Optical brighteners are synthetic chemicals added to liquid and powder laundry detergents to make clothing appear whiter and brighter, and thus cleaner. They are the modern day replacement for the decades-old practice of bluing — adding small amounts of blue dye to fabric to make it appear whiter.
Other Names for Optical Brighteners
Synonyms: Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs), Optical Whiteners, Fluorescent Brightening Agents, Fluorescent Brighteners, Fluorescent Optical Brighteners, Fluorescent Whitening Agents (FWAs), Fluorescent White Dyes, and Organic Fluorescent Dyes
Trade Names: Blankophor, Dikaphor, DMS, Intrawite (textile use), Kolocron, Optiblanc, Tinopal, Tuboblanc (textile use mostly), Uvitex.
How Optical Brighteners Work
Optical brighteners transform UV (ultraviolet) light waves to enhance blue light and minimize the amount of yellow light to make things appear whiter. So, they really don’t get your clothes any cleaner, but just make them appear whiter and brighter. What they do, though, is stay on your clothes as they can resist heat and even chemicals like bleach. You can detect optical brighteners using a special UV or black light and will notice that your clothes literally glow!
Optical brighteners are also used in the manufacture of laundry detergent, paper, textiles, plastics, paint, printing inks, cosmetics, carpet, paints, toothbrushes, sails, shoes, buttons, appliances, cereal boxes and other food packaging and golf balls with the sole intention of tricking your eyes into believing your clothes and such are cleaner and brighter than they actually are by reflecting light, more specifically by reflecting blue light. They have also been used to detect waste water leakage, help with medical diagnostic procedures, and kill agricultural pests.
What are optical brighteners really doing?
As if it wasn’t bad enough, when added to your laundry soap, these optical brightening agents (OBAs), fluorescent brightening agents (FBAs), fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs), synthetic fluorescent dyes, or bluing agents offer no cleaning benefits to your clothes whatsoever. On the flip side, there are several dangers to using these chemical dyes. Knowing some of the harm these chemicals can cause humans, you can only begin to imagine the damage they do to wildlife and the environment as they slip through the sewage treatment facilities and into our lakes and streams. Optical brighteners don’t work forever. They fade with time and exposure to UV rays, and while doing so are absorbed into your skin. But while the illusion of their usefulness does fade, their toxic effects do not. These agents are not biodegradable, in fact they bioaccumulate, so they won’t just go away—and it isn’t something we can simply ignore until millions of dead fish wash up on the beach.
Affect on the environment
No, these optical brighteners won’t heighten the color of your world. Quite the opposite. They are proven toxic to fish and animals. Their negative affect on water quality is immeasurable. These chemicals are bioaccumulative, meaning they stick together to form sludge in high concentration, killing aquatic life and even causing mutations in bacterial cells adding to the problem of resistant bacteria. According to a report by the European Ecolabel Commission on criteria for laundry detergents in 2011, “as optical brighteners undergo photo degradation, numerous metabolites may be produced that are not yet identified, which means we may not know the true potential impacts upon the environment.”
Optical brighteners in food
These chemical agents can be found in your food, too. “Food grade optical brighteners” can come into contact with your food via plastic and paper packaging. As that cereal box sits on the store shelf, exposed to UV light, those bright colors you see are seeping into those crunchy flakes you love so much. It’s in your soap, the paint on your dishes, the fabric of your dish towel and the inside of your dishwasher. According to a study on the migration of optical brighteners into jam and fruit drinks from the packing materials, published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology,
“Optical brighteners are commonly used to modify the appearance and to improve polymer properties of packaging. They are not chemically bound to polymers and able to migrate from packaging into the foods. These migrants are potentially harmful to human health.”
How to avoid optical brighteners
Optical brighteners have infiltrated the market to the extent that it may seem impossible to avoid them. It’s quite simple really. Anything claiming to make your clothes, “whiter than white” probably contains some form of these chemicals and should be avoided. Here are five simple tips to help you ditch the illusion of optical brighteners:
Green Alternatives for Laundry Whitening, soaking clothing in eco enzyme and water prior to laundering and then hanging them out to line dry in the sun works like a charm. A hydrogen peroxide and water solution works, too. Another eco-friendly solution is to purchase one of the many non-chlorine oxygen based bleaches on the market, such as EN-Nature’s Ecozyme Household Cleaner Products