Laundry detergent has to simultaneously attract and repel dirt, then rinse away without damaging your clothes, your washer, your skin, or the environment. After doing 85 hours of research, examining 782 stain swatches, running 456 pounds of laundry, testing 42 different detergents, drenching bar towels in more than a cup of melted bacon fat, and analyzing laundered fabric with a UV/Vis spectrometer, we’ve chosen Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid as our top pick. In our tests, it was simply the best overall detergent, great at getting out seven types of stains and the pervasive smell of bacon grease. Its price, roughly 27¢ per load, is among the highest of the detergents we tested, but 100 percent worth it (we think).
While other detergents were great at removing either stains or smells, Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid excelled at both, making it the best detergent for any normal load of laundry. It’s also fragrance- and dye-free, so it will clean your clothes without any smell and won’t break the bank doing it. This strain of Tide is only available at Target, so if you don’t have one near you and don’t want to buy it online, Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid is our runner-up choice.
Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid was actually better at getting out stains than our top pick, but only half as good at removing odors (still, it did better than most of the other detergents we tested). It does have a scent, while our top pick is scent-free. Specifically, it was excellent at getting out coffee, wine, and lipstick stains, but not as effective as our main pick at removing blood stains. It is a bit cheaper, costing about 24¢ a load vs our top pick’s 27¢ per load.
And if you want something greener, something cheaper, or something super duper on smells, we’ve got picks for those, too.
In our tests, the most effective “green” detergent (one that uses mostly plant-based ingredients and avoids certain others) was Method 4x Concentrated Laundry Detergent. It did well at coffee and wine stains, but was much wimpier than all the other top detergents at everything else. Although it does contain optical brighteners, it’s marketed as a green detergent. That said, there is no evidence that green detergents are better for the environment than conventional ones (see Green detergents). Method 4x Concentrated is not tested on animals and comes in five fragrances. It’s also cheaper than our top Tide picks, costing about 20¢ per load.
If you’re on a serious budget but still need a very effective detergent, try Costco’s Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid, which placed well overall in our latest round of tests. It performed very well with our panel of odor testers, actually banishing smells better than our top Tide. It was just as good at getting out blood and beef fat stains, and for many other stains it finished in the top half of the contenders. It wasn’t quite as good as the top Tide at tackling coffee, lipstick, grass, or chocolate stains, but at only 13¢ per load, it’s a pretty smashing deal. If you don’t have a Costco nearby, you can get this detergent online, too, but at a pretty ridiculous markup.
An odor pick is new for us, but we wouldn’t be doing it without good reason. Tide Plus Febreze Sport far and away won our smell tests, getting rid of the bacon grease smell even from the swatches that were completely saturated with the stuff. This detergent does have a scent, but there was no trace of the funk below it. While it wasn’t the best at stain removing, it did finish in the top half. It actually beat all the other detergents at removing chocolate stains, and also did well with grease-based stains, such as lipstick and beef fat. It is a tiny more spendy than our top pick at 28¢ per load, but if stinky laundry is your main issue, go with this detergent. It’s worth it.
We interviewed a plethora of experts for this guide, including detergent formulation expert Keith Grime, R&D consultant and former vice president of Procter & Gamble; Brian Grady, the director of the Institute for Applied Surfactant Research at the University of Oklahoma; Dr. Richard Antaya, the director of pediatric dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine; Dr. Erin Warshaw, chief of dermatology at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center and co-director of the Occupational & Contact Dermatitis Clinic; Jack English, principal scientist with Procter & Gamble Fabric Care; and Cara Bondi, who was the research and development manager at Seventh Generation. I also toured the testing facility at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, and drooled over its very fancy electron microscope.
We also looked at every laundry detergent guide found on the Internet and took a few into special consideration: Good Housekeeping’s laundry detergent picks, the favorites from Consumer Reports, and Grist’s review of green laundry detergents. While these reviews are detailed and useful, none of them test how well laundry detergents remove odors. We do.
I’m a PhD chemist with a working background in textiles, plus a longtime knitter. In short, I know chemistry, and I know textiles and fibers. I’m also married to a chef who doesn’t notice when he’s bleeding on things and a mom to two (formerly) cloth-diapered kids. Read: I’m a scientist who’s used to having to get out a lot of stains, and I do a lot of laundry.
We decided to start this guide with all major detergent forms being equal. So we didn’t base our finalists on form, but instead on cleaning power. That means pods, powders, liquids, green detergents, fragrance- and dye-free formulas, the entire laundry detergent shebang, were all treated equally.
Since we can’t test every laundry detergent on the planet, we narrowed our field by looking at the bestsellers on Amazon and Soap.com and in physical stores in the United States as measured by market research. We also looked at top performers in Consumer Reports’s tests (subscription required), and at detergents that Good Housekeeping liked as well. On top of those qualifiers, the detergent had to be relatively easy to obtain.
To start winnowing down the list, we eighty-sixed all kinds of specialty detergents. Baby detergents, detergents for black or colorful clothes—you will not find them here. We didn’t include laundry bars such as Fels Naptha either, since very few people use those. We also eliminated laundry detergents with added fabric softener, since it’s not a good idea to use these on towels or anything else you want to be absorptive.
We looked primarily at detergents that were formulated for HE (aka high-efficiency) washers, because while HE detergents work universally in both HE machines and older, non-HE machines, non-HE detergents should never be used in HE machines because the formulas foam up too much in that environment (see HE vs. regular detergents).
We’ve already established that a laundry detergent has to clean, right? We first tested how well our selected laundry detergents cleaned with some pre-stained fabrics and a stand mixer.
For this preliminary round of testing, I used 3-by-3.5-inch swatches of standard pre-stained fabric (commonly used by the detergent industry) from Testfabrics. I placed the strips—stained with blood, grass, beef fat, coffee, chocolate, lipstick, and red wine1—in 1 gallon of hot (120 °F) water and “washed” them in a Waring stand mixer on low for 10 minutes.2 After washing, I dunked the swatches in cold water to rinse, and then let air-dry.
To figure out how clean each swatch was afterward, I lined them all up and eyeballed which ones were the lightest in color, meaning that the most stain had come out. I did this for each of our seven stains, then tracked how often each detergent showed up on the best lists.
For the next round, we moved the testing into an actual washing machine. I did this in a Kenmore top loader, non-HE machine. I pinned each of the seven stain swatches (blood, chocolate, coffee, grass, lipstick, beef fat, and red wine) to a towel, and ran it in a cold water wash (about 60 ℉) with 8 pounds of clean towels to make a medium-size load.
I didn’t just eyeball how much stain was left, either: I compared the washed swatches by reflectance spectroscopy using a UV/Vis spectrometer.3 This measures how much “color” each swatch has on it, so I was able to quantify exactly how much stain was removed from each swatch. The higher the reflectance (%R), the less color the swatch has, thus the cleaner the swatch. I compared each washed swatch with the others, the unwashed stained fabric, and to a control washed swatch that was run with just cold water, no detergent. Most stain removed = winner.
Between each detergent, I ran a rinse cycle with only the towels, no swatches, to remove any possible residue.
