The Toxic Home Transformation Summit kicks off in June! This is a passion project for Ryan Sternagel and me, and we’re interviewing 35 experts to help you decrease the toxic load on your body, and in your life!
All the talks will be free during the week of the summit, and you can sign up to join us here.
This is an excerpt from an interview I did with Stephen Ezell, who started a company to provide non-toxic laundry products. He taught me what’s really in those big orange jugs and how much of it stays on our clothes.
It’s shocking to learn that every day, we’re breathing the fumes and sweating it into our bloodstreams. You may think that “laundry” is a boring topic. But it’s one of the MOST toxic things in your home, I’ve learned from Stephen, and learning what he tells us here, is going to make a huge impact on you. It will motivate you to make a VERY easy change.
None of us can afford extra toxic chemicals in the “bucket” of toxicity that our body’s elimination channels, and our immune system, have to contend with every day.
This chat I had with Stephen is worth your time. We’ve given you some tips that are easy to implement, to help you stay safe.
Robyn: Hey everyone, and welcome to the Toxic Home Transformation Summit. I’m really excited about today’s subject, because it’s something we don’t talk about enough.
We know that laundry products have a lot of toxins in them, but if you’re like me, you might go to the health food store and try several brands of “green” detergent, only to find you’re disappointed in the performance.
As much as you want to use environmentally-safe products that reduce the toxic burden on your body and your family, you also need products that actually work.
To get some insight on that, I’m interviewing my very dear friend, Stephen Ezell. Stephen is a disruptive thought leader, and he’s moved into the laundry market to bring us products that are sustainable, green, and non-toxic–but also perform.
After running several other companies, Stephen founded and operates MyGreenFills, which creates non-toxic laundry products. Welcome to the Summit, Stephen Ezell!
Stephen: I’m happy to be here.
Robyn: Tell us how you got involved with trying to help people be less toxic in terms of the products in their home.
Stephen: It started 10 years ago, when my oldest son was a baby and broke out in a head-to-toe rash. As a first time parent, when your infant gets sick, you freak out. I would check to make sure he was still breathing many times a day.
We couldn’t figure out why he had the rash. I took him to the ER and to a dermatologist, and they gave us different hormone creams and all these different steroids.
Then a friend of the family asked what we used for laundry detergent. I told him, “It’s the big fancy orange bottle that my Grandma uses.” He recommended I try something that didn’t have so many added perfumes and toxic chemicals, and I figured it was worth a try.
So we bought a non-toxic green product and rewashed everything that came into contact with the baby, and within a couple days, the rash was gone.
That was really the spark that lit the candle for me. I started wondering about what was in our food or under the kitchen sink–and everywhere else. If something as simple as laundry detergent could make my baby son sick, what else could be dangerous?
That’s where my journey began.
Robyn: Laundry detergent seems so innocuous. I always assumed the chemicals just washed out in the rinse cycle. It’s been amazing to learn that the flame retardants in these products are very toxic for a baby to breathe, and the chemicals can get into the baby’s bloodstream through the skin, too.
Is it a good idea to wash any new infant clothes with non-toxic products a couple of times before using them?
Stephen: Absolutely. The unfortunate reality is that flame retardants are mostly bromide-based chemicals, which are fairly impossible to wash out. There are ways to get them out, but you’d have to use an amazing amount of toxic chemicals and then find a way to get THOSE chemicals out.
Your best bet is to stay away from fleeces, microfibers, and synthetic fabrics, because they’re almost guaranteed to have flame-retardant chemicals. Instead, opt for organic, cotton-based fabrics.
Garment manufacturers aren’t required by law to let you know there are flame retardant chemicals in clothes. It’s not regulated–so you may not know that flame retardants are in most of our fabrics.
Robyn: We had another interview with Andy Pace, about how flame retardants also are sprayed on our furniture. You have to specifically choose upholstery on your furniture that is not sprayed with flame retardants. Carpets are a concern as well.
As far as laundry goes, the products that we use are part of the solution.
In my interview with Jason Prall for this summit, he just did a lot of worldwide research on longevity, he said one of the easiest and most important things you can do is to stop sleeping on synthetic sheets, which are laden with flame retardants, and to buy organic cotton only.
