5 Best Laundry Detergent Alternatives Without Chemicals
By Marilee Nelson |
If you’re looking for a list of the best, effective, non-toxic laundry detergents without chemicals you’ve come to the right place.
Branch Basics has been helping individuals and families create healthier homes by tossing the toxins for decades.
And the laundry room is usually one of the first places we start.
That’s because the average laundry room harbors dozens of chemicals that are released into the air, water, and onto our skin through detergents, fabric softeners, bleaches, stain removers, odor removers, fragrance, dryer sheets, and laundry boosters.
In fact, if fragranced laundry products are being used, the the laundry room may be the most toxic room in the home.
The good news is all of these poisonous laundry chemicals and products can be easily replaced with non-toxic premade or DIY versions that work just as well (and are often more affordable).
In this article, you’ll learn our picks for the top 5 best laundry detergents without chemicals, plus what to use to replace bleaches, fabric softeners, stain removers, and more.
The Dangers of Chemical Laundry Detergents
Although marketed as, powerful and effective, chemical-based laundry detergents and products are incredibly toxic.
Fortunately, they’re easy to identify due to a lack of information and/or warning labels on the bottles, including:
- No ingredient list
- Indication that the product is fragranced (you can usually tell by labels like “mountain fresh,” “spring breeze,” or the strong smell seeping out of the bottle)
- “Unscented” labels, which (if you can believe it) means scent-masking chemicals are used
These words (or lack of words) on a box or bottle of detergent indicate harmful chemicals.
Additionally, be on the lookout for statements like “Eye, Skin, or Lung Irritant.” Most of the time, these words indicate a toxicity issue.
This information alone should be enough to help you identify harmful chemical-based laundry detergents and products.
For those who relish the details, here’s a comprehensive list of toxic laundry detergent ingredients to avoid.
- Synthetic fragrances: We mention this first because fragrances are one of the top five allergens and can trigger asthma attacks and trade secret fragrances can contain hundreds of synthetic chemicals. These chemicals have been shown to be carcinogens (cause cancer), neurotoxins (impact the brain), obesogens (cause metabolic syndrome and weight gain regardless of diet and exercise), and endocrine disruptors (impact hormones)that are not disclosed or tested.
- Natural fragrances: “Natural” fragrance doesn’t necessarily mean safe. In a study analyzing 25 top-selling products, those with so-called “organic” and “natural” fragrance emitted just as many hazardous chemicals as conventional products with fragrance.
- Unscented detergents: Although unscented detergents may appear more natural, the truth is they require scent-masking chemicals to hide any trace of chemical smell.
- Optical brighteners: Most laundry detergents contain optical brighteners, which leave a permanent or semi-permanent residue on the clothes that reflect light to make clothes appear brighter with more vivid colors. Many people develop skin irritation and rashes from exposure to optical brighteners.
- Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs): This group of surfactant petrochemicals has been banned in Canada and the European Union but is still found in American detergents. NPEs are endocrine disruptors that adversely affect physical function and fetal development. Top retailers, including Wal-Mart, have listed NPEs as one of three chemicals they're asking suppliers to phase out.
- Chlorine bleach, aka sodium hypochlorite: You can read all about the toxicity of chlorine bleach here. In summary, bleach is involved in more childhood poisonings than any other chemical, it reacts to generate chlorinated VOCs, which are very toxic and are considered human carcinogens, and passive exposure can lead to fertility issues, pregnancy complications, and adult and childhood illness. Plus, bleach use degrades fabrics over time.
- Linear Alkyl Benzene Sulfonates (LAS): Normally listed as 'anionic surfactants' on labels, LASs are one of the most common surfactants. During their production process, carcinogenic and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. They also biodegrade slowly, making them a hazard in the environment. The amount of LAS used in detergents may vary by as high as 30% of the weight of the total product.