To test for odor, we added varying amounts of bacon grease to 4.5-by-7-inch terry cloth swatches, washed them, then made people smell them. Bacon grease is a good stand-in for body odor, according to the researchers at Procter & Gamble, since it has a grease component and a smell component. Plus bacon grease is similar to human body oils in fatty acid content. I heated the bacon grease until it was liquid, then added 1 milliliter, 3 milliliters, 6 milliliters, 10 milliliters, or no bacon grease to each swatch. I let these sit on the swatches for two hours inside a large plastic tupperware container (so the smell wouldn’t get aired out and also so my cat wouldn’t eat them), then washed the swatches with each detergent and 8 pounds of towels in hot water. After letting the swatches line dry, I smelled each one to see if I could detect the bacon grease smell. Then I shipped them off to New York, where a nine-person odor panel lent their noses in a blind test and marked down whether or not they smelled bacon grease.
There were a couple of stand-out lessons from our preliminary tests.
We know from previous testing that warm water wasn’t necessarily better than cold at getting out stains. However, we learned from odor testing that hot water was about the only thing that did get out that pervasive bacon grease smell. So if you have funky laundry stank (or are washing cloth diapers), go for hot. Otherwise, wash in cold. It saves energy, and your clothes will last longer.
Pods also didn’t do that great in our tests. They weren’t horrible, but no pods made it into our finalist list, not in three rounds of testing. In addition, they are very, very toxic and tempting to young children and people with dementia (see A warning about pods). True, they can be very convenient if you have to tote your dirty clothes to a laundromat. But unless there are no kids or people with dementia in your house, and they never visit, avoid the pods.
If you get lipstick on something, wash it separately from your other clothes. I had a heck of a problem with lipstick stains transferring onto the other swatches during washing. Lipstick is very oily and sticky, meaning that it can smear on fabric that it touches.
Because it performed incredibly well at removing both stains and smells, Tide Ultra Stain Release Free won our recommendation. This premium-priced formula from the most dominant brand in the laundry detergent aisle justifies its place at the top: It had excellent results on seven different stains in cold water, plus came in second overall in our odor-removing tests. That combo was a winner in our eyes. In many of our tests, this Tide formula beat the competition and usually came in second or third when it wasn’t first.
We confirmed Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid’s excellent performance using a UV/Vis spectrometer, measuring the amount of color remaining on stained fabric swatches after washing in different water temperatures.
In our recent tests, Tide Ultra Stain Release Free was second best at removing stains. It was particularly great at getting out chocolate and blood stains; very good at getting out grass and lipstick stains; and good at chocolate and beef fat. Its only failing was in washing out wine stains, where it finished sixth out of the nine detergents. If we were using stain removing alone to determine our winner, our pick would have been Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, which has won twice in the past. It performed as good or better in almost every stain. However, our new pick mopped the floor with with Tide Plus Bleach Alternative in our new odor tests.
With both me and the odor testing panel, our main pick scored very well, washing traces and even large amounts of bacon grease away without covering up the stank with perfumed smell. The bacon smell was just gone. Again, it was not the very best detergent in getting out smell—that honor went to Tide Plus Febreze Sport (jump to odor pick). But because our top pick also doesn’t leave a scent, like the Febreze Sport does, it’s probably better for those sensitive to fragrance.
Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid contains four kinds of surfactants, four types of enzymes (amylase, protease, mannanase, cellulase), an unidentified optical brightener, a couple of types of polymers (polyethyleneimine ethoxylate and polyethyleneimine ethoxylate propoxylate), a preservative (benzisothiazolinone), plus pH balancers, process aids (which generally act to get the other products into water), and soil-capturing agents to grab dirt and minerals out of water. (For more, read What’s in laundry detergent?.)
This detergent is also our recommendation for those who want dye- and fragrance-free detergent. The dermatologist we spoke to, Dr. Erin Warsaw, said that people with sensitive skin should stick to free and clear detergents, in powder form if you can get them, because they generally lack methylisothiazolinone (MI) or methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), common preservatives that can irritate. (See Laundry detergent and allergies). Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid does not contain this preservative, so you should be okay if that one bugs you.
Our editorial team will continue to test this detergent over the next few months to report on long-term effects.
Right now, you can only get Tide Ultra Stain Release Free Liquid at Target. This is a bummer, since many people don’t live near a Target. You can get it from target.com (which ships stuff free if your order is over $25), but many people don’t want to buy their laundry detergent online. We get it. If this is you, our runner-up is widely available and an excellent detergent.
Also, at 27¢ per load, it’s the most expensive of all the Tide detergents we tested. (Tide is so universal that it is sometimes used as currency.) The runner-up, Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, comes out to 24¢ per load, while Kirkland Ultra Clean costs about 13¢ a load, for comparison. If you want to pay considerably less per load but don’t mind less effective performance, go for the budget pick.
Last, this variation of Tide also doesn’t have a scent. This is a boon for many people (including me), but some want to have clothes that have a “clean” scent, not ones that don’t smell. But! There are these things called scent boosters now. You chuck them in your wash load and they give your clothes the scent of your choice. An unscented detergent is now an empty canvas! Go nuts.
Because it had the best performance in our stain tests, we recommend the widely available Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. It was particularly great at getting out lipstick, coffee, and wine; very good at grass and beef fat; good at blood and just okay at chocolate. It topped our tests in stains overall, but fell short of being our main pick for the third update in a row because it was not wonderful at removing stinkiness in our bacon grease odor test. It tied for third there with my nose, but didn’t break the top three with our smell panel. So if you have a lot of smelly laundry, go with our top pick. If stains are your main concern, this is the pick for you.
Interestingly, there’s no oxidizing agent or bleach in Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid at all. In fact, according to Keith Grime, former vice president of Procter & Gamble, there’s no such thing as a “bleach alternative”—that’s just a marketing phrase that means enough cleaning products have been added to make clothes look bright. Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE contains (PDF) seven kinds of surfactants, four types of enzymes (amylase, protease, mannanase, pectinase), an optical brightener (disodium diaminostilbene disulfonate), a couple of types of polymers (polyethyleneimine ethoxylate and diquaternium ethoxysulfate), a preservative (benzisothiazolinone), plus pH balancers, process aids, fragrance, dye, and soil-capturing agents. (For more, read What’s in laundry detergent?)
Several user reviews point to a few issues with this detergent. People report that in some circumstances the detergent can leave permanent purple stains on white clothes. This would be a dealbreaker for us, but we couldn’t replicate the issue over many washes.
A customer service rep told us stains can occur when the detergent isn’t fully dissolved, either when the detergent is poured directly on clothing or when it doesn’t dissolve fully in cold water. He suggested that we wash clothes in the warmest water the clothes can handle.
Additionally, Tide PR rep Anne Candido had this to say about the staining problem: “Yes, there are instances of staining due to an ingredient responsible for the whitening in the formulation. For the vast majority of consumers it is not a problem. However, there are isolated cases where it can be an issue.” She then outlined this official protocol for getting out the purple stains:
People also complain in reviews that the “original” scent formula ain’t the same as it used to be. And, yep, they’re right. Tide changed the scent slightly in February 2014, Candido said. “After extensive research with our loyal Tide consumer,” she said, “we made a small tweak to the scent to improve the fragrance expression.”
For those who want a green option, there is Method 4x Concentrated Laundry Detergent. Let’s be frank—this wasn’t a great detergent. But it outperformed all the other green detergents we tested, and it cleaned well enough to move into our final testing round. There it had some personal bests on coffee and wine stains.
