Laundry detergents are bad for the environment and for you: Here’s why and the 5 BEST Eco-friendly Alternatives
As one half of Vera-Bee, I’ve spent a whole host of time researching and testing eco-friendly laundry detergents to find the ones that are not only genuinely green but that actually do the job they are required to do too.
I live with my partner, Ben, who loves long, muddy walks, my two boys (aged 8 and 10), who love wrestling in mud, and one miniature sausage dog, who hates mud but short legs = dirt magnet. Consequently, I would consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to tackling dirty laundry and any laundry detergent I test gets a thorough workout.
Why use an eco-friendly laundry detergent?
Have you ever looked at the ingredient list on a conventional laundry detergent? No, I don’t blame you. It’s a long and frankly unintelligible list and we all have better things to do. But, what are all these chemicals and what do they do? That’s the worrying part. Many of them are known to be harmful to human health and the environment. In the battle to win the marketing war, detergent companies add more and more questionable ingredients with the promise it will make your clothes whiter, brighter and more fragrant.
Don’t be fooled by the marketing: in the same way that you don’t need five blades in your razor to get a good shave, you don’t need 30 unfathomable chemicals to wash your clothes. In fact, the best eco-friendly alternatives only have three or four and they will do the job just as well.
Throw into the mix that all conventional laundry detergents come packaged in plastic, which again has long-term consequences for our planet, and it’s one more good reason to make the switch to a planet-friendly option.
Click here to jump to my 5 BEST Eco-friendly Laundry Detergents or read on to find out why conventional detergents are bad for you and the environment. There’s also a list of ingredients to definitely avoid and tips on how to have a green laundry routine.
A little bit of history
Prior to the 1950s, most people used pure soap to wash their clothes. These soaps were made from lye and animal fats and oils. During the Second World War a shortage of these ingredients meant that synthetic alternatives, produced using petrochemicals, became more popular. Proctor & Gamble released the first laundry detergent, Dreft, in the 1930s and then in 1943, Tide hit the market. Tide was able to tackle tougher stains because of its use of chemical ingredients.
Traditional lye-based soaps were also too harsh on the internal mechanics of washing machines which started to become popular following the war, and this again led to a rise in demand for laundry detergents.
The science bit
Detergent works in a completely different way to soap. Detergents don’t actually clean your clothes, the washing machine does the main work using water and pressure to loosen dirt from your clothing. Detergent contains surfactants which help this process by suspending the dirt in water and holding it there as it is flushed out of your machine and into the water system.
The tail of a surfactant molecule is attracted to oil and dirt but is hydrophobic (repelled by water) while the head is hydrophilic (attracted to water). So when dirty, greasy clothing is immersed in water with detergents containing surfactants, the tail of the surfactant molecule attaches itself to oil and dirt particles. As the water is agitated, these surfactant molecules cluster together. They form spheres called micelles as the hydrophobic tails, desperate to get away from the water molecules, turn inwards. Meanwhile the water-loving heads form the outer barrier of the sphere with the dirt and oil particles, still attached to the tails, trapped inside.
However, although surfactants are great at helping wash clothes, once they are loose in our waterways, they cause serious environmental pollution with a toxic effect on living organisms and aquatic life. In particular, surfactant micelles are toxic to fish. They enter the gills and impair the fish’s ability to absorb oxygen from the water.
And this isn’t the only way that laundry detergents are harmful to the planet and your health.
Are laundry detergents toxic?
In a word, yes. Many laundry detergents you find on the shelves of your local supermarket contain over 25 toxic chemicals, with many trace toxicities left unlisted. This is worrying, especially considering that household chemicals are one of the leading causes of accidental poisoning in children each year.
Not all the chemicals in your detergent get washed away - some stay on your clothes. That’s why your clothes smell of the detergent long after they leave the laundry. Which means these chemicals come in contact with our skin. Perfumes, dyes, colourants and optical brighteners are associated with allergic reactions and skin and eye irritation.
Marketing companies like to use sexy words like ‘whitening’, ‘brightening’ and ‘enzyme-powered’ in order to make us spend our money with them. But, in terms of what this means ingredient-wise, it is much less attractive.
