Last Updated on March 23, 2023 by The Filtery
Everyone loves fresh-smelling laundry. So much so that many people’s modern-day laundry routines now includes quite a handful of different products: laundry detergent, fabric softener, whitening booster, stain treatment, dryer sheets, and now… scent boosters.
These colorful beads might leave your clothes smelling good for a while, but are laundry scent boosters safe? Are Downy Unstopables toxic? We’re going to break down the ingredients and then discuss some healthier ways to keep your laundry smelling fresh.
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What Are Downy Unstopables?
Downy Unstopables are “scent booster” beads that you put in your laundry to make your clothing smell stronger and last longer compared to using detergent and fabric softener alone.
How to Use Downy Unstopables
To use these little scent beads, you just shake as many of them as you want into the cap and throw them into your washer before you turn it on to start the load. Downy says their Unstopables are compatible with all washing machines.
Downy Unstopables aren’t soap and they’re not meant to replace your detergent and/or fabric softener. They’re supposed to be used WITH your detergent. They’re only meant to add smells, not to clean anything.
Downy Unstopables Ingredients
Downy Unstopables only contain three ingredients:
Dyes/Colorants (which differ depending on the scent)
This is actually somewhat surprising considering that most personal care and cleaning products contain a long list of (sometimes questionable) ingredients. But fewer ingredients doesn’t always mean better. Are Downy Unstopables safe? Let’s investigate these three ingredients to find out.
Are Downy Unstopables Toxic?
Unfortunately, there is not one totally safe ingredient in Downy Unstopables; all three of these ingredients comes with its own problems. Let’s go through each one:
What’s the Problem With Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)?
Polyethylene Glycol, also known as PEG, is used as a “Perfume Dispersant.” (It’s also the active ingredient in MiraLAX. Yep, it’s a laxative that causes water to be retained in the stool to help with occasional constipation.)
It’s also commonly found in things like toothpaste and lotions.
The problem with PEG is not actually about the ingredient itself, but how it’s processed. Although there are multiple routes to the end product, they all involve using ethylene oxide, which is a problematic irritant that’s known to cause multiple types of cancer and infertility. The end result can unfortunately be contaminated with ethylene oxide, making products with PEG potentially toxic.
The second potential contaminant PEG could contain is called 1,4-dioxane, which is another known carcinogen.
The problem is that PEG (and therefore Downy Unstopables) could contain both of these toxic chemicals even though they weren’t added intentionally, meaning they won’t be listed on the ingredient list.
Despite the fact that it’s still used in the U.S. for various purposes, propylene glycol is banned in E.U. for various reasons, including potential to cause skin reactions, neurological symptoms, heart problems.
Note that in the research, most of these problems are only at risk of happening when someone is exposed to very large amounts of propylene glycol. So for the general population, the amount of propylene glycol that’s in Downy Unstopables probably isn’t going to cause extreme acute effects. (Although some people—like children, pregnant people, and those with kidney or liver damage—are more susceptible.)
The larger issue worth considering is with one’s overall toxic burden. PEGs and other kinds of ethoxylated ingredients are widely used throughout consumer products and they’re practically impossible to avoid completely. Avoiding scent beads, however, is a really easy thing consumers can do to decrease their overall toxic burden.
One last thing to note here is that PEG is known as a “penetration enhancer,” which is something that allows other ingredients to more easily pass through the skin. That means that even if the PEG in your Downy Unstopables does not contain ethylene oxide or 1,4-dioxane, it can still decrease your body’s ability to protect you from other toxins in your home, personal care products, and environment.
Why is “Fragrance” Toxic?
The second ingredient listed in Downy Unstopables is “fragrance.” Whenever you see the word “fragrance” or “parfum” listed on an ingredient label (and you will see it a lot), it should raise a red flag. We’ve written about this problem before, as it related to perfume as well as candles and plug-in air fresheners. “Fragrances” are SO prevalent that you’re likely to find them in almost all of your conventional personal care and cleaning products.
