/ Home & Energy

Laundry detergents – does bio make your skin crawl?

Bio versus non-bio is a sensitive subject. Yet, despite studies using thousands of volunteers, it’s still not clear whether bio-washing detergent irritates skin conditions. So why keep our washing machines bio-free?

As soon as someone says ‘biological detergents do no harm’, you’ll likely be subject to sharp intakes of breath, sinister looks and an argument or two.

But in spite of the large number of studies done by a range of scientists, they still haven’t found the missing link between biological detergent causing – or exacerbating – skin conditions like eczema. At least the ones we’re aware of.

It’s not for lack of trying. One study reviewed in the British Journal of Dermatology not only used thousands of test subjects, but 360 of them were infants. The test toddlers had their nappies washed with both bio and non-bio detergents – and the result? ‘No difference in the incidence or severity of nappy rash’ was the official verdict.

We still want bio in Britain

There has actually been a slight increase in the amount of money spent on biological detergent here in the UK, but more people still say they look for a non-biological detergent than a bio one. However, ‘the power to remove tough stains’ is actually the number one concern for shoppers choosing detergents. And our tests show that stain removal tends to be better with bio than non-bio detergents.

The thing is, in some other European markets, non-bio isn’t even sold. The UK is showing itself to be an anomaly among our peers and possibly a little thin-skinned…

But which type of detergent do you tend to go for? Do you think you’ve ever had a reaction to bio-detergent? Or are we just too cautious in the UK?

What type of laundry detergent do you prefer?

I prefer non-bio (47%, 99 Votes)

I’m happy to buy either (28%, 59 Votes)

I prefer bio (25%, 53 Votes)

Total Voters: 212

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Pete R says:
3 January 2013

Just noticed that Morrison’s “super concentrated laundry liquid” Bio has exactly the same ingredients list as their “Coloureds” liquid save for the addition of Optical Brightener…….is this the only difference??!……

Vanessa says:
27 January 2013

I’ve suffered from eczema since I was a baby. I’m now 33 so consider myself an old hand with eczema now. I moved to the UK a few years and discovered something called non-bio detergent. I’m still trying to figure out why it causes allergies in UK people and not non UK others. It took me a while to discover what exactly is non bio.

I haven’t noticed any difference from using non-bio and bio and I’m concluding that it’s a nocebo effect. Every culture has its own medical myths that patients and doctors propagate. In Spain, rice soup is recommend for tummy problems which I’ve never had a UK GP recommend. Cold hair in Italy is blamed for colds (yep, I’ve heard docs say this as well). I’ve moved across different continents and hear all sorts of things in one country that don’t exist in another. Especially in complex issues such as allergies, eczema, fatigue etc. In France and Spain, there’s something called heavy legs and there are loads of creams to treat this. Something to do with circulation. Never heard about it in the UK.

Yes I know there are plenty of people who say that biological powder does affect them and I’m not discounting that it does affect people. After all, people can be allergic to anything. But I wonder at the numbers. like I said, I’m an eczema pro and this is the first I’ve heard of this non bio obsession. Frankly I prefer enzymes.

Things I know affect my eczema: dampness, mould, cold, dust. If I control my allergies, my eczema and itching is more controlled. I had to order anti dustmite covers with zips which protect my entire mattress (and not just the top of the mattress) from my home country as I couldn’t find any easily in the UK.
The UK is a very damp country and I’m wondering if that’s what’s happening here. Many to most people do not use dryers (I do not) and damp homes with poor insulation, wallpaper and carpets will breed mould spores. And mould spores will certainly breed in damp clothing. My British housemates seem to have no concept of cleaning washing machines and never clean it. And also leave wet clothing in there for hours.


That is very interesting, Vanessa. I think we are being excessively concerned about biological detergents. Some people may be affected by them but I wonder how many have conducted their own trials. You have and I have.


