This blog post was inspired by my readers – over the past couple of months it has been hands down the most frequently asked laundry question: people want to know which natural laundry detergents work best and how to choose the one that will best fit their needs.
First of all, I have to say that I am so happy that more and more people are looking for environmentally conscious cleaning options – I definitely have some awesome readers! Now, wouldn’t it be great if I could just say “use detergent X, it’s the best!” to all of them? But unfortunately it’s not that simple. “Natural” is a very broad and fuzzy term, it’s not regulated in any way and can be used to describe many things. So I always try to get a sense of what exactly that means for each person, and how much cleaning power they are willing to sacrifice in exchange for a more natural solution.
This brings me to an important point: there’s an inverse relationship between how natural a laundry detergent is and how well it cleans. So you can’t expect the mildest, safest detergent to perform like Tide – yes, you will have to spend more time pre-treating stains and inspecting clothes before they go in the dryer if you choose to go the natural route. For some this is an acceptable trade-off for being as eco-conscious as possible, but others value convenience and need a detergent that just plain works while being on the greener side.
Fortunately, there are options out there for just about everyone. I put together this classification of natural laundry detergents from mildest to strongest cleaning power to make it easier to decide what combination of eco-friendly and clean works for you personally. Whatever you choose, there is really no right and wrong – everyone’s situation is different, and thinking about the environment is already a commendable thing!
Most Natural Laundry Detergents, Least Cleaning Power
Let’s start out with the most natural options which actually aren’t even technically detergents but soaps. Here you will find things like soap nuts and Dr. Bronner’s Castille soap. People with severe skin sensitivities and/or those caring for newborns tend to go for these kinds of detergents and some swear by them as you can see if you read the soap nuts reviews on Amazon. I have to say that I have never used these personally, and would actually advise against using Castille soap in modern washers, especially if you have hard water and your machine does not offer warm rinses. The reason is that unless you have soft water and use warm water for rinsing, Castille (like any other soap) will form soap scum in hard to reach parts of your washer and also not rinse out of clothes completely, causing dinginess and smells. This is definitely one of those “proceed at your own risk” kinds of things, and I feel it is not the best option for the majority of people, although it might be a good fit for some individual situations.
And a special mention goes to “laundry balls” that you can supposedly use without detergent – just check out those one star reviews!
Natural Detergents, Less Cleaning Power
Here you’re going to find the natural laundry detergents that are very popular with cloth diapering folks: Molly’s Suds, Nellie’s Laundry Soda, Charlie’s Soap, Country Save, Norwex Ultra Power Plus. I’m grouping them together based on ingredients: they are all sodium carbonate-based powders, do not contain enzymes, consist of just 3-6 ingredients, are unscented (Molly’s has a touch of peppermint oil standard, but you can order an unscented version through their site by adding NO PEPPERMINT in the checkout comments), low sudsing and concentrated and tend to have slight variations in additional ingredients. For example, Molly’s Suds does not have an added surfactant while the others do; Country Save and Norwex contain sodium percarbonate, etc.
People feel very, very strongly about these detergents, surprisingly so. Some dismiss them entirely because they don’t believe how washing something in primarily sodium carbonate (also known as washing soda) can remove any stains, some swear by them and refuse to ever change; brand loyalty is huge and controversies abound (see Charlie’s Soap and cloth diapering).
I was quite skeptical and probably would not have bought these myself, but then my sister-in-law gave me a lovely tin of Nellie’s for Christmas, and I had to try it out. I have to say, I was quite surprised! I feel that while stain removal is not its strongest suit, it’s great at deodorizing and leaves clothes incredibly soft. I use it as a prewash quite a bit, as well as on sheets and towels. I later received a bag of Molly’s Suds as a free gift for trying out Thrive Market, but unfortunately noticed that it would not fully dissolve in our water (it contains magnesium sulfate, which combined with sodium carbonate is apparently the textbook way of making insoluble precipitate). Because of this I did not risk using it in my washer – the last thing I want is insoluble crud build up! Which is a shame, because the company has a very touching story and I would have liked to support them.
Overall, if I had an infant or severe sensitivities I’d probably be using these for the majority of baby’s laundry and adding boosters as needed (more on boosters later). This is also what I currently use to wash my collection of microfiber cleaning cloths.
By the way, if you’ve never ordered from iHerb or Vitacost you can try these out with a $5-10 discount off your first order. For example, Nellie’s is currently priced better on iHerb than Amazon and you can use code VMC661 for $5 off your first order with free shipping at $20. And you can find Charlie’s and Molly’s on Vitacost for as much or slightly less than Amazon and then use your $10 off first order code that you get by clicking here.
Natural Detergents, More Cleaning Power
Now we’re getting to a personal favorite category of mine. These are detergents that come very close to conventional cleaning power while staying as natural as possible. The ingredients list on these is getting quite a bit longer, and you’ll start to see some stronger cleaning agents and preservatives vs the previous group. These detergents do contain enzymes, but do not contain optical brighteners (OBAs) which makes them perfect for colors and better at general stain removal than the previous category. You can start to find some scents in this group, but they will mostly be natural and very mild. Here are some examples: Ecover Zero powder and liquid, Biokleen Premium Plus powder, Seventh Generation Ultra Power Plus liquid, Grab Green 3-in-1 Pods.
