This sort of research + opinion article is all very theoretical. A lot of it is up for interpretation. The source you consume from needs to align with your personal values. I’ve done my best to explain my stance + list my sources. Affiliate links throughout.
Ingredients in red rank high on the Environmental Working Groups substance list as toxic, I would personally avoid them. Underlined ingredients rank low.
- Alkalies (Soluble Salts + Acid Neutralizing Base) or Builders: Used to soften the water + the part of the detergent that goes to work on stains. They vary in strength from mild to strong. Stronger alkalies can cause clothes to feel rough + damage fabrics, but can get out tougher stains. I’d leave these for a spot treatment. The stronger options are what was first used prior to the 1930s to clean clothes – Sodium Carbonate (Washing Soda) being a prime example. The more mild option, known to most – Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate). Middle of the road you have: Ammonia, Borax, + Trisodium Phosphate (TSP).
- AVOID: Tetrasodium EDTA, Trisodium Phosphate, Ammonia, Borax (often used in homemade recipes, this ingredient isn’t what it seems – click here), Sodium Metasilicate
- BETTER ALTERNATIVES: Sodium Phytate (please note this is toxic to aquatic life), Sodium Gluconate, Tetrasodium Iminodisuccinate (please note this is also toxic to aquatic life, but not found to be as toxic as Sodium Phytate, per EWG)
- GOLD STANDARD: Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Oleate
- Surfactants: The Alkalies take care of targeting the stains/grease while the surfactants go to work as the general cleaner. By reducing the waters surface tension they allow the clothes to absorb better. Both the Alkalies and Surfactants form an emulsion of the dirt from the clothes in the water + allow it to be washed away. This keeps the unsoluble dirt from redepositing onto your clothing. An important note, not everyone needs the same surfactants in their detergent. Hard water requires non-ionic surfactants (ethers or fatty alcohols), whereas any other water will get the best performance out of anionic surfactants (alkyl sulfates or alkyl ethoxylate sulfates). Until the 1950s, soap (created by mixing fats +oils w/a base) was the leading surfactant.
- AVOID: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Lauramine Oxide, Sodium Coco Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, Laureth-6, Laureth-7, Alcohol Ethyoxylates (C10-12, C9-11, C10-16, Linear), Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate. You’ll notice most of the avoid category has to do with “sulfates”. It’s a good rule of thumb to just avoid any ingredient with “sulfate” in it.
- BETTER ALTERNATIVES: Decyl Glucoside (non-ionic), Coco Glucoside (non-ionic), Caprylyl Glucoside (non-ionic), Lauryl Glucoside (non-ionic)
- GOLD STANDARD: Castile Soap + other Saponified Soaps
- Enzymes: Allow for use of lower water temperatures + less detergent/soap. Enzymes are also what allows for the degradation of more stubborn stains – each type requiring a different enzyme: proteases for protein based stains, lipases for grease, alpha-amylases for carbohydrate based stains, mannanase for food stains, pectinase for fruit stains, and cellulase for cellulose. All enzymes above rank low for toxicity.
- Bleaches: Used to target oxidisible organic stains. The scary bleach we tend to think of when the word “bleach” is used is Sodium Hypochlorite + it’s hardly used anymore. There are some water activated Hydrogen Peroxide bleaches that are not as toxic, or simply Hydrogen Peroxide.
- AVOID: Sodium Hypochlorite (typical bleach), Sodium Perborate (adduct of Hydrogen Peroxide)
- BETTER ALTERNATIVES: Sodium Percarbonate, especially with TAED – as they create Peracetic Acid (very effective at lower temperatures).
- GOLD STANDARD: Hydrogen Peroxide, Sodium Carbonate
- Fragrance, Colorants, Dyes: Completely unnecessary for performance. Smelling clean does not mean your clothes are actually clean. Seek Organic Essential Oils as the GOLD STANDARD for added scent if it is a necessity for you + you do not have sensitive skin.
- Others: pH modifiers to balance water pH, optical brighteners as a bleach alternative to give off a blue tint, water conditioners to inhibit dye transfer, silicone to prevent excess foaming, preservatives to prevent microbial growth.
Is my detergent “green-washed” or is it actually clean per the guidelines set forth above?
Here are a few brand breakdowns for commonly used laundry detergents / soaps that were submitted to me via Instagram as thought to be non-toxic / “clean”. In order of most used per that survey:
- Seventh Generation: I was quite surprised to see this as the most-used brand thought to be clean / non-toxic. I’ll even evaluate their “free & clear” option, which I imagine is the cleanest they get. Laureth-6 + Sodium Lauryl Sulfate are their chosen surfactants. Methylisothiazolinone + Octylisothiazolinone are used as preservatives. This is not a clean choice by any means if you align with the guidelines above.