Agree with Wavechange – very interesting and, I am certain, very relevant and important points.
It’s insignificant in terms of scientific evidence but I tool never leave laundry in the machine for more than 5 or 10 minutes after it stops, I clean the machine regularly (and, as discussed extensively previously and elsewhere, I also use very hot cycles several times each week, which we all know helps to keep the machine clean). I don’t use a dryer except in dire emergency – so about 3 times a year at most – and I do dry my washing outside if at all possible and on a clothes rack in the (well ventilated) workshop otherwise.

Wavechange amd I have posted a lot about our own experiences before, and there are several similarities between us. Some of those similarities also co-incide with your thoughts. 3 people do not make a scientifically viable set of test data, but I suspect that you are on to something here.

I can hear my grandmother speaking now: “Most of it is just old-fashioned common sense”. I think perhaps there is truth in that: many of these ‘modern’ allergies and complaints probably arise form modern (i.e. impatient) ways of living.


One thing to consider is that biological detergents may not be useful at high washing temperatures because enzymes are destroyed above a certain temperature. Until the machine reaches that temperature, they will have some effect. Biological detergents used to have a single enzyme but three or more could be present in some products, and these could well have different temperature limits. I suspect that the upper limit will be around 50C, or 60C at most, but that is an educated guess.

I agree with Dave that it is important not to leave clothes damp for any length of time. Ironing will help kill off bacteria and moulds. I iron mine straight from the washing machine because it seems daft to dry them and then use a steam iron.

I don’t run a very hot wash or even run my machine empty to keep it clean. I’ve found that a 60C wash at least once a week has been enough to keep it clean and free from smells.

I’m sure that Dave would agree that the best way forward is to read what others have to say, do your own experiments and work out your own conclusions. Many have advised me on which dogs and cats are likely to cause me a problem (asthma or painful, itching eyes) but I’m the only one who really knows.

Colin Cutter says:
20 February 2015

Concerning the use of of a steam iron. It seems to me that a sufficiently powerful steam iron will kill off many more “nasties” than a combination of hot water and detergent ever could – especially the more dangerius ones, I, for one, will continue to “steam” almost everything.


The cheaper modern washing machines use plastic outer tubs and these harbour bacteria – a problem made worse with low temperature washes and not keeping the washing machine itself clean:


It can’t be doing your skin any good! Even if bio detergents can cause skin reactions, using non-bio in a dirty washing machine will not cure your allergies!


There is a very simple solution and that is to do a hot wash once a week. The tub is not the only place that bacteria and moulds can grow and I wonder if this website is trying to persuade people to spend money on expensive machines. They are certainly pushing one brand of detergent.


Is it not infact optical brighteners that cause skin allergies and not enzymes themselves? Did Ariel or Persil of the 1980’s to early 1990’s have optical brighteners as i think they just had bleach?


Have you any evidence to support your claim, Ben?

Optical brighteners have been used on new clothing since the 1940s. That’s why white shirts glow in the dark under UV light. I first saw this in a disco in the early 70s. I am fairly sure that optical brighteners were in use by the 1980s but you would have to ask Procter & Gamble and Unilever to find out for sure.

Optical brighteners are intended to stick to the fabric and not be rinsed away, so that makes them a candidate for causing skin irritation, just like skin conditioners that are put in the final rinse and cannot be washed away.

I don’t believe that optical brighteners have any value except for white fabrics and the fact that they are harmful to the environment is reason enough to get rid of them.

If you suffer from skin irritation and want to try using a detergent without optical brighteners, there are products available. Ecover is one example.

Liberatordeluxe says:
22 February 2013

Hello Wavechange,

I have only read about optical brighteners (OB) in ‘green’ magazines and on the Ecovers website so thats how i came about them. I personally just think they are unnecessary and a source of pollution that we can do without.

I did contact Method products who make laundry products and their optical brightener is called Disodium distrylbiphenyl disulfonate. This ingredient is on the http://WWW.Goodguide.com web site for cleaning products and Method say its non toxic, non irritating and non biocumulative.

Where does one find a 30 year old ‘Proper’ washing machine that actually washes and rinses in water? Were the Hotpoint 95 or Hotpoint WM51 series any good at rinsing??