Let me just put it out there: I LOVE Ecover laundry detergents. I currently have three: the Zero liquid and powder, as well as a big jug of Lavender Field liquid, and they are hands down my favorite all-purpose natural laundry detergents. The Ecover Zero powder contains sodium percarbonate (an oxygen bleach), so I use that only on white and light loads, but the liquids are fantastic for everything else. I keep meaning to try the Biokleen Premium Plus powder (only the Premium Plus has enzymes) and Seventh Generation UPP liquids since I’ve heard great things about them, but need to run out of Ecover first! Regular Seventh Gen liquid did not do much for me, I found Ecover to be better at general stain removal.
I feel that this category has the best balance of clean and eco-friendly for most people, and this is what I would recommend to those looking to “test the waters” and stray from conventional laundry detergents.
Just a reminder that you can find great deals on most of the natural laundry detergents listed here on Vitacost – get $10 off your first order there by registering through this link and then go check out their prices on Ecover, Biokleen and Seventh Generation Baby detergents)
This last group is kind of a catch all for all green-ish laundry detergents that don’t fall under the previous categories. These are basically conventional laundry detergents trying to be more natural. They typically won’t contain OBAs (some do), but will have strong artificial fragrances and ingredients lists that some may call “greenwashing” (and that make EWG.org unhappy). At the same time, these will typically clean quite well and have eco-friendly features like recycled packaging, highly concentrated formulas and landfill-friendly refill packaging.
In this group you will find Method, Mrs. Meyers, Caldrea, The Laundress, and, notably, Tide PurClean. I wrote a separate blog post about Tide PurClean when it was first announced, and I have to say that I am very happy to see huge corporations like P&G turn towards more sustainable practices!
Overall though I’m a bit on the fence about this category. I struggle to fully understand who their target audience is: if you have babies or sensitivities these probably aren’t the best way to go, and if you want to go green there are definitely better options out there. However some people love them and I guess thinking of these as natural makes them feel like they’re making a better choice.
Natural Laundry Boosters
I absolutely love playing around with laundry boosters: it makes me feel like a chemist doing science experiments in a lab! I also think that they are a brilliant solution for those natural laundry detergents that don’t do well with stains. I’m not a fan of pre-treating laundry (although I do have the cheap but great Ecover stain removal stick and The Laundress Stain Solution on hand for when I need to do that), so I mostly use boosters that go in with regular detergent.
Most laundry boosters contain sodium percarbonate – that’s a heat-activated powder oxygen bleach and the main active ingredient in OxiClean. Oxygen bleach is touted as color safe, but I only use it on whites and lights, never on dark and saturated colors. Some natural options are OxoBrite powder and pods (the pods contain extra enzymes too!), Dropps 4-in-1 Booster pacs (with TAED that activates sodium percarbonate at lower water temperatures), Charlie’s Soap Oxygen Bleach, Nellies’ Oxygen Brightener, Grab Green Bleach Alternative pods and Biokleen Oxygen Bleach Plus. And of course you can purchase pure sodium percarbonate in bulk as well.
Other laundry boosters are a bit on the controversial side (don’t you love a laundry controversy?): Borax has long been thought of as safe, but EWG no longer supports that. Also, phosphates. I’m not even going to touch that one, I’ll just say that Charlie’s Soap offers a phosphate Booster.
I’d highly recommend an oxygen bleach booster in addition to your natural laundry detergent, especially if you are just starting out. They really do make a huge difference when it comes to stain removal: an overnight soak with one of the above and hot water is bound to get the vast majority of stains out without damaging fabric like plain bleach would.
Let me start out my saying that I don’t exclusively use natural laundry detergents – I turn to conventional products for my heavy loads and love the convenience of knowing that I won’t have to worry about stains setting in the dryer. However at the same time I realize that not all loads need the big guns – so if I can get away with using a natural laundry detergent (maybe spiked with a booster or two) I will. If you’re not sure whether you’re ready to make the full switch, but are curious about trying natural laundry detergents, try incorporating them into your less soiled loads like sheets, bath towels and work clothes. You might be surprised by how well they perform.
I hope this guide will give you an idea of the different types of natural laundry detergents that are currently available on the market and help you decide which is best for you. Figure out your priorities and don’t be afraid to experiment. Have some fun with laundry!
Also, you might have noticed that I did not include homemade laundry detergents in this overview. First of all, there are just too many formulas out there, and secondly, I am a firm believer that chemists have degrees for a reason and product testing is best done on lab equipment, not on my personal washer. As you probably know, I have a Miele HE washer with built-in heater, and would not risk using anything in it that has not been specially formulated for use in home washing machines and marked as HE friendly.
All of the Mentioned Natural Laundry Detergents Were PURCHASED BY ME FOR PERSONAL USE. THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS THAT WILL GIVE ME A SMALL COMMISSION ON ANY PURCHASES MADE THROUGH THE LINKS.