Laundry Detergents Without Optical Brighteners: Are They Better?

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the many years I’ve been using, researching, and talking about cloth diapers, it’s that cloth diaper parents (and caregivers) are smart people. They do their research. So it’s no wonder the topic of Optical Whiteners comes up from time to time on the community boards (click here if you’d like to be part of the Cloth Diapers for Beginners community).

So, Why? What are Optical Brighteners?

Here’s a really helpful video from the SciShow all about what optical brighteners are, and how they work:

Just to sum that up for those of you who can’t do video because you have a sleeping baby on you, fabric brighteners, or optical brighteners, absorb ultraviolet light and emit blue light. This makes white fabric appear less yellow and cleaner, and colored fabric more vibrant, without actually cleaning anything.

How Do I Know if A Detergent Has Optical Brighteners?

Have a look at the ingredients list. All of these ingredients are names for optical brighteners:

  • Fluorescent White Dyes
  • Fluorescent Whitening Agents (FWAs)
  • Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs)
  • Optical Whiteners
  • Organic Fluorescent Dyes
  • Disodium Diaminostilbene Disulfonate
  • DMS
  • Fluorescent Brighteners (like “Fluorescent Brightener 71” listed in Tide with Bleach)
  • Fluorescent Brightening Agents
  • Fluorescent Optical Brighteners

Are Optical Brighteners Bad?

Aside from the whole military safety issue (they can be seen in night-vision goggles), there are some potential drawbacks to optical whiteners that cloth diaper users might be adverse to. These can be broken down into environmental and health concerns. The Spruce has a good article summarizing the health and environmental concerns of optical brighteners here. In short there is some evidence that they may be toxic to humans and bad for waterways.

However, the two studies cited by The Spruce were done by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1975 and 1999 respectively. Those two studies are also no longer on the EPA site.

Though I tried, I couldn’t find any up to date information on the safety of optical whiteners other than one reference to a Canadian 2017 study that looked at two specific brighteners. That study found the risk to the environment was moderate for C.I. Fluorescent Brightener 28 (disodium salt) and low for Fluorescent Brightener FWA-1’ (source).

Despite the lack of current information, I think it’s safe to assume that optical brighteners are not desired in detergents if you’re concerned about general health and environmental safety, especially since they offer no cleaning value.

So, Do I NEED to Avoid Using Optical Brighteners on My Cloth Diapers?

No. There’s no indication that optical brighteners create problematic buildup or inhibit the ability of cloth diapers to absorb. In fact, many detergents that we know to work well on cloth diapers, like Tide, Tide Free and Gentle, Purex, Sunlight, and many, many others contain optical brighteners.

While the health and environmental concerns may be enough for many cloth diaper users to choose detergents without optical brighteners, there’s no reason for you to worry that using a detergent with them will in any way cause problems with the function of your diapers at all, so don’t panic.

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Best Laundry Detergent Without Optical Brighteners for Cloth Diapers

Here’s a shortlist of detergents that are BOTH free of optical brighteners and follow the rules for Cloth Diaper Safe Detergents (i.e. no fabric softeners, and containing enough surfactants for incredibly dirty laundry like cloth diapers). There are few other popular detergents that fall in this category, but which I don’t feel are strong enough for dirty diapers, and so I didn’t include them here (like BioKleen and All).

Tide Purclean

If you’re a Tide user and are looking for an optical brightener-free detergent, Tide Pureclean seems to be your sole option, though it’s a pretty good one.

Ingredients (from their website, here): Water, sodium laureth 1.0 sulfate (plant-based surfactant), propylene glycol (plant-based solvent), laureth-9 (plant-based surfactant), sodium citrate (plant-based pH adjuster), lauramine oxide (plant-based surfactant), sodium hydroxide (mineral based pH adjuster), sodium cocoate (plant-based cleaning agent), ethanol plant-based solvent), polyethyleneimine ethoxylate (petroleum-based polymer), polyethyleneimine ethoxylate propoxylate (petroleum-based polymer), sodium tetraborate (mineral-based enzyme stabilizer), pentasodium pentetate (petroleum-based chelant), Tide purclean™ perfume (scented only), calcium formate (mineral-based enzyme stabilizer), protease (bio-based enzyme), and amylasebio-based enzyme).

Seventh Generation Free & Clear Natural Laundry Detergent

Seventh Generation is very clear about not using optical brighteners and does a great job of being transparent and honest with their ingredients. As far as optical whitener free detergent goes, Seventh Generation is a fantastic option.

Ingredients (from their website, here): Water, laureth-6 (plant-derived cleaning agent), sodium lauryl sulfate (plant-derived cleaning agent), sodium citrate (plant-derived water softener), glycerin (plant-derived enzyme stabilizer), oleic acid (plant-derived anti-foaming agent), sodium hydroxide (mineral-based pH adjuster), calcium chloride (mineral-based enzyme stabilizer), sodium chloride (mineral-based viscosity modifier), protease, amylase, and mannanase (plant-derived enzyme blend soil removers), and benzisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone (synthetic preservatives).

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