As we explore some tough new subjects from Palm Oil to enzymes, I thought we should consider the impact of optical brighteners and cloth diaper detergent.
What is an optical brightener?
Optical brighteners are whitening agents used in laundry detergent with the intent of brightening (or causing a glow in the presence of UV light) your laundry in the lure of ever-perfect whites. It is purely synthetic with the intent of increasing spectral radiance (oh ya, because that’s exactly your goal when you’re walking down the detergent aisle – how can I get my clothes to be more RADIANT?).
This is the idea that clothing yellows over time and by adding blue fluorescence there is more brightness to the fabric. Whitening agents are found in bleaches, conditioners, boosters, and an array of detergents.
There’s not much more information out there on the topic of brighteners… To learn the most detail you need to have the brighteners name and then cross reference with the research. This makes research and understanding how brighteners operate more complex. There is also a level of proprietary ownership with brightening agents and how it makes one detergent better than another.
Some of the links to articles or reports are now dead. There were murmurings about reproductive health concerns (not a surprise) and other potential developmental issues.
& How Does this work with Cloth Diapers
Many cloth diaper brands take a solid stance against optical brighteners, but very few elaborate why.
Maria at Change-Diapers did some research back in 2012, and basically came up with the same thing I did.
Might be because there is general consensus on the internet that brighteners could lead to skin irritations. I couldn’t find any studies that linked that, only general mummerings across brands/and websites.
Optical brighteners don’t clean. It’s just an illusion trick, sort of.
The BIG CONCERN
One thing we should consider when using detergents with brighteners is the environmental impact it has on waterways. Optical brighteners are a synthetic and not biodegradable. That means it will break down into smaller synethitc particles and potentially impact the toxicity of water ways and natural habitats. When it comes to knowing how and what this looks like the internet is vague.
I imagine, much like the toxicity of microfibre pollution in waterways, we don’t quiet understand the impacts this has on the ecosystem. If we do, we aren’t ready to admit that we could make a shift.
Part of the problem is finding optical brighteners in water ways now impacts everyone. You can try to set yourself apart from them by not using them, but if everyone else is, and your water become polluted with them, suddenly you have exposure too. It becomes an environmental pollutant we should all be concerned of.
What do Detergent Brands Say?
Seventh Generation: They don’t use optical brighteners noting its a bit of a gimmick with health and environmental risks.
And for you?
It can be hard to escape brighteners, and perhaps the only reason to consider detergents without them is because it’s just another additive that doesn’t clean, just makes things look whiter. In this, it’s something without added benefit and only potential drawback as we manufacture and dispose of another synthetic particle.