At the time of this writing, Method 4x was available in five scents: key lime and coconut, beach sage, spring garden, ginger mango, and free and clear (we tested this last one).
This recommendation does come with a couple of caveats. While Method was the best of all the green detergents we tested, it came dead last in the final round of testing, even bested by plain, detergentless water on both lipstick and grass stains. So if your laundry is stain-heavy and you choose to use this detergent, we normally recommend pre-treating with something like OxiClean, except that that may muddy the point of having green detergent in the first place.
While there’s no evidence that green detergents are any better for the environment (see Green detergents), Method takes a pretty strong stance against animal testing. It seems to be pretty widely available for a green detergent—I grabbed our tester off the shelf at Target, and it’s also available at Amazon, Method’s website, and many organic-type grocery stores. It’s also a pretty good deal for your dollar, costing only about 20¢ a load and skewing toward the cheap end of the detergents we tested.
Method 4x Concentrated laundry detergent contains a preservative called methylisothiazolinone, aka MI (check out the ingredients tab). This is not a big deal for most people, but a small percentage of the population is allergic to MI. It’s also a sensitizer, which means that you can become allergic to it over time after repeated exposure to it. This is rare, with only about 5 percent of the population having a problem here. For more info, see our Laundry detergent and allergies section.
Costco brand Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid is an incredible value, especially considering that it outperformed plenty of more expensive detergents. It beat out our top pick in our odor testing panel, but didn’t do quite as well with stains. At 13¢ a load, it costs about half as much as the top Tide.
The Kirkland tied with our top pick for removing blood and was also good at getting out beef fat, chocolate, and wine stains. It had very good performance across the board, except in grass (where it was worse than water). It beat out Target’s budget brand, Up & Up, in almost every category; the Target brand was better in coffee and lipstick, but that was it. So if you have a Costco membership and don’t mind the scent, snap it up. It’s a great value. Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid is a rockstar for a garage band price. The only detergents that beat it in our testing were the super-engineered, super-marketed Tides. I mean, really, how much research has gone into Tide over the years? And this el cheapo came this close?
Like Method, this detergent contains the preservative methylisothiazolinone (also known as MI), which can cause allergic contact dermatitis in some people. We don’t think this is a dealbreaker, but if you know you’re sensitive to MI, you might want to skip this detergent. You can find more information on this preservative here. The scent on this is not very strong and is reminiscent of the classic Tide detergent smell, but still might be annoying to those who don’t want any smell on their clothes at all (raises hand).
If the scent is not a route you want to go, Target’s Up & Up Free and Clear is still a solid budget choice. In past tests, it was the best of the bunch at lipstick and grass stains, and it’s both cheap (14¢ a load) and a little more available.
If you have a serious problem with stinky laundry and you want a detergent really good at getting out funk, go for Tide Plus Febreze Sport. This detergent left the competition in the dust in getting out that nasty bacon grease smell, ranking number one in both my assessment and the odor panel’s. Several panelists couldn’t smell any leftover grease at all, even on the swatches that I had loaded on a mind-boggling 10 milliliters (so much that the terry cloth swatch was pretty much saturated). It does have a scent, but it’s not overpowering. This detergent did pretty well at removing stains, too, coming in first at removing chocolate, and also doing well with washing out lipstick and beef fat stains.
Tide for Coldwater Powder was great at blood and good at lipstick and oil, but didn’t outright win any of the categories in our final testing, even in cold water tests.
Tide Plus Bleach Powder (formerly known as Tide Vivid White + Bright Powder but it’s the same stuff) was once upon a time our top pick. It did well at getting out blood, tomato, and grass stains, but didn’t perform well enough to make it to final rounds in recent tests.
Tide Ultra Stain Release liquid, a former runner-up, is a great stain buster. It powered through chocolate, oil, and grass stains, although it didn’t clean quite as well as the current runner-up (but it’s close). It removed smells pretty well, too, just not as well as the top pick. But this is a solid choice if you can’t find either of our top picks.
Persil ProClean liquid smelled incredibly floral and strong. I tested the “original scent” of this detergent. It was just okay at cleaning and not good at anything in particular.
Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2-in-1 cleaned both chocolate and lipstick well, but placed at or near the bottom in every other stain. And the SMELL. Holy crap, the smell. It is very strong and overpowering, and to my nose, absolutely horrific.
Persil ProClean Sensitive Skin reminded me vaguely of Elmer’s glue, in both smell and appearance. This detergent cleaned well enough to move to the final round of testing, where it cleaned grass and wine stains well, but still was outperformed overall by our top picks. It was average at removing odor.
OxiClean did very well at removing lipstick stains, but was just okay at everything else.
Tide HE Free & Gentle was great at getting out wine stains, but was average at the other stains.
Tide Pods were very good at removing oil stains, but not particularly good at any other stain.
Tide PurClean was not a great cleaner for a Tide brand. This did well at lipstick, but nothing else.
All Free and Clear was good at removing grass and coffee stains in our preliminary tests, but was not a good enough cleaner overall to make it to the finals.
All Mighty Pacs Free and Clear worked very well on coffee stains, but not at anything else really.
Target brand Up & Up contains MI and MCI, which some people are sensitive to. In stain tests, it did better than most other detergents and was the best at getting out lipstick and coffee. But it was at or near the bottom for pretty much every other stain, and tied with plain old water for its chocolate-removing abilities.
Gain powder was good at removing blood and grass stains, but didn’t do well enough overall to make our final testing round.
Gain HE liquid did well at removing coffee stains, but not well at anything else.
Gain Flings, which are pod cleaners, didn’t clean any stain particularly well and didn’t advance into our final cleaning rounds.
Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean from Sam’s Club was excellent at getting out wine, but didn’t stand out in any other stain tests. It was horrible at lipstick.
Walmart’s Great Value Natural liquid was another that was pretty much useless at blood and was ineffective at getting out lipstick as well. It did well with wine.
Sun didn’t clean any one stain particularly well. This is uber cheap though, costing about 5¢ a load. (I’ve even seen it at The Dollar Store.) But you get what you pay for here.
Xtra liquid laundry detergent wasn’t good at any particular stain.
Kirkland Ultra Clean pods were pretty good at getting out lipstick, but just about the worst one at blood.
Kirkland Signature Free & Clear Ultra Laundry Detergent Liquid did well enough to pass into final testing, and cleaned blood and lipstick stains well. It also did a good job at washing out the bacon grease smell. However, we ended up throwing this detergent out based on user reviews. On Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Consumer Reports, there are many complaints about the Kirkland Free & Clear giving people rashes. We asked Costco about these reviews, and here’s how Stacey Schukar, corporation foods and sundries buyer, responded: “What is concerning is that the item pictured on Amazon’s site is a very old formula that we have not sold since 2011. The recommended shelf life for this liquid laundry detergent is one year. Additionally, out of the 38 reviews, only four are verified purchases (all of which received four to five stars). We take member feedback and concerns very seriously here at Costco and have an internal policy to respond within 48 hours to any member directly. As Amazon is not an authorized seller for our Kirkland Signature product, we have no way of determining whether the product that is being reviewed is in fact our Kirkland Signature Free & Clear product.” However, we noticed that several people complaining of rashes in the reviews specifically say that they bought the detergent at the Costco store, not from Amazon. With all this in mind, we felt that we couldn’t recommend this detergent and removed it from our consideration.