Ingredients to avoid
When choosing a laundry detergent, always look for one labelled “eco-friendly”, “natural” or “bio-based” and generally speaking the less ingredients a detergent contains the better. However, below is a list of ingredients which it is best to avoid completely.
Phosphates: used to soften hard water, these chemicals are one of the main reasons laundry detergents are so harmful to the environment. They get into our waterways where they cause eutrophication (huge algae blooms) which suck up all the oxygen and suffocate fish and aquatic life.
Formaldehyde: used as an antibacterial agent and preservative in detergents. Formaldehyde is classified as a B1 probable carcinogen (can increase your risk of cancer) and is acutely toxic when it comes into contact with your skin. Incidentally, it’s also used to preserve human bodies.
Dyes: with no cleaning benefit whatsoever, dyes are added to make the product more attractive. They are often the cause of allergic reactions to detergents and many are known to be carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting.
Chlorine Bleach: used to whiten and remove stains, chlorine bleach is a lung and skin irritant which can cause blindness, burning of the eyes, respiratory failure and fluid in the lungs.
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS): used to create bubbles and foam, they can inflame skin, eyes and lungs.
Artificial Fragrance: used to cover up the chemical scent of the detergent and to make your clothes smell nice, artificial fragrances can cause allergic reactions, chemical sensitivities and rashes.
Ammonium Sulphate: a laundry additive that is considered so toxic that its disposal is carefully regulated. In its pure form, the chemical and its container should never be allowed to reach drains or waterways. It is also classified as a category 3 oral, respiratory and skin toxin.
Dioxane: the liquid and its fumes can spontaneously combust. It is a known carcinogen and causes skin, eye and lung inflammation.
Nonylphenol Ethoxylate: extremely toxic to aquatic life and prolonged exposure in humans may cause cancer and reproductive disorders as well as damaging eyes and skin.
Dichlorobenzene: this has an immediate, highly toxic and long-term effect on aquatic life. It can continue poisoning waterways for years down the line. In humans, it can irritate the nose and throat causing coughing and wheezing together with headaches, dizziness and vomiting.
Benzyl Acetate: if inhaled or spilled on the skin, it attacks the nervous system as well as the kidneys.
Ammonium Quaternary Sanitisers: this cleaning additive is corrosive and can cause eye, lung and skin damage.
How to wash your clothes the eco-friendly way
1). Use an eco-friendly laundry detergent
This is one that doesn’t contain any of the ingredients listed above and is good for you, your family, aquatic life and the environment.
Lots of self-proclaimed ‘green’ products still come packaged in plastic which has long-term environmental consequences. So, look for one in sustainable packaging.
There are so many great planet-friendly detergents available. From natural powders to pre-measured, zero waste sheets. See below for our pick of the best eco-friendly laundry detergents on the market.
2). Wash less
We are a nation obsessed with washing our clothes. Fast fashion may be one of the leading causes of pollution, but 39% of a garment’s environmental impact actually comes from washing and drying.
Only wash your clothes when they are actually dirty and resist the habit of chucking everything into the laundry basket at the end of the day (underwear and socks excluded).
Hang up clothes at the end of the day to air overnight. This helps keep your clothes fresh and ready to be worn again or put back in your drawer or wardrobe.
Using your washing machine less also means you’ll save on your water and electricity bill. Which, with energy bills at an all-time high, is a definite win.
Washing your clothes less also means they will last longer and stay in better condition.
Synthetic fabrics tend to hang on to odours longer and need to be washed more often so when buying new clothes look for natural fibres like cotton, wool and linen. This also means that they won’t release microplastics into the waterways when they are washed.
3). Hang your clothes to dry
90% of all laundry loads end up in the tumble dryer. It’s a tricky one because, in the UK, we aren’t blessed with glorious sunshine all year round or large indoor areas to dry our clothes.
However, when the sun does make an appearance, hang your clothes outside to dry or on a clothes horse near a radiator when it’s not.