In the United States, there is a list of about 4,000 chemicals (some totally safe, and many not) that can be included in products under the umbrella term “fragrance” and companies are not legally required to list those chemicals on the label. (Although, this is starting to change with California’s new Ingredient Disclosure law.)
In other words, when you see “fragrance” listed, you have virtually no idea of knowing what that actually means.
Among the toxic chemicals that are allowed under the “fragrance” umbrella are phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors that can cause infertility among other things, as well as styrene and naphthalene, which are carcinogens.
Dyes & Colorants
Dyes and colorants should be approached with caution because some of them are safe while others are linked to a variety of different long-term negative health effects. And there are a lot of different synthetic chemical dyes and colorants, so it can be very difficult for consumers to sort through them and figure out what’s safe and what’s not.
Most of the Downy Unstopables scents contain colorants from the “Acid Red” family, which have been found to be potentially problematic when used in hair dye. We could really use some more information and transparency in this area.
Downy Unstopables Allergic Reaction Symptoms
Many people have experienced mild to severe allergic reactions to Downy Unstopables, which could be from the PEG, the fragrance, or the dyes. Symptoms that have been reported are:
- rash/hives (this is the most commonly reported negative reaction)
- itchy skin
- eye and sinus irritation and swelling
- sore throat/trouble swallowing
- itchy nose
- sneezing and coughing
- pustules on the skin
- asthma exacerbation
Especially if you or your kids struggle with allergies, have sensitive skin, or have other chemical sensitivities, it would be safer to go with non-toxic laundry products instead of Downy Unstopables (which we’ll talk about more in a minute).
Are Downy Unstopables Toxic to Dogs and Cats?
Some consumers have reported some of the same symptoms listed above in their pets. If you notice your dog or cat experiencing things like rashes and sneezing, consider taking Downy Unstopables out of your laundry routine for at least a month to see if it makes a difference.
If your pet actually ingests the beads, take them to the vet. Ingesting these beads could be much more toxic than smelling them and doing your laundry with them.
Are Downy Unstopables Safe for Baby Clothes?
Babies’ little developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic substances than adults’ are, so we can’t recommend using Downy Unstopables on baby clothes. For the little ones, we recommend just skipping the scent boosters and using non-toxic detergents such as Attitude Baby Detergent (which comes in Soothing Chamomile, Sweet Lullaby, Pear Nectar, and Fragrance-Free) or Branch Basics instead. Your baby’s skin smells amazing as it is anyway.
What About “Downy Light” Scent Beads—Are They Better?
About six months after this article was originally published, I saw a commercial for “Downy Light” Scent Beads, so of course I had to look into this new product to see if it’s any better.
“Want your clothes to smell freshly washed all day without heavy perfumes?” the ad asked. The commercial goes on to advertise the product as having “no heavy perfumes or dyes” and being available in “four naturally-inspired scents.” (Did you catch that marketing jargon? Note that “naturally-inspired” is not the same as “natural.”)
But clearly P&G knows that some people do not like the heavy perfumes and synthetic chemical scents of their regular products!
But sadly, this is just another case of greenwashing… When you look at the ingredients in Downy’s “Light” Scent Beads, they’re almost the same:
- Polyethylene Glycol
They did take out the dyes and colorants, which is certainly progress. And there’s a possibility that there are less toxic synthetic chemicals included in the fragrance portion. But we still can’t recommend this product or call it “non-toxic.” Instead, we recommend checking out some of the tips and tricks below to keep you laundry smelling fresh in a safer way.
Natural & DIY Laundry Scent Boosters
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find any pre-made non-toxic scent beads that are comparable to Downy Unstopables in terms of how they’re used.
But it’s really easy to make your own natural DIY scent booster! Here’s a really easy recipe:
- 2 cups of Kosher salt OR Epsom salt
- 1 cup of baking soda
- 30 drops of the essential oil of your choice
Mix everything together in a mason jar and let it sit for at least 30 minutes before using so that the salt and soda have the opportunity to soak up the oils.
Use 1/4-1/2 cup of the booster per regular-sized load of laundry. You can add it directly into the washing machine on top of your clothes, sheets, or towels.
Make sure you put a lid on the jar when storing it.
