The simple act of washing clothing and bedding has a bigger environmental impact than many folks know. Apart from the amount of water used, some chemicals in conventional laundry detergent allow synthetic substances to enter natural waterways and can also cause skin irritation.
Lea D’Auriol, founder of ocean conservation nonprofit Oceanic Global, shares, “Laundry detergents are commonly made with synthetics and toxic chemicals including carcinogens, air pollutants, and hormone disrupters.” Not only are these toxins detrimental to human health, but since around half of global wastewater enters the environment untreated (according to the United Nations), they also end up in our waterways and threaten to devastate marine biodiversity, fisheries, and the overall health of marine ecosystems, D’Auriol notes.
Fortunately, there’s a more sustainable solution. Natural laundry detergent can be a healthier choice for us and our planet. They’re made with more sustainable packaging, safer ingredients, and are less toxic for aquatic life than many traditional options.
Some people worry that eco-friendly laundry detergent won’t clean well, but that’s a myth. Minimize your carbon footprint with the best natural laundry detergents on the market. Not sure where to start? There’s a sea of options available, so I tested several popular choices over the course of a few weeks to figure out which will clean your clothing the best.
What makes a laundry detergent eco-friendly?
There’s no shortage of brands selling these natural laundry detergents in this age of sustainable living, but what exactly makes a laundry detergent green? And how can you tell if it’s just clever marketing or a product that performs well and doesn’t contain harmful additives?
Eco expert Jessian Choy, who works with the Sierra Club and the San Francisco Department of Environment, recommends seeking out products with minimal ingredients. As she puts it, “If you won’t eat it, why would you put it on your skin? She considers coconut oil to be one of the best options, as its antifungal and antibacterial properties can help remove stains.
Ingredients to avoid in laundry detergent
Choy warns against 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen that can contaminate waterways and is often hidden on labels under various names. “Avoid anything with pre-fixes and words like -eth, PEG, or -oxynol-, which are all synonymous with 1,4 dioxane.”
Besides that, Choy says to try and steer clear of:
- Optical brighteners
- Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate
What to consider when buying eco-friendly laundry detergent
Detergent is typically offered in pods, sheets, liquids, or powders. D’Auriol recommends powdered or liquid detergent sold in bulk as opposed to single-use disposables. Choy prefers powder since it’s less bulky and heavy.
While laundry sheets and detergent pods can be convenient, they’re not as kind to the environment. “Liquid and powders are both better than laundry pods,” Choy says. “I prefer powder, since liquid is heavier and weighs more to ship around, ultimately creating more climate change.” She adds that an ultra-concentrated formula, which typically comes in a smaller plastic container, can help reduce waste as well.
When it comes to natural laundry detergents, Choy prefers fragrance-free products to unscented ones. “Fragrance-free means zero added fragrance or oils,” she says. “Even something that sounds as innocent as essential oils can cause breast growth in young boys.” This can be especially important to consider if you have allergies or skin sensitivities.
Ecolabels, which are icons allowing you to see just how sustainable your product is, are another way to identify natural laundry detergents. Look for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) verified mark and the Safer Choice Standard from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You can also check for labels that contain words like organic or bio-based, and offerings from Certified B Corporations.
“When shopping for an eco-friendly detergent, a plastic-free bottle is better,” Choy says. Plastic isn’t great for the environment, but post-consumer recycled plastic has a smaller carbon footprint. Also keep an eye out for biodegradable packaging and brands that sell refills, which can help minimize waste.
The best natural detergents
In my eyes, as convenient and mess-free as sustainable detergent sheets are, nothing beats the effectiveness of a liquid solution. This one is made with a bio-based, 5-in-1 enzyme cleaning formula, and a little goes a long way.
Dirty Labs sent me their Signature and Murasaki options, both of which were incredible, though, they have a fragrance-free version if that’s what you prefer.
