These researchers used science to make laundry packs a new way.

They want you to have clean clothes. And to make the world a better place.

For the last nine years, Kay Gebhardt has had a demanding and often unsung (at least publicly) job.

If you've ever tried to get grass stains out of your kid's jeans or little dots of salad dressing out of a treasured silk blouse, you were probably concerned about whether they'd come out — but did you give much thought to the safety of the detergent you were washing your clothes in?

Kay's given it a lot of thought.


As a scientist for Seventh Generation, she's helped create the testing methods that determine if new products meet the company's strict and ambitious safety goals.

She knows each ingredient in a given product and what it does. And if she doesn't know, she makes it her business to find out.

"Our internal standards are the highest thing we try to achieve," she said proudly. "I never have to convince my colleagues about the right thing to do."

Over the last several months, Kay and her team have worked on an ambitious new product for Seventh Generation: laundry packs.

Image by Seventh Generation.

If you don't know what laundry packs are, they're convenient little capsules of detergent that consumers can toss into the washer with their clothes.

Laundry packs promise a world with fewer moments like this.

Why is it so important to get laundry packs right?

In 2015, Consumer Reports wrote that they "strongly urge" families with small children to skip laundry packs containing liquid because of the "continued danger" they pose. One such danger?

Accidental ingestion.

It sounds kinda absurd, but curious kids sneaking into laundry cupboards, grabbing detergent packs, and trying to eat them is, unfortunately, a real thing that's happened.

Image via iStock.

In 2015, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that in 2014 there were 938 exposures to liquid or hybrid laundry packets that resulted in "moderate or major harm" (requiring extended treatment and resulting in permanent damage, such as loss of vision). And, sadly, four exposures to liquid or hybrid laundry packets resulted in death.

The Seventh Generation team didn't want to add to those statistics.

Seventh Generation originally started working toward a liquid formulation for their laundry packs. But after months of work and testing, it was clear there were ways they could make their laundry detergent packs safer.

So the team went back to the drawing board, and to powder packs.

In an interview, Kay explained the rationale for going back to powder:

"If a kid bites into a laundry powder pack, it quickly fills the mouth with an extremely unpleasant chalky taste. Instead of accidentally swallowing some of the detergent — which can happen with liquid formulations — kids are compelled to spit it out."

Kids may swallow some of the powder, but the idea is that, since it's not liquid, they can't swallow the whole thing. Also, they don't look like candy, so they are less likely to want to eat them.

When it came to testing their new laundry packs, Seventh Generation's goal was two-fold: meet their own internal requirements plus those of EPA's Safer Choice program.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Safer Choice label is prestigious — only 2,500 products sold in the U.S. meet its tough environmental, health, and safety standards. Seventh Generation's is one of only two laundry pack products for home use on the list.

Seventh Generation's commitment to safety goes beyond imagining worst-case scenarios.

Some companies, like Seventh Generation, research all ingredients in their products to ensure they don't hurt fish when they reach rivers and streams. Image via iStock.

There's skin testing for irritation and possible allergies (and never tested on animals).

There's research on each chemical ingredient to ensure the products won't hurt fish or aquatic organisms if they make their way into storm sewers and waterways.

There's testing to ensure the product performs well using high-efficiency, energy-conserving machines. Even the packaging is designed to have as small of an impact on the environment as possible.

Here's the result: an EPA Safer Choice Certified Product. You can relax, knowing you've made a good choice. Image via Seventh Generation.

Once a new product reaches store shelves, the long hours of testing and formulating behind the scenes are invisible to the consumer.

Some people working on these products might find that disappointing. For Kay, it's all worth it to ensure customers are getting a rigorously tested product that works well and does right by the environment.

"There are so many reasons why I stay with Seventh Generation. I’m passionate about the mission that we have, and how we are so authentic and aligned with the changes we want to see in the world. Ultimately, I want to come home to my kids and feel good about what I do. I want to say, 'Mommy makes products that do good and mommy is trying to change things.'"
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Photo by Toni Hukkanen on Unsplash

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