The Best Laundry Detergent
Laundry detergent might just be the most engineered cleaning product in your home. It has to both attract and repel dirt at the same time, then rinse away without damaging your clothes, your washer, your skin, or the environment. After performing 65 hours of research, examining 390 stain swatches, doing 208 pounds of laundry, testing 29 different detergents, consulting with a surfactant specialist, and analyzing laundered fabric with a UV/Vis spectrometer, our top pick is Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. In our tests, it was simply the best at getting out nine different stains in both cold and warm water. Its price, roughly 36 cents per load, is in the middle among the detergents we tested, but if clean is queen for you, that’s not too much to pay.
It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid somewhere, but if you can’t or it’s sold out, Tide Ultra Stain Release Liquid is our runner-up choice. It also was excellent overall at removing stains, but not quite as good as our top pick. Specifically, it was excellent at getting out chocolate, oil, and grass stains, but not as effective as our main pick at removing lipstick and wine stains. It’s also a bit more spendy, costing about 40 cents a load.
Another great stain buster, it powers through chocolate, oil, and grass stains. Bonus: neato scrubby and easy-pour top. It’s a little more expensive than our top pick though, and it doesn’t perform quite as well overall.
And if you want something greener, something cheaper, or something without dyes and fragrances, we’ve got picks for those, too.
In our tests, the most effective fragrance and dye-free detergent (which also happens to be the best green detergent) was the Ecover Zero Powder. It kicked ass and took names at blood, grass, and oil stains, but was much wimpier than Tide Plus Bleach at ousting red wine stains. It’s also marketed as a “green” detergent, although there is no evidence that green detergents are better for the environment than conventional ones (see Green detergents). But Ecover Zero is not tested on animals and also omits optical brighteners. It’s also cheaper than our top Tide, costing 21 cents 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 third overall in our latest round of tests. It was more effective at getting out chocolate and grass than our top pick, and for the rest of the stains it finished in the top half of the panel. It wasn’t quite as good as the top Tide at cleaning up wine, lipstick, coffee, or blood stains, but at only 13 cents 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. If that’s not a route you want to go, Target’s up & up Free and Clear is still a solid choice. It was the best of the bunch at lipstick and grass stains in our most recent round of testing, and it’s both cheap (12 cents a load) and widely available.
Table of contents
- Who am I?
- How we picked
- How we tested
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Green and perfume-/dye-free
- Budget pick
- The competition
Who am I?
I’m a Ph. D. 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 the wife of a chef who doesn’t notice when he’s bleeding on things and a mom to two 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.
How we picked
Laundry detergents are seriously complex. There’s a surprising amount of science packed into that bottle. Most contain some or all of the following ingredients: surfactants to remove dirt, enzymes for stain removal, polymers for all kinds of reasons, optical brighteners to make that T-shirt look whiter, water softeners to make sure the surfactants work well, anti-foaming agents to make sure your laundry room floor stays suds-free … the list goes on and on.
Our previous winner for this guide was Tide Vivid White + Bright powder, which we chose after reading through existing reviews. Since we published that version of the guide, though, new tests have been conducted by Consumer Reports, and new formulations have been introduced in stores. For this piece, we conducted a sweep for new formulas and decided to subject the top detergents to our own tests.
And here’s the story: There are A TON of laundry detergents out there. 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.
To start winnowing down the list, we eighty-sixed all kinds of specialty detergents. Baby detergents, sports 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).
For our latest update, we tested some detergents that the masses have been clamoring for in the comments, including favorites from Costco and Sam’s Club. Previously, we had ruled these detergents out. In the time since our first version of this guide, many people requested that we evaluate them. That, plus the fact that you can buy the Kirkland detergents on Amazon now, caused us to have a change of heart. For this latest update, we also included a few that had a lot of good reviews on Amazon and Soap.com.
