Synthetic detergents are chemically engineered cleaning products that do not contain soap. The first synthetic detergents used in the U.S. in 1934 were primarily used for hand-washing dishes and delicate laundry. The response to this new product was highly favorable. For the first time, consumers did not have to deal with soap scum, an inevitable byproduct of fat- and oil-based soaps. The disadvantages of using synthetic detergents were not known early on. The chemical formulations that enable synthetic detergents, to clean everything from laundry to human hair so successfully, are the same reasons for its disadvantages.
The surfactants in synthetic detergents do eventually biodegrade to levels of low toxicity, but it is a slow process and, therefore, causes environmental problems. More than one type of surfactant is used in synthetic detergents, but the Environmental Protection Agency lists Alkylphenol ethoxylates as a main concern for fish and other aquatic life. This surfactant builds up in rivers and streams, causing toxicity to fish by disrupting the endocrine system, which regulates growth, reproduction and metabolism. .
Inorganic Phosphates or Builders
Some types of synthetic detergents still use inorganic phosphates, which are environmentally dangerous. The phosphates known as aluminosilicates, cause a condition in water known as eutrophication. This condition enables algae to grow at a rapid rate. This diminishes levels of oxygen in water, leaving the water incapable of supporting other aquatic life.
Artificial colorants used in synthetic detergents are sometimes made from petroleum products. These artificial colorants are not biodegradable and, therefore, stay in the environment indefinitely. Some artificial dyes and colorants can irritate skin, eyes and cause allergic reactions in mammals and fish. Some artificial dyes are thought to be hazardous to the health of humans and possibly cause cancer. Colorants serve no useful purpose in detergents.
Some synthetic detergents contain ingredients knows as optical brighteners. These synthetic chemicals do not make laundry cleaner, but instead contribute to an optical illusion that makes fabric appear whiter and brighter. Aminotriazine- or stilbene-based whiteners are of particular concern for humans. These optical brighteners possibly cause reproductive and developmental problems. Synthetic ingredients in optical brighteners can cause skin sensitivity and allergic reactions as well.