spring fashion

Dirty Soap

The Laundress was the nice detergent on the market. Until people started breaking out into hideous rashes.

Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow. Source photograph: Irving Penn.
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow. Source photograph: Irving Penn.

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One day last summer, Shelbey Wilson, a digital creator based in Nashville, replenished her stock of cleaning products from the Laundress. A loyal customer of the brand for about five years, she was partial to its No. 10 detergent and matching fabric conditioner. They were advertised as plant based and dermatologist tested, and she particularly loved the way they smelled: an olfactory “chorus” of “dark, almost sinister spice.” Wilson, who is 29, ordered several bottles. She also tried out three of the brand’s newer scents: Isle, which was more “dewy” with notes of fresh basil, mint, and lime; Artisan, which the company said was designed to “enhance rituals of self and home care” and “ignite the imagination and bring out your own inner artisan”; and Way Out West, John Mayer’s musky collaboration with the brand, which started at $22 a bottle.

Soon after using her latest order, Wilson began suffering from a strange set of symptoms. Mysterious rashes appeared all over her body, and her forearms, neck, chin, and eyelids were red and covered in bumpy splotches. The folds of her nose burned. Everything itched. “I was miserable,” she says. “I was literally a tomato.” When her dermatologist suggested that her fancy detergents might be the cause of her problems, she brushed it off. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not it,’” she says. “I’ve been using this stuff for years.” Why would she suddenly have a problem now?

Wilson was prescribed a topical cream, but it didn’t help. “I was kind of at a loss. I thought I was going to have miserable skin forever.” Her career also suffered. “I work in social media, oftentimes with beauty brands, and I didn’t work with any skin-care companies because I didn’t want to use anything that might trigger my skin or make it any worse,” she explains. “Plus I’m sure people didn’t want to work with me when I look like I had some type of disease going on.”

One night in November, Wilson was scrolling through Instagram when she came across an announcement from the Laundress. “Safety Notice,” read a characteristically minimalist graphic. “Immediately stop using all The Laundress products in your possession. We have identified the potential presence of elevated levels of bacteria in some of our products that present a safety concern.” Wilson was floored. “It just clicked,” she says. She shared what she’d been through in a comment and received 40 replies with others reporting similar symptoms. “I washed my sheets on Saturday and by Monday I was at the dermatologist with severe itching and red bumps,” one person wrote. “I couldn’t go sleeveless all summer!” complained another who used the No. 10 detergent. “THIS IS NOT OKAY AND SERIOUSLY SCARY,” commented another. The next morning, Wilson rewashed all of her clothes, bedding, and towels with a different detergent. Within about four days, her skin cleared up, and she hasn’t experienced any flare-ups since.

The Laundress was supposed to be the nice detergent on the market, the one you overpaid for to ensure you did not blotch up like a tomato. The $22-plus bottles were sold at stores like Bergdorf Goodman, at uptown pharmacies like Zitomer, and in Park Slope groceries like Union Market. (By comparison, a 90-ounce bottle of Seventh Generation Free & Clear detergent costs about $12.) It was marketed as a designer product that was better for you, your children, the environment, and your other designer products — a concept with which people were cultishly, fiendishly, and totally obsessed. It smelled expensive, too. “When people ask me what perfume I’m wearing, I say, ‘The Laundress,’” one longtime customer tells me. The bottles were pretty like perfume, and diehards would collect all of the brand’s various room sprays and cleaners, using them on every surface of their homes.

Two weeks after publishing its initial safety notice, which provided barely any details, the company issued a voluntary recall on December 1 of almost all of its products made between January 2021 and September 2022, totaling some 8 million units. The bacteria those products potentially contained sounded bad: Burkholderia cepacia complex, Klebsiella aerogenes, and multiple species of Pseudomonas. These environmental organisms can be found in soil and water as well as humans, the brand explained, claiming that most healthy people would not be impacted but those with weakened immune systems, external medical devices, or underlying lung conditions could face “a risk of serious infection” if exposed. The bacteria could be inhaled or enter someone’s body through their eyes or a break in their skin if they, say, tossed and turned in their Laundress-washed sheets and pillowcases or washed their face with a Laundress-softened towel.