We had to find a way to narrow down the list of detergents from what seems to be an endless variety available in stores and online. To get to our final list of 20, we began by looking at the bestsellers on Amazon and Soap.com and in physical stores in the United States as measured by SymphonyIRI, a market research company. We also looked at top performers in Consumer Reports’s tests (subscription required), and detergents that Good Housekeeping liked as well. On top of those qualifiers, the detergent had to be relatively easy to obtain. Here’s what we ultimately tested, and why.
- Seventh Generation liquid, Amazon #5 seller, Soap.com best seller, CR #27
- all mighty pacs free and clear, Amazon #18 seller (#3 for pacs), CR #7, second best-selling pack via IRI, Soap.com #19 seller (#2 for pacs)
- Caldrea liquid, CR #21, GH’s plant-based pick liquid
- Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder, Amazon #2 seller, Soap.com #7
- Dropps pacs, Amazon seller #14 overall, second best-selling pacs after Tide pods
- Ecover Zero Powder, GH’s top plant based powder pick
- Gain Flings (pacs), IRI #3 pacs
- Gain HE liquid, Amazon #6 seller, CR top 20, GH best in cold (original), IRI #2 liquid seller
- Gain powder, IRI #1 powder seller
- Nellie’s All-Natural Laundry Soda, Amazon #8
- OxiClean liquid, CR’s #9
- Tide for Coldwater Powder, GH’s best in cold
- Tide HE Free & Gentle, Amazon #17, Soap.com #2 seller
- Tide HE liquid, Amazon #7, IRI #1 liquid
- Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid, GH’s best liquid
- Tide Pods, Amazon’s #1 seller, best selling pod from IRI, CR’s #4, GH’s best pod, #4 on Soap.com
- Tide Ultra Plus Bleach Vivid White Powder, Our pick before, CR’s #2, GH’s best, IRI #2 powder
- Tide Ultra Stain Release Liquid, CR’s #1
- up & up Free and Clear (Target store brand), CR’s #8, GH’s best value
- Xtra liquid laundry detergent, IRI’s #7
For our most recent update, we tested these detergents:
- Persil ProClean
- Persil ProClean Power 2-in-1
- Kirkland Ultra Clean pods
- Seventh Generation powder
- Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid
- Great Value Natural Liquid Laundry Detergent
- Sun Ultra Concentrated
- Puracy Natural Laundry Detergent
- Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean Liquid Laundry Detergent
How we tested
We’ve already established that a laundry detergent has to clean, right? We first tested how well 20 different laundry detergents cleaned using 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 Inc. I placed the strips—stained with blood, grass, oil, coffee, chocolate, lipstick, tomatoes, blueberries, and red wine—in 1 gallon of hot (120°F) water and “washed” them in a Waring stand mixer on low for 10 minutes.1 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 nine stains, then tracked how often each detergent showed up on the best lists.
The five top-performing detergents got to move on to the next round of testing. The winners were:
- Tide Ultra Stain Release Liquid
- up & up Free and Clear (Target store brand)
- Tide for Coldwater Powder
- Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid
- Ecover Zero Powder (powder)
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 nine stain swatches (blueberry, blood, chocolate, coffee, grass, lipstick, oil, tomato, and red wine) to a towel, and ran it in the wash with 8 pounds of clean towels to make a medium-size load. Each finalist detergent got a swatch washed in warm water (about 78℉) and another in cold (about 60℉). We wanted to see how the different detergents behaved in each water temperature as well as compare the washing power of warm versus cold water overall.
I compared the washed swatches by reflectance spectroscopy using a UV/Vis spectrometer.2 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 warm or 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.
There were a couple of stand-out lessons from our preliminary tests. In general, if erasing those stubborn blood stains is high on your priority list, go with a powder. In our preliminary tests, the top performers for blood were all powdered detergents, and Ecover Zero was the best of that bunch. Sadly, powders do have some downfalls: They’re messy to use, trouble if you get the box wet, and becoming frequently harder to find at your local store. In addition, the box of Ecover Zero I got did not include a scoop, so I had to use my own. Bit of a pain.