That was news to me, and now you’re telling us to buy organic cotton clothes as well. We should avoid buying polyester or synthetic clothes, correct?
Stephen: Yes, avoid synthetic-based fabrics like fleeces, polyesters, and anything else in the synthetic family. Avoid deceptive products like bamboo linens as well. The fibers do come from bamboo, which is awesome as a sustainable source, but the process to create involves a number of unsafe synthetic chemicals.
Organic cotton is the way to go.
Robyn: It’s sad to hear that, since bamboo is so sustainable. It’s basically a weed that grows like crazy.
So, you recommend organic cotton specifically because a lot of cotton is genetically modified these days, right?
Stephen: Yes, a large majority of it is. Also in the bleaching process, chlorine chemicals are added to the cotton making process, and residue from those chemicals can be left behind.
Thankfully, our products will get those chlorine chemicals out, but most cotton products are not treated with flame retardants, so you’ll be safe in that aspect.
Robyn: That’s good to know.
Tell us a little more about your background, and how this issue became your mission.
Stephen: My background is in the restaurant hospitality industry, but when my oldest son got sick, it set me on this quest where I ferociously studied labels.
I started out with the idea that if I couldn’t pronounce what was in my food or in the products I used at home, I wouldn’t use them. It was as simple as that.
If you can’t pronounce it, there’s a good chance that it’s not safe. All of the plant-based products that Earth has created are easy to pronounce. That was my first rule, and I spent a lot of time learning what was in all these products.
A few years later, I was at a local angel investor pitch and met my amazing partner, Ruth. We felt really passionate about our mission, but after a few years of trying different business models, we knew we weren’t able to educate people the way that we wanted to with our products on store shelves.
So we fired hundreds of stores carrying our products and went online, just so that we could teach people about these products and create a movement.
Robyn: “Ferociously” reading labels. I like that! Now, you produce substances that go into laundry products. Let’s talk about that. I read that perfumes have an average of 14 unregulated ingredients, toxic chemicals, or potentially toxic chemicals that aren’t listed on the label.
This is scary because the vast majority of the chemicals in our environment haven’t been tested, and at this point, we can’t test them because they’re so pervasive in our environment, especially the volatile organic compounds or VOCs.
Talk about how you choose the ingredients in your laundry products that you make, and what you avoid?
Stephen: We’ve been in business for almost 8 years, and online for 3 1/2. We’re very successful and growing really fast, but guess how many times somebody’s tried to validate our label in the last eight years.
Robyn: I’m going to guess zero.
Stephen: It is zero. No one has ever said “Let me see your formulation and what goes into your products.”
If you’re in the food production business, there’s a lot of regulation. The FDA spends time in food manufacturing facilities to validate that what the company lists on the label is actually what’s going into the product. They send a nutritionist and the ingredients are examined.
But in the chemical industry, there’s very little regulation. If there’s a lawsuit against you or someone gets hurt–or claims that your product hurt them–then at least one of those agencies will come to investigate. But otherwise, it’s a self-regulating system.
And there are plenty of people who are concerned about the fragrance loophole, which is a really hot topic–as it should be.
There is a loophole in the law that says if you have a chemical that’s less than 1% concentration, you can lump it in on your label under the category of “perfume” or “fragrance.” You don’t actually have to list the ingredient itself–and you can lump in 70 or 80 or even more chemicals under that one category.
Robyn: You’re saying nobody ever comes and checks whether your ingredients or product claims are actually true, so we have to buy laundry products from manufacturers we trust.
And as a consumer, I’d have to trust that you are so personally committed to creating a non-toxic product that I can believe in you. Many of the marketing claims are meaningless, so it’s important that we educate ourselves about ingredients. We can’t know everything that a chemist knows, but we need to know enough to be able to trust a manufacturer, that he’s serious about leaving the bad stuff out of the product.
Stephen: We’ve taken it a step further.
For years, we never had a fragrance or scented our product–because you don’t need it, and it does nothing to enhance performance.
So our first products didn’t make your clothes smell like anything–but if we kept going that way, we’d be out of business.
As a society, we’re brainwashed to believe that if a product doesn’t smell “clean,” it can’t clean.
