Two years ago, the nonprofit Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) published results of its own testing, which revealed that Tide Free & Gentle contained 89 parts per million (ppm) of the cancerous contaminant, while Tide's regular formulation contained 63 ppm.
1,4-dioxane, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has labeled a probable human carcinogen, isn't directly added to cleaning products, but it's a contaminant of ethoxylated ingredients, such as sodium laureth sulfate, which are in cleaners and personal care products alike. The Organic Consumers Association has detected dioxane levels as high as 279 ppm in cosmetics, shampoos, and other grooming products.
Make Your Own Nontoxic Laundry Detergents
After its report was published, WVE called on Proctor & Gamble to remove the contaminant, but got no response. So a group called As You Sow, which advocates for corporate responsibility, filed a lawsuit alleging that Proctor & Gamble was exposing customers to high levels of the chemical without alerting them, therefore violating California's Prop. 65 toxic chemicals labeling law.
The judge in that case ruled in favor of As You Sow and, rather than stamping warning labels on its products, Proctor & Gamble agreed to reduce levels of dioxane to below 25 ppm in both its Tide and Tide Free & Gentle formulations. The change will effect products sold nationwide, not just in California.
The agreement was also spurred along by the blogger behind Groovy Green Livin, who initiated a petition on Change.org asking Proctor & Gamble to remove the chemical; it garnered 78,000 signatures.
"It's a relatively easy fix," says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women's Voices for the Earth, who adds that Proctor & Gamble already removes the contaminant from some of its brands; the company was sued a few years ago over dioxane contamination in its Herbal Essences shampoos. "Hopefully, this reflects a shift for the company now, and they've realized it's easier to take care of this companywide rather than on a brand-by-brand basis."
Don't Clean with a Cancer-Causer
According to the EPA, the greatest human health threat from 1,4-dioxane comes from repeated inhalation exposure to low concentrations among workers at industrial sites. Animal studies suggest that daily exposure to the chemical at concentrations above 50 ppm for two years caused liver and kidney damage, but there isn't much consensus on how much of the chemical a consumer might inhale while washing clothes. Or while washing dishes—the contaminant has been found in dish detergent, as well.
Avoiding any chemical linked to cancer, at whatever concentration, can only be a good thing. But because 1,4-dioxane is a contaminant, not an ingredient, you won't find it listed on product packaging. So keep an eye out for these ingredients, found in cleaning products, cosmetics, and other personal care products, that are likely to be contaminated with dioxane:
• sodium myreth sulfate
• sodium laureth sulfate
• polyethylene glycol (PEG)
• any chemical that contains "-eth" or "-xynol."
You can also find safer products from the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database and Guide to Healthy Cleaners.