Packaged in a recycled aluminum bottle with a screw-on cap, the included measuring cup was made of silicone rather than plastic. Apart from being pleasantly squishy, it’s a more sustainable alternative to plastic and doesn’t risk cracking. On the laundry booster, there’s an additional snug metal lid that settles into the jar. After pouring a spoonful of the booster in a soiled load filled with hoisin and tomato sauce stains, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the clothes came out without any stains and smelled sublime.
Fragrances: Signature, Murasaki, Free & Clear (fragrance-free)
- Effective enzyme cleaning
- USDA bio-based/EPA Safer Choice/EWG verified
- Biodegradable formula
- Incredible and long-lasting scents
- Comes with a stain-removing booster
- Options safe for sensitive skin
- The silicone lid isn’t recyclable
- Doesn’t last long if using full caps for every load
Best laundry pod alternative
Swap those plastic-encased laundry pods for something with a smaller carbon footprint—dissolving plant-based tablets. This Certified B Corp has earned an army of fans for good reason, and the results speak for themselves. Served in minimalist biodegradable packaging with reusable tin canisters, this eco-friendly detergent is plastic-free and void of dyes, harsh chemicals, and bleach. I get that tablet casings aren’t the most sustainable choice, but I wish that the tablets were a bit more durable and less prone to breakage.
Although the tablets were unscented, they left a fresher smell than some of the other unscented alternatives and significantly less residue. The Oxi Laundry Booster that Blueland sells offers an additional light, but beautiful fragrance. The lid of the Oxy Booster canister was designed so that you could pour directly in it for the proper dosage. Overall, it felt just as clean as the results from the commercial laundry pods I previously used, which was impressive.
Fragrances: Unscented (Oxi Booster is scented)
- No single-use plastic
- Reusable packaging/refills available
- No parabens/ammonia/phthalates/VOCs
- Tablet refills take up less space/are travel-friendly
- Contains alcohols, C12-14, Which can be harmful to aquatic life
- Tablets can break during shipment—several crumbled/were broken in half
- Tablets can be inconsistent, don’t always dissolve as well in cold water
Not everyone digs a fragranced product. Whether you suffer from allergies or are just scent-sensitive, Branch Basics fragrance-free laundry detergent will leave your clothes squeaky clean.
The brand’s starter kit comes in both glass and plastic versions. I was sent both, and while the recyclable plastic bottle is more lightweight and less expensive, the glass dispenser will last ages and has a stylish look that will elevate any laundry room. Both hold up to 64-loads worth of detergent.
The concentrate, which comes in a generous 33.8 fluid-ounce bottle, can last for nearly 200 loads and is enhanced by a bag of oxygen boost powder, which can be used to deodorize, pre-treat stains, and leave clothing whiter and brighter. Though this detergent may have a higher price tag, it contains around three times more than your average eco-friendly laundry detergent and gets cheaper if you subscribe. Plus, without the Oxy Booster, the concentrate can be a versatile all-purpose cleaner for dishes and surfaces around your home as well.
- Plant- and mineral-based formula for non-scented shoppers
- Zero harmful preservatives/chemicals
- Versatile, biodegradable cleaner that works on more than laundry
- Each bottle lasts at least 192 loads of laundry
- Expensive price tag
- Can leave a musty smell at times
- Stains need to be soaked before washing
This natural detergent is ultra-concentrated, so you can get maximum bang for your buck without wasting detergent. While I’m a sucker for their lavender-scented detergent, those looking for fragrance-free laundry detergents will love this effective formula and its minimal carbon footprint.
I washed my dog’s bedding with this soap since he’s sensitive to scents and additives. All the stains and dirt were visibly washed away, and both blankets and his zippered bed cover were left residue-free, even in cold water.
I loved how the EasyDose cap measures for you; instead of pouring, I could squeeze it out without drips or messes. Seventh Gen advertises that you only need one squeeze for regular loads and two for extra soiled or large loads. However, I needed at least two squirts to get items sufficiently clean. Based on reviews, the scented versions have a light and airy fragrance.