Together with helping the environment, you’ll save money on your energy bill and extend the life of your wardrobe.
4). Wash in cold water
It is estimated that 75%-90% of the energy your washing machine uses goes into heating the water for your wash.
According to The Energy Saving Trust, on average you’ll save 40% of the energy you use each year when compared to washing at 40 degrees.
Washing at 40 degrees or higher also causes your clothes to fade and shrink.
5). Ditch the softener
Fabric softeners became popular in the mid-1900s because the dyes, detergents, and dryers were harsh on clothes, making them rough and scratchy. However, with eco-friendly detergents, you’ll probably find you don’t need a softener.
Softeners work by coating your clothes in a thin, lubricating film which can build up over time making it harder for your washing detergent to permeate the fabric. So, odours and stains get sealed in and are tougher to remove. The film also makes the fabric less absorbent which is a problem when it comes to towels, bed linen and underwear.
A major ingredient in a lot of fabric softeners is Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QACs or “quats”), which reduces static but can cause skin and respiratory irritation. QACs are also toxic to aquatic life.
They also contain a lot of fragrance. This has two purposes: firstly, it makes your clothes smell nice but secondly, it masks the smell of the ingredient, dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride, which is derived from animal fat. This is why many softeners are not cruelty-free or vegan.
If you like the fluffiness and extra scent that a softener adds to your wash, fear not. I have added my favourite eco-friendly scent booster and softener in one to the list below.
The 5 BEST eco-friendly laundry detergents
All the products listed below are free of toxic ingredients, vegan, cruelty-free and plastic-free.
1). Laundry Sheets - Simple Living Eco
These Laundry Sheets are a vegan, plastic-free laundry detergent that are pre-measured, easy to use and 0% water. They contain only a few natural ingredients which are safe for you, the environment and aquatic life. They come in the form of pre-measured sheets that dissolve completely in water to leave behind zero waste and zero nasties. On top of that, they wash your clothes as well as any conventional detergent. Some of the laundry sheets I’ve seen on the market are manufactured in China and shipped to the UK which kind of defeats the purpose. These Simple Living Eco ones are made in the UK which means they get top marks from me all round. We stock them in Fresh Linen, Coconut and Tea Tree & Lemon.
2). Natural Laundry Powder - Planet Detox
This is the first laundry powder we stocked at Vera-Bee and it is still a personal and customer favourite. Handmade in Devon, UK, it works brilliantly and contains only 4 non-toxic ingredients. It’s perfect for people with sensitive skin, including little ones, and a 500g pack will wash 30 loads of laundry. Plus both the Lavender and Rose Geranium varieties smell AMAZING!
3). Natural Laundry Powder - Taylor Made Refills
This laundry powder got an instant YES! from me. Organic, vegan and plastic free, it is free of harsh chemicals and palm oil. Handmade in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, it also has added Percarbonate of Soda for extra stain removal and brightening and comes in two gorgeous scents: Tea Tree & Orange and Rosemary & Lavender.
4). Percarbonate of Soda - Natural Oxygen Bleach
If you follow us on social media, you’ll know that Colette and I (the Vera-Bees) rave about Percarbonate of Soda ALL the time! It’s just a brilliant alternative to harmful chlorine bleach. It breaks down in water to oxygen, water and sodium carbonate (soda ash) and kills a wide range of bacteria and viruses. Completely colour-safe, add it to your wash to remove stains, deodorise, whiten whites and brighten colours. It even acts as a fabric softener. It has so many other uses around your home (we have a blog post on that here) and is a permanent resident in my cleaning cupboard.
3). Scent Boosters & Softener - Simple Living Eco
My airing cupboard smells heavenly thanks to these scent boosters. Although I find I don’t need an extra softener when using natural laundry detergent and Percarbonate of Soda, sometimes I like my towels and bed sheets to have a lasting scent. These Scent Boosters & Softener provide lasting freshness, fluffiness and fragrance for up to 12 weeks. We stock them in both Fresh Linen and Coconut.
If you have any questions about any of the information or products in this post, please give me a shout either through the comment section below or our contact page.