Liberatordeluxe says:
22 February 2013

@ Wavechange, don’t you also think detergents are to blame as well for being difficult to rinse out? I am currently using Ariel Excel gel Colour and with half a load i use 25ml and even then the damn machine can’t rinse it out even with higher water level. I do have an artificial water softner mind you but Daz liquid seems ok for rinsing and so does Fairy non bio. I have a Bosch Classix 6 ‘Vario Perfect’ 6kg machine.


I cannot see any point in using optical brighteners other than for washing white clothing, etc. I would prefer to be without them, helped by the fact that I don’t have any white clothing. I agree that they are unnecessary and if anyone feels the need to use them, they could add them. People should be made aware that these chemicals are not good for the environment. I would not want to claim that optical brighteners are a cause of skin irritation without evidence, but any chemicals that stick to clothing are possible culprits.

Poor rinsing has often been suggested as the reason why people suffer from skin irritation, and new machines don’t generally rinse as well as the older ones. Yes we have to conserve water if we live in an area where there is a shortage, but it seems rather more important to stop flushing toilets with drinking-quality water than have washing machines that don’t do a decent job.

I don’t know much about detergents, and foaming is a very complex topic. If severe, it can cause ‘suds lock’, a condition that makes rinsing ineffective and puts extra load on the machine. You can find information on the whitegoodshelp website. All I would add is that softened water (and naturally soft water) tends to foam with a very small amount of residual detergent. Differences between detergents may be caused by the use of defoamers, which are chemicals used to help counteract the fact that detergents and agitation lead to foam formation.

If you want to find out which chemicals are present in laundry detergents or other household products, you can search for the material safety data sheet. Type in MSDS with the product name.

I don’t know much about modern washing machines. Poor rinsing and lack of hot and cold fill are common criticisms of machines sold in the UK. I’m not looking forward to the day I have to replace my 1982 Philips machine.



When you eventually have to replace your 1982 Philips washing machine, the ISE W288eco has hot and cold fill and it can do up to seven rinses.


Thanks for the suggestion Dave. It’s really impressive that it has a ten year guarantee, something that all washing machines should come with. Hot & cold fill too.

I hope my machine carries on working until I’ve worked out whether it is best to take out a repayment or endowment mortgage on the ISE. It’s not cheap.


David – ISE stopped trading last November and the following is posted on their website:
“How can I get a warranty repair on my ISE?

Sadly, this is not currently possible as ISE was forced into a position where all staff had to be made redundant.

This means that there is nobody available to process service calls, spare parts orders, pay repairers and so on. In short, there is no infrastructure to enable service.”

Some unhappy ISE owners have posted messages on websites.

Thankfully my machine soldiers on.

Liberatordeluxe says:
23 February 2013

You will have to have to what most people i know do, add water manually to the washer to get a decent wash and rinse level! Is rediculous but can you ever imagine the UK ever being without water? In my personal oppinion older machines never used water to the extreme and what i would call an acceptable level to achieve good wash and rinse results. I used to like the origional smell of Persil of the 1990’s but the latest versions are dreadful albeit the origional non bio.


I’m rather hoping that machines that rinse properly will be reinvented by the time my machine has to be replaced. Like optical brighteners, I think we could live without perfumes in our detergents.

Liberatordeluxe says:
24 February 2013

Have you tried Simply Pure non biological tabs @ Wavechange? I can thoroughly recommend them and they have no brighteners or perfume and rinse out easily. What detergent brands do you currently use and do you find much difference in performance branded and non branded liquids? Would be interested to know as the branded items i really think are over priced and are mostly water anyway. Washing powder is mostly filler so your paying for useless ingredients that do nothing. If you look on the Unilever site the first ingredient in the Bio and colour powder is Sodium Sulfate awell known bulking agent.


Liberatordeluxe – I am going to disappoint you because I don’t pay much attention to different brands of detergent. I suffer from asthma and for many years I avoided biological detergents in case I developed eczema, as many asthma sufferers do. Some years ago I found I had bought the wrong detergent and now know that biological detergents are not a problem for me.