Pods also didn’t do that great in our tests. They weren’t horrible, but no pods made it into our top five. In addition, they are very, very toxic to young children (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 in your house, and kids never visit, avoid the pods.
Blueberry stains seemed a bit difficult to remove, and liquids and powders handled them differently. The two types of detergent whisked away different aspects of the stain, and the resulting cleaned swatches ended up being different colors. Because of this, it was pretty much impossible to compare the blueberry-stained swatches. We ended up not really counting them in our final clean-out death match, and we eliminated this stain altogether when we tested more detergents in our latest update.
And 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.
For this last update, we eighty-sixed a few stains that didn’t really help us out last time: tomato sauce, olive oil, and blueberry. The tomato and olive oil stains really didn’t look that different between the different detergents last time, so we decided to save some time and trouble and just skip them this time around. Blueberry was a weird stain, and powders and liquids seemed to clean the stain somewhat differently. This meant that we couldn’t really compare powders and liquids to each other, so it was kind of useless. So bye to blueberry. Like the last time, I did the preliminary testing in hot water in the stand mixer, then took the ones that did best by eyeball to the washer and the UV/Vis. The detergents that went to the washer for our update were:
Tide Plus Bleach Alt. HE Liquid
Tide Ultra Stain Release HE
Ecover Zero Powder Laundry Detergent
up & up Free and Clear
Kirkland Ultra Clean Liquid
Persil 2-in-1 Power
Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean
Seventh Generation Powder
I did skip the warm water wash this time around and just ran everything in cold. We learned from testing last time that the detergents did about the same relative to each other in both warm and cold. Also, washing in cold is a better test of a detergent’s cleaning ability, since it doesn’t have the temperature to boost the performance of the detergent. It also saves water.
With the best performance across the board, we recommend the widely available Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid. This premium-priced formula from the most dominant brand in the laundry detergent aisle justifies its place at the top: It had stellar results on nine different stains in hot, warm, and cold water. In many of our tests, this Tide formula beat the competition (and when it wasn’t tops, it often came in a close second place). It was particularly great at getting out chocolate, grass, lipstick, oil, tomato, and red wine stains; good at getting out coffee and blueberry stains; and okay at blood.
We confirmed Tide Plus Bleach Alternative’s excellent performance using a UV/Vis spectrometer, measuring the amount of color remaining on stained fabric swatches after washing in different water temperatures. Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE Liquid bubbled to the top on not all, but many of our tests.
Interestingly, there’s no oxidizing agent or bleach in the product at all. In fact, we’re told 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 different kinds of surfactants, four different 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 (which generally act to get the other products into water), fragrance, dye, and soil-capturing agents to grab dirt and minerals out of water. (For more, read What’s in laundry detergent?.)
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Several user reviews point to a few issues with this detergent: The most glaring problem is 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.
We tried to stain a load of whites by pouring detergent into the machine slot and washing on cold; pouring detergent directly on whites and washing on cold; and pouring detergent directly on whites and washing on hot. I also tried to replicate the deodorant issue by smearing some white towels with some Dove go fresh anti-perspirant, dumped the detergent right on there and washed in cold, but still did not get any purple stains.
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:
- Rinse the stain under hot water to remove as much as possible.
- Gently wring the excess water from the item and lay it out flat.
- Apply household rubbing alcohol/burning alcohol to the stain, making sure it covers the entire stain. (Test on similar fabric or inside fold first.)
- Let the stain soak for at least 10 minutes—the longer the better.
- Using warm or hot water, rinse the fabric and this should remove the stain.
- If the stain has not been completely removed, repeat the steps above.
We will definitely be keeping an eye on this issue in our long-term testing.
The other issue voiced most often in reviews is that the “original” scent formula has changed fragrances. And, yep, they’re right. Tide changed the scent slightly in February 2014, Candido said. Specifically, “After extensive research with our loyal Tide consumer, we made a small tweak to the scent to improve the fragrance expression.” Since we don’t know what it smelled like before, we can’t tell if this is an improvement or not. Still, people married to the previous scent may be upset by this.
