Laundry detergents are one of the most commonly cited triggers for eczema – but why do some detergents cause a problem while other ones are fine? In a quest understand which laundry washing products the ScratchSleeves family can use without itching, we have investigated what exactly goes into laundry detergents and learnt a surprising amount about how to get laundry really clean in the process. We share what we learnt in our top tips for eczema friendly laundry as well as the results of the ScratchSleeves family ‘tried and tested’ review of eczema friendly laundry detergents. But first…
What’s in your laundry detergent?
This sounds like a really simple question but as laundry detergent manufacturers aren’t required to include a list of ingredients on the packaging it can be difficult to answer. If there is an ingredients list most information will be generic. Modern detergent formulations have three or four main ingredients that do the actual cleaning: surfactants, enzymes, bleaches and builders. Then there is the other stuff that doesn’t get the clothes any cleaner but either tricks the eye to make it look brighter (optical brighteners) or give it a ‘nice’ smell (fragrance or parfum).
Any of these detergent components can aggravate eczema or trigger allergic reactions in some people, but the most likely culprits are the optical brighteners and fragrances which are designed to remain in fabric after rinsing. Contrary to popular belief there is no good scientific evidence that enzymes in biological formulations cause widespread eczema. Perhaps, less obvious is that the bleach found in powders for ‘white washes’ can help in the management of eczema by removing bacteria and mould both in your laundry and your washing machine.
This is the bit of laundry detergent that I think of as a proper ‘detergent’. Surfactants (from Surface Active Agents) are the chemicals that loosen unwanted dirt from the surface of the fabric and carry it into the washing water. They work in two ways, firstly they reduce the surface tension of water, which improve its ability to seep into dirty clothes fibres and loosen the dirt. Then the clever bit, one end of a surfactant molecule is attracted to water, while the other end is attracted to dirt and grease. This means that the surfactant molecules bond with the dirt and grease, break it up then carry it away in the rinse water. While there are many different types of surfactants, the ones most commonly used in laundry detergents are linear alkylbenzenesulfonates (typically listed as anionic surfactants, usually derived from petrochemicals but also from plant sources) which are similar to old–fashioned soap but is less affected by hard water. Some laundry detergents, especially the eczema-friendly ranges also contain soap.
Surfactants are degreasers and any residues left in clothing can irritate eczema prone skin, so it is really important to make sure that your laundry is rinsed properly. Adding an extra rinse cycle can make a huge difference. Minimising the detergent residue will also leave the fabric softer and reduce the need for a fabric softener. If thorough rinsing doesn’t seem to make a difference to your child’s eczema using a less aggressive, soap based detergent may help.
Enzymes are included in biological washing powders to break down protein, starches and fat in dirt and stains. The enzymes in biological detergents enable effective cleaning at lower temperatures than required by normal detergents, but they typically stop working at temperatures above 50°C. Biological detergents usually contain a number of different enzymes: amylase (for carbohydrates), cellulase (for grass stains), protease (for proteins) and lipase (good for removing grease and oils, including those found in eczema creams). Different enzymes work best at different temperatures so it’s worth experimenting if you have problems getting rid of particular stains.
Contrary to popular belief there is no good evidence that enzymes aggravate eczema in the vast majority of the population. A review carried out by UK doctors found that ‘irritating and allergenic hazards of enzyme raw materials do not translate into a risk of skin reactions, either irritant or allergic’ and concluded that ‘Education for healthcare professionals could usefully be enhanced to take this on board’. It is interesting to note that some European countries don’t have non-biological detergents on the market for anything other than washing woolens and silks and there is no obvious difference in the occurrence of eczema.
Bleach breaks up the relatively large dirt molecules into smaller, colourless ones by the process of oxidation. This means that not only is does the dirt become less obvious but the smaller molecules are easier for the surfactants to bond with and wash away. In addition, bleaches are really effective at killing off bacteria and mould (and the associated smells) both in clothing and inside your washing machine. Sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach, the same as used in swimming pools) is particularly effective at this. It’s useful to know that powdered detergents for ‘whites’ usually contains bleach whereas liquids, gels and ‘colour’ detergents don’t.
From an eczema point of view –bleach based detergents are most useful when dealing with infected eczema as it is the most reliable method for getting rid of bacteria in clothing. A recent Which? report recommended using detergents containing bleach for controlling bacteria over the previous recommendation of washing at 60°C. As bleach breaks down quickly to salt and oxygen when exposed to light, air and water it will be carried away in the rinsing water and won’t leave irritating residues clothing.