I did switch from powders to liquids because some of the powder often remained in the detergent drawer of my machine. To prevent this happening, I had to remove and clean out the drawer before rinsing started otherwise it might get into the rinse water. At the moment I am using Tesco biological liquid capsules, which are cheap and convenient, but have the disadvantage that the amount used is fixed.

I hope that the government or EU will help make detergents better for us and the environment. One change that has happened is that (I believe) that detergents are no longer phosphate based. Phosphates are a great nuisance when they get into water courses, since they act as fertilisers.

Where detergents are causing skin problems, it is important for the individual to do their own tests, because we can be very different. Allergies can be plain crazy. For example, I’m extremely sensitive to some dogs but not affected by others.

I guess that the reason that sodium sulphate is used in washing powders to help keep them free flowing.

Liberatordeluxe says:
24 February 2013

I do use Marks and Spencers colour liquid but can’t always get to an M & S store. I do keep my eye out on a Hotpoint 95 series washer or Hoover Electron but they are often miles away.


The ISE washing machine, mentioned earlier, is expensive because it’s built so well, from what I’ve read. Which? say it washes and rinses well. If all washing machines came with a ten year guarantee, they would cost 2 – 3 times the price and most people won’t pay that for quality. It weren’t so long ago when all washing machines were more expensive and most people had to save up their money to afford one or the alternative was to rent a washing machine (or even use the laundrette!). Personally, I save up my money and buy things which last longer, rather than buying cheaper products which don’t last more than 5 years and, in some cases, don’t even do the job properly!

I do not believe the “biological” part of bio detergents cause skin allergies. It’s almost always the bad rinsing to blame or even washing powder left in the soap tray e.g. by low water pressure. Rinse it all away and don’t use fabric conditioner – then you won’t have any chemicals in your clothes making you itch. The poor rinsing could also explain why people are smelling a strong perfume on their clean clothes, but also remember that most conditioners have perfumes. The sensation of smelling these perfumes must make people think clean clothes also HAVE to smell nice?


I strongly agree that appliances should last a long time, David. It also helps if spare parts are held for a decent length of time and manufacturers do not make them difficult to repair. I do my own repairs and have more than a passing interest in good and bad design of household electrical goods.

One of the complications in trying to work out what is causing skin irritation or allergy is that chemicals bind to the fabric, some more than other. An optical brightener, for example, would be no use if it rinsed away. Familiar examples of chemicals binding to fabrics are dyes and stains such as red wine. If people want perfumes, then why don’t they add them rather than the manufacturers inflicting them on everyone.

liberatordeluxe says:
25 February 2013

@ Wavechange I don’t suppose you would be so kind and find out the ingredients in your Tesco Bio liquitabs so i could compare them to the main brands? Many Thanks

[Hi liberatordeluxe, we’ve edited your as we don’t allow users to post their contact details. Thanks, Mods]


I don’t use the Tesco product for any particular reason other than the fact that it is usually the cheapest product. Sometimes I buy other products if they are on special offer. There is a branded product that I avoid because it has a very powerful perfume.

As I have mentioned before, some information can be found from the MSDS (material safety data sheet) since any supplier of products containing substances that may contain any chemicals that could be harmful is obliged to provide information under the COSHH regulations (control of substances hazardous to health). MSDS can often be found online by typing in MSDS and the product name. I tried to look up the MSDS for the Tesco liquid capsules and found the following on the Tesco website: Tesco can provide COSHH data sheets for its own branded products. To obtain these please contact Customer Services on 0800 50 55 55. I’m not offering to make the call, but I’ve found a free number for you. 🙂

Sinders says:
26 April 2013

Why do the washing powder manufacturers have to keep changing the formulas? Either something works or it doesn’t. I used to get on well with Persil original non-bio. Suddenly it was ‘new and improved’ and still strangely ‘original’ but what a stink! Now something similar seems to have happened to Eco non-bio. Grr….. Why oh why???


There are various reasons for changing the ingredients of washing powders. One of the best ones has been to make them more environmentally friendly. Perhaps the best example is the removal of phosphates which were polluting water courses. The (European) Water Framework Directive has been a driver to clean up our rivers and canals.