Also, at 36 cents per load, it’s not the cheapest detergent out there. (It’s so valuable that people have been trading it for crack.) Ecover Zero comes out to 21 cents per load, while Kirkland Ultra Clean costs about 13 cents a load, for comparison.
In February 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that Procter & Gamble was planning to raise the price on its premium Tide products by reducing the amount of detergent in the bottles. “Consumers may not notice that they are paying more for Tide Plus, because rather than up the cost of the bottle, P&G is shrinking each container: 100-ounce bottles, for example, will become 92 ounces, and 50-ounce bottles will be downsized to 46 ounces. The tactic has been a tried and true way for consumer-goods makers to sell less volume for the same price,” they said.
If you want to pay considerably less per load but don’t mind slightly less effective performance, go for our budget pick.
If you can’t get Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, we recommend Tide’s newest offering, Tide Ultra Stain Release Liquid. It outperformed all other detergents in chocolate washed in warm, oil washed in cold, and red wine washed in cold. It also came in a close second behind the Tide Plus Bleach Alternative in most other categories.
So, really, the only difference between this detergent and the Tide Plus Bleach Alternative was slightly worse performance and the price. Tide Ultra Stain Release is a little more expensive than our main pick, too, coming in around 40 cents per load versus 36 cents per load for the Tide Plus Bleach Alternative HE. Tide Ultra Stain Release does have a pretty swanky cap though, complete with pour spout and stain treatment scrubber.
Green and perfume-/dye-free pick
For those of you wanting a “green” detergent, try Ecover Zero Powder, which is also our dye- and fragrance-free pick. It was our fourth-best performer, sweeping the blood stain category, and also was best at removing grass in cold and tomato in warm.
While there’s no evidence that “green” detergents are any better for the environment (see Green detergents), Ecover contains no dyes or fragrances, and they don’t test on animals. It seems to be pretty widely available for a green detergent—that is, it’s unlikely you’ll find it on standard grocery store shelves, but it’s pretty common in co-ops, organic grocery stores, and online. It’s also a pretty good deal for your dollar, costing about 21 cents a load and skewing toward the cheap end of the detergents we tested.
This is also our recommendation for those of you 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 because they generally lack methylisothiazolinone (MI) or methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), common preservatives that can irritate. (See Laundry detergent and allergies).
Costco brand Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid is an incredible value, especially considering that it outperformed plenty of more expensive detergents. It was not quite as good as our top pick in our tests, but was the third-best detergent overall. And at 13 cents a load, it costs about a third as much as the Tide.
There is a free and clear version of the Kirkland, but this is not the variety we tested and I’m unsure if the formula is exactly the same. However, we did find out that this detergent contains the preservative methylisothiazolinone, 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 that preservative, you might want to skip this detergent. Ecover powder would be a good alternative. You can find more information on this preservative here. The scent on this is not very strong and is reminiscent of the generic laundry detergent smell, but still might be annoying to those who don’t want any smell on their clothes at all (raises hand).
But in general, Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid is a rockstar clean 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? There was no stain that the Kirkland was best at in this round of tests, but it came in second in chocolate and grass and third in wine. It had very good performance across the board, except in blood (and even there it was still better than a couple of other detergents). It beat out the up & up in almost every category; the Target brand was better in coffee and lipstick, but that was it. So if you can get this one, and don’t mind the scent, snap it up. It’s a great value.
The last two of the original top five, Tide for Coldwater Powder and up & up free and clear, traded off the next best spot in our first round of tests, although the Tide powder did edge out up & up in performance overall. Tide for Coldwater Powder was great at blood (although not as good as Ecover Zero) and good at lipstick and oil, but didn’t outright win any of the categories in our final testing, even in cold water tests. It’s also expensive, at 50 cents per load. Since it’s a powder, it might be slightly gentler on your skin, but overall there are better detergents out there.