For immunocompromised people, itchy skin was the least of their worries. An FAQ the Laundress published failed to mention that one of the strains of Pseudomonas is a leading cause of death for those with cystic fibrosis. It’s also resistant to most antibiotics, especially dangerous to hospital patients, and potentially harmful to pets. One customer wrote on Instagram that before undergoing extensive back surgery, they washed all their sheets, pillow covers, blankets, and nightgowns with the Laundress in an attempt to return to a “clean environment” once they’d been discharged — only to read about the recall while laid up in bed with 12 staples in their back, unable to rewash their sheets per the brand’s suggestion. Parents panicked too: There were several products marketed specifically for use on baby clothing.

“It’s so freaky,” says Simone Lazer, an actress, producer, and longtime Laundress customer who says she was diagnosed with restrictive lung disease in 2021 and is still suffering from long COVID, making her one of the many immunocompromised people to wonder whether the Laundress impacted their health. When Lazer heard about the Laundress recall, it resurfaced many of the fears she had had during the early days of the pandemic. She immediately thought about the person she’d hugged earlier that day. Did she get the bacteria on them, too? With so little information, customers were, once again, left to speculate about a mysterious, invisible threat that was possibly all around them — one that could be in the air, on their clothes, and on every surface of their homes. After all this time spent exercising an “abundance of caution” to avoid infection, the irony of potentially getting sick from one’s designer cleaning products triggered something of a consumerist crisis. “Was I ever cleaning my apartment?” a healthy friend of a friend wonders aloud, memories of a thousand spray bottles spritzing before her eyes. “Or was I just making it dirtier?”

The Laundress was launched in 2004 by Lindsey Boyd and Gwen Whiting. The pair met while studying fiber science and apparel design at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. After graduating, they both went on to hold high-up positions at major fashion brands: Boyd was a manager in Chanel’s ready-to-wear division, Whiting a senior designer for Ralph Lauren Home. “We amassed these amazing wardrobes from our fashion jobs and had no way to care for them other than dry-cleaning,” Boyd said in an interview with Coveteur in 2019. They were sick of paying exorbitant prices for a process that they knew was toxic and that often didn’t actually clean their clothes — or, worse, damaged them. They also knew the majority of pieces marked DRY CLEAN ONLY could actually be washed in a machine or by hand, if done carefully and correctly.

They asked their former Cornell professor S. Kay Obendorf, then a dean at the College of Human Ecology, to help them find information about how to make a better, cleaner, more effective product. And they had other basic questions: Why were certain chemicals in other detergents, and did they need to use them? Was there a safe, functional alternative?

They landed on a concentrated product that was plant based with no petroleum and a low percentage of preservatives. The bottles were clear, so you could see the liquid inside, and the label on the front was black and white with an elegant, skinny serif font. It looked like something you would use to wash your poodle or like a bottle of expensive French hand cream. More specifically, it looked like Chanel. They would even go on to number each scent like Chanel No. 5 perfume.

The trick was getting customers to pay twice as much money for half as much product. But because they came from luxury fashion, Boyd and Whiting knew that a certain type of shopper — one with a collection of Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana cashmere to protect who might not want a giant, plebeian bottle of Tide in their pantry — could be persuaded to pay a premium with the right branding and placement. Before quitting her day job, Boyd said on the How I Built This podcast, she’d sneak away to Bergdorf on her lunch break and talk to buyers. Initially, they were skeptical. Detergent in a department store? But eventually she got the product onto the floor, first in the lingerie department, then cashmere, and then the prize: beauty.

After two years of research and development, they quit their jobs in 2004 and started the business with the help of six credit cards and a small-business loan of $100,000. They started with a limited run of 13 products, including a signature detergent as well as more targeted ones like a delicate wash and a wool-and-cashmere wash. Each had the same scent: a blend of lily of the valley, jasmine, sweet musk, sandalwood, and citrus.

The brand became profitable in 2008. This was the same year Goop was founded, and consumers were beginning to care more about brands adjacent to the concept of wellness — and spend accordingly. The Laundress was early to market itself as ecofriendly and toxin free, and its branding made it seem more premium than the Dr. Bronner’s of the world; buying it was an act of self-care, “a way to turn an everyday chore into a luxurious experience,” as its motto promised. Influencers, Hollywood stylists, and celebrities praised it; so did publications such as Allure, the New York Times, and this one.

