The Laundry Scoop: Using Truly Clean Detergents, Softeners, and Whiteners

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Who doesn’t love clean laundry? It looks good, it smells fresh, and if it’s straight from the dryer, then it’s nice and cozy too! My favorite is pulling a warm, hug-full of towels and sheets from the dryer and burying my face in it, as I carry it all away to be folded.

Do you do that too? Bury your face in warm laundry? When you do, what does it smell like to you?

Some people associate the “fresh” smell of laundry with whatever fragrance is listed on their detergent or fabric softener label. Or if they’ve just washed their whites, then it’s the smell of bleach that assures them everything is just as clean as it could get.

Personally, that’s the opposite of what I think. For me, I associate the smell of “fresh” with no scent at all.  Think about it. If you can smell your laundry detergent, bleach or softener on your clothing, then it’s still on your clothing.

But what is it that’s lingering behind? Sometimes it’s a pure essential oil, but more often, it’s chemicals – the kind you don’t want rubbing against your skin all day or on your sheets all night. And sure, a towel only touches your body for a short time as you dry off and pick out the day’s outfit, but your pores are nice and open after a good shower, which means your skin is more susceptible to absorbing whatever gnarly toxins may be present.

Ingredients to avoid

One of the more offending ingredients in detergents and fabric softeners is “fragrance”. And that is all most brands will list on the label: fragrance. They don’t tell you about the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of chemicals that make up that synthetic fragrance. But those who find themselves sensitive to chemicals, this single ingredient tends to be a big trigger. Of course, it’s not the only one.

Most commercial laundry solutions and even many so-called “natural” brands contain sulfates, phosphates, ammonia, chlorine (in bleach), and a host of other unsavory ingredients that can cause your skin to itch or break into a rash. The scent can make your eyes water, your throat burn, or even make it difficult to catch a breath.

With so many truly clean solutions that are both highly effective and inexpensive, those toxins are entirely unnecessary. First, let’s take a look at how labels can be deceiving, so you know what to avoid. Then let’s talk about nature’s safer alternatives.

Don’t be fooled by a pretty label

There are too many brands out there claiming to be healthy and natural, yet are anything but. Their pretty labels with flowers, babies, and soft, natural colors can be deceiving. They may even be “fragrance free”. But flip over the package to check the ingredients list and you may be surprised by the volume of chemicals you find.

Worse yet — and annoyingly common with supermarket brands — you may not find any ingredients listed at all. Most labels just say something like, “check our website or call for ingredients“. Can you imagine standing in the supermarket aisle, checking the ingredients online for everything on your shopping list before deciding which brand to buy?

In the case of Purclean, which is Tide’s supposed foray into ‘natural’, a general description of the ingredients is listed, but not the ingredients themselves. These descriptions look safe and healthy, which feels like a clever marketing ploy to get folks to buy without visiting their website for the true contents.

Tide Purclean

Tide Purclean Label

Well, I did go to their website and I looked up each ingredient on EWG’s Skin Deep database. Some were safe, such as water, sodium citrate, amylase (a plant enzyme), and protease (also a plant enzyme).

But several were also ingredients of concern:

  • Sodium laureth sulfate, irritant and possible system toxicity (EWG)
  • Propylene glycol, irritant and possible system toxicity (EWG)
  • Laureth-9, possible contamination from ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane (EWG)
  • Sodium hydroxide, irritant and possible system toxicity (EWG)

Tide’s website says their ingredients are 65% plant-based, but that isn’t the same as the ingredient actually being a plant. Words like “derived from” or “plant-based” can be tricky. While these ingredients do come from nature initially, they aren’t the same thing as the mineral or plant itself. The final ingredient is synthetic and, in some cases, barely resembles whatever it came from originally.

Synthetic ingredients aren’t necessarily a bad thing; plenty of healthier ingredients are synthesized from nature. In fact, some lab-synthesized ingredients are cleaner than their naturally sourced counterparts. Titanium dioxide is a great example – it’s often contaminated with heavy metals in nature, but can be cleanly made in a lab from pure titanium + oxygen.

Regardless, this distinction between actual plant ingredients vs. plant-based ingredients is just something to be aware of, especially if the end result contains impurities or the final ingredient is something you happen to be sensitive to.