- Phosphates: These are the main cleaning ingredients in many detergents and household cleaners. However, phosphates are associated with human and environmental health problems including nausea, diarrhea, and skin irritation. As persistent chemicals, they increase algae growth and suffocate salmon and other aquatic life, literally starving them of oxygen.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS): These are commonly used in many detergents as surfactants and emulsifiers. Thousands of studies on SLS have shown links to irritation of the skin and eyes, organ toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, and biochemical or cellular changes.
- 1,4-Dioxane, also called Dioxane or Diethylene Oxide: Dioxane is a byproduct of ethoxylation, an inexpensive shortcut process companies use to produce softer, sudsier detergents. Since it is a byproduct rather than an ingredient, it doesn't have to be listed on product labels. Yet, the U.S. federal regulation systems consider dioxane's potency equivalent to or greater than many pesticides considered dangerous to humans. The National Institute of Health (NIH) considers even trace amounts to be cause for concern, and the EPA has classified dioxane as a Class B possible carcinogen.
- Look for the following suffixes in the ingredient list to avoid dioxanes:
- Myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, and any other "eth"
- Polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, or polyoxyethylene
- Sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate
- Petroleum distillates (aka napthas): These crude-oil-derived solvents have been linked to mucus membrane damage, lung damage and inflammation, asthma, and cancer.
- Phenols: Per the Centers for Disease Control, phenol is recognized as so toxic that people who are hypersensitive to it could experience death or serious side effects at very low exposures. It is rapidly absorbed and can cause toxicity throughout the entire body, wreaking havoc on the central nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs, and kidneys.
We offer more details on these laundry ingredients' health and environmental impacts in: How To Toss Your Toxic Laundry Detergent.
The worst thing about these chemical laundry ingredients is they don’t just come out in the wash.
Many of them are formulated to impregnate fabrics, which means they are absorbed through our skin as we wear our clothing, sleep on our sheets, use our towels, etc.
Plus, many of these chemicals are released into the indoor and outdoor air as we wash and dry our clothing, or even through sealed bottles (remember how fragrant the laundry aisle smells at the store? Case closed.).
Now that you understand what’s in a typical bottle of laundry detergent, let’s look at some of the best chemical-free laundry detergents.
What to Look for in a Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent Alternatives
The best chemical-free laundry detergent alternatives contain natural soaps and minerals, like the pure laundry soaps of yesteryear.
Unfortunately, plenty of greenwashing goes on in the non-toxic cleaning and laundry product space.
Just because a laundry product is labeled or marketed as “green,” “unscented,” “fragrance-free,” “plant-based,” “made with botanical extracts,” or “eco-friendly” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe.
They have a rating system of one (the safest) to ten (the most toxic). We recommend that all ingredients in products kept in your home be rated a 1 or 2 on EWG Skin Deep. We also advise people trying to heal skin conditions, hormone disruption, CIRS, or any chronic illness to avoid products used on the skin with the following ingredients that can be inflammatory (citric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and phenoxyethanol) even though they are rated a 1 or 2 on EWG Skin Deep.From there, you can make the safest selection for your goals and budget.
Top 5 Best Laundry Detergent Alternatives Without Chemicals
In this section, we share the five best laundry detergent DIY and premade alternatives without chemicals.
Branch Basics was created as an all-in-one, all-natural, fragrance-free, non-toxic concentrate to replace every cleaner in your home, including laundry detergent.
To use, dilute Branch Basics Concentrate per Laundry Bottle instructions with water. Add 3/4 to 1 capful to your wash (depending on the type of washer) with optional Oxygen Boost (a mineral-based laundry brightener and whitener) and launder as usual.
Our Laundry dilution can also be used for pretreating stains and handwashing and will not irritate your skin.
What’s In Branch Basics Laundry?
This Certified Made Safe, EWG-verified product contains:
- Purified Water: Reverse osmosis…because the details matter!
- Decyl Glucoside: A mild, natural, vegan, plant-derived, biodegradable, non-toxic, and sustainable surfactant suitable for the most delicate skin.
