Everyone loves fresh-smelling laundry. So much so that many people’s modern-day laundry routines now include 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.
Table of Contents
- What Are Downy Unstopables?
- Downy Unstopables Ingredients
- Are Downy Unstopables Toxic?
- Downy Unstopables Allergic Reaction Symptoms
- Are Downy Unstopables Toxic to Dogs and Cats?
- Are Downy Unstopables Safe for Baby Clothes?
- What About “Downy Light” Scent Beads—Are They Better?
- Natural & DIY Laundry Scent Boosters
- Other Natural Ways to Keep Your Clothes Smelling Fresh
- Other Questions You May Have About Downy Unstopables
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What Are Downy Unstopables?
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.
Are synthetic fragrances bad? What’s the difference between synthetic and natural fragrances? Learn all about the “fragrance loophole” and more.
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.
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:
How do dryer sheets actually work, and do they contain toxic ingredients? There are plenty of great alternatives to dryer sheets for static and smell. So here they are!
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.
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.