Caldrea liquid was near the top at blueberry and chocolate stains in preliminary tests. However, it didn’t do well enough overall to make our final tests.
Seventh Generation powder was actually fantastic at getting out blood. However, it was meh at everything else, and even fared worse than just plain water at both coffee and wine.
Seventh Generation liquid did very well removing coffee stains, but not very well at other stains.
Puracy took on chocolate very well, but it was just meh at everything else.
Nellie’s All-Natural Laundry Soda was another that finished near the bottom of our stain tests. It wasn’t good at any particular stain.
Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder was great at removing blood, so if that’s your main stain, this is a good choice. It didn’t do very well at everything else though.
Dropps Pacs wasn’t good at any particular stain and finished near the bottom of our stain tests.
Ecover Zero powder, our former green pick, has sadly been discontinued.
Ecover Zero liquid gave us the sads. We had high hopes for this one, since the powder was so great, but they were unrealized. The liquid version removed coffee stains well, but didn’t clean any other stain well.
Sport Suds is a powder, and like other powders, cleaned blood stains very well. It also removed grass stains well, but not anything else.
Hex removed wine stains well, but wasn’t good at any other particular stain.
Grab Green is a powder-filled pod, so it did well with blood stains. But it didn’t clean other stains so well.
Mrs. Meyers is a popular detergent since it comes in so many scents, but we didn’t love it. It cleaned grass and lipstick okay, but not so much other stains.
Green Works laundry detergent hopes you will forget it’s made by Clorox by making the bottle green and putting flowers on it. It really only cleaned blood well.
LOTS of ingredients go into making laundry detergent. It’s amazing how much scientific research has been done to get clothes clean.
Probably the most important parts of a laundry detergent are the surface active agents, or surfactants. These are the molecules that work to clean your clothes. They’re closely related to soap, but they just work better. Here’s a detailed explanation of how soap works, and here’s some info about why surfactants work better for everyday use. But in short, soap can make soap scum. Surfactants don’t do that. Examples of a few surfactants you might find in laundry detergent are alcohol ethoxy sulfate, various laureths (such as laureth-6, -7 or -9), alkyl sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, ethoxylated lauryl alcohol, the list goes on and on. It seems like every company has its favorite.
Oxidizing agents (including bleaches) are called that by laundry detergent companies because people generally shy away from bleaches. But many oxidizing agents are also bleaches, including the “non-chlorine” bleaches hydrogen peroxide and sodium percarbonate.5 The chemical name for bleach is sodium hypochlorite, but all oxidizing agents work the same way, namely by ripping the electrons out of the chemical bonds. Colored molecules are often larger—small molecules usually don’t have a color. Tearing apart a large molecule to make a bunch of smaller ones removes the color, so it looks whiter. Voilà, bleach!
The difference between chlorine and non-chlorine bleaches is just that—chlorine. Sodium hypochlorite (NaClO) has it, while other bleaches such as hydrogen peroxide (HOOH) and sodium percarbonate do not.6 There’s some evidence that chlorine bleach can react with other compounds in household cleaners and form VOCs, aka volatile organic compounds, some of which are carcinogens. However, according to the CDC, breathing small amounts is unlikely to harm you. Some people also say that chlorine is bad for the environment, which is why it tends to be frowned upon. However, the jury is still out on this one. The CDC also says that sodium or calcium hypochlorite is broken down in sunlight and in water, and it does not accumulate in wildlife. It’s also largely removed by wastewater treatment plants, so any that goes down the drain is unlikely to make it to a water system.
Chlorine bleach can be dangerous to living things, however. It’s corrosive, so keep it far out of reach of children. And never ever, ever, ever, EVER mix chlorine bleach and ammonia. This creates chloramine gas, which can kill you in horrible ways.7
Some companies put a bleach or bleach alternative into the detergent itself, said Keith Grime, former vice president of Procter & Gamble, and it is activated when the water from the washing machine hits it. And there’s no such thing as a color-safe bleach. “The name bleach alternative just implies that enough cleaning material has been put into the product to give bleach-like performance without the bleach.” Some people worry about bleach in their detergents because they think it will damage or fade their clothes, Grime said. “Obviously, [the bleach alternatives] wouldn’t be added if they were not color-safe. But as you know, perception and reality are not always the same thing. Some people see the word bleach and get worried, but they want something that works as well as a bleach,” he said. So, basically, you’ll see the words “bleach alternative” in a liquid detergent (such as our runner-up pick) that has been formulated with other stain-removal chemicals (often a high level of enzyme) to aim for typical bleach-like performance.
This next ingredient you’ve probably heard of: enzymes. They’re normally found in our bodies. Enzymes are large biological molecules whose general job is to break smaller molecules into little, easily digestible pieces. The cool thing about enzymes is that there are so many of them, and each one has a very specific task. There are enzymes in our mouths to break down starches and start the digestive process. There are enzymes in our blood to help it clot. Think of any biological process, and there’s an enzyme for that.
About 30 or so years ago, some chemist had the genius idea to put these things into laundry detergent. Many stains we get on our clothes are food-based, and there are enzymes in our bodies to break down food. So why not put these in laundry detergent to essentially “digest” them off of our clothes? Another neat thing about enzymes is that they’re catalytic. That means that you only need a very small amount, and it will keep breaking down its specific target until you either run out of water, or the thing itself breaks down. As Grime put it, you’re not going to run out of water in a washing machine, which essentially means that a very small amount of enzyme in laundry detergent will get all that food-based stain off of your clothes.
There are all kinds of enzymes in laundry detergent. Some of the most common ones: amylase, which is found in our mouths and breaks down starches; lipases, which break down grease; and proteases, which break down protein (think gravy stains). “There are more sophisticated ones, but probably those three cover about 90 percent of detergents,” Grime said. Very early efforts into using proteases in laundry detergent led to people being hypersensitive to them, but they’ve been long since worked out and don’t bother most people.
Water softeners address hard water, which has a lot of dissolved minerals, such as calcium, in the water. These minerals interfere with the cleaning agents and make them not clean as well. Water softeners ensure that detergent works as well as it should.
Next up are polymers. A lot of things can be called polymers—it’s simply the term for strings of molecules that are made up of a smaller repeating unit. And in the world of laundry detergent, they’re a catch-all, Grime said. Usually, the polymer that’s used 99 percent of the time is a dispersion agent, or an anti-redeposition agent, which keeps your clothes from turning gray over time. When detergent lifts dirt off your clothes it’s mixed with surfactant in the wash water and REALLY wants to go back on your shirt (dirt tends to have an opposite electrical charge, so it has a physical attraction for the fabric, Grime said). If there’s nothing in the detergent to stop it, the dirt will stick back on your shirt, or “redeposit”—not in a concentrated stain, but all over, making your clothes look dingy and gray. An anti-redeposition polymer, often a type called a polyacrylate, will “disperse the soil that’s gone into the fabric, usually to aggregate them into a larger particle, and then they’re washed down the drain,” Grime said. Things like this help extend the life of your clothes, because they look newer longer.