- Organic Chamomile Flower Extract: Considered our star ingredient, this organic flower extract has Allergen (IFRA) Certifications as a nonallergenic non-fragrance. Chamomile flower extract possesses anti-irritant, antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties and is nourishing and soothing to the skin.
- Coco-Glucoside: A naturally-derived surfactant derived from coconut. Coco glucoside is one of the most gentle cleansing agents available and is a natural alternative to the harsher cocamidopropyl betaine and sulfates. Its chemical nature and production process result in a surfactant free of impurities like ethylene oxide, and 1,4-dioxane, making it suitable for baby and pet products.
- Sodium Citrate: A plant-derived, biodegradable sodium salt that acts as a water softener. It’s also an acidity regulator and emulsifier in foods and drinks.
- Sodium Bicarbonate: Also known as baking soda.
- Sodium Phytate: A natural chelator, phytic acid is found in plant seeds and is often used commercially as a preservative due to its antioxidant properties.
What’s In Oxygen Boost?
Oxygen Boost is a stand-alone product that acts as a laundry booster, whitener, and brightener. It’s also fantastic for stains, deodorizing, and sanitizing.
This Certified Made Safe, EWG-verified mineral-based brightener contains just two ingredients:
- Sodium Percarbonate: A mineral-based brightener, deodorizer, bleach alternative, and stain lifter. Rated “1” on EWG’s Skin Deep Database.*
- Sodium Bicarbonate: Also known as pure baking soda for powerful cleaning, stain-fighting, mold/mildew removal, hard water stains, deodorizing, and more. Rated “1” on EWG Skin Deep.
Note: Even though the ingredients in Oxygen Boost are rated a “1” on EWG Skin Deep, some usage caveats exist.
Since it is a powder, care should always be taken to avoid breathing in the particulates to avoid nose and eye irritation.
Also, prolonged skin contact with sodium percarbonate is not recommended.
Gloves may be needed for some cleaning applications.
Shop Branch Basics Laundry Kit here.
2. DIY Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent
If you love DIY projects, why not try making your own non-toxic laundry detergent?
A quick Internet search will yield various recipes, many of which call for ingredients like:
- Washing soda
- Natural bar soap
- Baking soda
Avoid using any recipes that call for synthetic chemical-based ingredients, such as fragranced soap, fragrance crystals, or oxygen bleaches.
The only downsides to making your own laundry soap is the time it takes, plus many recipes require grating up soap (which can be made faster using a food processor with a grater attachment).
However, if you’re up for experimenting, this can be a fun and affordable option.
3. Soap Nuts
Soap nuts are an excellent chemical-free laundry detergent alternative because their natural saponins clean clothes and act as a fabric softener.
Plus, since they’re a nut, they are completely biodegradable or compostable.
To use, place 4-5 soap nuts in a cotton bag and launder as usual.
4. Pure Castile Soap
Pure, fragrance-free liquid castile soapscan be used as-is as a chemical-free laundry detergent alternative.
- Vermont Castile Soap
- Natural Way Organic Castile Soap
- St. Clare Castile Soap
- Carolina Castile Soap
- Cove Castile Soap
Check the instructions on the bottle, but typically you’d add 1/3 to 1/2 a cup of liquid castile soap to a large load of laundry with 1/2 a cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle.
Pure castile bar soap can also be grated and added to DIY laundry detergents.
5. Vet Your Own Laundry Detergents Without Chemicals
At Branch Basics, we are passionate about empowering people to become their own product experts and advocates.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a scientist to read labels and evaluate ingredients.
With just a couple of tools, you can confidently choose the purest, most effective, non-toxic products, including chemical-free laundry detergents, in minutes. Here’s how:
- Familiarize yourself with the information above on chemicals to avoid and labeling red flags to watch out for in laundry detergents.
