Laundry detergents have only been around since the first half of the 20th century, but they’re now a part of daily life. It’s thought that the average American family does between 8 to 10 loads of laundry per week.
Since the 1950s there have been concerns about the environmental impact of laundry detergents – leading many countries to ban the use of phosphates in detergent. While conventional detergents are mostly free of phosphates, there are other concerns surrounding their use of chemicals.
Before we think about which laundry detergent is better for the environment and for you, though, it’s important to know how detergents work.
How laundry detergent works
You’re probably familiar with the terms “bio” and “non-bio” for laundry detergent.
Biological laundry detergent contains enzymes that break down fat, grease, and proteins in order to clean clothes, while non-bio detergent uses chemicals like surfactants to clean clothes. Both connect oil molecules to water molecules, removing dirt from fabrics and draining the dirty water away.
Enzymes break down the oils and dirt on clothes, removing them from fabric even with lower temperatures. High temperatures can break down the enzymes before they manage to do their work.
The surfactants in non-bio detergent break up dirt from fabric and suspend the dirt in water, which is then drained.
The enzymes in bio detergent can damage silk and wool, and they can also aggravate eczema or cause skin irritation. While non-bio detergents are better for sensitive skin due to being gentler on skin, they often use non-biodegradable surfactants or other chemicals that aren’t eco-friendly.
The difference between plant-based and regular detergent
Plant-based detergents are known as green or eco detergents because they use natural materials derived from plants. Regular, non-plant-based detergents are called conventional detergents and are made from synthetic surfactants, and are mostly petroleum-based.
A study from Seventh Generation suggests that if every US household replaced a bottle of petroleum-based detergent with a bottle of plant-based detergent, 149,000 barrels of oil could be saved. This amount of oil would be enough to heat and cool over 8,000 homes for a year.
The chemicals used in conventional detergents can pollute water sources and harm aquatic life, especially if they contain phosphates.
What is the most effective laundry detergent?
The effectiveness of laundry detergent depends on your lifestyle.
Non-bio laundry detergents are better for sensitive skin, but bio laundry detergents work better in low temperatures. Bio detergent can save money thanks to lower temperature washes. However, if you have sensitive skin, eczema, or have young children, non-bio detergent is better.
But what about plant-based laundry detergent?
Eco-friendly non-bio detergents are the best option for your health and the environment, though they’re more expensive. They’re also more concentrated, so you can use less detergent per wash. Eco-detergents can run at low temperatures as well.
When looking at green detergents, the best products are not tested on animals, biodegradable, phosphate-free, and in recyclable containers!
Which laundry detergent is better for the environment?
Conventional detergents and stain removers use chemicals that aren’t just harmful to our skin but also the environment. As mentioned, phosphates are the worst for this, but they can still be found in some products.
Phosphate is a type of salt that’s mostly used in fertilizer, and when it pollutes water it causes excessive algae growth. Known as eutrophication, the algae depletes the water of oxygen and causes harm to the natural balance of that ecosystem. To get around the phosphate ban, some companies even use substitutes that are potentially harmful to humans. Phosphates can still be found in some dishwashing detergents.
Synthetic surfactants found in non-bio laundry detergent are acute toxins to fish. These surfactants damage fish gills, which can lead to asphyxiation, and can also be toxic internally. Even low levels of surfactants can harm aquatic life, especially invertebrates, by interfering with their growth and development.
A 2014 report on the use of major surfactants determined that surfactants “have no adverse impact on the aquatic or sediment environments at current levels of use”. However, it’s important to keep in mind that any increased usage of surfactants could change this.
Green detergents don’t use either of these major pollutants, and are completely safe to drain into waterways. Because they’re derived from plants, these eco-friendly detergents biodegrade naturally and have no known drawbacks outside of pricing.
Unlike green detergents, conventional detergents sometimes use ingredients known or suspected to be carcinogenic. Among these is 1,4 dioxane, found primarily in cosmetics, which is reported by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” based on sufficient evidence of it being carcinogenic to animals.
Why you should use a plant-based laundry detergent
There’s no doubt that plant-based laundry detergents are better for our health and the environment.
Here are the other big reasons to swap to green detergents:
- You save money over time by using concentrated detergents.
- Many eco-detergents can run at low temperatures, using less energy.
- Reduce reliance on petroleum – mining for petroleum pollutes water and the air.
- Better for your health and the environment.
- Can safely enter water sources without polluting or harming aquatic life.
How to make your laundry more eco-friendly
You can take extra steps to ensure that doing your laundry is even more environmentally friendly. There are many options out there, but only you know what works for your lifestyle and budget.
Reusable laundry devices can be used as a substitute for laundry detergent, such as EcoEgg.
If you want to use natural stain removers, make sure that they don’t contain chlorine and get something like Ecozone’s stain removal tabs. Bleach manufacturing creates toxic pollutants that are released into the air, so avoiding bleach or chlorine products is ideal.
Energy-efficient washing machines use less water and energy for the same amount of or better performance than other washers. Make sure you only wash full loads to reduce the number of washes you do per week, and ask yourself if something really needs a wash. Only worn it for a day and it looks and smells fine? Even if you only wear it for a few hours more, you can reduce how much washing is done over a longer period of time.
Clotheslines and dryer balls can also help reduce your impact, as clothes dryers are a massive drain on electricity.
When buying clothes, try to be aware of what you’re buying too – synthetic materials can release microplastics with every wash. Natural fabrics like wool, bamboo, and organic cotton are more sustainable and reduce microplastic pollution.