Nonylphenol: Why This Nonionic Surfactant is Banned by the EU But Still Used in American Laundry Detergents

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Why the American Industry Claims the Nonionic Surfactants to be Environmentally Safe

A surfactant is the part of a detergent mixture or a soap that does the actual work. Other compounds in the mixture provide support to the function of the surfactant, but the surfactant is the main mover and groover in the mix, let us say. In this article we will look at one particular surfactant - Alklyphenol ehoylate - and the practicality, safety and politics of its use here and in Europe.

According to an industry report (Mihaich, 2003), the nonionic surfactant Alklyphenol ethoylates are often referred to as the “workhorse surfactants” and are the preferred surfactant in many application because of their properties as outstanding dispersants, wetting agents and emulsifiers. They work well with little need for other additives.

From the point of view of American writers, the virtue of the use of these non-ionic surfactants is in that fewer chemicals are put into the environment when this particular surfactant is used. And, since these non-ionic surfactants are the most “studied” surfactant family available, their environmental impact and the limits within which they may be acceptably found present without causing damage to species appears to be well established. This means that monitoring the chemical in the environment is not such a challenge, as it is with less studied compounds.

Apparently, in the US, a number of studies have shown that sewage treatment plants remove on average 95% of nonylphenol and its ethoxylates from wastewater. The industry reports that studies have also shown that nonylphenol and nonylpnenol ethoxylates do not tend to bioaccumulate in the bodies of fish and in other animals. This would mean that they do not become a part of the food chain. Typical concentrations of NP/NPEs in the environment are below 1 ppb. (NP) is a minor degradation intermediate of nonylphenol. The report states that nonylphenol and octylphenol exhibit toxic effects on fish and invertebrates at concentrations above 1 microg/literand that nonylphenol has been found to have endocrine disrupting effects in freshwater organisms at concentrations of 20 microg/liter. The implication of this is that it is not of a concern since the detected levels fall within ‘safe’ limits (Mihaich, 2003).

Nonylphenol is favored by American detergent industries. Meanwhile, Europeans have banned the use of the nonionic surfactant nonylphenol - more on this below.


Mihaich, E. et al; Relative Toxicity Ranking of Nonylphenol Ethoxylates and theirDegradation Intermediates to Estimate Cumulative Risk [Internet] Kansas City, MO: AOCS; May 7, 2003. Available from: (

Why Europeans Have Banned the Use of the Nonionic Surfactant Nonylphenol

When we consider the American study of Nonylphenol discussed above, a question remains: What becomes of the approximately five percent of nonylphenol and its ethoxylates which the study shows to remain unaltered in treated sewage waste water? This is the effluent which is to be released into the environment. Can we really say that this residual surfactant content is really safe?

Phenol toxin can cause death or serious side effects in hypersensitive individuals even at very low exposures. Europeans experts have considered this and responded accordingly. Yet, in America this and other facts do not affect the choices made by the regulators of these materials. Nevertheless, studies have found that this surfactant is the cause of breast cancer, or at least a contributing factor to this disease. Nonylphenol has been shown to stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells. Nonylphenol also feminizes male fish when present in sufficiently high concentrations in the water. A report on a recent GreenPeace Study on a variety of chemicals present in the environment states that recent research has raised concerns that exposure to alklyphenol compounds such as this Nonionic surfactant could cause direct damage to DNA and to sperm structure and function in mammals. The nonionic surfactant, nonylphenol ethoxylate has been banned in Europe. (, 2001)

Are you comfortable with applying this substance to your clothing? Chances are the end result of laundering with a nonylphenol is the inadvertent application of this chemical (now banned in Europe) onto your skin. Genuine “green detergents” will not pose this risk. This would be a good thing to remember as you reach for the cheapest detergent on the shelf. In America, at least, you have to choose your detergent carefully to avoid the nonylphenol risk.

Reference:; UK Marine Special Areas of Conservation; Surfactants [Internet].UK Marine SACs Project, UK; 2001 Available from (

< BACK to Green Laundry Detergents: First Understand What is in Laundry Detergents

This post is part of the series: All About Surfactants in Laundry Detergents

Surfactants are the workhorses of your laundry detergent. We use a lot of these chemicals every week, but do we understand their impact upon our environment and our health?

  1. Green Laundry Detergents and the Chemical Structure of Surfactants
  2. Are the Cleaning Compounds (The Surfactants) in Laundry Detergents Really Safe to Use?
  3. More Synthetic Surfactants: Fabric Softeners and Other Questionable Inventions
  4. The Case of Nonionic Surfactants in Europe and America: To Ban or Not to Ban
  5. Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate a Natural Surfactant?