- Branch Basics: Utilizes Sodium Phytate as a base, which is a known toxic chemical for aquatic life. This raises concerns for many + actually led to a ban on phosphate use around the Great Lakes in 1977 (3). Chamomile Extract is a known allergen, I believe some are surprised to find this out – if you are having skin irritation issues, I’d look to alleviate this ingredient to know if its the problem. Glucosides are used as a surfactant here in lieu of sulfates – this is a better alternative, but not a GOLD STANDARD.
- Norwex Ultra Power Plus™ Laundry Detergent: Contains Tetrasodium Iminodisuccinate, a better alternative to the alkalies listed above that I’d avoid. However, still toxic to aquatic life. I was surprised to find Sodium Dodecylbenzenesulfonate as the surfactant in this detergent. Not only that, but two Ethoxylated Alcohols.
- Young Living Thieves® Laundry Soap: Glucosides are used as a surfactant here in lieu of sulfates – this is a better alternative, but not a GOLD STANDARD. Many essential oils are also used in this product, which is fine for those not sensitive. If use of this product presents with skin irritation, I’d consider this a possible culprit.
- Nellie’s Laundry Soda: Sodium Metasilicate is a big, big no-no for me (4). This laundry soda also uses Alcohol Ethoxylates.
- Biokleen Laundry Liquid: Ranks well on EWG due to the minimal use of the more toxic ingredients, but not something I would personally buy. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Laureth-7, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Lauramine Oxide, Sodium Carboxymethyl Inulin, Alcohol Ethoxylates – all huge no no’s for me. I honestly wonder if the high ranking is an error on the Environmental Working Group site (5).
- Mrs. Meyers Lavender Laundry Detergent: They don’t appear to have an “unscented” so I chose Lavender to investigate. Compared to those above, this is the worst – I obviously haven’t gotten to the ones below. Even if we ignore the fragrance: Methylisothiazolinone, Laureth-7, Sodium Methyl 2-Sulfolaurate, Benzisothiazolinone, Alcohol Ethoxylates, Fatty Acid, C8 – C18 and C18 unsatd.
- ECOS Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear: Methylisothiazolinone, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Coco Sulfate, Cocamidopropylamine Oxide. I was hoping for better ingredients as this is a widely available option, even in membership clubs.
- Dropps Sensitive Skin & Baby Detergent: Alcohol Ethoxylates (three kinds). Not the best choices for ingredients, but I found it odd that they scored high on EWG until I realized one of their ingredients is an unknown in the EWG system: polyethylene glycol monododecyl ether. Polyethylene glycol on its own is not something I’d want in ANY product. So what is polyethylene glycol monododecyl ether? Unfortunately, I’m not a chemist, but from what I read – it is not something I will purposefully buying. Maybe a chemist will weigh in, in the comments.
- Dreft Stage 1 Newborn Detergent: I was incredibly surprised to see this on the list multiple times as thought to be clean, so I went ahead and chose the product that they sell that SHOULD be the cleanest. I can’t even waste my time here, there’s fragrance in a newborn detergent? Dreft is not a clean choice. Maybe even the worst on this list. They actually use what I would call a rather harsh surfactant for newborns – ranked toxic for skin irritation on EWG – C10-16 Pareth (6). Ethoxylated Alcohols, Sodium Borate (SO SO SO bad – high concern for developmental + reproductive toxicity, 7), Sodium Cumenesulfonate. Polyethyleneimine alkoxylated – can’t even research this one, they withheld the CAS #….
Those were the top 10 purchased by my following. A few others that were submitted that I would not personally buy: Melaleuca, Thrive Market Liquid Detergent, Method, Tide, Puracy, Arm & Hammer, Attitude (I’ve been personally buying this one + will no longer), Modere
The “Gold Standard” for Non-Toxic:
These are brands I would personally buy for my family (including babies/children), in order of my preference:
- Nature First Laundry Pods (TASHA15 for 15% off): I know some of you NEED a pod option, you’ve basically yelled at me about it 😉 This one is fantastic + utilizes soap berries as their 100% natural surfactant. It even comes packed with enzymes – *hallelujah* for added cleaning power. The issue with most pods is the material they use for the pod itself. Generally speaking a form of Polyvinyl Alcohol is utilized. Lesson learned here: Not all pod material is created equal! This particular brand utilizes a very specific PVOH that has been thoroughly tested for biodegradability. The concern is that a pod won’t break down. This is absolutely a concern, but not for this brand. I’ve spoken with the company, been provided with the research, + assured that they’re not greenwashing us nor are they being greenwashed by their supplier. This is a water soluble film that breaks down + the molecules are then degraded further by microorganisms as a food source. Can I say this confidently about other pods – no. I trust this brand. The icing on top? Their packaging is compostable.