For our update, the Target brand up & up got knocked down a notch, ousted by Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid as our budget pick. It’s still our backup budget pick, since not everyone has access to the Kirkland. However, we have since learned that up & up contains MI and MCI, which some people are sensitive to. If you’re sensitive to these preservatives, go with a powder pick such as Ecover Zero powder. The up & up still did better than most other detergents and was the best at all the detergents in our retest 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.
Of the detergents that didn’t make it past preliminary testing, there were still some that did better than others. The next tier down from the top five included our pick from last time, Tide Vivid White + Bright powder, which just barely didn’t make it this time. Also in this group were Gain powder and Caldrea liquid. In the prelim tests, the Tide powder was good at getting out blood, tomato, and grass. Gain powder was also good at blood and grass, and Caldrea was near the top at blueberry and chocolate stains. However, none of these did well enough overall to make our final cut.
The next group landed in the top five for one swatch each: OxiClean (lipstick), Tide Pods (oil), Tide HE Free & Gentle (wine), Tide HE liquid (chocolate), Gain HE liquid (coffee), Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder (blood), all mighty pacs free and clear (coffee), and Seventh Generation liquid (coffee). So each was good at getting out one kind of stain, but not good at all the others. Sad trombone.
In our latest round of testing, the rest of the detergents pretty much floated in the middle of the pack—not great, but they didn’t suck. And nothing was better than our top pick, Tide.
Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean ($14 for 115 loads) from Sam’s Club was excellent at getting out wine, but had no other standout stains. It was pretty horrible at lipstick.
Seventh Generation powder ($15 for 70 loads) was actually fantastic at getting out blood, almost as good as powder pick of Ecover Zero. However, it was meh at everything else, and even fared worse than just plain water at both coffee and wine.
I tested two Persil detergents, Persil ProClean liquid ($10 for 48 loads) and the Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2-in-1 ($12 for 50 loads). The first Persil smelled so floral and strong that it was like nose torture. I tested the “original scent” of this detergent. There is an unscented version, but again it was just okay at cleaning and not good at anything in particular.
The second, Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2-in-1 liquid, won Consumer Reports’s most recent round of tests. It did not do nearly so well for us. It came in second in both chocolate (tied with Kirkland) and lipstick, 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. I’m not alone on this one. In the 11 reviews up on the CR website at the time of this writing, six talk about how awful the smell is. The reviews at Walmart.com are slightly more positive, but according to one commenter, clothes cleaned in Persil have “this hint of vomit-like smell when they come out of the wash.” To be fair, there are a number of people who write in their reviews that Persil smells great, just not as many as those who think the stuff stinks. C’est la vie.
Walmart’s Great Value Natural liquid ($9 for 64 loads) was another that was pretty much useless at blood and was pretty ineffective at getting out lipstick as well. It did pretty well with wine.
Puracy’s ($16 for 96 loads) standout stain was chocolate, and like others, it was just meh at everything else. One nice thing about this detergent is that you use a very small amount of it, and enough for 96 loads comes in a 25-ounce container. So it doesn’t take up a lot of space. But it doesn’t really clean stains that well, either.
Sun ($8 for 160 loads) on the other hand, comes in a gigantic bottle and didn’t clean any one stain particularly well. This is uber cheap though, costing about $0.05 a load. (I’ve even seen it at The Dollar Store.) So if cheap is the only thing that matters, go for the Sun. Otherwise, put it back on the shelf.
What’s in laundry detergent?
LOTS of ingredients are in laundry detergent. It’s amazing how much scientific research has gone into getting your 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, 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 alcoholethoxy 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 their favorite.
Oxidizing agents (including bleaches) are important, too. These are called oxidizing agents by laundry detergent companies because people generally shy away from bleaches. But many oxidizing agents are also bleaches,4 including the “non-chlorine” bleaches hydrogen peroxide and sodium percarbonate. The chemical name for straight-up bleach is sodium hypochlorite, but all oxidizing agents work the same way on your clothes. Remember that mnemonic device from high school chemistry—LEO the lion goes GER? Loss of Electrons is Oxidation, Gain of Electrons is Reduction. Oxidizing agents work by making the molecule that they’re oxidizing (usually a colored stain such as tea) lose electrons. Electrons are what holds molecules together, so when a molecule is oxidized, it tends to fall apart. Things that are colored are often larger molecules—small molecules usually don’t have a color. Ripping 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 percarbonate5 do not. 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 not back 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 going down the drain will unlikely make it to a water system.