Another ingredient that helps clothes look brighter are brighteners (hence the name). These molecules stick to the surface of your clothes and glow when UV light hits them. Since sunshine has UV light in it, we see this glowing light as white, hence clothes look whiter. In fact, people in the military are not supposed to use laundry detergent with optical brighteners on their uniforms, because it makes their uniforms easier to see in low light and with night-vision equipment. Yes, it’s all an illusion. Most brighteners are some kind of stilbene derivative. There are rumors flying around the interwebs that optical brighteners are a health hazard, an environmental hazard, or both. In the past, the EPA studied several of these compounds and concluded that they are safe. However, that link is an archived link and the information is not available on the EPA website anymore. The HERA project (Human and Environmental Risk Assessment), says that stilbene optical brighteners are safe for both humans and the environment.
The last ingredient of note is some kind of suds suppressor, also known as an anti-foam agent, to make sure that there are enough suds, but not too many, Grime said. Each washing machine is different in how much it will agitate your clothes, so each will make a different amount of suds in the machine, hence the need for a suds suppressor, Grime said.
There isn’t much of a difference between powder and liquid detergents. They do have slightly different ingredients, although they’re different ingredients that do the same things. For example, the cleaning agent (aka surfactant) in a powder will be different from the one in a liquid, just because some surfactants are more stable in liquid form, and others are better at being a solid. Ditto for the type of preservative. Liquids tend to have more surfactants in them to boost cleaning power, while powders tend to have fewer surfactants but more oxidizing agents (although laundry detergent companies won’t tell us the exact amount of each). Why the difference? Some cleaning compounds are more stable as solids (so are in powders) and some are happier as liquids. These are different approaches toward the same result, which is stain-free clothes. Both types of detergent will fade your clothes over time, though. Whether you pick powder or liquid is a matter of personal preference, and there are pros and cons of each. According to our tests, liquids were better cleaners overall, but powders are better at getting out blood stains.
One big difference between them seems to be how easy they are to find in a store. According to Grime, liquids account for more than 80 percent of what’s sold. This is likely due to stores not wanting to devote shelf space to the powders, he said. Plus people tend to use liquids just because they’re more convenient and not as messy. Our old pick, Ecover Zero powder was discontinued because “sometimes the SKUs don’t have a place in our current product landscape,” according to brand PR rep Sara Crumley. Ecover doesn’t have any powder laundry detergents anymore, so apparently they’re moving away from powders as well. (Neither does Method, maker of our new green pick. Ecover and Method are owned by the same parent company.) We actually didn’t test any powders for our last update, since there just don’t seem to be many out there, with one exception. Sport Suds is a pod detergent, with powder inside the pods.
Optical brighteners, as mentioned above, are molecules that companies add to laundry detergent to make your clothes look whiter and brighter. Some people say that these compounds can be harmful to both people and aquatic life. Seventh Generation is marketing its laundry detergent based on that, with its “Say No to the Glow” campaign. As Cara Bondi, research and development manager at Seventh Generation claims in this blog post, optical brighteners are not biodegradable and toxic to some aquatic life, and can cause skin reactions in some people when exposed to sunlight. I talked to Bondi about this myself, and she basically told me the same things that she says in the post.8
So trying to see if there’s any merit to these claims, I dug way back in the scientific literature. As far as the light-induced skin reactions go, I found a study that said three out of 164 people in a study from the late 1960s in Copenhagen had a reaction to an optical brightener called Tinopal CH356K. Upon further testing, the people that had a reaction did not have any more reactions to the same stuff. Another paper, also cited by Seventh Generation, said that an earlier paper reported a photoallergic reaction to optical brighteners, but similar tests done since then have not found any people with a reaction to them. The earlier paper this refers to was published in a German journal in 1957, and I can’t find a copy of it. There hasn’t been any research into optical brighteners and light-induced skin reactions since the 1970s, when scientists did not find any links between the two. Bottom line: The research supporting the claim that optical brighteners are harmful to people is old and very thin, so we’re not convinced.
The aquatic effects are unclear. Optical brighteners do biodegrade when exposed to sunlight. they’re also mostly removed from water during sewage treatment, anywhere from 53 to 98 percent, depending on the type of molecule. The studies that Seventh Generation cites about bioaccumulation of optical brighteners in fish are old, from the ’70s, and say that these compounds don’t build up in fish, or if they do, they’re found in very low levels. The HERA project says that stilbene optical brighteners, which are the ones that most detergent companies use, pose no risk to humans or the environment.
Most laundry detergents do have these compounds. Our green pick, Method 4x, does, although many green detergents do not.
Nonylphenol and nonylphenol ethoxylates are a pair of related compounds. Nonylphenol ethoxylate is made from nonylphenol. They’re usually listed as a pair because nonylphenol ethoxylate will break down back into nonylphenol in soil and water, and while they’re both nasty, nonylphenol is the nastier of the two. They’re both endocrine disruptors, which means that biologically they look like hormones and trigger similar reactions in organisms’ bodies, kind of like BPA. The nonyl part of nonylphenol means that it has a nine-carbon chain. This is stuck to a ring of carbons with an -OH (alcohol) group attached, which is the phenol part. Because this compound has so many carbons, it tends to not dissolve in water very well. So when it’s washed down the drain and eventually ends up in a river or stream, the nonylphenol molecules drop out of the water and hang out in the sediment at the bottom of the river. This is bad, because they tend to hang around for a long time once they’re stuck in the dirt, which gives them longer to have harmful effects on the animals that live in the water. How long they take to break down varies, depending on the type of nonylphenol, temperature, pH, and other environmental conditions, but it can be anywhere from a day to three months.
The good news is that they’re not used anymore. The EPA instigated a phase-out back in 2010 that is about reaching its climax now—no more nonylphenol ethoxylates in liquid detergent as of 2013, and all gone from powders in 2014. However, they didn’t give a date in 2014, so I’m assuming it meant by the end of the year.
1,4-dioxane is a contaminant, not an ingredient, but nevertheless it is concerning. 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of making ethoxylated ingredients, such as sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium lauryl ethyl sulfate, or SLES) or polyethylene glycol (better known as PEG compounds). It’s been classified by the EPA as a probable carcinogen, which means that it’s caused cancer in animal tests, but there haven’t been any conclusive human tests. There is a lot more about 1,4-dioxane here.
Back in 2011, the group Women’s Voices for the Earth found elevated levels of 1,4-dioxane in both Tide Original Scent and Tide Free & Clear liquid laundry detergents (report here). Procter & Gamble agreed in early 2013 to reduce the amount of 1,4-dioxane in these two liquids to below 25 ppm. While this is great, I wish that Women’s Voices for the Earth had tested more than these two laundry detergents, as 1,4-dioxane could easily be in any detergent with PEG in it, which is almost all of them.9 That being said, the possible presence of 1,4-dioxane is not a dealbreaker as far as we’re concerned. You have to be exposed to a lot of it on a regular basis for it to do you harm. Procter & Gamble reasons that even if you did more than 1,000 loads of laundry a day, you’d still be below a safe level of the stuff, which I believe because I’ve done similar math myself. Still, it would be nice to know 1,4-dioxane levels in other detergents besides those two.