In 2015, the Laundress opened its first store in Soho, which looked like a Ladurée macaron shop, only in a black-and-white palette, complete with pristine tiled floors and chandeliers. In addition to filling a hole in the market and essentially creating a category of its own, the company convinced customers to buy things they probably did not need, including “ironing water” ($20), which is basically just water with some nice-smelling oils in it, and “après laundry cream” ($20), a balm used after an afternoon spent hand-washing cashmere. In 2019, the $130 billion consumer-goods conglomerate Unilever bought Boyd and Whiting’s brand for a reported $100 million.

Shelbey Wilson, a regular user of the Laundress for the past five years, started experiencing skin rashes over the summer. When she stopped using the product, they cleared up almost instantly. Photo: Courtesy of Shelbey Wilson.
Shelbey Wilson, a regular user of the Laundress for the past five years, started experiencing skin rashes over the summer. When she stopped using the ... Shelbey Wilson, a regular user of the Laundress for the past five years, started experiencing skin rashes over the summer. When she stopped using the product, they cleared up almost instantly. Photo: Courtesy of Shelbey Wilson.

Suppliers found out only two days before customers did that there was something wrong. And like the customers, they were given practically no information: They were simply informed there was potential bacteria risk and told to immediately pull all Laundress products from shelves and send them back to the company. That same day, the Laundress staff woke up and saw that nothing on the website was in stock. They came into work and were offered the same limited information in an all-hands meeting. At the store, a cheerful handwritten note, featuring doodles of soap bubbles, was posted on the door. WE ARE CLOSED TEMPORARILY AND LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING YOU AGAIN SOON! it read, encouraging customers to place an order online, even though that was impossible.

On November 23, a week after the company owned up to the contamination, a Laundress user named Meaghan Skillman filed a class-action lawsuit in New York against the brand. The next day, another customer, Margaret Murphy, filed one in California against Unilever. Both cases accuse the brand of deceptive and misleading business practices in regard to the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of the product. The Unilever suit goes as far as to say that, with the sale of every product, the company “delivered a biological weapon to the home of every Class Member.”

Gabbi Barnes, a creative technologist living in Houston, was one of the first to join the Unilever lawsuit. She’d used the No. 10 detergent on all her clothes and bedding for five years, but in 2021, after scratching herself before bed, she suddenly came down with sepsis — landing her in the hospital for emergency surgery. Doctors said afterward that, if she hadn’t come in when she did, she could have died. Tests have shown that the
bacteria in her bloodstream was, in fact, Pseudomonas; she’s sent two of her Laundress bottles to the lawyers for testing. “Full disclosure: I don’t normally do my own laundry,” she tells me. “But my housekeeper is heavy-handed.”

In a vacuum of knowledge, theories began to emerge about what exactly happened behind the scenes. By the time of the recall, Whiting and Boyd seemed to have taken a back seat in the day-to-day operations of the company, a source close to the matter said. Some commenters jumped to the obvious conclusion: that a big bad corporation had come in and messed things up. But experts with decades of experience formulating and manufacturing household products like detergent, including scientists and current and former executives at companies including Clorox, say this isn’t likely.

Others have wondered about the Laundress’s formula — whether making a more natural detergent made the product hospitable to bacteria. This is a legitimate concern; according to the experts I spoke to, the lower the preservative level is in a product, the greater chance it has of potential contamination. (In the past decade or so, the industry-standard threshold has become lower, and therefore more of an issue, as companies such as Unilever and the public have rallied for more “natural,” paraben-free, ecofriendly products on the market.) But the Laundress’s original formulas would’ve had to pass multiple rounds of inoculation tests to ensure their defenses were robust enough to fight off high levels of even hard-to-kill bacteria like pseudomonades. It’s possible the formula changed over time, along with industry standards, but it’s unlikely the founders put out a faulty product originally and got away with it this long.

