variables. Phthalate exposure was associated with decreased cognitive development in the young children (Huang et al., 2015).
A Healthy Fabric Softener Alternative
Tips to Avoid Toxic Chemical Products
Anderson, R. C., & Anderson, J. H. (1999). Sensory irritation and multiple chemical sensitivity. Toxicology and Industrial Health, 15(3-4), 339-45. http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/074823399678846817
CDC. (2009). Phthalates. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pdf/Pthalates_FactSheet.pdf [Accessed 29 Sep. 2017].
Europa.eu. (2002). The Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers.. [online] Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/sccp/documents/out171_en.pdf [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
Factor-Litvak P, Insel B, Calafat AM, Liu X, Perera F, Rauh VA, Whyatt RM. 2014. Persistent associations between maternal prenatal exposure to phthalates on child IQ at age 7 years. PLoS One 9(12):e114003.
Huang, H., Chen, H., Su, P., Huang, P., Sun, C., Wang, C., Chen, H., Hsiung, C. and Wang, S. (2015). Fetal and Childhood Exposure to Phthalate Diesters and Cognitive Function in Children Up to 12 Years of Age: Taiwanese Maternal and Infant Cohort Study. PLOS ONE, 10(6), p.e0131910.
IFRA International Fragrance Association. (2015). Ingredients transparancy list. [online] Available at: http://www.ifraorg.org/en-us/ingredients#.U9qfRoBdVss [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
National Institute of Health. (2017). Phthalates: The Everywhere Chemical. [online] Available at: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/assets/docs/j_q/phthalates_the_everywhere_chemical_handout_508.pdf [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
Steinemann, A., Gallagher, L., Davis, A. and MacGregor, I. (2011). Chemical emissions from residential dryer vents during use of fragranced laundry products. Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, 6(1), pp.151-156. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11869-011-0156-1
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