When brands do list lab-made ingredients, you may see them as their synthetic ingredient name alongside “plant- based” or “derived from” in parenthesis. Again, these are not necessarily bad; just something to keep in mind.

A few common examples include:

  • Cocamidopropyl betaine (coconut-based) – associated with irritation and allergic contact dermatitis (EWG)
  • Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine (plant- derived) – no suspected concerns (EWG)
  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (plant- based) – no suspected concerns (EWG)

Nature’s laundry solutions

Simply put, healthier laundry detergents, bleaches, and softeners are made from botanical and/or mineral ingredients. Some of those ingredients may be, or may contain, ingredients that have been synthesized from nature.

To be considered ‘safe’, the final products that contain these ingredients should also be free from harsh chemicals, dyes, synthetic fragrances, and other potentially triggering contaminants.

Below are commonly found ingredients in healthier laundry solutions. They are generally considered safe, clean, and (with the exception of essential oils) non-triggering for the chemically sensitive:

  • Sodium carbonate, also called “washing soda” or “soda ash”, softens water and helps to remove wine, oil, and grease stains from laundry. While sodium carbonate does occur naturally, it is usually synthesized in large volumes from salt + limestone for commercial use.
  • Sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda, is found in nature and often synthesized commercially. Contrary to popular belief, baking SODA does not contain aluminum; so feel free to buy brands that do not tout “aluminum-free”. It’s baking POWDER that may contain aluminum.
  • Hydrogen peroxide is a safe, non- chlorine oxygen bleach that is found in nature – specifically in air, water, and in our bodies. That said, it is synthesized for commercial use.
  • Sodium percarbonate is sodium carbonate + hydrogen peroxide.
  • Castile soap is usually made from olive oil and sodium hydroxide, but may include other plant oils such as avocado, almond, or hemp.
  • Enzymes, extracted from plants, break down organic stains and odors. Examples include
  • Essential oils, distilled from plants, help to kill bacteria in laundry and can replace chemical fragrances. Many chemically sensitive cannot tolerate them; they’re listed here for those who can. More on this controversial ingredient in a later chapter.

Nature’s Laundry Detergent

A lesser-known laundry cleaner (and what I’ve personally used for years) is found inside the shells of naturally grown soap berries. These soap berries are also known as “soapnuts” and you really can’t get more natural and non-toxic.

Soap Nuts / Soap Berries

Soapnuts grow on the sapindus mukorossi (soap berry) tree in the Himalayas and the shells contain a natural soap, called saponin. According to some growers, insects don’t like the taste of soapberries, so pesticides are not necessary or used.

As a long-time user of soapnuts, I can tell you firsthand how effective they are at cleaning laundry. And despite the name “soap nuts”, these are actually berry fruits and are safe for those with nut allergies.

How to wash with soapnuts

To wash your laundry, just throw 5 or 6 soapnuts into a small cotton or linen bag, which is usually included with the soapnuts. Add your laundry to the washer and toss the bag on top. Once the washer fills with water and starts swishing everything around, the agitated soapnuts will release the saponin (the soap) and clean your laundry. A little bit goes a long way and you can often reuse the same bag of soapberries for as many as ten loads.

What about borax?

Borax in Laundry DetergentNaturally occurring borax is a mineral salt of boric acid, found in seasonal lakes that repeatedly evaporate and leave behind this salt. It is also found in seawater and near volcanoes. Despite its origins, it has been controversial as a natural alternative to chemical cleaners for some time. Healthy lifestylers praise its ability to clean and deodorize laundry (among other helpful uses), while others fear its toxicity.

Those against borax tout scientific research linking it to skin irritation, gastrointestinal distress, and hormone disruption. Those who love borax, tout the same scientific research that claims borax is only toxic when ingested or inhaled in extremely high levels. They say that it is, therefore, safe for laundry, where it is not intended to be ingested or inhaled.

So is borax safe as a laundry detergent?

I haven’t seen any research that conclusively resolves the debate. Frankly, if soap nuts did not exist, I’d probably give borax a try, given what I’ve read. But since soap nuts do exist and since they are 100% pure, effective, entirely safe, and are not surrounded by any controversy, I personally haven’t found the need to use borax.