I can’t tell you how many times customers cancelled their memberships for our monthly refills because the products had no scent. People believed the products couldn’t work, even before using them.
So, the smell was a huge deciding factor in customers’ purchasing decision. We went back to the drawing board and hired another chemist.
Based on Ruth’s work, we developed a line of scented products that use essential oils, but because of the tighter molecule structure, they evaporate.
So we blend essential oils with plant-based oils so that they can carry through the wash cycle, and people have a really good sensory experience at the end of the wash without having to use toxic chemicals. The scent still evaporates over time, but it’s there.
Commercial perfumes, on the other hand, are designed not to evaporate or wear off. Those chemicals are designed to leave a film or a sheen on fabrics. The film serves a couple of purposes, like UV brightness–so some perfumes and dyes have UV brighteners that leave a film, whereas ours don’t leave any film.
Robyn: Okay, so one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with your products is because you operate on the idea that this is the last jug you’ll ever need to buy. It makes me really happy that no more big orange jugs are going to the landfill.
I fill the jug with water and dump in a refill packet, and I don’t have to throw away anything. All your products are like that, and it makes me feel better about my own “carbon footprint” and the impact I’m having on the Earth. The matters to me as a mom, a future grandmother, and a citizen of the planet.
Our mutual friend, Dr. Eric Zielinski, also raves about your product. Before I started using it, he told me he was using it to wash his baby’s cloth diapers. He said, “There’s no diaper smell, the product gets them white.”
I know I gave you a hard time about the ingredients, before I bought my first shipment. I wanted to know exactly what was in there.
I’m not just going to take the word of a manufacturer that their product is nontoxic, because we’ve learned that most words used to describe products are marketing words, and there’s no quantifiable evidence-based lack of toxicity.
What I also like is that now you’ve got fragrance in there. My clothes smell good. I didn’t have to give up having lightly scented clothes.
I think that’s really honest of you to say, “We wanted to have a fragrance-free product, but consumers wouldn’t buy it.”
I initially started buying a competitor product at the health food store, and it’s green and non-GMO and organic–everything you want it to be, but it had no scent.
I still find pieces of clothing I washed in that batch of laundry, and I can tell. It has that sour laundry smell, and I actually rewash it.
That’s why we need the fragrance. That first bottle I bought didn’t have any fragrance, and my laundry had that sour laundry smell.
Stephen: Yes. A lot of eco brands are doing really cool stuff, but plant-based technology or old-fashioned soap technology leaves behind a sheen, and it’s a breeding ground for bacteria.
That sour laundry smell isn’t chemicals–it’s literally bacteria. That’s why big manufacturers sell washing machine cleaners. They don’t want your washing machine to stink as the film builds up and breeds bacteria.
We’ve filed multiple patents on our technologies, not only from a packaging standpoint, but also chemical technology. We’re really proud of our innovations and how we’ve done things that the big manufacturers couldn’t do.
Also, I have a great partner who is an amazing formulator. But because she didn’t come from a chemical background, she didn’t have to unlearn anything. She just knew what she didn’t want, and she learned from the ground up. I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve created such an amazing system.
Robyn: I’d like you to talk about which ingredients we should be looking out for in cleaning products.
Stephen: Laundry is the most toxic area of the home. There are other products that people purchase, like oven cleaner, that include toxic, solvent-based chemicals, but the human or environmental exposure to those chemicals is very limited.
You clean your oven every few years and wind up inhaling the product, but your natural detoxification process will rid your body of most of it. So our exposure to those kinds of toxic chemicals is limited.
However, your laundry is everywhere. What are we sleeping on? What are we wearing? Our exposure to laundry chemicals is extremely vast, because it’s in contact with our body and our skin all the time. We’re constantly breathing it, and our largest organ is constantly in contact with it.
Many laundry products have high surfactant bases, which is just a fancy word for suds makers. They’re oil-based chemicals that are slimy and goopy and create a lot of suds. Oils attract oils, so they do work for cleaning.
But in terms of what you should watch for, if the label says non-ionic or un-ionic surfactants and they don’t disclose which surfactants are used, I would stay away from them.
We literally list our whole formula on our label, which from a business perspective is not a smart idea!