In short, don’t expect this to last 66 loads unless your laundry is very lightly soiled or the size of your loads is small. But if you like the idea of a pre-measured squirt or have sensitive skin, it’s worth a try.
Fragrances: Fragrance-free, Rose, Lavender, Mango & Mandarin
- 100-percent plant-based formula
- Mess-free dispenser
- Built-in measuring cup
- Leaping Bunny certified and Certified B Corp
- Comes in a plastic bottle (still, recycled plastic)
- Minimum of two squirts for maximum cleaning power
DedCool really does take after its namesake—this is the coolest detergent brand out there I’ve seen. Served up in a minimalist aluminum tin, Dedtergent Milk can wash up to 60 loads and adds the coziest scent ever to your clothing, bedding, or whatever else you decide to use it on. The 100-percent biodegradable formula comes in four different scents. With luxurious notes like bergamot, incense, and amber, it’s like a linen spray combined with a detergent. Instead of dwindling after it comes out of the dryer, it stuck around for about four days in my drawers with hand and machine-washed clothing.
I’m partial to gardenias and floral scents, so they sent me their Red Dakota option, which contains bergamot, gardenias, and amber notes. It was love at first whiff when I took the seal off the container. It uses coconut-derived surfactants to wash any garment (including delicates), and the smell left behind is soft and comforting. Whether you’re looking to splurge on a fancy detergent or gift it to a friend (refills cost $50), this environmentally conscious detergent that performs as great as it smells is worth a shot.
Fragrances: Dedtergent Milk, Taunt, Red Dakota, Spring
- Transparent and minimal ingredient list
- No other scents like it on the market
- Comes in a reusable tin and refills available
- Lid doesn’t have a built-in measuring cup
- Not ideal for scent-sensitive folks/no unscented options
Best laundry detergent sheets
Detergent sheets are compact, you don’t have to deal with leaks, and they still get the job done. That said, not all laundry sheets are equal. Some of the samples I was sent left behind a residue, leaving me on the fence about whether they were performing optimally. However, Earth Breeze’s cellulose detergent sheets cleaned powerfully and dissolved well in the machine, so it’s no wonder they’re a bestseller and have almost 60,000 glowing reviews on Amazon.
Though Earth Breeze sells a non-fragranced version, they sent me their scented one, which was lightly floral and refreshing without being overwhelming. I walk dogs part-time, and although the detergent cleaned all the hair and dirt off my garments, it didn’t leave behind a scent on the super stinky clothing items. Unlike some of the other laundry sheets I tested, the sheets dissolved without a hitch. It was the only non-liquid that gave clothes a clean feel.
Fragrances: Fresh Scent, fragrance-free
- 100 percent hypoallergenic and dermatologist tested
- Mess-free alternative to liquid detergent
- Compact and lightweight
- Simple to use
- Customizable due to perforated sheets
- Scent doesn’t last long on extremely soiled clothes
- Not as eco-conscious as liquid/powder
- Only comes with 30 sheets
Best stain remover
Tide has been the faithful laundry sidekick of folks for years, and they decided to reduce their environmental impact with Tide Purclean. Though it’s also sold in a scent-free rendition, I was sent their Honey Lavender one, which has more of a mild honeydew melon aroma and washes up to 72 loads. It comes in a hefty box with perforated panels and a dispenser that pours into an included detergent cup when twisted.
While the fragrance didn’t stick around as long as it does with Tide’s conventional pods, the smell still lightly clung to the clothes for a while after they came out of the dryer. Unlike some of the other eco-friendly detergents I tested, the clothes had zero residue after washing and felt 100-percent clean. Most notably, the stains were completely gone.
Fragrances: Honey Lavender, unscented
- Eco-friendly without sacrificing performance
- Free of phosphates/dyes/optical brighteners/chlorine
- Less plastic in packaging
- Only a hybrid detergent (75-percent plant-based ingredients)
- Can be leaky and bulky to maneuver
- Not ideal for those who don’t have counter space to spare