The Green Coach: Is Our Laundry Harming Us – And The Planet?

By Lucy Johnson

9 months ago

Considering switching your laundry detergent to a more natural alternative? Lucy Johnson is here to guide you

Feeling eco-confused? In our monthly Green Coach column, Lucy Johnson, psychotherapist and founder of sustainable lifestyle consultancy Green Salon, will be tackling all our biggest questions and confessions about the complexities of living a greener life. Up this month: should we be switching our laundry habits to more eco-conscious alternatives?

The Green Coach: Is Our Laundry Harming Us – And The Planet?

Dear Lucy,

I’m used to using pods from Ariel as the smell reminds me of my childhood home and I don’t really want to give up on the fresh scent. But I’ve been seeing a lot about microplastics and toxins being in our bloodstream and in the oceans, I don’t really understand it but I’m finding it scary.


Lucy Johnson

Lucy Johnson, by Vicki Knights

Dear Jennifer,

It’s so true that the smells of our childhood can be deeply reassuring and comforting to us. We humans are highly sensory and I absolutely recognise that emotional connection we have with the scents we grew up with. We’re also creatures of habit and when we find something that works for us we can find it hard to change what we are doing. Plus, you’ve grown to love the familiar scent of the Ariel pods.

But at the same time, you’ve been reading some scary stuff about what those pods contain and the damage that is doing to the planet and our bodies. And now you’re in something of a dilemma – carry on with your favourite Ariel pods or make a switch?

The first thing to say is that while these headlines can be alarming, the synthetic chemicals and microplastics in your laundry pods are not putting your health in any direct danger. Each ingredient in cleaning products in this country is strictly controlled for health effects. The issue that scientists are unravelling is that we use so many products containing these synthetic chemicals over so many years that they are building up not just in the environment but also in our bodies in what’s known as the “body burden”.

That’s a problem because lots of high street laundry detergent brands contain synthetic chemicals like phthalates – used in the fragrance that makes them smell good – and plastics, like, BPA. As these chemicals, known as endocrine (or hormone) disruptors, bio-accumulate in our bodies they’re being linked to lower fertility and inflammation, which in turn is linked to metabolic disorders like type-2 diabetes and obesity.

A pile of fresh laundry


Your letter is similar to many others I receive from people who find themselves in the same conundrum. As we find out more about the health effects of synthetic chemicals that we’ve been using, we can feel conflicted about carrying on using the products we’ve relied on for years. They feel so familiar to us we don’t really want to swap them for something we’ve never tried before and we don’t know we’re going to like.

So what can we do? The first is to reassure ourselves that we can give something a go, see what we think of it and it doesn’t mean we have to carry on using it forever. There are more and more deliciously-scented laundry detergents, pods and sheets, coming on to the market that do not use synthetic chemicals and plastics, or use a much smaller amount of them. It can feel more manageable to think you’re simply giving something a go, than deciding that you’re going to throw out your Ariel and never use it again.

One complicating factor when looking for more eco-friendly laundry detergent is that few of the major supermarkets stock these smaller brands. You can however find them at stores like Planet Organic and Whole Foods. Or you can buy them online. Look out for labels that say plant-based or non-toxic. They may also say they are free from phthalates, parabens, phosphates, BPA and PVA.  We list quite a few on the Green Salon Directory. Our research team spends a lot of time checking brands have very low doses, if any, of these synthetic chemicals.

The other big question of course is how do you know they are any good? A decade ago, there were very few eco-laundry detergents and so the choice was pretty limited. The science of alternative detergents was also in its infancy. A lot has changed in that time and eco-laundry detergents are increasingly winning awards from groups like Which magazine and Good Housekeeping for their efficacy.

Because there are many people like you, wondering about swapping out high-street detergents for more natural alternatives, we’ve created a quiz to help you work out what matters to you most in your laundry detergent and point you in the direction of a switch that will suit you. It could help you find an alternative to the Aerial pods you’ve grown up with, that you end up liking just as much.


Lucy Johnson is the founder of Green Salon sustainable lifestyle consultancy and a qualified psychotherapist. Eco-confused or anxious about climate change? Send her your concerns and questions to [email protected]