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Fluorescent Whitening Agents a.k.a. Optical Brighteners

May 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Fluorescent Whitening Agents (FWAs) or Optical Brighteners (OB) have been used by the textile industry for quite some time.  They are also included in many laundry detergents – just to name a few brands, all versions of  Tide including “Clear and Free”, Surf, Arm & Hammer, and to our widely used baby detergent Dreft.  These chemicals are probably new to most people but I am sure that you have heard of the catch phrases whiter whites and brighter colors.  FWAs or OBs work by absorbing invisible ultraviolet light and re-emitting the blue region of visible light.  Evidence of FWAs can be seen by using black (UV) light against the detergent in question.  Further discussions on detergents can be read at  Not all detergents are created equal!

OBs in Detergents

Flourescent Whiteners (Optical Brighteners) in Detergents

Fluorescent Whitening Agents (FWAs) or Optical Brighteners (OB) are very persistent in the environment.  So much so, it is stable enough to become a marker for industrial waste in the U.S.  There are many studies using optical brighteners as indicators for water pollution.  FWAs are water-soluble and considered in a category of organic salts.  They have particularly an affinity for cellulose substance ie. cotton and wool.   They are used extensively from paper products to the textile industry.   Some studies have shown low toxicity of FWAs but there are others that may indicate FWAs as a cause for contact dermatitis and GI problems when ingested.   Fluorescent Whitening Agents (Optical Brighteners) have surprisingly been under the radar despite increasing calls for making our environment more safe and our products more green.