Laundry can be a headache, especially if you're doing it with conventional products based on petrochemicals that irritate eyes, nose, airways and skin. For life downstream of your drain the effects can be even harsher, including disruption of reproductive systems in innocent fish, some of which will never, ever, now, lose their innocence. 

Ironically, while most detergents and related paraphernalia are marketed as hard on dirt and gentle on us, thanks to ingredients such as so-called natural scents, in reality, these fragrances are often synthetics that simulate floral essences, wafted into our noses by hormone-disrupting phthalates. The nerve of them! Other suspected hormone disruptors in detergents include surfactants known as alkyphenol ethoxylates(APEs), which are also toxic to aquatic life, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While we'd fervently hope such substances wouldn't bubble up in our drinking water, alas, they do, as nationwide tests by the U.S Geological Survey have shown.

Here are some tips for washing laundry without harming our health or the environment:

1) Buy detergents that are 100 percent plant-derived and hence free of petrochemicals such as phthalates, APEs, linear alkylate sulfonate (LAS), another respiratory irritant, and (in liquid formulas) triethanolamine (TEA) and diethanolamine (DEA), which can react with nitrites, an often-undisclosed preservative, to form compounds linked to cancer. Because of government trade-secret protection, not all manufacturers come clean with full disclosure of ingredients. We prefer to patronize greener brands that willingly share their contents, such as:

Ecover
Seventh Generation
Ecos by Earth Friendly Product

2) Try a variety of green detergents to find the one that cleans best in your machine using cold water. Everyone's water is a bit different on the continuum from hard to soft,but one constant for all of us should be washing in cold water, hich can save you an annual 160 lbs. of greenhouse gas emission from power plants that heat your water, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

3) Buy concentrated formulas to save on wasted packaging and the water used to dilute them.

4) If you have sensitive skin, asthma or allergies, you may want to forgo even natural fragrances based on plant essential oils, as fragrance can cling to clothes and build up through several washings. Try a fragrance-free green detergent such as Seventh Generation Free and Clear, Ecos Free & Clear, or Method Free + Clear

5) Buy fewer products--this also saves on packaging and results in fewer chemicals going down the drain.

6) Make an easy, all-natural D.I.Y. fabric softener by adding 1/4 cup of baking soda or white vinegar to the wash cycle.

7) To lift stains and disinfect, don't use chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite), which can burn skin, eyes and airways and be fatal if swallowed. Look for non-chlorine bleaches that use hydrogen peroxide or sodium percarbonate, a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and washing soda, a natural mineral. Available from Seventh Generation or Ecover, above, or try:

Bi-O-Kleen Oxygen Bleach Plus
Naturally Yours Natural Bleach and Softener

8) For D.I.Y. stain removal, pre-soak clothes in a basin of cold water mixed with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of borax, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide or white vinegar.

9) Hang laundry in the sunshine, a natural disinfectant and dryer that emits zero greenhouse gas!

This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008