Over the course of the last few years, dermatologists across Australia have reported an increase in a skin rash caused by laundry antiseptics being added to the wash. The rash – granular parakeratosis – presents as a “dirty, brown, scaly flat burning” which particularly affects the underarms and groin.
Dermatologist Associate Prof Rosemary Nixon and her research fellow Dr Claire Ronaldson believe the rise of this rash can be attributed to the pandemic and people washing overzealously for fear of spreading Covid-19.
But, “ironically, Covid is an enveloped virus which is killed by machine washing at 18 degrees celsius and does not require additional measures to eradicate it,” the pair say.
Laundry detergents have a bad reputation when it comes to skin irritation. Ronaldson and Nixon say there are two ways laundry detergents might result in discomfort to the skin. The first is irritation because “laundry detergents contain mostly chemicals which are irritating by nature: that is how they do their job”. The second, is allergic reactions to things like fragrances or preservatives.
But they say that for the most part, this bad reputation is overblown. Laundry detergents very rarely cause rashes, since the final rinse and spin cycle on a washing machine will generally remove laundry detergents from clothing.
Nevertheless, there are some things worth looking out for when shopping for laundry detergents to ensure that washing your clothes doesn’t make them itchy and uncomfortable.
When in doubt, rinse it out
The simplest way to ensure your skin is not irritated by laundry detergents is to run your washing machine through an extra rinse cycle.
“If people believe that they have experienced issues which are clearly related to use of a particular detergent, they should perform an extra rinse cycle, so that any residues are eliminated,” Nixon and Ronaldson suggest.
Dr Li-Chuen Wong, from Sydney Skin Clinic says that although cold water should suffice with most washes, running your machine on a hot-water cycle may help (but only do this if your clothes won’t be damaged). She also suggests “doing a weekly wash of your washing machine, to remove laundry detergent residue with hot water and baking powder”.
Check the ingredients list
According to Nixon and Ronaldson, “the rare cases of skin reactions to laundry detergents are almost always caused by irritant-contact dermatitis, rather than allergic-contact dermatitis”. Irritation is generally caused by the ingredients or chemicals in the detergent.
Wong says to “look at the ingredients listed on the detergent before buying [and] avoid the known irritants.”
Unfortunately, deciphering the ingredients list on some laundry detergents – if there is one at all – can feel like it requires a chemistry degree. According to Belinda Everingham, who founded detergent brand Bondi Wash after her own experiences with chemical sensitivity, “it’s not always easy because laundry product ingredients don’t need to be listed on the packaging, and often are not”.
She says enzymes, optical brighteners, phosphates and quaternary ammonium compounds (a kind of disinfectant), are common irritants. If the ingredients aren’t listed, you can often spot them by watching for “claims about ‘optical brighteners’ or ‘sensational whitening’,” she suggests.
While the notion of fresh laundry that smells like lavender or the ocean breeze is appealing, if you have sensitive skin, it’s wise to opt for fragrance-free detergents.
Nixon and Ronaldson say fragrances are the most common cause of allergic reactions and that even fragrances present “in essential oils, which are widely perceived to be ‘natural’ and ‘non-allergenic’” should be avoided.
Treat eco-claims with caution
Although they may be marketed as “gentler”, eco-friendly and baby laundry detergents may not be any better for sensitive skin.
“Some of these products are marketed to give the impression that they are more gentle and kinder on the skin,” Wong says. “In fact, they might still contain a significant amount of fragrances and preservatives.”
Nixon and Ronaldson say such claims need to be viewed with a critical lens. “Sometimes people think that natural or organic products will not cause allergies, but they are often chock-full of fragrances and most certainly do cause allergic-contact dermatitis from time to time.”