- Rebel Green: Certified Organic Laundry Detergent?! Made with Soap Berries + Saponified Coconut oil as the surfactants. They have a fragrance-free option, but when fragranced it is with essential oils. Ingredients list out “Fragrance Oils” but their description let’s you know that, that means essential oils. They do note that their bottles are 100% made in the USA from responsibly sustainable materials. The link above is for Amazon, which is more cost-effective than buying directly from their website, but if you’d only like one bottle vs. the two Amazon sells – or if you’d like other products, they’ve extended the following coupon code for 10%: TASHA10
- Meliora Laundry Powder: This is as stripped down as they come, very few ingredients – all good choices. There are zero fragrances so feel free to choose any scent knowing they’re made with 100% certified organic essential oils. A percentage of each purchase goes towards an environmental cause! Made with actual soap (just like the brands above), an anionic surfactant with amazing cleaning power for those that don’t have hard water. Tip: most people with hard water have a softener that their washer is tied into, so this is a great choice for most!
- Ingredient’s Matter Laundry Soap Powder: Did these guys read my blog?! “Always Free From: detergents (like sulfates, glucosides, and ethoxylates), synthetic fragrances, synthetic preservatives, dyes, parabens, phosphates, brighteners and animal cruelty”. Oh + they care about the planet – comes in a box. When scented it is with essential oils + non-petroleum based fragrance – I’d snag unscented, personally not a fan of fragrance. It can be found at Target, so convenient! These guys come packed with the extra cleaning power of enzymes, too!
- Molly’s Suds POWDER Detergent: Great ingredients, also stripped down to bare minimum. Their surfactant is a “Sulfate” which is something I generally avoid, but Magnesium sulfate is an exception to the rule and is great for lower wash temperatures! Scented with organic peppermint oil or scent free.
- Thrive Market Laundry Detergent POWDER (unscented or peppermint): Unfortunately you need a Thrive Market membership to purchase their laundry detergent powder (I don’t suggest their liquid detergent). If you’d like a membership, this is my member affiliate link that will give you 25% off your first order. You can also purchase Nature’s First Pods through Thrive Market.
What if I’m not ready for “Gold Standard”, what’s a “better” option? :
These options are likely more similar in the way you use them, to big commercial brands. They also still carry a heavier scent – if that’s something you’re not ready to let go of. In order of cleanest, in my opinion:
- Better Life (unscented or scented) Laundry Detergent: Unscented is always better for sensitive skin. Minimal ingredients, utilizes safer glucosides over sulfates, includes enzymes (huge plus). Everything else is phenomenal.
- Young Living Thieves® Laundry Soap: Gone over in detail above.
- Noodle & Boo Ultra-Safe Laundry Detergent: Minimal ingredients, utilizes safer glucosides over sulfates, includes enzymes (huge plus), but has fragrance. They do state that their fragrances are free of phthalates, benzene, and toluene. Also clinically tested for sensitive skin.
- Pur Home Laundry Detergent: Minimal ingredients, utilizes food oils and essential oils for scent, utilizes safer glucosides over sulfates, but does have Lauramine Oxide, which is an ingredient I avoid. Overall, it’s a great choice, even considering the Lauramine Oxide.
- Branch Basics: Gone over in detail above. Sold as a concentrate solution.
Helpful Tips For Purchase
- Avoid Sulfates, seek Glucosides as a better surfactant if shopping for commercial detergent. I personally choose to avoid both.
- “Free and Clear” is often a big misnomer / green-washing phrase in my opinion (so I don’t get sued), pay close attention to those ingredients.
- Don’t wholeheartedly rely on apps / websites such as Think Dirty or EWG, as demonstrated above – some higher ranking options have some scary ingredients.
- “Plant-Derived” is not necessarily a good thing + often a big misnomer / green-washing phrase in my opinion (so I don’t get sued), pay close attention to those ingredients.
- “Coco” or “Coca” in the ingredient list followed by “Derived from coconuts” is misleading + eludes to a natural ingredient, most coconut derived ingredients are on my personal toxic list – this is not a hard fast rule, though.
- Baby detergent does not automatically mean clean. In fact, it’s often far from it per the criteria above.