- Use Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep data base to vet the ingredients in products. See, 3 Tools You Need To Become Your Own Product Advocate and Are They Greenwashing? How To Decipher A Brand’s Sustainability Claims for more details on how to vet all types of cleaning and personal care products.
- Look for independent third-party verification badges, such as:
- Made Safe
- Leaping Bunny (vegan and cruelty-free, not tested on animals)
- EWG Verified
Natural Fabric Softeners
The chemicals in dryer sheets and fabric softeners are among the most toxic household products.
They’re also terrible for the environment, can harm the integrity of your clothing, make clothes more flammable, clog up your washer and dryer, and are completely unnecessary.
These natural fabric softeners do the job without damaging your clothes or polluting your home:
Learn how to use these natural fabric softeners in: Ditch The Fabric Softener: 7 Natural Alternatives.
Natural Stain Removers
Some of the best non-toxic stain removers come from ingredients you likely already have sitting in your laundry room or pantry.
Some options include:
- Distilled white vinegar contains acetic acid, which has a bleach-like effect on clothing. To use, add half a cup of vinegar to the final rinse for brighter, whiter, softer clothes.
- Branch Basics: Branch Basics Laundry, All-Purpose, and Bathroom dilutions work wonders on various types of stains. Use distilled water for diluting if you plan to spot treat stains to avoid water marks from minerals.
- Baking soda can be added directly to your washer to brighten clothing. It can also be used as a paste to remove various stains.
- Oxygen Boost: The combination of sodium percarbonate and baking soda in Oxygen Boost acts as a powerful stain lifter, bleach alternative, and soaking agent.
- Hydrogen peroxide: This is an excellent alternative to chlorine bleach for stain removal on white fabric. Add directly to whites to remove stains (works great on reusable menstrual pads!)
- Salt: Simple table salt is a secret weapon that works on various stains, even red wine and blood. You typically mix it with a bit of water to form a paste or pour a big clump directly on a stain and let it dwell.
Need stain-specific advice? Check out the following resources:
- Branch Basics Stainmaster Guide
- How To Get Chocolate Out Of Clothes Naturally
- How To Get Nail Polish Out Of Clothes Naturally
- How To Remove Armpit Stains
- How To Get Oil Stains Out Of Clothes Naturally
- How To Clean Wine Stains With Branch Basics
Natural Laundry Bleach
Giving up bleach can be tough, especially if you’ve relied on it for years.
However, given what you now know about the dangers of bleach, it’s a product worth sacrificing.
Plus, despite what you may have been led to believe, there are many excellent non-toxic bleach alternatives, including:
Get all the details on these non-toxic bleach alternatives in: 7 Non-Toxic Laundry Bleach Alternatives.
How to Toss Your Toxic Laundry Detergent
It stands to reason that if it’s okay to toss laundry detergent down the drain it should be fine to just dump out what you’ll no longer use.
However, that is not the case (which speaks volumes about laundry detergent toxicity).
This free service provides information on over 1,600,000 ways to recycle over 350 materials in the United States, including toxic household products.
Just type in your ZIP code, and you’ll get a list of local facilities that will recycle your unwanted products.
If your ZIP code doesn’t have proper recycling facilities then check with your local department of works for more options.
Toss the Toxins With Branch Basics
No one should have to risk their health just to do a decent load of laundry.
Yet, most people unknowingly expose themselves and their families to dozens—if not hundreds—of chemicals every time they wash their clothes. This exposure continues 24/7 from the VOCs emitted and skin contact with the chemicals impregnated into the fabric.
There is no need for this, especially with so many safe, affordable, and effective laundry detergents without chemicals.
Are you ready to make the switch to non-toxic eco-friendly laundry?
Check out our Laundry Kit with Branch Basics Concentrate, Oxygen Boost, and Bottle, available in glass or plastic, or our Premium Starter Kits which include everything you need to replace every chemical-based cleaner and laundry product in your home.
Want more non-toxic laundry tips? Check out the following articles:
Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.