Builders are used to soften the washing water (which increases the efficiency of surfactants) and increase alkalinity (which helps to remove oils and grease). Typical builders are polycarboxylates, phosponates, sodium carbonate, zeolites and even soap all of which bind with the calcium and magnesium ions (which make water ‘hard’) and make the surfactant more effective.
If you live in a hard water area, the standard advice is to increase the amount detergent you use to ensure that there is enough cleaning power. A much cheaper alternative is to add extra ‘builder’ to your wash – a tablespoon or two of soda crystals added to the detergent drawer of your machine should do the trick. This approach also means that you are not adding unnecessary detergents, optical brighteners and fragrances – all of which can build up in your washing and irritate your child’s eczema.
5. Optical brighteners
These additives don’t actually get your laundry any cleaner but they do make whites look whiter by increasing the amount of UV light reflected by the fabric which masks any discolouration or dullness in the fabric. It is the optical brighteners that make clothes glow under UV light. As they are intended to stick to the fabric and not be rinsed away, optical brighteners are prime candidates for aggravating eczema. They are known to irritate sensitive skin, especially if it is later exposed to sunlight, but there has been remarkably little research published about their safety.
The vast majority of mainstream laundry detergents include optical brighteners, and there are around 90 different chemicals commonly used to create brighteners so it really is a case of trial and error to find a detergent that doesn’t irritate your child’s eczema. Optical brighteners typically take a long time to break down in the environment so most eco-brands don’t include them in their formulations. This makes the eco-brands a good place to start if you are looking for an eczema-friendly detergent.
Most modern detergents include a fragrance of some sort to give that ‘fresh out of the wash’ smell beloved of the British public and to mask the smell of the detergent itself. Like optical brighteners, these fragrances are intended to cling to the fabric and a number are known to trigger allergic reactions and can aggravate eczema.
There are numerous fragrances used in the detergents and their details are rarely listed on detergent labels so, as with most things eczema-related it’s a case of trial and error to find a detergent that works for your child. The easiest solution is to find a fragrance free brand and, if you really don’t like the damp, ‘non-smell’ of fresh washing, try adding a few drops of your favourite essential oil to the wash. But do test it for allergies and discolouring light fabrics first.
The ScratchSleeves family’s ‘tried and tested’ eczema friendly laundry detergents
Over the last few months we’ve been testing three different brands of eczema friendly laundry detergents in our regular washing: Skin Salveation Laundry powder, Surcare and Skinnies Laundry Powder and Liquid. While this comparison of the best laundry detergent for eczema is by not in any way scientific, we hope that our family’s experience will be useful to your family. And now? We loved both the Skin Salveation and Skinnies Laundry powder (I’m a big fan of the delayed start on the washing machine, which works better with powder). At the moment we are using the Skin Salvaeation one, largely because we also use their Dermasalve range so the postage works out better that way.
Our top tips for eczema friendly laundry detergents
- Using a detergent containing bleach, or adding a dose of laundry bleach, gets rid of bacteria and nasty niffs as well as keeping our washing machine hygienic. We use a bleach-free detergent and add a dose of Ecover laundry to the light wash loads.
- If you live in a hard water area, adding a tablespoon or two of soda crystals to each wash softens the water enough to reduce the amount of detergent you need.
- Avoid detergents with optical brighteners and fragrances as many of them are known to irritate eczema-prone skin and the residues left in the fabrics can make clothes feel more ‘crispy’.
- Keep whites whiter by always washing light colours separately, adding a dose of laundry bleach to light loads and using colour catcher sheets in every wash.
- Make sure clothes have been rinsed thoroughly by giving each load an extra rinse if necessary.
- Stubborn grease stains from eczema creams can be shifted most effectively by a biological detergent containing lipase enzymes but as most manufacturers don’t give details of enzymes they use in their formulations you will need to call the customer care line to find out if your preferred detergent contains these enzymes
- For more top tips read our articles on eczema and your washing machine, eczema friendly stain removers and laundry as trigger for baby eczema.
These eczema friendly laundry detergent tips work for our family – what works for yours?
Still what to know more? This is a great explanation of how various components of detergents work and here is a useful list of common detergent ingredients with explanations of their purpose and any known issues.
Here at ScratchSleeves, we don’t just share our experiences of bringing up an eczema child (and favourite allergy friendly recipes), we also manufacture and sell our unique stay-on scratch mitts for itchy babies, toddlers and children. We now stock sizes from 0-8 years in a range of colours. Visit our main website for more information.