What About Mrs. Meyers and Method Scent Boosters?
Mrs. Meyer’s and Method are two popular “green” cleaning product companies that can often be found in big box stores like Target and Walmart. They both offer laundry scent boosters: Mrs. Meyer’s offers a powder that comes in Lavender or Honeysuckle and Method offers scent beads that come in Ginger Mango and Beach Sage.
Most of the time, products from Method and Mrs. Meyer’s end up in the “better but still not great” category when it comes to toxicants, and their laundry fragrance boosters are no different.
Both of these products are at least formulated without phthalates and parabens, which is good news. However, Method still doesn’t publish their full ingredients when it comes to fragrance. Both brand’s fragrance boosters contain propylene glycol as well as numerous ingredients recognized as “allergens” that may not be good for people with sensitive skin.
Other Natural Ways to Keep Your Clothes Smelling Fresh
Wool Dryer Balls
Dryer balls can take the place of your dryer sheets by reducing static and wrinkles, while also helping your clothes dry faster. Once a week or so, just put ten drops of the essential oil of your choice onto the dryer balls to give your laundry a fresh (but not fake) scent.
If essential oils aren’t your thing, use a lavender sachet (like this one made from upcycled t-shirts) in your dryer. These little dryer pillows are filled with fragrant organic lavender buds and reusable for up to nine months.
Non-Toxic Dryer Sheets
Conventional dryer sheets are one of the most chemically-laden products in your home. So if you want to use dryer sheets, go with a safer brand like one of these:
For when you need to freshen up fabrics that you don’t have time to put through the laundry, try using vodka! Yep, putting one-third vodka and two-thirds water in a spray bottle and then spraying your clothes can neutralize any musty smells. You can even add some essential oils to your spray bottle as well if you’d like.
This is also a great trick for fabrics that are harder to wash, like the couch, mattress, pillows, or shoes.
Non-Toxic Fabric Refresher Spray
If vodka in a spray bottle is not your thing, use a pre-made fabric refresher spray, like Grow. We absolutely love Grow’s fragrances — they come in ten different scents and truly give Febreze a run for its money.
Other Questions You May Have About Downy Unstopables
Are Downy Unstopables a Fabric Softener?
Can You Put Downy Unstopables in the Dryer?
No, Downy Unstopables should only be put in the washer.
Can You Put Downy Unstopables in a Wax Warmer?
P&G (Downy’s parent company) carries some other Unstopsable products, including their Febreze Unstopable Wax Melts. These should NOT be confused with Downy Unstoppable laundry scent boosters. You should NOT put Downy scent boosters in a wax warmer.
Can You Make Homemade Febreze Air Freshener Spray Out of Downy Unstopables?
Even though they do sell Febreze Unstopable spray, some people on the internet like to DIY their own air freshener spray by dissolving the Downy beads into warm water and putting the solution into a spray bottle. Instead of spraying this toxic spray into your air, try Grow instead! This non-toxic air freshener spray is plant-based, toxin-free, and smells just as fresh and delightful as P&G’s products.
Are Downy Unstopables Bad for Your Washer?
We can’t find anything that says Downy Unstopables can cause any problems for your washing machine, so you should be safe in this regard.
Image credits: Sarah Brown, Picsea, Uby Yanes, Annie Spratt, PNW Production, Rachel Claire
Is this safe to use in a load of laundry containing bleach?
Well, we don’t actually recommend using it at all, but doing a quick Google search, it looks like other customers do use it with bleach.
Our neighbor who lines in the unit next to us uses unstopables And the dryer vent is about 20 feet from our patio and the smell is terrible and irritating to the sinuses I do believe she’s doing laundry for other people and this is going on everyday. She says there is nothing we can do about it. Has anyone else had this problem and is there any way to stop someone from dousing their neighbors with that nasty stuff?