Robyn: But that is the transparency that the consumer is looking for–and why I wanted to interview you. I don’t see that kind of information on labels.
Stephen: So surfactants are one ingredient to avoid. If a label has group names for ingredients, I would stay away from them. If you’re trying to hide something, there’s usually a good reason for it.
Robyn: Can you explain that?
Stephen: If you see “perfume” or “fragrance,” stay away. There’s no reason to hide behind those group names instead of listing the individual ingredients.
When you see groups of surfactants that don’t list which ones are actually used, go to Google. You can go to Environmental Working Group or the EPA and see what those things are. If they have any toxicological impact, stay away from those.
Robyn: So plant-based isn’t good enough. Plant-based doesn’t mean it’s clean or good or nontoxic.
Stephen: That’s right. Even plant-based products can be synthesized and laced with petrochemicals to get the desired outcome.
For example, one of the largest commodity-produced chemicals is sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS. It’s in everything–toothpaste, laundry products, dish soap. Some of these chemicals are even in vaccines.
In vaccines, these chemicals lower the surface tension of your cellular walls, so that the vaccine can pass blood-brain barriers. These types of commodity surfactants can literally be pumped into holding tanks by tankers, and yet they’re in vaccines. It’s pretty crazy.
So I’d start by avoiding surfactants and SLS. The next group of chemicals that I would say to avoid is things with color, like UV brighteners. By law, most UV brighteners don’t have to be listed on a label because such a small amount is needed.
So, you can’t just read the label, you also have to look at the color of the product. No laundry product or glass cleaner should have a color.
You should also avoid optical brighteners. These trick the eye and create an optical illusion under fluorescent light, as if your clothes are brighter.
If you remember commercials from the 80s and 90s, the clothes were flapping in the wind, and everyone said we have the brighter brights and the whiter whites, because that’s what people wanted.
Now that message is shifting. Focus groups have shown that’s not what people wanted. What people really wanted was smell.
So now that the message is shifting from the whiter whites and the brighter brights to the greatest smell. The laundry aisle is filled with beads and scent and color boosters and even more chemical craziness.
Without a $100,000 gas spectrometer, there is absolutely no way to reverse-engineer what chemicals are in those products. Even if you tried, the chemicals are there in minute amounts, and they combine with other chemicals to create new ones. So it’s really a scary space.
So again, the top three things I recommend you avoid would be anything with color, anything with words you can’t explain, or ingredients under group names. If you can’t read it or you don’t know what’s in it, you shouldn’t use it.
Robyn: And specifically, we should avoid sodium lauryl sulfate, which is in everything.
Propylene glycol is another one. I don’t know if it’s in laundry products, but sodium lauryl sulfates and propylene glycol are so hard to get away from, and they’re both known carcinogens that cause kidney and liver damage.
But again, like you pointed out, it’s not that these companies want to foist all these toxic chemicals on us–we demand it.
We want shampoo that creates tons of suds or toothpaste that gets all foamy, and you need serious chemicals to do that. If you use nontoxic toothpaste that’s made of clay, there’s not going to be foam.
We have to start thinking a bit differently if we want to get away from these products. I really appreciate what you said–I hadn’t really thought about the extent of our day-to-day exposure to laundry. As you said, your clothes are in contact with your body all day long, and you are constantly breathing the fumes from the fragrances.
Changing our laundry products is one of the easiest, most high impact things we can do. We’re not just decreasing our own toxic body burden and putting fewer chemicals into our own bodies, but we’re also putting fewer into the ground water.
Anyone who adopts this practice should be proud of themselves for making effort.
It’s also great that you can make this change without spending more. I’m impressed by how much your product costs, what I get out of it, and not having to put all those plastics in the landfill.
Stephen: When it comes to price, whether it’s for us or one of the mega brands, the two biggest contributors to cost is packaging and distribution.
Because we only create the packaging once, only ship a box to you once, and only ship the active ingredients without any water, we mitigate a huge amount of cost.
We take those costs and we spread that over the life of a member of our program, and then we pass those savings directly onto our members. One of the reasons we’re growing so fast is because I don’t think anybody else creates more value than we do.
