What To Look For in Laundry Detergent

Laundry detergent

Laundry soap! This thrilling substance keeps your clothes clean – but is your detergent green?

High Efficiency laundry logo

Always look for concentrated detergent, or ones with the High Efficiency logo | image: Mike Mozart/Flickr

As it turns out, the laundry room is a place of mystery and intrigue, chemically speaking. Detergent manufacturers aren’t required to disclose what’s in their products, so they often list ingredients like “fragrance” or “surfactant” – not too helpful for the average consumer. Some laundry soaps contain chemicals that irritate the skin, damage vital organs, or potentially even cause cancer. Do you really want to wear that?

So how can you pick a detergent that’s good for you and the planet?

  • Look at what’s not in it. Most companies that make greener products point it out. Study the labels to see which chemicals are explicitly excluded. Key bad guys to avoid: Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), 1,4-Dioxane, and Nonylphenol Ethoxylate (NPE). This chart provides a good list of stuff to avoid.
  • Concentrate! Buy concentrated laundry soap. These contain the same stuff as conventional detergent, but in a more condensed form. This saves on the countless gallons of water used to dilute conventional soaps, as well as the fossil fuels used to ship all that extra weight around. Any good concentrated detergent will also work great with cold water settings, which save you even more energy and resources.
  • Be stingy. Remember, more soap doesn’t mean more clean! Judge the dirtiness of your clothes, and if there isn’t much to wash out, then you can dial the detergent back even more – or skip it altogether!

Laundry soap may be more mysterious than you imagined – but you can cut through the confusion (and those tough stains) by choosing wisely, using soap judiciously, and washing on cold settings. Use the info above next time you’re buying soap at the store to make washing laundry a little more eco-friendly.

Emerson is a an Impact Mill contributor, mathematician, explorer, and beekeeper who splits time between cities and wilderness. He likes to unravel sticky, complex problems, and rebuild them into actions people can take. He writes about ecology, agriculture, logistics, and other interactions between humans and nature.