Living in communal spaces can be really frustrating for chemically sensitive people and I’m sorry to hear you’re having this experience. If you’ve already tried talking to your neighbor and she doesn’t want to do anything about it, you may want to take the route of talking to the landlord if you have one. You could compare it to implementing a fragrance-free workplace, which is not uncommon for employers to do these days (and can technically be protected under ADA). I highly doubt that anyone has any legal obligation in your specific instance and it will probably come down to how nice and empathetic the people involved want to be. But it might not hurt to use the fragrance-free workplace angle to try to state your case and see if your landlord can/will do anything.
How do I remove the Downy unstoppable smell from my clothes? Grandmother put it into a load of my daughter’s clothes and she hates the smell. Also the smell is now on other clothes that were in her suitcase. We washed them 4 times with baking soda and the smell is still there.
Oh wow… I probably would have suggested trying baking soda, so I’m sorry to hear that didn’t work! One of the reasons phthalates are added to fragrance products is to make them stick around longer, so it can definitely be difficult to get rid of. Have you tried soaking them in an oxygen booster such as the one from Branch Basics? (https://branchbasics.com/products/oxygen-boost) Or hanging them outside on a line for a day or two to give them some fresh air? Other than that, you might have to just let them sit for a while and let time do it’s work… EVENTUALLY the smell should go away, it’s just a matter of how long it will take…
I am so glad I found your website! Question: is it possible for the scent from Downey Infusions and/or Unstoppables to become lodged in the a/c ducts? I used both of these and started noticing the sneezing, runny nose, etc. but I have also noticed it in my dogs. So, I backed off using the products thinking it would help. What I noticed was that I could, at times, still smell it as strong as I would when actually using it. I have even rewashed all towels, linens and bedspreads to remove the scent but yet there are still more days than not that when the a/c turns on and starts to blow cool air, there is the smell…again…
It’s definitely possible for the scents to get “stuck” in things like bed sheets and towels… In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons why phthalates are used in fragrance products is because it makes them stick around for a lot longer. I’m not totally sure about the air ducts, but I could see it being possible that the fragrance molecules could be trapped in the air filters and then possibly getting recirculated as the air flows through those filters. So if you haven’t already, you could try replacing your filters and see if that helps. The fragrance molecules and VOCs could also get attached to household dust, so wet dusting could help too. I would also suggest running an air purifier if you have one and/or opening the windows… All of that should help decrease those lingering smells!
What about Scentsy Washer Whiffs? How you you rate them?
Ingredients listed on tubs are – sodium chloride, microcrystalline cellulose, gragrance.
Unfortunately, Scentsy is not very transparent about their fragrance ingredients, so we can’t recommend them. Almost all of their products contain “fragrance”, which can indicate phthalates, allergens, and other potential toxicants.
Thankfully, I found your article. Lately, I have been using Downey Unstoppables beads in my laundry. Sams Club gave out free samples and I was hooked from then on..I have developed a very itchy back and can only trace it to this fabric addition. No telling how many loads of towels and clothes still contain this nasty product. THANK YOU VERY MUCH…
Oh no – I’m sorry to hear that! I’m glad you were able to identify what it was, though. And I’m glad you found the article helpful!
FYI Salt is corrosive as is vinegar, which you don’t mention in the article but people still use it in their laundry. If you have any metal parts in your washing machine, salt and vinegar will corrode and before you know it, you’ll be dishing out money on a new washing machine. Just some food for thought.
Thank you so very much for this information. I learned a ton. I am one of “those people” who really have issues with all these new products that come out and I just know in my gut they are LOADED with chemicals to do the thing the product is promoting. I came across The Filtery website when I Googled the Downey Unstoppables because I can only imaging the number of “chemicals” hidden in those 3-ingredients. Your article was informative, easy-to-understand, and appreciated for offering human-and-planet-friendly alternatives! I absolutely loved this article. Again, thank you.
Thanks so much, Carla! We are “those people” as well! Hopefully you found an alternative to the Unstoppables that you love. 🙂
It might be corrosive, but it’s a non-toxic alternative for disinfecting and deodorizing.
Whether it is corrosive or not is debatable, because it depends on the how strong the vinegar ratio is that a person is using.
Also, those fabric softeners, detergents and other chemicals can create sludge inside the machine’s plumbing, which isn’t good for it either.