Chemical of the Day: Optical Brighteners (FWAs)
Did you know that U.S. law does not require companies to put ingredients on cleaning product labels? Take a look at what I found on the website of a company peddling laundry powder:
' Household cleansers do not fall under the same labeling requirements as cosmetics and only require manufacturers to list "chemicals of known concern". We would disclose any ingredient(s) that would fit the aforementioned statement and stay true to the same methods we use for our cosmetic bases by staying cruelty-free. '
Wow. So, unless the law absolutely REQUIRES you to tell your customers what's in your product, you won't? Not cool. If you've got nothing to hide, why aren't the ingredients on the label? (I'm not going to mention the name of the company in this blog post; it does wholesaling and private label products for small business. But if you REALLY want to know who they are, drop an email or message and I'll tell you!)
Today's chemical of the day is optical brighteners. Also called fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs), these are chemicals added to fabric, paper, laundry detergents, plastics, and cosmetics to reduce yellowing and increase perceived whiteness and brightness. 40% of the FWA's
produced in the world are used in detergents; there are far more FWAs used in detergents than in cosmetics. In recent laboratory testing of 15 different commercial laundry detergents from local markets, 8 were found to contain FWAs. They work by coating clothes with fluorescent particles that convert ultraviolet light to visible light – without making the clothes any more clean than they would be without them. When the light is reflected outward, clothes appear cleaner than they really are. Designed to intentionally remain behind on fabric, these brighteners rub off on skin and wash down drains, often surviving wastewater treatment before they enter the environment.
There is NO requirement in the U.S. for a manufacturer to indicate that FWAs are in their products, so very few actually do. According to the Journal of Cosmetic Chemistry,
'The possible toxicity of FWAs is not currently settled, with some studies suggesting that FWAs pose no risk to humans, while other findings indicate potential for allergic and even carcinogenic effects.' The Environmental Working Group indicates that FWAs can cause skin allergies and pruritus (severe itching) when exposed in sunlight, and that light-sensitive consumers should avoid contact with them. FWAs are very difficult to degrade, and overuse can contribute to environmental pollution and threaten human health as a result of their accumulation in the body. Wow. So, if the jury's still out on FWAs, why are they still in our products?
It's How We Roll Here in the U.S.
The U.S. pretty much operates on the 'dose makes the poison' theory. Nearly 500 years ago, Swiss physician and chemist Paracelsus expressed this basic principle of toxicology: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” The idea is that a substance that contains toxic properties can cause harm only if it occurs in a high enough concentration. In other words, any chemical—even water and oxygen—can be toxic if too much is ingested or absorbed into the body. The toxicity of a specific substance depends on how much of the substance a person is exposed to, how they are exposed, and for how long.
Most of us are aware that there are chemicals banned in Europe that are permissible in the U.S. European Union (EU) regulations use the precautionary principle as opposed to just the
'dose makes the poison' theory. The precautionary principle is the idea that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted. The precautionary principle is designed to assist with decision-making under uncertainty and is a core principle of EU environmental and public health law, enshrined in Article 191(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. While the European Union proactively regulates chemicals whose safety is uncertain, the U.S. is reactive and waits for evidence of harm before regulating. The US tends to focus on achieving its safety objectives by regulating the end product, while the EU has the tendency to regulate the whole production process.
How 'Safe and Gentle' are those new 'Eco-friendly' Laundry Pods?
I'm seeing ads popping up constantly in my social media news feed for a certain brand of laundry pod that uses terms like 'natural, environmentally friendly, safe, gentle', etc. in their advertising (not calling them out here - but if you REALLY want to know who they are, I'll tell you! Send an email or message). While I was impressed that the brand disclosed its ingredients, I was
disappointed to learn that the ingredients included not only optical brighteners, but ethoxylated chemicals. I've discussed these before - the ethyoxylation process used in making chemicals like SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) and other -eth chemicals) can produce 1,4-dioxane, a human carcinogen. Since 1,4-dioxane is a manufacturing byproduct and not an added ingredient, it doesn't have to show up on ANY label, whether it's a cleaning product or something you're slathering on your skin or hair. There is a chemical vacuuming process that can be used to remove contamination with 1,4-dioxane, but most manufacturers are not going through the added expense of doing it, especially since they don't have to - it isn't on their label so you don't even know it's there.
FWAs are Prohibited by the Military
Did you know that the U.S. government prohibits the use of FWAs as an ingredient in detergents used to wash military uniforms? In military combat situations, using detergent
that contains optical brighteners can be dangerous. Night vision lenses can pick up the ultraviolet light on the uniforms, making military uniforms an easily seen target. To help keep them protected at home and overseas, the military uses only military-approved laundry detergents detergents free of optical brighteners. Same goes for hunting camo - deer can easily see the presence of optical brighteners.
FWAs and LED Lighting
I learned something really interesting, though - the 'trick' that FWAs play on your eyes apparently doesn't work with LED lightning. According to a new study led by Kevin Houser, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University, the most common type of LED lightbulb renders clothing brighteners useless. FWAs only glow under violet and ultraviolet light, which the most common type of LED bulb—the blue-pumped LED—lacks.
Conclusion? I think we'll continue to NOT use optical brighteners in ANY of our products! Whether you're washing army combat uniforms, camo for deer hunting, or baby clothes, you can trust that our laundry products will always be free of FWAs and safe for both sensitive skin and the environment.