Detergent companies don’t put phosphates in laundry detergent anymore, and haven’t since the early 1990s. Phosphate-based surfactants make great cleaning agents, but they also make algal bloom, which pollutes lakes and streams, so the EPA said no more over 20 years ago. Procter & Gamble, the company that makes Tide, used to use phosphates in its detergent, but removed them from all US formulas in 1995, and worldwide in 2015.
Phthalates are plasticizers, which soften up hard plastics and make them harder to break. These types of chemicals are in a lot of products, but how exactly they affect our health is not clear. Some tests with lab animals show that they can harm reproductive systems, and there’s some evidence that the compounds can affect human fertility as well. The CDC has found either phthalates or its metabolites in most people that they tested. The FDA said that they don’t pose a risk to our health the way they’re used at present, but they’re watching the situation. Phthalates may be found in the fragrance mixture of laundry detergents, although they’re not listed on any labels, since they’re not required to be. If you’re worried about this ingredient, choose fragrance-free detergents. In addition, some green detergents don’t use phthalates in their fragrances and will say so on the label.
Methylisothiazolinone is sometimes used along with its BFF methylchloroisothiazolinone. They’re known as MI and MCI, respectively, and are used as preservatives in a lot of cleaning and beauty products. Preservatives are a very important ingredient, because they keep mold and bacteria that can make us very sick from growing in the products that we use every day.
MI is a biocide, which means it keeps mold from growing in your bottle of Super Suds 2000. Either by itself or in conjunction with MCI, MI can cause allergies or irritation (see Laundry detergents and allergies), and it’s more likely to be in liquid laundry detergents.
There’s some data out there that MI may be a neurotoxin. There are a few studies that show that putting it directly on rat brain cells kills neurons. However, there are also many studies in which it is fed to test animals or put on their skin, and they only see bad effects at high doses. For example, they did not see any effect in feeding rats at 24.4 mg/kg a day for two weeks. That would be about the equivalent of me eating a medium-size strawberry amount of MI/MCI every day for two weeks. Looking at all this data, this study found that MI/MCI is safe to use in rinse-off products up to 15 parts per million,10 and in leave-on products up to 7.5 ppm. The FDA said that it’s a popular preservative for shampoos and other rinse-off cosmetics, and is usually used at 10 to 15 ppm (PDF). I haven’t been able to find any credible evidence that there’s a limit on how much MI or MCI a company can put into its product, so I’m going to assume that there isn’t one.
If you want to avoid preservatives, either read labels (although you have to go online to find them, usually), or pick powdered detergents (if you can find them), as they’re less likely to be in there. But for most people, MI/MCI is unlikely to cause a problem, especially since laundry detergent doesn’t usually come in contact with our skin, unless you’re using it for handwashing or you spill some on yourself. Both our top pick and runner-up use benzisothiazolinone as a preservative. But note that our green pick (Method) and budget pick (Kirkland Ultraclean liquid), and our backup budget pick (Up & Up), all have MI, and that the Up & Up has MCI as well.
Sodium metasilicate is used in laundry detergent as a builder, meaning that detergent companies add this to dilute liquid detergent so it’s not too concentrated. It also acts as a water softener and anti-redeposition agent. This stuff can be toxic, and even kill you, but you have to either eat a lot of it, or breathe a lot in. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, sodium metasilicate gets very few reactions in skin allergy tests, and it’s safe for use in laundry detergent. It also rinses out of clothes, so it won’t hang around to bother your skin if you happen to be allergic to it. But don’t drink laundry detergent, for a plethora of reasons.
Limonene is the compound that gives citrus peels that heavenly fragrance, and can also cause allergies and asthma. It’s also sometimes used as a cancer treatment. In laundry detergent it’s used both as a solvent and for fragrance. Limonene is rumored to be an irritant and possibly a neurotoxin.
According to the EPA, there haven’t been any tests on what happens to people when they breathe this stuff, and no long-term animal tests on limonene’s inhalation effects. Supposedly, the only effect that research has turned up is that it can cause kidney disease in male rats, but not females. And the EPA also determined that this finding could not be well-associated to the same effect in humans. They also have not fully determined limonene’s carcinogenic effects.
And yes, limonene is a neurotoxin—in bugs. So if you’re a locust or earthworm doing laundry, steer clear of the ones containing limonene. For the rest of us, it’s probably okay.
High-efficiency washing machines, HE for short, use around 50 percent less water than older, conventional machines. This is because in HE washers, the clothes don’t sit in a tub of water. Instead, they’re wetted at the beginning and stay saturated throughout the wash—the washer adds more water if it detects that the clothes are too dry. The HE machines are also supposedly gentler on fabrics because they don’t have agitators.
It’s because HE washers use less water that you need a special detergent to use in them. The detergent has to be able to clean with less water, which means that scientists have to tweak the detergent formula a bit, said Keith Grime, former vice president of Procter & Gamble. “If you’ve only got a little bit of water, you’ve got to make sure that your detergent is highly soluble in a very small amount of water and will get to the fabric at a reasonable concentration,” he said.
Jack English, principal scientist with Procter & Gamble Fabric Care, backs this up. One thing the company had to change when HE washers came around was its anti-redeposition agents. Because HE machines use less water, the dirt in the water is more concentrated. Reformulating the detergent was an attempt to fix this, but he said that a common complaint with HE washers is that they don’t seem to get whites as clean as a conventional washer does, and people have to use more detergent.
The ingredients are the same in HE formulas and conventional ones, but in different concentrations. “You also have to control the suds differently, as [HE washers] are continually tossing and turning,” Grime said, and tend to make suds more easily.
The bottom line is that you can use an HE detergent in a regular washer, but you can’t use a regular detergent in an HE washer. According to English, about 35 percent of people have an HE washer in their home right now, and around half of new machines being sold are HE washers.
However, most of the HE-specific detergents on the market now are okay to use in a conventional washing machine, and it will say so on the label. But make sure to check if you have an HE washer.
Laundry pods or pacs are pretty convenient—throw your laundry in the washer, toss in a pod, turn it on. Done. However, if you share a house with children or people with dementia, you might want to re-think jumping on the pod bandwagon, since ingesting a laundry pod can make someone seriously, seriously sick, and even be lethal.
It’s not that regular laundry detergents aren’t harmful to kids. They are. It just seems that pods are more harmful. According to a CDC report from 2012 and a more recent report in the journal Pediatrics, if a kid ingests a laundry pod, they’re significantly more likely to have to have medical treatment than if they get into regular laundry detergent. Pod poisonings have put kids in the hospital, and sometimes in the ICU, and breathing tubes were needed because their throats had become so irritated they were starting to close up. At the time of this writing, eight people have died as a result of biting into the pods between 2012 and 2017, according to Consumer Reports. Not all of these are kids, either. There have been six fatal poisonings of adults with dementia as well.
Why exactly pods are more harmful is still unclear to scientists. According to the CDC report, they’re not sure if it’s the concentration or formulation of the ingredients inside the pods, the differences in pH, or the delivery mechanism. However, they do know that poisonings from pods are also more likely to happen in kids younger than 5. According to the CDC data, there were 992 poisonings from all kinds of laundry detergent from May to June 2012. For the 511 cases that were regular laundry detergent, the average age was 7 years. For the 481 cases that were pods, the average age was 3 years. So it is younger kids that are attracted to these pods.