Chlorine bleach can be dangerous, 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.6
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 top 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 is when there are 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. Some examples are sodium carbonate, sodium aluminosilicate, and calcium chloride. Basically, if you see something in the ingredient list that’s mineral-based, it’s probably a water softener.
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 laundry detergent world, 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, several things have to happen, Grime said. First the dirt has to get wet, so the water has to interact with it. That’s one of the roles of a surfactant. But now you have the dirt mixed with surfactant in the wash-water. That dirt REALLY wants to go back on your shirt. Most fabrics have a charge. Dirt tends to have an opposite 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—not in a concentrated stain, but all-over. This is called redeposition, and over time it makes your clothes look dingy and gray. So modern detergents have an anti-redeposition agent, usually a polymer, and usually a type called a polyacrylate, Grime said. “Their job is to 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 are molecules that 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. And they’re in most detergents, Grime said. These replaced older compounds that did the same thing, called bluing agents. Those were literally blue dyes, often ultramarine or Prussian blue, that people added to their laundry to give them a bluish tint. This counteracts that yellowish tint that whites get over time, resulting in clothes that looked whiter. Most companies use optical brighteners instead now, since they work better.7 There are something like 400 different types of optical brighteners out there good for use in laundry detergents, but only a handful are actually used commercially. Of these, most are some kind of stilbene derivative, meaning that they share the same basic structure as stilbene, but are wearing different jewelry. There are rumors flying around the interwebs that optical brighteners are a health hazard, an environmental hazard, or both. However, the EPA has studied several of these compounds and concluded that they are safe. More about this in Ingredients of concern.
The last ingredient of note is some kind of suds suppressor, also known as an anti-foam agent, because too much sudsing in your washing machine means a big mess all over the laundry room floor. Anti-foam agents are there 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.
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. After perusing a few stores around me, I think this number might be closer to 90 percent. This is likely due to stores not wanting to devote shelf space to the powders, Grime said. And people tend to use liquids just because they’re more convenient and not as messy, he said.
Ingredients of concern
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 their laundry detergent on that, with their “Say No to the Glow” campaign. As Cara Bondi, research and development manager at Seventh Generation claims in this video and this blog post, optical brighteners are not biodegradable, 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 video.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 Copenhagen9 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,10 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 1957,11 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.12 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 EPA says that optical brighteners have low toxicity to humans and wildlife, but some may have reproductive effects and need to be tested more. So … yeah. Not real helpful there.
If you want to avoid these compounds, try a green detergent, such as our green pick Ecover Zero, as they generally don’t contain optical brighteners.
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. Our green pick, Ecover Zero, which happens to be a powder, does not contain any nonylphenol ethoxylates.
1,4-dioxane is a contaminant, not an ingredient, but nevertheless it is concerning. 1,4-dioxane is a by-product 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. 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.13 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.
Phosphates 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, said recently that they’re going to stop using phosphates worldwide within two years. Yay, Tide! It’s about time.
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 they don’t pose a health threat 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.14 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 from growing in the products that we use every day. This has the potential to make us very sick. As such, companies that make these products put preservatives in them to help keep us healthy.
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,15 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 about 10-15 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, 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. Our top pick, Tide Plus Bleach Alternative, uses benzisothiazolinone as a preservative. Our free and clear pick, Ecover Zero, doesn’t have MI/MCI either. But note that both our budget pick, Kirkland Ultraclean liquid, and our backup pick, up & up, both 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 them to dilute liquid detergent so it’s not too concentrated. They also act as water softeners and anti-redeposition agents. 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.
HE vs. regular detergents
High-efficiency washing machines, HE for short, use anywhere from 20 to 66 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, senior scientist at Procter & Gamble, backs this up. One thing they had to change when HE washers came around was their 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.