There are two likelier ways this could have gone down. It may be that the raw materials themselves are to blame — as in one of the ingredients was contaminated somewhere in the supply chain, which has seen significant disruptions because of COVID. Or the facility itself was contaminated, and therefore everything that passed through it was too. “Imagine a manufacturing facility,” says Dr. Nancy Falk, a cleaning-products-formulation scientist and consultant who previously worked at Unilever and Clorox. “There’s lots of pipes and corners and valves and filling lines and stuff like that. There’s a number of places where a previously manufactured product could leave a little bit of residue. Over time, bacteria can start growing, and then it builds up and forms a colony called a biofilm. Even if you have really stringent cleaning-out procedures, sometimes those biofilms are really difficult to remove.” (The bacteria can adapt to whatever is trying to kill it.) “And as you’re pumping your product through the pipes, a little bit of that biofilm can slough off over time. That is one way that the bacteria can be introduced into a product like this.”

Everyone I spoke to had seen both of these scenarios play out before. In fact, within months of the Laundress’s recall, two similar ones were issued in partnership with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. On October 25, Clorox recalled 37 million Pine-Sol products after a “routine product review” for potentially containing bacteria including Pseudomonas aeruginosa. (The recall dated back to January 2021.) Then, on December 12, AlEn USA recalled its Art of Green laundry products, including its Free and Clear and Zen detergents, for the same reason.

The breadth of the initial recall suggests even Unilever doesn’t know what happened. So out of an “abundance of caution,” and until it could narrow things down with an investigation, the company likely assumed the worst: that customers were potentially exposed to bacteria for almost two whole years. (Neither of the founders, nor Unilever, responded to my. interview requests. The Laundress said in a statement: “The Laundress operates with its own network of longstanding suppliers and therefore no other Unilever products are impacted.”) “Normally, you don’t test routinely for bacteria in your products because of all the work you do upfront to ensure that no bacteria gets in there,” says Dane Dickson, a former supply-chain executive who worked for 36 years at Clorox. It can also take a while for enough bacteria to accumulate that it becomes detectable.

When contamination does reach a certain level, it can overwhelm the formula. This is when you might start to see reactions in customers and visible changes in the product, including an off color, a change in smell, and even the introduction of slime (all of which commenters have reported). None of this is helped by the fact that people do their laundry so often, wash their textiles with so many different Laundress products, and, in this case, likely hang-dry their delicates rather than blasting them with bacteria-killing heat.

On December 27, the Laundress issued a product-reimbursement update that doubled as a vehicle for more bad news. It said the brand’s fabric conditioners “might contain an impurity,” specifically ethylene oxide. When you Google “ethylene oxide,” the first result is cancer.gov. Only “low levels” were detected, and ethylene oxide is used in small doses as a pesticide and a sterilizing agent — and even in some detergents. Still, it seemed to tip the company over the edge. “We have decided to take additional steps to begin restarting the Laundress with a renewed commitment to product quality by implementing a broad product withdrawal,” the statement read. Now customers are no longer able to purchase anything from the Laundress website, not even a sweater-depilling brush.

For Unilever, the hope is presumably that, by starting fresh, customers will be quick to forget and resistant to change their routines. Scent memories are powerful. “Don’t judge me but my housekeeper doesn’t know about the laundress recall and I don’t wanna tell her,” wrote one person on Twitter. “I just want to know when the John Mayer one is coming back,” said another. “All of my bottles are still in a box in the garage just waiting,” says a customer named Denise, who had 30 at the time of the recall. “I keep thinking, Maybe they’re gonna call and say, ‘Wait! The Le Labo collab ones are fine! You can use those.’” In the meantime, customers are waiting for their refunds — some of which amount to hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

Carolina Barreto, a young, healthy New Yorker who just invested in expensive French-linen sheets, says the recall isn’t enough to scare her away. After seeing the safety notice on her Instagram feed while at the laundromat and texting a few friends about it, she let the sheets air-dry, as she normally does, and slept on them that night. “Being in New York, it’s more likely I’ll get something from holding the subway pole,” she says. “I think I’m still going to keep using the Laundress because I don’t know what else to use. If I use Tide, is it going to fuck up my sheets? It sounds ridiculous, but I’d rather risk getting sick.”

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The Laundress Was Supposed to Be the Nice Detergent