tips, topics, info and insight to help you save money and make our world a little greener

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Dirt on Laundry Detergent

I'm not particularly brand-loyal and will usually buy whatever is on sale or for which I have a coupon, or better, both. But we, that is, our family, has used Tide laundry detergent for decades. Specifically, we have used Tide Free since it was introduced.

But a recent article from Money Talks News is pushing me to rethink this. The gist of the article is that we (American consumers) use far more detergent than they need to, and have increased the amount they use when they use the super-concentrated products. What's insidious about this is that many of us bought into the super-concentrated promotion because we think it might be more environmentally-friendly. According to the founder of Method, a company that manufacturers cleaning products, 53% of people who wash their clothes use too much detergent.

In fact, an article in the Wall Street Journal cited in the Money Talks News piece paints the propensity for us to uses too much laundry detergent each time we do a load as part of the industry's over-all strategy.  From the WSJ article:

"Take a cap and look at where the lines are—nowhere near the top," says Adam Lowry, co-founder of San Francisco-based Method. "That's not accidental. In an extremely mature market like laundry, for established players to grow they have to either steal share or get people to use more," Mr. Lowry says. "They are trying to dupe people into using more product than they need."

"They are trying to dupe people." That's strong language.  Even if the intention is not duping consumers, the result is the over-use of detergent. It's wasteful. We spend more money than we need to and many people are using petroleum-based products that are harmful to the environment, and are non-renewable resources.

So what is the solution to this problem?  One tactic would be to be extra-diligent when pouring. First read the directions, then use exactly the amount suggested. Another possibility is making your own detergent using ingredients that are kinder to the environment. There are dozens of recipes. My friend Leah Ingram who writes the Suddenly Frugal blog makes DYI  detergent using borax, soap and Arm & Hammer washing soda.

Some experts actually suggest that soap isn't all that essential to clean clothes.  From the WSJ article: 

"Seventh Generation's co-founder, Jeffrey Hollander, wonders why more people haven't stumbled upon laundry's big, dirty secret: "You don't even need soap to wash most loads," he says. The agitation of washing machines often does the job on its own."

I didn't know that. But as I looked further into this issue, there seems to be a consensus that clothes can be cleaned in agitating water without soap. It's not likely that this is a story that will sell well. But it does make sense for us to keep cutting back on the amount of detergent we use until we find that our clothes aren't clean. I would love to hear from anyone who has given this a try.


  1. I've actually accidentally washed the laundry without detergent. It wasn't a particularly dirty load--adult laundry with moderate dirt & wear. No heavy soiling from gardening or sports.

    It was even a load of darks, so washed entirely in cold water. The clothes didn't have that tell-tale detergent smell, but they smelled and looked perfectly clean.

    I imagine hanging the clothes out in the sun post-washing could also be good for them, cleanliness-wise (sun-bleaching aside).

  2. Thanks for commenting. I like your accidental experiment...and it sure does seem to validate those who say we don't need detergent. I think it will be a very hard sell for most of us. But I am definitely going to reduce the amount I use.

  3. I have been getting rashes from Tide free and Costco's Kirkland green version, so now we are Bright Green from Safeway - biodegradable and perfume-free. It works well especially for front loaders.
    How safe is Borax? I just bought some to kill ants. Is it really easier on the environment?

    We've been saving energy and $$$ on drying laundry. I have a low hanging eave over my deck in which Warren attached a long wood bar. I use it to hang up shirts and pants on hangers. Otherwise I use 2 folding dryers for the rest of the clothes.

  4. Except for a load of really dirty "digging holes for fence posts or changing the oil in the tractor" type clothes, I'm down to using 1 tablespoon (yes, that's tablespoon) of liquid detergent per load. Also I don't overload the machine so the clothes can freely agitate. I keep an old measuring spoon on the shelf next to the detergent bottle - if I use the cap, I put in way too much!

    If a particular article needs pre-treating, I just take that tablespoon of soap, rub it in and don't add any more to the load.

    For fabric softener, I use a 1/2 cup of white vinegar. Even with our mineral-laden water, clothes are clean and soft and I get about 100 loads from a 50 ounce bottle of detergent, rather than the 32 they state on the label. Oh, and I do line dry most things. There's nothing that can compare to the smell of fresh-off-the-line laundry!

  5. Hi Gramma Greenjeans, Thanks for commenting...I love that you use only 1 tbsp of detergent. And thanks for the white vinegar tip. I've never used fabric softener, but I may try the vinegar trick on towels next load.

  6. Not sure I feel comfortable with no soap, but I have long been careful about the measuring thing. That was one of the first things I showed my daughter when I was teaching her to do laundry.....those lines are nowhere near the top.

  7. I have had great luck with the soap/borax/washing soda method. So far, I've been too lazy to actually mix up a liquid batch, so I just put about a tablespoon of washing soda or borax into the water and then I rub some soap on the stains and dirty parts of the clothes... works wonders! And the vinegar rinse really helps to get out any lingering soap scum etc.

    True confessions here... I'm also not using the laundry machine, just a very low tech laundry plunger. It's sort of a long story.

    I'm amazed to report that my clothes are MUCH cleaner than using detergent and the machine. I've even salved a bunch of things that I thoubht were hopelessly stained. Who knew?

    Here's a link to my crazy eco-freak method:

    Wonderful blog... glad I discovered it!

    Yours in Frugal Green-ness,
    Rebecca The Greeniac

  8. I do the soap/borax/washing soda method, too. When I switched to this method, my husband didn't really seem to notice, so unless I hear any complaints from him, I'm keeping up with it. I feel like it's much cheaper and earth-friendlier, and I prefer recycling paper and cardboard (empty borax or washing soda boxes), more than having to recycle plastic containers anyway. I like Rebecca's idea of being lazy and just adding a tablespoon, then rubbing stains with soap. I might adopt that. Smart!