A warning about pods
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, you might want to re-think jumping on the pod bandwagon, since ingesting a laundry pod can make a little kid seriously, seriously sick.
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 put in because their throats had become so irritated they were starting to close up. At the time of this writing, at least seven people have died as result of biting into the pods, according to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Not all of these are kids, either. There have been two 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,16 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, 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 recently 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.
But one thing they can do is to follow the example of Dropps. As of July 1, Dropps pacs have a bittering agent on the outside layer of the laundry pod, which makes a kid spit the thing out within a few seconds. As Dropps points out, the European Commission enacted a similar rule in June of this year, requiring that pods now come in non-transparent containers, have warnings and a childproof lock, and have bittering agents on the outside. It’s too bad that the Dropps pacs didn’t do very well on our tests, because they get two thumbs up for safety.
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 around, even just visiting (I’m looking at you, Mom), I’d steer clear of pods.
Laundry detergents and allergies
Think you’re allergic to something found in laundry detergent? You’re not. Or most likely 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, such as our free and clear pick, Ecover Zero.
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.” Something found in laundry detergent also could be irritating if it does not completely rinse out of your clothes, Warshaw said.
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 lastly, 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 tradeoffs 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,17 only Method says that they use optical brighteners. (I couldn’t find any ingredients list for Biokleen.) 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.
Also green detergents generally don’t do animal testing. Check the bottle or website to be sure. Our green pick, Ecover Zero, does not.
Detergent for babies
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 definitely want to avoid, since those are designed to stick around. So Tide might not be the best bet for cloth diapers, but our green pick, Ecover Zero, would be a good choice. You could also double-rinse cloth diapers, as I do for my kid.
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. They are the same molecule. One is not chemically different from another. 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 eariler 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 only really have 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 grey 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.18 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 labelling standards than we do in the US, requires borax to have 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 cents a load, which is even cheaper than our bargain pick Kirkland Ultra Clean, which is around 13 cents 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) make-at-home does not mean it is safe.
How to do laundry properly
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 washing their clothes 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 aren’t selling 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 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 more likely to go to completion. You might consider running some loads on hot. Really stinky workout clothes, for example, or laundry that’s very oily or heavily soiled. If you have allergies, it’s also generally a good idea to 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 tiptop 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 whitie tighties. 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. So based on that, here are some rough numbers about weight and load size:
4-8 pounds = a small load
8-12 pounds = a medium load
12-15 pounds = a large load
15-20 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 more dense 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 up the cap all the way unless you’re sure you need this 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 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.
If you have a baby, you probably don’t need to bother with a baby-specific laundry detergent such as Dreft, said Dr. Richard Antaya, the director of pediatric dermatology at the Yale University School of Medicine. The only time you would need a special detergent for the wee ones is if they have eczema, he says. 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 suggests that you skip the dryer sheets and fabric softener for sensitive babies as well, since these are meant to stay on the fabric and can irritate a baby’s skin.
Finally, here’s a ridiculously detailed how-to-do-laundry guide from Real Simple, and some general laundry tips from the American Cleaning Institute.
(Photos by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.)
"Best Laundry Detergents", Good Housekeeping"We took 74 formulas—49 liquids, 19 powders, and six single-use tabs—for a spin to see how well they removed 20 common stains (oil, coffee, mascara...) from polyester and cotton. Surprise: Powders packed the most power."
"Best Laundry Detergents", Consumer Reports, November 2011"In a powder vs. liquid contest, there's no clear winner. The best detergents were liquid, but so were lower-rated products. None of the Tides or Wisks were duds."
"A review of six green laundry detergents", Grist"It’s a wash—none of the detergents fully removed all of the stains, but they all produced otherwise-clean clothes. And though all claimed to be free of perfumes, each had a singular scent. For maximum eco-claim and stain removal with the lowest price and least-perfumy scent, we suggest Seventh Generation Free & Clear."
Originally published: September 18, 2015