Manufacturers compete to improve their market share. Having a better product – whether this is genuine or customers are convinced by advertising – is important, but since customers tend to think that new is better, making changes is a way of improving sales. Of course, not all change results in improved products, but you are not going to see any manufacturer claiming that their product is worse than the previous version.

matt says:
12 July 2013

@ Wavechange Would that be Ariel you happen to avoid? I find that makes me sneeze non stop and gives me a headache!


Definitely not Ariel, Matt. A former neighbour gave Ariel its name and I would have remembered. I suspect it was Bold, but I can’t be certain. I have various allergies including certain perfumes and these ones often smell very strongly. I always used to avoid biological detergents but my mother used them, so I discovered that they don’t to affect my asthma or irritate my skin.

Allergies vary very much between individuals.


I have recently tried a little experiment with Bio and non-Bio powders.

I saw a small box of Daz bio powder in a 99p shop and bought it.

Washing with this in a 95 degree hot whites cycle (yes, I know perfectly well that this destroys the enzymes, but that’s irrelevant for what I was hypothesising) the laundry came out perfectly clean and I had no itching or other effects from the use of the Daz.

I used the same product from the same box in a 60 degree cycle and also in a 40 degree non-fast coloureds. in the case of the 60 degree wash, no unwanted effects at all and perfectly clean laundry. In the 40 degree wash three ‘problems’ – 1) the powder did not all dissolve and in the first two rinses I could see bits of undissolved powder floating around in the rinse water. I didn’t manage to find any on even black items at the end of the program though; 2) a couple of the items in the wash didn’t come out properly clean (same items used every week and come out perfectly clean using either soap flakes or Stergene). Specifically light coloured socks which had taken on some colour from the inside of trainers still had traces of the trainer colour on them and a grey T shirt which had splashes of garden water containing Miracle Gro came out with the splashes still visible.; 3) the perfume of the Daz was still detectable in the machine at the end of the cycle – though I could not detect it on the laundry after it had been line-dried.

This was a very unscientific experiment but to me it seems to be indicative of Bio powders which are used at the low temps that they are designed for not fully dissolving and therefore not being fully removed in the rinsing. My washer is a very old one which puts rinse water into half way up the door – I would venture to suggest that if you use bio powders in a modern machine which doesn’t use enough rinse water to shift the residue properly then the problem will be greater and traces of the undissolved powder will remain on the laundry at the end of the cycle. I guess that the chances of this then affecting people with sensitive skin would be quite high. Especially as I note that the Daz box warns “Avoid direct contact with skin. If you have sensitive skin use protection when handling this product.”

As an aside from the main topic of this board, it also seems to suggest to me that Bio powders actually don’t work very well at low temps anyway.

Finally, a comment on what Matt says directly above this: the Co-op’s own Non-bio powder, which I’ve used for years, washes perfectly well and I have no skin problems with it, but it smells foul and it makes me sneeze like you’d never believe if I manage to disturb it enough for dust to rise from the pack. If I manage to inhale a little of it it burns the inside of my nostrils terribly. Clearly, therefore, sneezing and other nasal irritations are not exclusive to Bio powders. For these reasons I may actually continue to use Daz whist I can but it for 99p a pack, but only for the 60 and 95 degree cycles – with Soap Flakes and Stergene for the non-fast coloureds.


I switched to liquid capsules to avoid the undissolved powder remaining in the detergent dispenser. The only drawback is that I cannot vary the amount per wash.

I would love to know if the formulation of bio and non-bio detergents of the same brand differ only in the presence of enzymes. I would also like to know which enzymes are present in different products. I believe that they all contain an alkaline protease to break down protein stains but there are other enzymes used in bio detergents.

The warning on the Daz box is fairly standard these days. You will see the same on a bottle of Fairy Liquid. In the days when they advertised that Fairy Liquid was kind to hands, a schoolfriend’s mother developed industrial dermatitis from contact with the stuff. Detergents, perfumes and enzymes can all cause problems and hopefully our elderly washing machines will carry on working until the manufacturers work out that we need to reintroduce proper rinsing. If we need to save water, perhaps we should not be flushing toilets with drinking water.