Robyn: Yes, and I love that you have little dryer angels. People don’t realize that fabric softener or those sheets you put in the dryer stay on your clothes. Talk about your dryer product and the dangers of dryer sheets.
Stephen: It depends on who you talk to, but there’s a lot of research that shows that the VOCs that come out of dryer sheets are absolutely crazy. There are 14 known carcinogens that are found in the average dryer sheet.
Unfortunately, many of those aren’t listed on the labels, because one of the 1% rule we talked about earlier. Because dryer sheets are so light, if it’s less than 1%, even if it’s a known carcinogen, you don’t have to list it on the label.
Look at the back of the dryer sheets box. Many brands–including some eco brands–use different silicone derivatives to attract the ions that reduce static, and those are documented carcinogens. They’re crazy chemicals you should avoid.
We had to solve that problem too, because people want scent in their laundry. So we came up with a product years ago called Dryer Buddies. They’re teddy bears filled with essential oils, and you throw the bear in the dryer like a wool ball.
When our American manufacturer went out of business, we went to China, and found a new manufacturer. They were ready to sign a purchase order, but I felt in my spirit that I shouldn’t make the deal.
I didn’t know why, but I wrote an email to the manufacturer and asked if they could promise they didn’t use child labor. They never replied–and I was so grateful for that gut check.
Even though we would have made the bears for pennies on the dollar, I knew that it wasn’t the right move, so we didn’t.
At that point, Ruth and I had to figure out what to do. We pivoted the product to Dryer Angels. We’d found this amazing ministry in Jamaica that houses and employs deaf women. It’s a whole deaf community.
They had been living off of Christian donations, and we asked if they had a sewing machine. They did, and we got them a couple more, and now we employ five full-time deaf women to make our Dryer Angels.
We’re very passionate about the fact that now we’re creating jobs in other places. Not only do we have a really cool product that smells amazing and controls static using essential oils, but we’ve created jobs for women who really need work.
Robyn: This is one of the reasons why I trust you, Stephen. You’re doing good work in the world outside of just building a business.
I also know that in addition to employing vulnerable populations like these deaf women, you also donate your product to laundromats.
Stephen: Yes. The laundry project is another one of my pet ideas and projects, where we provide large concentrates to laundromats, homeless shelters, and other groups around the country that provide clean laundry days for people in need. We’ve had a large outreach in northern Michigan for years, and in the last year we decided to expand.
We ship big concentrated envelopes with a five-gallon jug, and now there are homeless shelters around the country that have clean laundry.
There are many kids that get bullied because their clothes are dirty. When we heard about that, we thought, “We can do something about this.”
So we are. We’re just getting started, but we’re fired up about it.
That’s what gets us up every day. Having purpose is what makes this whole journey worth it. I don’t know if I could have withstood the storms of “startup life” if it wasn’t for the impact and the purpose and the lives that we knew we were changing.
Robyn: It’s remarkable, and I’m honored to call you my friend. Work isn’t just a thing that we do to make money to pay the bills. It’s so important to me that we also make an impact.
I like watching you become a true educator, too, educating people about the toxicity of their products. Whether they use your product or other products, how can a consumer know that their ingredients are safe?
While you talk about that, let’s start your demo–and you can talk us through that as well.
Stephen: Sure. To start the demo, we have two identical bowls of clear water from the sink. This is a very simple demonstration you can do at home. If you’re using conventional blue or green colored products, do this test and show the kids what’s in your laundry detergent even after your clothes are dried.
I have a couple of white shirts that were washed in conventional detergent this morning. At this point, I’ll put on some rubber gloves, and I’ll put the white shirt into water.
Robyn: So that’s a white shirt that you’re putting in water. We’re not going to see any dyes coming off of it, because it’s just white.
Stephen: This is just a white shirt in water. That’s it.
Robyn: The water’s getting cloudy.
Stephen: If you do this at home, you’ll see that cloudiness if you’re using conventional cleaning chemicals, and they build up. When you put the white shirt into water, the water will get cloudy and dirty.
This is what happens when you use conventional chemicals.
I also have another white shirt, which I washed with our MyGreenFills products. When I put that in water, it doesn’t matter how much I swish it around, it’s going to stay clear. We design products that don’t leave behind a sheen.
