Never-ending piles of laundry are the bane of a parent's existence — but that doesn't mean the time-consuming and tedious task of getting them clean has to kick the earth in the shins or expose a family to myriad chemicals.

That's the thinking behind the slowly increasing number of shoppers who are choosing to use earth-friendly products to get their clothes clean.

Colette Coan, a Rockville Centre, N.Y., resident, sought out more natural detergents after her child exhibited breathing problems and her husband showed a sensitivity to odors.

After her research, she ended up representing an Idaho Falls, Idaho-based line of green products, Melaleuca.

"He loved them," Coan says of her husband's reaction to the new eco-friendly laundry products she started using. "He noticed a difference."

Gentle Cycle

Natural and eco-friendly home laundry products have been around for years, but as environmental concerns have risen among mainstream consumers, mainstream marketers have taken notice, according to Mintel International, a market-research firm.

The entrance of laundry giants such as Arm & Hammer and Purex into the eco-niche has propelled the sales of all-natural home laundry products to more than double in the past year, according to Mintel.

But even with this growth, the green laundry market still makes up less than 1 percent of total sales, states Mintel in a recent report.

"The one certainty is that P&G [Procter and Gamble] is closely watching Arm & Hammer's and Purex's green entries," states Mintel.

Back Wash

The move — albeit a slow one — toward more natural clothes-cleaning products, or packaging and scents that connote that vibe, comes as consumers are more tuned in to the environment, say experts.

"Traditional detergents contain a number of polluting ingredients, and these can wreck havoc on both the environment and some people's skin," says Corey K. Tournet, owner of The Laundry Alternative of Middletown Springs, Vt., which makes an energy-efficient dryer.

"Most people don't realize this, but even after a washing machine's rinse-and-spin cycle, a lot of detergent residue is left in the clothes," Tournet says. "They can [also] pollute the environment when they go down the drain after washing."

The ingredients in laundry detergents first came under the microscope back in the late 1960s after bodies of water succumbed to pollution, and the gobs of green gunk that materialized were attributed largely to phosphates in detergents. In time, phosphates were banned in laundry detergents.

Still, many products available today contain an alphabet soup of toxicity, such as NPE (nonylphenoxyethoxylate), a petroleum-derived nonionic surfactant; chlorine bleach; LAS (linear alkylbenzenesulfonate), a petroleum-derived anionic surfactant; and synthetic fragrances, which can contain toxic substances like phthalates.

That's all according to Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation, a maker of eco-friendly laundry detergent based in Burlington, Vt.

Wolf says his company uses non-toxic, biodegradable, plant-derived and non-volatile materials to ensure its eco-friendly claims are accurate.

"One of the problems in determining the 'green-ness' of a laundry product is that unlike the cosmetic industry or food industry, the cleaning product industry doesn't have to divulge the ingredients in its products," says Wolf.

"Pinning products down is tough for the average consumer," he adds, "because companies can 'green-wash' their labels, substituting generic terms for specific ingredients."

To know if a cleaning product is likely to meet the environmental claims it makes, a consumer must be able to find the ingredient list for the product and then read about each ingredient, Wolf says.

He points to sources like the Seventh Generation Label Reading Guide, the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep database, and the National Institutes of Health Household Products Database to help consumers wade through the jargon.

It's Clean and It's Green

Environmentally friendly laundry detergents now cost around the same price as traditional laundry products, and Tournet says consumers won't have to skimp on their cleaning needs with the greener versions.

"Eco-friendly laundry detergent works quite well," says Tournet. "It's not a case where consumers have to settle for lesser results."