I confess, I am a soapmaker, not a chemist. Although soap making is, in fact, chemistry at it's most interesting.
So while I may not understand all of what goes into the making of modern household chemicals from a scientific standpoint, I do know a little bit of soapmaking history. A couple of thousand years ago some industrious Roman women-folk discovered that when they washed their clothing in water that had run down the mountain over the animal fats and ashes from the sacrifices up top, the clothes got much cleaner. Voila! Soap was born.
Now we know that water alone will not remove dirt and grime, but water with soap will. Chemistry at work! While a smart German chemist discovered the first surfactants (compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid) made from coal tar in the early 1900's, it wasn't until World War II that shortages motivated the use of synthetic detergents (along with their surfactants), and soon they overtook traditional soaps as our favorite cleaning tools.
Fast forward to today. We wash our clothes (and our selves), clean our homes and attempt to repel pests with chemicals. We don't know what they are, what they do to us or how to pronounce most of them, but use them we do. Some of them are purportedly better for the environment because they don't leave a film or residue and a little goes a long way. We like that they smell good and get our clothes, floors and hair clean. But are they good for us?
Have you tried to find an ingredient list on your bottle of laundry detergent? If you did find one, could you read it? It takes water, fat and lye to make soap. Your great-grandmother probably used potash made from ashes to make her lye...lye or sodium hydroxide is a necessary ingredient in ALL soap but beocmes inert in the finished product. In other words, it can't hurt you once the chemical process of saponification has taken place, turning all those raw ingredients into soap. Detergents today are often made from chemicals produced from petroleum products, although sometimes they are made from oils found in nature, like palm or coconut oil, plus whatever other chemicals they use to make the soap...soap.
Regardless of what those chemicals are, my personal policy is the same for the products I use in my home as it is for products I consume in or on my body: as much as is possible, keep it pure. Try to use products that are made from things found in nature, not chemicals. Simple concept, but not always as easy as it sounds. At My Healthy Bliss we have investigated many, many products claiming to be 'healthy' or 'natural', but only a few ended up on our shelves. So you can shop the eco cleaners and laundry products and insect repellents at My Healthy Bliss knowing that we felt good about using them on our own families.
We don't often have time to make our own soap anymore, but we feel like the Home & Garden products at My Healthy Bliss are the next best thing!