This other product has a blue-green haze, and the water is dirty and kind of blue. The chemicals are designed to leave a blue and green haze for optical brightness, which tricks your eyes into believing that your clothes are brighter.
The unfortunate reality is the clothes smell great and may have the appearance of brightness, but you’re using toxic chemicals.
Those chemicals are left behind in your clothes, and you put them on your kid’s back. Then, your kid runs around and sweats, and what’s happening in this bowl of water is what’s happening on your kid’s skin.
We’re creating microsuds and a microfilm of these chemicals on our bodies. We’re sleeping in them, and we’re living in them. In a day and age where we see cancers, hormone disruption, endocrine problems, and all these health issues, you have to wonder what’s causing it.
These chemicals don’t belong in our bodies. I wish we could clean clothes without chemicals, but we put stains on our clothes, and we need to get them off. So we want to help people in doing so, as safely as possible.
If you don’t know what’s in your detergent, do this demo at home: take a bowl of warm water, put your clothes in it, and shake it up. If the water isn’t crystal clear, your detergent has chemicals.
You don’t want those chemicals on you or your family. Period.
Robyn: The bowl of water that has the shirt washed in one the MyGreenFills product is clear. It’s just clear water.
That’s really telling. I think this would be a great experiment to do with your kids, since they can actually see the difference. I think things like this that make it visual for our kids will help them when they go out on their own.
That’s the whole reason we’re doing this summit. If you can learn and implement five things, it could have a very dramatic impact on your health. We’re so excited about that.
Thanks for the demo.
So what’s left, Stephen? What other important thing can you educate us about before we go?
Stephen: Well, on the back of MyGreenFills products, we have this creed. It’s comprised of 31 ideals, and it’s the lens we filter everything through.
One of the biggest things you’ll see in bold is the phrase “Ask questions and question everything.” I think in this toxic world, there is hope. If there’s one overarching thing I would pass on to our communities is to ask questions and question everything.
Also, verify everything. What’s in my food? What’s in my products? Do my clothes have flame retardants? It’s simple to ask these questions.
As a capitalist and an entrepreneur, I know that the market creates demand. We, as the market, use our wallets to create the demand. If we question things and take companies like mine to task and insist on knowing what’s in products, companies will adapt.
It’s about market demand. There’s proof of this in the fact that big stores now have huge organic “green” aisles. Fifteen years ago, there were just a bunch of weird “hippies” that wanted organic spinach. Now, organic spinach dominates the market.
So if you ask questions, question everything, and make small changes, you’ll help the market to create the demand. Make those micro-decisions and those micro-commitments to incorporate more organic foods into your diet.
Start incorporating more organic fabrics into your wardrobe or more plant-based, nontoxic cleaners into your home.
If enough of us do that, and we tell our friends and our family what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and we encourage and empower and inspire them to do it, the market will meet that demand. Period. That’s what we need to do.
Robyn: I absolutely agree with you. It’s a grassroots movement. I’m so proud to be involved in it with you, educating people who will vote with their dollars.
And that’s another positive thing that we’re doing when we buy green laundry products. We help them to become more mainstream–just like your example of spinach. When I started Green Smoothie Girl in 2007, you had to work to find organic food.
I created a video where I said “You have to figure out how much more you’re willing to spend, or able to spend, on organics,” and I talked through what I bought organic, what I didn’t, and why.
Now I’m able to say “Organics don’t even cost more!” Costco has hundreds of organic products, and now we even have triple-washed organic greens. There’s no reason why somebody can’t do a green smoothie every day, and you can make it with all organic produce, and it doesn’t even cost you more.
It’s so exciting that changes are afoot, and the world is getting better–and we can make that happen when we vote with our dollars.
We cannot sit around and wait for our government to protect us from glyphosate or protect our infants from being exposed to flame retardant on baby clothes. The government is not protecting us.
Thank you for talking with me today, Stephen–and for everything you do in the humanitarian and conscious capitalism spheres. We’ve become educated on so many important topics. Keep doing what you’re doing, and keep making great products that we can trust.
Stephen: Have an amazing day.
Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate links that help support the GSG mission without costing you extra. I recommend only companies and products that I use myself.