Washing the chemicals from new clothes

Soapnuts, washing soda, plant enzymes… all are great for washing “regular” laundry without chemicals and synthetic fragrances.

The problem is that new clothes are steeped in manufacturing toxins that can be almost impossible to remove with regular cleaning. And vintage clothing, or clothing that has been seasonally stored in the attic or basement, can accumulate bacteria and mildew over time.

There’s a brand called EnviroKlenz that formulates their products specifically for the chemically sensitive and has created a laundry booster that works to safely neutralize these contaminants.

In addition to mold, mildew, and nasty manufacturing toxins, it also removes persistent odors such as the mustiness from sweaty clothes and wet towels left too long in your gym bag, as well as perfume, smoke, and other thrift store odors left behind by the previous owner.

As an added bonus, if you wash your clothes at a laundromat, you’ll be happy to know that it helps to prevent cross-contamination of your laundry from chemical-based detergents, bleaches, softeners, or fragrances lingering in the machine from previous users.

Nature’s Laundry Softeners

Dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners use a host of unsavory chemicals to make our towels, sheets, and clothing soft, static-free, and pleasant smelling. But they often achieve these goals by leaving behind the softening contaminants, which we then lay against our skin.

The good news is that we can easily soften our laundry without chemicals… and for a whole lot less money. Baking soda, vinegar, and wool dryer balls are excellent options.

Baking soda & vinegar

White vinegar helps to brighten your clothing, while baking soda boosts the efficacy of your laundry detergent. Both dissolve soapy residue from the washing machine and pipes, reducing the risk of plumbing issues over time. AND both help to soften your laundry.

Baking SodaUsing them couldn’t be easier. Just drizzle a cup of baking soda over the clothes or add 1⁄2 cup of white vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser. Wash as usual.

If you use baking soda as much as I do (for both cleaning the house and in the laundry) I’d recommend buying it in bulk. It’s already inexpensive, but the bigger container helps you to save even more.

Wool Balls

I’ve been using wool dryer balls to soften my laundry for as long as I’ve been using soap nuts to wash it. Which is to say, I’ve been using both for several years now. And I love them.

Wool dryer balls may seem expensive at first, when compared to a box of dryer sheets or bottle of liquid softener. But they last dozens of loads, so you actually save money in the long run. They also reduce static and pet hair on your clothing, as well as help the laundry to dry faster, which saves on the energy bill.

Soften Your Laundry: Toss 2 to 3 wool balls into the dryer and set the timer for 10-15 minutes less than you normally would. Reuse them for roughly 4-6 months.

Nature’s bleach

Chlorine bleach does an amazing job of whitening your dirty socks, tees and towels. But it’s a big no-no for those who are sensitive to chemicals, as even the faintest whiff can trigger some nasty symptoms. In fact, chlorine bleach is even a bad idea for those who are not chemically sensitive. The harsh fumes are dangerous to inhale and can lead to serious respiratory issues over time.

The chemical residue also remains on clothing, towels, sheets, and cloth diapers. As discussed, this can cause rashes and irritation, as the fabrics lay against our skin.

Chlorine-free oxygen bleach

For a more natural white, replace chlorine bleach in the washing machine with non-chlorine bleach. To whiten your laundry, either pour 1/2 cup of a liquid oxygen bleach into the bleach tray OR sprinkle 2 tablespoons of a powdered oxygen bleach alongside your regular detergent. Add your laundry and wash as usual. It’s really that simple.

Sun bleaching

Sun is the most powerful bleach there is. And it’s free.

Fabrics tend to whiten better in the sun when they are wet, so wash or wet items first, then hang on a clothesline or drying rack. Or if you only have a few items, you can just lay them on a towel.

Straighten any wrinkles as best you can, so the sun hits everything evenly. And only keep your laundry in the sun for 2-3 hours at a time, as leaving them out for too long can weaken the fabric.

Especially dingy clothing or dark stains may require another sun-soak or two before fully whitening.

Tackling especially dingy whites

When old socks, t-shirts, cloth napkins, and washcloths become greyish over time, white vinegar can help. Fill a large pot halfway with water. Add 1-cup of white vinegar. Bring the pot to a rolling boil and turn off the heat. Carefully place the laundry items into the pot. Let them soak overnight, then wash as usual.

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