According to a story in Consumer Reports, “Pod detergents have just 6 percent market share, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Why then the disproportionate number of pod exposures?” As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted, “Children might be attracted to pods because their colorful appearance and size are similar to candy.” This problem has gotten so dangerous that Consumer Reports is not recommending pods anymore at all.
According to more recent data I got from the SymphonyIRI group, pods now make up about 9 percent of the market share, and Tide PR rep Anne Candido said that they’re about a 12 percent market share. Yet almost half of the poisonings from one month in 2012 were from pods. The pods from both Tide and Gain, both Procter & Gamble companies, are really the only ones that look like colorful candy. All the others I’ve seen are white or solid-colored squares.
Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tide Pods, have tried to up the safety on the fish-bowl–looking Pod container by adding a double-latch lid. You can also get free stickers that go over the top from the Tide website. I ordered some, and that’s exactly what they are—stickers. (Because a toddler would never go for stickers, Tide?)
At this time, Procter & Gamble is not planning on changing the design of the pods so they look less like candy, according to spokesperson Tracey Long. “I can’t speak to any future plans. There’s nothing planned at this moment that people will see in market,” she said. She also stressed that Tide has put a lot of effort into redesigning the tub so it’s harder to get into, and that they’re not the only company that has colorful pods on the market.
However, they have now added bittering agents to the outside of the pods, similar to what the Dropps company did, which makes someone spit the thing out within a few seconds. As Dropps points out, the European Commission enacted a similar rule, requiring that pods now come in non-transparent containers, have warnings and a childproof lock, and have bittering agents on the outside.
Keep in mind that the potential safety hazards of pods don’t mean they aren’t a good laundry choice for some people. If you have to take your laundry to the laundromat, pods are convenient and cost about the same per load as other forms of detergent. However, they did not do as well in our tests as powders or liquids. And if you’ve got little kids or people with dementia around, even just visiting (I’m looking at you, Mom), I’d steer clear of pods.
Think you’re allergic to something found in laundry detergent? You’re probably not, according to Dr. Erin Warshaw, chief of dermatology at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center and co-director of the Occupational & Contact Dermatitis Clinic there. What you may have thought was an allergic reaction was probably just irritation instead. “An allergic reaction is like poison ivy,” she said. “So it requires that you are first exposed to a chemical, it takes about three weeks to be sensitized to that chemical, and then upon re-exposure, you develop a very itchy rash that often blisters.” A true allergy to laundry detergent is rare, she says. When an ingredient in laundry detergent does cause an allergy, the usual culprits are fragrances or preservatives, such as methylisothiazolinone, which is more commonly used in liquid detergents. If you’re concerned about having an allergic reaction from laundry detergent, choose a fragrance-free powder detergent.
On the other hand, irritation from something in laundry detergent can be more commonplace. Or from your clothes. Or from a bunch of other stuff. “A rough cloth like linen or [from] spray starch could be irritating, dry cleaner chemicals if there’s residue could be irritating, fragrances could be irritating, or sometimes the fibers themselves, like wool,” Warshaw said. Something found in laundry detergent also could be irritating if it does not completely rinse out of your clothes, she added.
If you think you’re having a reaction from laundry detergent for whatever reason, make sure that all the detergent is rinsed out of your clothes. Warshaw suggests setting the washer to double rinse. Also, make sure you’re not using too much detergent, and follow those handy dosing instructions on the back of the bottle.
There are three main differences between conventional laundry detergents and the green kind. First, green brands tend to use mostly plant-derived ingredients, while conventional types use more petroleum-based contents. Second, many (but not all) green brands opt out of optical brighteners while conventional brands tend to use them. And last, green brands often don’t test on animals. Let’s tackle them in order.
There is no evidence that using plant-derived ingredients is better for the environment. According to the American Cleaning Institute, a group made up of companies that make cleaning products and their raw ingredients (both green and conventional), there are environmental trade-offs to using both renewable and non-renewable sources for cleaning products, so it tends to even out. They say, while plant-based cleaning agents “are derived from a renewable resource, they typically produce more air emissions and solid waste. Petrochemical surfactants, on the other hand, consume more total energy, since they are made from resources used as energy.” Unfortunately, they do not link to a source for this research. No one else seems to have looked into the matter scientifically either. So until someone does, we have to assume that the difference in ingredient source is a wash.
Many, although not all, green brands don’t use optical brighteners. Many of their websites claim that optical brighteners are unnecessary, can cause rashes, and are harmful to aquatic life. Optical brighteners are unnecessary, but they don’t generally cause rashes, and their effect on aquatic life seems to be minimal, but it’s still unclear.
Of the green brands I looked at, only Method says that it uses optical brighteners.11 So if you want to avoid these compounds, a green detergent is generally a safe bet. However, there are some conventional detergents that don’t use optical brighteners either. Detergents formulated for darks tend not have them, which makes sense since optical brighteners tend to make things look whiter.
Basically, you just need a detergent without anything in it that will stick to the diapers. Anything left behind on the surface of the diapers is going to interfere with how absorbent they are, which in turn could cause leaks. Bad. Fabric softener, optical brighteners, and fragrance are three things you want to avoid, since those are designed to stick around. Unfortunately, all of our picks now do have optical brighteners (why did they discontinue you, Ecover Zero powder? Why, why, why?). FWIW, I always washed my kids diapers in our regular (scent-free) detergent, and never had any problems with absorbency. But if you’re having problems, try switching to an optical brightener-free detergent. You could also double rinse cloth diapers, as I did for my kids.
Dr. Richard Antaya, the director of pediatric dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine, said the only time you would need a special detergent for the wee ones is if they have eczema. But even in that case, pediatric dermatologists usually recommend a dye- and fragrance-free detergent that rinses out of the fabric as completely as possible. Antaya also suggested that you skip the dryer sheets and fabric softener for sensitive babies, since they are meant to stay on the fabric and can irritate a baby’s skin.
If you’ve heard you should avoid petroleum-based detergents because they also stick to diapers, don’t believe it. A surfactant that comes from oil is no different than the same surfactant that comes from plants. You will only have surfactants sticking to your diapers if you use too much detergent or you don’t rinse well enough.
If you read anything about laundry detergents on the Internet at all, it’s probably something along the lines of how detergents are horribly toxic, horribly expensive, or both. The people saying this then tend to go on to say how easy, cheap, and wonderfully natural it is to make your own laundry detergent. They’re right about two things—it is easy and it is cheap. But it’s not non-toxic (far from it). And homemade detergents also won’t get your clothes as clean as store-bought ones.
As Karen Spiegelman said in our earlier laundry detergent guide, “Reviewed.com tested four DIY recipes against Tide, and the results weren’t terribly surprising: for sweat, oil and carbon, blood, and cocoa, Tide handily beat the homemade detergents (for red wine, one homemade detergent did a slightly better job, but that recipe did drastically worse in every other test). For the cleanest whites, store-bought detergents are the clear winner.”
And this is probably because the DIY formulas really have only three ingredients—some kind of soap, washing soda, and borax. They don’t have enzymes, surfactants (which work better at cleaning than soap), or polymers, which keep dirt from re-depositing on your clothes and making them turn gray over time. Also keep in mind that washing soda and borax are kind of nasty, especially borax. Both are caustic and can cause contact burns. Don’t breathe them either. (This DIY site has a picture of a little kid mixing a borax-containing detergent in a plastic bag—holy cow, don’t do that!)
Washing soda is sodium carbonate (PDF), a close relative to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). It works as a water softener to make the soap work better, and can remove grease and wine stains.
Borax can be poisonous at relatively small doses, especially in children. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of readily available data on the toxicity of borax.12 I did find a book on clinical toxicology from 1969 that says, “The reputation of borates is so firmly entrenched that they are still readily available despite toxic potentialities reported as early as 1883.” This is still pretty true today. People tend to think borax is okay because it is naturally occurring, but it only takes an oral dose of about 5 to 6 grams to kill a child. Based on the density of 20 Mule Team Borax, that’s somewhere around a half of a teaspoon. This is not benign stuff!
Borax is one of many sodium borate compounds. 20 Mule Team Borax, which most of these DIY recipes call for, is sodium tetraborate decahydrate (PDF). It’s used for a lot of things, such as killing cockroaches, moth-proofing wool, and making cellulose materials (such as cotton) flame-resistant. The European Union, which has stricter labeling standards than we do in the US, requires borax to have a warning on it that say things like “May damage fertility” and “May damage the unborn child.” This is because animals fed high levels of the stuff have had testicle damage, damage to sperm production, and damage to male fertility. Boric acid, a close relative of borax, also causes developmental effects, including reduced body weight, malformations, and death when fed to pregnant animals.
DIY laundry detergents do tend to cost less than the store-bought kind. It depends on where you get your materials, but DIYs can cost as little as 4¢ a load, which is even cheaper than our bargain pick, Kirkland Ultra Clean, which runs around 13¢ a load.
Borax can be safe to use, but as with any cleaning agent, you need to take precautions, especially around kids. Just stressing here that just because something is a) natural, or b) a make-at-home product does not mean it is safe.
Okay, show of hands—who still washes all their laundry on hot? Well, knock it off. According to the Department of Energy, “Unlike dishwashers, clothes washers don’t require a minimum temperature for optimum cleaning. Therefore, to reduce energy costs, you can use either cold or warm water for most laundry loads. Cold water is always sufficient for rinsing.” According to Brian Grady, the director of the Institute for Applied Surfactant Research at the University of Oklahoma, 3 percent of the electricity used in the home in the US goes to washing clothes in warm or hot water.
And don’t worry about the detergent—it will still work just fine in cold. The average wash temperature has dropped from about 100 °F to around 80 °F over the past 10 years, according to Jack English at Procter & Gamble, which has been driven by federal legislation. This means that washing machine manufacturers are making the “normal” setting on washers to wash at lower and lower temperatures. “When we manufacture a detergent, we have to make sure it works across a range of temperatures” because people can set the wash temp anywhere from 60 °F to 100 °F, English said. In addition, there are some detergents specifically made to run in cold water, such as Tide for Coldwater and Biokleen Cold Water. Although, according to this New York Times story from 2011, these detergents didn’t sell very well. According to our tests though, Tide for Coldwater Powder does work pretty well, but it still got beat by our picks in many cold water tests.
But honestly, hot water does, in fact, do a better job of getting your clothes clean. As in any chemical reaction, turning up the heat makes the reaction go faster, and therefore it’s more likely to go to completion. You might consider running some loads on hot. Hot water removes odors better, as we learned from our testing. So wash really stinky workout clothes in hot, for example, or laundry that’s very oily or heavily soiled. If you have allergies, run sheets and pillowcases on hot. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, hot water is more likely to kill dust mites. Dust mites are tiny cousins of spiders that live in mattresses and pillows, dine on human skin flakes, and cause allergic reactions in a lot of people.
But a word about hot: It’s also more likely to wear out your clothes faster, since it can break down the fibers better than cold water. So if keeping that T-shirt in tip-top condition is your goal, wash it in cold instead.
In addition, there are a few things you should never wash in hot. Clothes that have dyes that run should be washed in cold. Fabric dyes are more likely to dissolve in hot water, which makes them run out of your nice red sweatshirt and onto your tighty-whities. And blood stains will only get baked into the fabric if you run them through the hot cycle. For these, pre-treat with liquid detergent or a spot remover pen, then run them through the cold cycle. In general, you should pre-treat stains before running them in the wash. Here’s a handy chart on stain removal from the American Cleaning Institute.
Okay, great. So set your washer to cold and set the load size to … what? In our piece on washers and dryers, Emilio Gonzalez, the senior program leader for washer testing at Consumer Reports, says that a normal load of laundry is about 8 pounds. When we did the washer testing, we used about 8 pounds of towels, which was six towels. So based on that, here are some rough numbers about weight and load size:
4 to 8 pounds = a small load
8 to 12 pounds = a medium load
12 to 15 pounds = a large load
15 to 20 pounds= gargantuload
This is how detergent companies see it. They have to do it this way because there is such a range of washer sizes out there, so what looks like a large load in a small-capacity washer will be a small load in a large-capacity washer. But it is still the same amount of clothes, and you need a certain amount of detergent to get those clothes clean. In addition, fabric density matters. Eight pounds of T-shirts is a larger pile than 8 pounds of jeans, because jeans have a denser fabric, English said. But it takes more detergent to clean denser fabrics, which is why the weight is important. And how much detergent you use is important. Too much and it might not all rinse out and cause irritation, and sometimes a mildewy smell. Too little and your clothes might not get clean. So use the dosing directions on the detergent bottle, but keep in mind that their idea of a “normal” load might be different from yours. To be sure, measure your clothes on a bathroom scale.
And how much detergent should you use? That depends. Did you have a food fight in those clothes? Then lots. Did you just go to your non-sweat–inducing desk job? Then use a small amount. But make sure you take a good look at that scoop or cap that came with the detergent. There are lines there, although they may be hard to see. Make sure you fill to the appropriate line, be it light, normal, or heavy. Don’t just fill the cap all the way up unless you’re sure you need that much. More detergent does not necessarily mean more clean, it just means more money.
A confusing note: You should figure out how much laundry detergent to use by weight, but set your washer based on how full the basket is. Your washer uses the small/medium/large setting to figure out how much water is needed to get the clothes wet enough. So if you have a large-capacity washer, you might end up using a “large” amount of detergent, but setting the washer to “small.” Read your washer’s manual to figure this out.
How full you pack your washer matters, too. If you really cram a ton of clothes in there, they won’t have room to freely agitate. This means that the detergent can’t penetrate all the clothes, and that they won’t rinse well either. Loosely place your laundry in the washer, and don’t fill it all the way to the top. Also put your detergent in first, let the water fill a bit, then put clothes on top. Pouring the detergent on top could result in detergent stains on your clothes, or highly concentrated parts that don’t rinse completely.
If you wear a lot of black, you might consider using a detergent formulated for colors, Grime said. “Black clothes tend to become gray clothes over time. So you really need a detergent that’s formulated to manage the color loss,” he said. There are products out there, such as Tide Total and Cheer for colors, and Perwoll and Woolite Darks for dark clothes. These two types work the same way, made to minimize dye loss and transfer. “If you really care about a colored product and worry about its fading, then a product formulated to manage color loss is appropriate,” Grime said. Also make sure you wash in cold, which will help the dark dyes from running out of your clothes as well.